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Quackery

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If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…

-*-

 

Peter hates ducks with a passion.

 

Under the metal bracelet on his left wrist, his mark tingles. It's annoying.

Ever since he became Spider-Man, more people start random conversations with him, rambling about every topic under the sun. No one says 'Hello,' of course, that would be silly. Everyone got their own modified hello, no point wasting breath on such a mundane word before you find them.

Initiating talks is always stressful when anyone can be your potential soulmate. Even if the words are already etched upon the person's skin, Peter is still constantly afraid to say the wrong thing, to miss out just this one chance. This one person who'll have him just the way he is. What a catch – a cynical, penniless orphan who crawls around New-York in spandex on his spare time, with the social skills of a constipated cat.

He shoots out a web and propels himself forwards.

With enough quick turns and needless maneuvers, he can almost forget about the prickling patch of his skin.

 

Almost.

*

On the first day of Peter’s tenth year upon the earth, he wakes up anxious. He rises in a haste to pull his sleeve down and read the fresh mark upon his wrist.

After he starts crying, it doesn’t take Uncle Ben and Aunt May more than a minute to step into the room.

"What's wrong, Peter?" His aunt crouches in front of him with a worried look on her face.

"Is it a naughty word?" She asks, her voice soft and reassuring.

"You know it's not your fault if it is, Peter." She opens her arms as he throws himself against her, sobbing.

"Come on, little man," his uncle says, kneeling next to the pair. "It can't be that bad."

He gently picks Peter's wrist.

He purses his lips.

"Well, that's… that's unusual, but –"

"It's Obscure," Peter spits the word out between his sobs, while Aunt May pets his back soothingly. Even being Ordinary is better than being Obscure – having words which can't be interpreted as a definitive exclamation, question or answer. 

"It's not bad, as far as those things go –"

"It's says duck," he draws the word out miserably.

"Well, maybe your soulmate is an ornithologist?" his aunt suggests.

Peter looks up, confused.

"A what?"

"A bird expert, Peter!" She smiles down at him. "This already gives you a lead about them, doesn't it!" She looks at Peter's uncle with something in her eyes that Peter can't decipher.

"It's a great word. Isn't it,  sweetheart!"

"It's a great word," Uncle Ben confirms, smiling as he squeezes Peter's shoulder gently. "It's special! Just like you and your soulmate."

"Really?" Peter sniffs, clinging to their reassurance like a lifeline.

"Really. You know, not many people have a decent lead to find their soulmate, but you already have much more information than I had with an Answer. And we found each other anyway." His uncle and aunt share a smile, and their matching bracelets glint on their left wrists, full of an unspoken promise.

 

So Peter tries.

He tries really, really hard.

 

They go bird watching. They go to the park to feed the ducks every other Sunday, after church. They go to the zoo.

No one tells him anything particular about ducks.

He watches them as they trudge around after bread crumbs, lacking grace or any sort of balance. Their eyes are vacant of any emotion or thought as they demand more food from him with their awful, shrilling cough. Next to him, Uncle Ben chuckles.

Stupid birds, Peter thinks, and throws the bread a bit more aggressively against the ground. One of the ducks quacks in distress as Peter hits her on the head, and Peter's satisfaction is only dampened by his uncle's disapproving stare.

He atones by giving the duck a few of the fresher bread crumbs.

"That doesn't change anything between us," he mutters to her as he hands her another piece of bread. The duck makes sure to bite his fingertips as she snatches it.

Ungrateful useless third of a turducken.

 

At home, he joins his aunt when she asks him to watch her silly rom-coms with her. He makes a big deal out of it each time, rolling his eyes as the pair meet – as their lives slide perfectly together, like two jagged puzzle pieces, against all the odds the script writers could've thrown in their way.

His wrist itches and his heart clenches at every cliché – a spy who is paired with his interrogator, a bank robber paired with one of the hostages, two lawyers from rivaling firms – the film industry thrives on those dramatic conflicts. They enjoy exaggerating the situation to the extreme – and still Peter finds himself captivated each and every time. The Obscure characters are always his favorites, and he feels his heart flutter with each close up on the actor's face, when they realise they’ve found their soulmate.

Even though it's stupid and fake, it helps him hope.  

 

It's a gloomy Monday spent in Mary-Jane's room, when she quietly admits to Peter she's one of them. Ordinary. The people whose wrists are decorated with unfortunate common phrases. Things like 'Excuse me,' which could be said briefly by someone on the street as they vanish to the crowd – or the dreadful 'Hey'. He doesn't share his word back, and Mary-Jane tells him it's okay. Her smile is a bit strained (years later, while reminiscing over pancakes, Peter will realise he's been an idiot, but convince himself it's okay, because Mary-Jane understood anyway).

At school, Flash teases him relentlessly. He keeps telling everyone Peter must have some stupid word on his wrist, because he's such a dork. He doesn’t dare to bare it, though, because even someone like Flash wouldn't do something so low. Flash himself – a successful, good looking athlete – has a Question. And not just any question – a Unique one. Even though he doesn't tell people what's written on his wrist, he boasts about the fact he'll know for sure when he'll meet his soulmate.  

Peter swallows the insults while his mark tingles, and tries not to let them get to him. He hopes Flash's soulmate is even a bigger asshole than he is, but it's more likely they're a supermodel that'll cure cancer after volunteering with dying orphans.  

 

As Peter ponders his word at nights sleep eludes him, his brain sometimes provides him with awful scenarios – what if he'll meet his soulmate as a kid who just blabbers at anyone, and they'll have to wait ten more years to make sure, and another decade for them to be of age? What if they're mentally impaired and can just say this one random word, repeatedly? Or maybe mad, spewing words with no context and reason?

He tries to console himself with different options – what if they're a lost tourist, fumbling with their English? What if he is destined to meet his soulmate in Halloween, in a rather poor costume? What if they're a chef, and they'll meet at their three star restaurant, after he’s just finished a really good meal which he didn't know the ingredients of?

He stares at the word when he feels alone, and one time in the school bathroom (in the relative privacy of the stall), after a particularly harsh bullying session, courtesy of Flash. He brushes his thumb over the neat scrawl in slow, repetitive strokes, and it eases the humiliation, somewhat.

 

Over time, Peter starts to resent the soulmate system. He dreams of a world where his wrist is bare, where he doesn't have to sit and wait and wonder, and can just pick anyone at all and try and experiment. A world where he can talk freely without concern with anyone on the street, where he can ask a person the time or comment if they have a really cool shirt or just dropped their wallet.

In reality, though, every conversation he has with a stranger is stilted at best, and he keeps his wits to himself.Once, when he’s drunk on cheap booze, with MJ giggling to his right, he thinks about making up knock-knock jokes with ducks. He wonders how does this soulmate business even works, if he can just trick people into saying 'duck'. Maybe his wrist and fate conspired together, since they know he'll never be brave enough to start a knock-knock joke with a random stranger.

 

After Uncle Ben's funeral, he stares at his wrist as the tears roll off his cheeks. It helps him feel less lonely, but doesn't lessen his guilt. His heart aches, and he doesn't care if it's not manly, if he's acting like a wuss – he just really wants his soulmate to be with him right now, to hold him and lie that it'll be all right. There's a choking bitterness in the back of his throat, stuck like a nasty splinter, and it doesn't dissolve the following morning.

 

As Spider-Man, Peter has to put up with people as they keep telling him increasingly silly things. They look at him with hopeful eyes, as if he'll suddenly confess that why, yes, nachos are the greatest invention of the century, or that the queen of England does have purple hair.

If you only knew, he wants to tell them, as he swings them out of harm's way, when he stops a car from smashing their brains on the pavement, or keeps a blade from spilling their guts in a back alley. If you only knew how stupid my word is, you wouldn't have even bothered.

He is Spider-Man, though, so he keeps politely turning down their advances, shaking his head even as few try to bare their wrists to him. Every occurrence is a painful reminder of the intricate lettering he had memorized.

 

After Uncle Ben dies, Peter stops feeding the ducks at the park.

*

Peter is eating lunch at home, which is nowhere near midtown, so he's obviously surprised when the anchormen on the television announces that Spider-Man is there, fighting a fire breathing mutant. He quickly excuses himself, promising Aunt May he'll wash the dishes after finishing his homework.

He slings his way quickly, heart pumping as he recalls the extensive damage to the street the imposter caused during the fight with the weekly villain, who chose an atrocious costume of blaring orange. The pace he sets strains his wrists, making them ache. It seems to take too long before the imposter is at sight – his mouth is stretched in a maniac grin, his teeth brilliant and sharp. Parts of his suit have been burnt clean off, including the bottom half of his mask. The sunlight makes the scars stark against his skin. An impressive looking gun is pointing at the fire hazard mutant, who is wheezing but a few feet from him, breathing out thick smoke.

Peter's spider-sense is flooding his brain with adrenaline and panic. He knows something bad will happen if he doesn’t intervene now, so he jumps between them before thinking better of it, before any plan occurs to him.

He won't let anyone get shot in front of him.

 

He quickly moves out of the way, heart hammering in his chest in an alarming way which has nothing to do with the danger he carelessly threw himself into.

Because before the man shoots the mutant's shoulder and makes him stumble backwards

Before the bullet even leaves the barrel

Before the gun is leveled in front of his face

Before Peter even spat out a word

The man says

 

 

"Duck."