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Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist

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Peter B. Parker hates Peter Parker’s stupid face, and his stupid hair, and his stupid lack of a middle initial, and that’s all there is to say about that.

Except, another thing, Peter Parker is Catholic, which is weird as hell. It’s a totally different flavor of religious guilt, which is how Peter B.—damn it, he’s got to stop thinking of himself as Peter B. like he lost the battle for dominance in a third-grade class with two Peters—how Peter finds himself trudging through a cemetery in the middle of the night on some sort of fucked-up field trip to look at his own grave.

Of course, with his luck, he never quite makes it.

***

Peter B. Parker has been Spider-Man for twenty-two years, which, if his math is correct (and it usually is, even after all the head trauma), means he’s been Spider-Man for a hell of a lot longer than he was ever not Spider-Man. This, he thinks, is something Spider-Newbies should take into account before using him as a punching bag and then tying him to one. Kids these days. No respect for their elders.

God, Peter is tired.

His body runs, essentially, on pizza, cheap beer, and procrastination, his joints make a truly alarming set of noises that he can already tell this little adventure is going to aggravate, and somehow, MJ got his massage therapist in the divorce.

Although, it’s possible she just doesn’t schedule his appointments for him anymore. Anyway.

The point is, Peter’s pretty much an expert at Spider-Man situations now, so he’s able to make a snap diagnosis. This is an “implement the obvious solution quickly”-level problem (the third of seven levels, ranging in seriousness from “don’t get out of bed” to “maybe call an Avenger?”). Then, of course, the kid breaks the deus ex machina of the week, and Peter is forced to elevate the situation from a Level 3 to a Level 4 (“half-ass a plan”). The kid is—well, he’s adorable, okay, big brown eyes, latent charm, way too much enthusiasm for the concept of Spider-Man. He is wearing goddamn Spider-Man pajamas, what is Peter supposed to do with that, it’s because of shit like this that MJ always—

MJ. Peter is vaguely aware that it is not completely fair to blame a middle-schooler from another dimension for the fact that his wife left him, taking their home, fifty percent of their remaining financial assets, ninety percent of the combined Parker-Watson common sense, and his entire stupid heart. Peter’s divorce is nevertheless one hundred percent Miles’ fault, for reasons beginning with the fact that he is so cheerful it makes Peter’s teeth ache, and ending with the fact that MJ used to laugh when she saw those little Spider-Man onesies they sell in the tourist-trap souvenir shops littering Manhattan. She dragged him inside once, and he scowled as he held one up for a picture.

The onesies were so, so small. This kid was going to get himself killed.

MJ called him a coward on the day she left. He was angry about it at the time—it was one of the only ugly things she’d never said to him before, so it still had the power to wound. Now he understands why she did it. If she hadn’t told him in that way, he never would have believed she was leaving.

MJ was smart, but that doesn’t mean she was right. Peter isn’t scared. He just knows what’s going happen if, by the random, unfeeling will of the universe, he is left responsible for a child. The voice in his head, the loud one, the one that’s spoken for his purest instincts for the past twenty-two years, that voice is screaming it at him.

There is never going to be a happy ending for a child of Peter Parker’s.

***

Limping back into the city on a mostly-empty charter bus that smells of urinal cakes and defeat, Peter reflects that the universe(s) may not be unfeeling after all, but might in fact hate him specifically and want him to suffer. He is, after all, now trapped with not one but two children he has to feel responsible about. (Gwen is almost certainly a child, despite her magician-like deflections: Don’t look at me, look at him, what’s that over there? What are you asking about me for, there a fight on, there’s a battle to win, could you pay attention to that?) By the time they get to Aunt May’s, he’s in a full-on panic and is physically incapable of opening the door.

Then May opens it for him.

It’s shocking and painful, how much she looks like herself. Peter hadn’t realized how much of his memory of her was overtaken by his memory of her last few months, but seeing her whole and healthy snaps everything back into place. This is the woman who raised him. It’s gratifying, too, that she recognizes him, not as some lost cousin but as her Peter, even under the hair and the weight and the stubble.

Then, of course, she takes him out to the shed, and it becomes clear that he isn’t her Peter at all. Peter has spent the last day hating her Peter, but it was tinged with a sense of pity for the poor schmuck. He felt bad for this skinny, blond Spider-Man, who would have turned out just like him one day had he not been smeared across the floor at the tender age of twenty-six. This other Peter just had the good sense to die before he fell. Now, faced with his twin stranger’s—lair? Is this a lair?—Peter B. can’t help but be honest. Even when he was young and beautiful, he wasn’t the man this Peter was. He wasn’t the same nephew, or the same crimefighter, or the same idol to his adoring public or the same husband.

This Peter kept a framed photo of Mary Jane in his lair.

The differences between them pile up higher and higher until all of Peter B.’s loathing has nowhere else to go, and reflects instead back on himself. It’s comforting, in a way. He can look at these, what’s the running total now, three children? and know that it’s no great loss, what he has to do for them.

***

It’s—something, having the other Spider-People around. It’s nice, is all. It’s nice, even though looking at Noir is like having his cones scraped from his retinas, and Peni talks a million miles an hour, and just thinking about Ham gives him a headache. It’s nice even as Gwen deflects and distracts, all business, and even as he has to tie Miles to a chair to keep his dumb ass from getting killed. Miles is going to be a great man some day, but right now he’s only a man in the sense that Peter was a man when he kissed Maddie Kauffman at his bar mitzvah party, i.e., not really. Peter was Spider-Man for five, six years before he really felt like a man. He thinks Miles will beat that by a long shot, but for now, he’s a kid.

His goodbye to MJ—not his MJ, but MJ nonetheless—is hilariously pathetic. He can feel Gwen judging him behind her mask, but whatever, it’s not like he had all that much dignity to begin with, and besides, this is still better than the last time he said goodbye to MJ. Less blubbering, and snot.

Then, of course, they head into the final fight, and it’s time for everyone to go. Gwen offers to die for him, real casual-like, which is absolutely not happening but is a nice gesture nonetheless. The fight clips along, big bads, imminent death, same old same old, when suddenly, Doc Ock punches herself in the head with her own tentacle. It’s a hilarious accident, except, really, it’s Miles.

The kid’s got style. Peter is so proud of him. Not like a father, more like—a much-older brother, maybe. A cool uncle at best. Although Miles has probably had his fill of cool uncles for the moment. The point is, Peter loves him, he’s proud of him, he’s ready to hold off Kingpin for him, but then Miles takes it a step further and sends him home.

Miles sees right through him, the same way Mary Jane had, and he sees that Peter is scared. He sees it because Miles has been scared too, and he came out the other side stronger. Miles has a third superpower, uniquely his, something that has nothing to do with any spider: his faith is infectious. They both have a responsibility, and it’s to Spider-Man. They’re both going to keep Spider-Man alive. But to do that, Peter has to go home.

“Not bad, kid,” Peter tells him, and he lets himself fall backwards into the portal.

***

When Peter gets home, it’s still Hanukkah. He’d spent the first couple days lying on his mattress—and hey, why doesn’t he own a bed frame? He’s a grown-ass man, he should own a bed frame—lying on his mattress feeling sorry for himself, but he could have gone to MJ’s parents’ place. For dinner, at least. Light a candle with them. They’d invited him.

So that’s what he does. He goes. He thinks about that other Peter on the walk over. The kid had had it figured out. He had plans upon plans, a whole support infrastructure, he was in it for the long haul, and then he died. Bad luck, nothing else. Could have happened to any of them.

That Peter had never let the chance that the random, unfeeling universe would turn the lights off on him stop him from being happy. He didn’t let it make him afraid of happiness. As sad as Peter B. is for him—and he is, he realizes, he’s so sad for the man he never met and never was—it makes the end more bearable, knowing there was light.

Maybe, just maybe, this Peter, the one who’s here, who’s alive, maybe he could be happy too. As he walks towards the Watson’s, the voice in his head is quiet. It sounds like agreement.

There’s a basketball court just around the corner from their home. A bunch of teenagers play there, and today Peter stops to watch them. He leans up against the chain-link fence, convenience store flowers clutched sweatily in his left hand despite the cold. He’s rehearsing in his head—what to say if MJ’s there, what to say if she’s not there, what to say if she’s there with some boyfriend no one bothered to tell him about—when he sees him. It’s a kid, a teenager, tall but still lanky as hell, shoulders that speak of a breadth he hasn’t grown into yet. Peter isn’t sure—he’s older, and his hair is buzzed short—but it looks like Miles. It has to be Miles. Peter’s heart does something complicated in his chest. The kid is trying to do some kind of elaborate dribble that winds up dumping him on his ass onto the concrete. Peter starts, worried, but Miles is laughing. So are his friends, but one of them helps him up.

Peter finds himself laughing too, a choking sound he hasn’t heard in a while. He detaches his hand from where it stuck to the fence and turns towards MJ, towards the future, a bubble of something like hope rising in his chest.