guy in the chair (8:02): peter where are you?
guy in the chair (8:02): dude you can’t be late again. your homeroom teacher will kill you
guy in the chair (8:03): just because the principal thinks you look like a kicked puppy doesn’t mean you can keep missing class
guy in the chair (8:03): peter you can’t keep ditching me, the only other person i have to hang out w is michelle
buy boy (8:05): sh e prefers, mj
guy in the chair (8:05): oh good you’re not dead
guy in the chair (8:05): BUT WHERE ARE YOU
bug boy (8:06): truck
bug boy (8:06): on on way
guy in the chair (8:06): oh god do you have a head wound again
bug boy (8:06): no
bug boy (8:07): not a HEAD wound
guy in the chair (8:07): peter what part of you is injured
bug boy (8:07): leg
bug boy (8:07): only a little bit dw
guy in the chair (8:07): i am very much worrying holy fuck holy fuck
guy in the chair (8:09): hey loser this is mj
bug boy (8:09): hi mj wheres ned
guy in the chair (8:09): ned looked like a stressed mom so i stole his phone and ran for it
guy in the chair (8:10): you probably shouldn’t look at a bright screen if you have a head wound. should you go to a hospital or something?
bug boy (8:10): thanks mj can i talk to ned
guy in the chair (8:10): i should take a screenshot of this so if you die i can prove i tried to help, but you were too busy being a dumbass to listen
guy in the chair (8:11): it’s ned. michelle is surprisingly fast, who knew
guy in the chair (8:11): dude are you okay?
guy in the chair (8:13): peter???
guy in the chair (8:15): the bell went. i have to get to class.
guy in the chair (8:15): how far away are you? are you coming??
guy in the chair (8:31): i’m in class now, if the teacher catches me on my phone i’ll be in a lot of trouble
guy in the chair (9:13): peter i’m getting really scared should i call mr. stark
guy in the chair (9:34): michelle keeps staring at me, she’s getting really suspicious dude
bug boy (9:41): she prefers mj
guy in the chair (9:41): PETER
bug boy (9:42): sorry i think i blacked out haha
guy in the chair (9:42): holy fuck dude
bug boy (9:42): be there at break
bug boy (9:42): meet me behind the school
buy boy (9:43): bring a towel
guy in the chair (9:43): a towel??
When Ned finds him, Peter is hidden amongst bushes and an overgrown tree, slumped against the chain-link fence and tugging on his sneakers over his damp feet. Ned collapses on the other side of the fence. “Oh, my god, dude. I thought you’d died.”
“I’m fine, Ned.” His voice cracks. He clears his throat. “You wouldn’t happen to have any water, would you?”
Ned loops his fingers through the holes in the fence. He presses his face as close as possible, trying to crane and scan Peter for injuries. “You said to bring a towel, not water.”
“Do you have the towel?”
Ned throws a clean gym towel over the fence. Peter catches it, and dries his wet hair and damp skin. He pulls up one pant leg to his upper thigh, revealing blood dried in rivets down his pale skin. It’s thickest on his thigh. Fresh. He shifts, and Ned sees angrily bruised skin around his knee, and the fat cut a few inches up his thigh.
Peter wraps the towel over the oozing wound. “I hope you didn’t want this back.”
Ned presses closer to the fence. His eyes are very wide, his mouth curled. Hidden amongst the overgrown foliage, Peter is a wreck—damp, dishevelled, and scrapping dried blood off his shin with his fingernails. The spider suit is bunched into a lump by his elbow.
“Peter,” Ned says.
Peter smiles. “Dude, I kicked ass today.”
“Are you okay?”
“My leg’s not as bad as it looks. I’ll heal. My suit, though…” Peter untangles the suit, showing off the burnt hole running up one leg. “Looks like I’m wearing my old one for a while.”
Ned reaches out to feel the fabric through the fence. The blood soaked into the fabric around the blackened gash makes him wince. “Peter, this is an intense suit. It’s practically bullet-proof. For it to break, you must’ve taken a pretty serious hit…”
“You worry too much. Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you, but you missed class this morning, and now you’re bleeding and wet. Why are you wet?”
“One of the lower beams under the bridge gave way when I was trying to fix it. I was still a little concussed. I went crashing down into the river before I could stop myself.” Peter shrugs. “I swam out, and hitchhiked here in the back of a truck.”
“What is your life?” Ned asks.
Peter laughs. He tears the towel into strips, and wraps them around his thigh, using webbing to glue them to his skin. A temporary bandage for a temporary wound. This is why Tony made himself a literal suit of armour; without superpowers to back him up, Peter would be dead a dozen times over.
Peter pulls out the emergency backpack he’d stashed in the bushes. He’ll need to fill it back up—this time with a water bottle, a towel, and bandages—and replace it, but for now, he shoves his ruined suit into the bottom and zips it up. He throws the backup over one shoulder, and jumps the fence. He lands by Ned’s side with a small stumble. Ned gapes at him.
“Your leg is wrecked, dude. How did you do that?”
“My endurance is insane,” Peter says. “I might need to lean on you a little, but I can pretty much walk by myself.”
At his locker, Peter douses himself in deodorant, but the river stink remains. He fishes a couple energy drinks out of his locker, cracks one open, and downs it in a few mouthfuls.
“That’s not water,” Ned says.
“Adrenaline crash,” Peter explains. Energy drinks don’t always work, his metabolism chewing up the caffeine before it can help him, but sometimes, when Peter is crashing, or pushing through still healing injuries, he needs that extra kick. He pops open two more, and gulps them down as quickly as he can.
“Peter, we’re in the middle of the hallway.”
A senior a few lockers down watches Peter throw the energy cans away. The upperclassmen are rapidly approaching finals, and Peter, in all his rumbled, exhausted glory, blends in amongst them.
She jostles the bulging binders in her arms, and says, “Same, little dude. You have anymore of those?”
He hands her one as they pass. She nods gravely. Her spiky fringe, the dead-eyed glaze in her eyes, the lack of perk to her step; this senior is nothing like Liz. Peter pushes those thoughts out of his head. He can’t think about Liz right now.
“Dude, what’s up with you and older girls?” Ned says under his breath. “Can you give me tips?”
“Treat them like you’d treat anyone else?”
A few look at Peter as they pass, but he keeps his head down, discreetly hangs on to Ned’s arm, and listens to his friend blabber on about MJ (“—she stole my phone and booked it down the hall, she’s fast and sneaky, Peter—”), about the classes he missed, the decathlon practise after school, and never about the ashy pallor of Peter’s skin.
Ned grips Peter’s shirtsleeve during biology. Their teacher has ducked into their office to chase down a stray textbook, so Ned is free to prop his phone on the desk. The YouTube video isn’t high quality, and they lean in to watch.
Between masses of rubble and the bridge’s groaning pillars, Spider-Man fights a masked man wielding a pulsing purple gun. It’s not a hard fight, but the other man gets in a lucky shot; the weapon blows out his leg for a few minutes, leaving Spider-Man stumbling and clutching at his thigh as his knees buckle. The man laughs and directs his weapon towards the bridge. The gun rips through the bridge’s metal beams. Spider-Man pushes himself to his feet, webs the wound on his thigh closed, and races after the man. Eventually, Spider-Man manages to wrestles away the behemoth of a gun and disengage it.
Ned wraps his hand around Peter’s wrist, and clings. Onscreen, Spider-Man sets about bandaging the bridge in thick webbing. He only stops when the bridge has stopped shaking, and the people have stopped screaming, but he doesn’t hesitate in the ringing after-quiet. He encourages people to evacuate, carries those who are injured or paralysed with shock to safety.
“Did you do that?” Ned says. The camera gets close enough to see Spider-Man’s back, bent over an elderly woman crying into her hands, leg trapped under broken concrete. Ned stares at the fat spider symbol fixed between Peter’s shoulder blades.
“Yeah,” Peter says. His smile is shy and half-hidden in his shoulder. “I mean, Karen helped.”
“I can’t believe you named your AI Karen. You should’ve picked something way cooler.”
Flash’s hands clap down on each of their shoulders. “What, no Lego Star Wars today? Don’t tell me it got cancelled.”
Ned shrugs him off. “Fuck off, Flash.”
Flash plucks the phone from Ned’s hands, and holds it above his head. “Holy shit, is this real?”
“Yes.” Ned reaches for the phone; Flash raises it higher. “Watch it on your own phone, Flash.”
“Spider-Man stole my car, you know.” Flash watches the footage play out with an unreadable expression. He misses the looks Ned and Peter share; Ned smiling with triumph, Peter smiling without teeth. “The insurance paid it out, though, so I guess it’s ok. The dude is pretty cool.”
“He’s awesome,” Ned says.
Flash turns to go, but something makes him hesitate. He studies Peter, and says, “You look shittier than usual today, Parker.”
“Thanks, Flash. You, too.”
Flash scowls. “You were limping when you came into class. Just an excuse to feel up your buddy here, or did someone do that to you?”
“Elevator’s broken at my apartment building. Tripped up the stairs.”
Flash hovers, arms crossed, looking for something in Peter’s stance, in the way he holds himself. He mustn’t find it, because he scoffs. “Just don’t hit your head until we get more members for the Decathlon.”
Flash tosses them the phone and heads back to his desk. Peter catches it with one hand. If it were anyone else, the phone would have clattered to the ground and shattered.
“Asshole,” Ned mumbles under his breath. He takes his phone back, and rewinds it to the beginning. “What’d you do with the weapon?”
“Handed it over to SHIELD. They gave me a contact number, and they collect the dangerous stuff when I find it.”
Ned chews on his lip. “The Avengers are cool, don’t get me wrong, but… can you trust them? Weren’t they exposed as HYDRA just a few years ago?”
“I don’t know, but I trust Mr. Stark to keep an eye on them.”
“They can have the tech, but they can’t have you,” Ned says. He’s still sore about Peter almost being sucked into the upstate facility and leaving the school, leaving Ned, behind. Going somewhere Ned can’t follow.
“Hey, look,” MJ says when Peter and Ned sit down across from her, not even looking up from her sketch, “Peter's here, and not dead.”
“Hey, MJ,” Peter says. He starts demolishing his lunch with a fever. He’s so hungry. Ned watches him with a distant kind of horror, and quietly slides over half a sandwich. Peter eats it in two bites.
Halfway through their break, MJ shoves a notepad under his nose. On it, below a half-assed outline for a Literature essay, is a flustered chicken sketched in pen. Its wings flap above its head, and sweat beads off its head. A Star Wars t-shirt is stretched over its broad chest. A speech bubble attached to its open mouth, reads, Peter!!!
mother hen Ned, MJ has written above the drawing, complete with a little arrow pointing at the chicken.
Peter leans over the table, and whispers, “I’m pretty sure this is a form of bullying.”
“It’s art,” MJ says. “It’s a medium through which I express my view of the world.”
Ned peers a the drawing, and squawks. MJ snickers into her yoghurt. “I’m not a mother hen,” he protests.
“You were flustered enough this morning,” MJ says.
“You were concerned as well!” Ned gestures at Peter. He’s too busy flicking through MJ’s Literature notes (searching for notes from his missed class) to notice. “Look at him, the fear is justified.”
MJ studies Peter, and then nods her head. “Okay, that’s fair.”
“Is he self-aware, or does he just go through life completely oblivious to how…” MJ gropes for a word, and Ned supplies, “Messy?”
“How messy he is,” MJ finishes.
Peter looks up from MJ’s notes. “Huh?”
“See?” MJ says. Ned snickers into his hand. Peter squints at them and gets the distinct impression he’s being made fun of.
Before lunch ends, Peter kicks Ned under the table and cocks his head towards the door. Ned stands up abruptly, and falters when MJ looks up at him.
“Uh. I have… I have a weird mole on my back. Peter, can you come and, um, look at it?”
“That’s really suspicious,” MJ says, “but I honestly don’t care. Have fun blowing each other, or whatever.”
Peter steers Ned to a disabled bathroom in the emptier side of the school. They squeeze inside, and lock the door behind them.
“MJ usually hates when people make those kinds of jokes,” Ned says. “She must be pretty pissed that we ditched her… I feel kind of bad.”
Peter scrubs a hand over his face. The energy drinks that stopped him from passing out over his desk have worked their way through his system, sent his heart thumping erratically under his skin. He could never drink much caffeine before the spider bite. He remembers why, now. He hates how it makes him feel like a clock wound too tight, its gears grinding together, insides a groaning crush of metal.
“I do, too, but we don’t really have a choice. I can’t tell her. Too many people know already.”
“Thanks,” Ned says.
“Not you! Well, actually, yeah. You, too.” Peter grits his teeth as he folds himself onto the tiled floor, bad leg sticking out in front of him. “Nobody was supposed to find out. Ever. It was always supposed to just be me. I don’t want to worry MJ on top of everyone else.”
Ned sits down across from him. “That’s dumb.”
“You have to let people help you, Peter.”
Peter ducks his head, and works on hiking up the leg of his pants. This isn’t the most hygienic place to do this, but he’s been through worse. He’ll be fine. Peter unsticks the towel from his skin. The wound has been reduced to a slit of coagulated blood. The skin around it is inflamed, and his knee is an ugly, mottled brown like bruised fruit.
Ned collects several handfuls of toilet paper and wets them under the tap. He sets about wiping off the dried blood, gently dabbing around the puffy skin on Peter’s thigh. “Your healing factor is insane.”
“I don’t know what I’d do without it,” Peter says.
“Maybe you’d have to let more people help you out.”
Peter glares weakly at Ned. “Come on, man. Cut it out. I’m letting you help me right now, aren’t I?”
“I just feel like you’re shutting me out, that’s all. I’m your best friend. I’m your guy in the chair. You can tell me anything, okay?” Peter lets his eyes fall closed, his head slumping against the bathroom wall. Ned pulls Peter’s injured leg into his lap as he works, and prompts, “Peter?”
Peter exhales. “Okay, Oracle.”
“Listen to your O.” Ned smiles. Under his breath, he says, “Oracle”, and laughs. “God, are you Batman, or are you Robin?”
When they’re finished, Ned flushes the toilet paper. Peter rolls his pant leg back down, and hides the towel under his shirt. He’ll shove it into his backpack, and throw it away in a random dumpster on the way home. The tacky fabric clings to the skin on his stomach. Peter winces when he puts too much pressure on his bad leg. Ned pulls Peter’s arm over his shoulders without pause in their in-depth discussion about which Gotham vigilante Peter might be.
the fun police (1:06): What was that on the bridge?
bug boy (1:10): me doing my job
the fun police (1:10): You don’t have a job. You’re 10.
bug boy (1:11): you KNOW i’m 15
bug boy (1:11): also btw i broke the spider suit a little bit
the fun police (1:11): What do you mean, you broke the suit? It’s indestructible.
bug boy (1:12): tbf i only broke it A LITTLE BIT
bug boy (1:12): tell mr stark it wasn’t my fault
the fun police (1:12): Tell him yourself.
bug boy (1:13): what?
bug boy (1:16): did i make mr stark mad? i swear it wasn’t my fault
bug boy (1:22): ok it might have slightly been my fault. but i was fighting a bad guy, it was for a good cause
bug boy (1:44): happy??
“Did you do that?” May asks that evening when they’re watching the news.
He hasn’t told May about his injuries. The cut on his thigh has closed to a pink line, and the bruises are an off-yellow climbing up his knee and thigh. A throb works its way up his leg. It aches down to the bone, but it’ll be gone in the next day or two.
Peter sinks into the couch, swimming in sweats, his hair dripping from the shower. He blinks blearily at May. “Hm?”
May rubs at her jaw, and then at her neck, and then at her wrists. Stressed. May is stressed. Peter is stressing her out. “Are you alright?” she asks, a little high-pitched.
Peter sits up, more alert. He reaches across the couch, and that’s all the permission May needs to enfold him in a hug. “Hey, I’m fine. I’m tough. It looks much worse than it was.”
When they untangle, May watches Peter fix the bridge with webs, and shepherd dozens of stressed people to safety. No causalities, the newsreader informs them.
“They would’ve died if I hadn’t been there,” Peter says.
May watches the news with a wet kind of intensity, and grips Peter’s hand. She doesn’t say anything, yet. She doesn’t have the words. One day, she’ll cup his jaw and tell him how proud she is, how she looks at the red and blue posters strung up around Queens, the t-shirts barring his symbol beginning to populate even the further parts of the city, and thinks about how amazing he is.
But for now, she clutches him tighter in each hug, and only cries when she’s sure he’s at school, and watches the news with a terrified hunger. She doesn’t forbid him from being a hero. For now, that’s enough.
When someone knocks at their front door later at night, Peter assumes it’s a neighbour. He creeps through the apartment on socked feet, eases the front door open, and swears.
Tony Stark raises an eyebrow. “Wow. Does your aunt know you use that kind of language?”
Peter slips into the hallway, and shuts the front door quietly behind him. “What are you doing here?”
“You said you had an issue with the suit.”
“I do, but I didn’t expect you to arrive at my apartment at—” Peter fumbles with his pockets, looking for his phone, only to remember he’d left it on his bed. “Whatever time it is.”
“Late. I’m surprised you’re not out scaring car thieves in that abomination you call a back-up suit.”
Peter scowls. “May says I can’t go patrolling every night. It’s ‘not good for my health’, or something. She makes me take nights off, now.”
“Moms,” Tony dismisses with a wave of his hand.
“She’s asleep. Stay here.” Peter disappears back into the apartment. He returns with his suit looped over his arm, and hands it to Tony. “Here.”
Tony inspects the tear running through the suit’s leg. “This thing is bulletproof. What the hell did you do?”
“Bulletproof, sure, but it’s glowing purple alien gun-proof. Alien-proof? Magic-proof? Uh.”
Tony squints from the suit, to Peter, to Peter’s legs, hidden beneath his oversized pyjama pants. “How do you still have a leg?”
“I heal really fast,” Peter says with a shrug. He ignores Tony’s incredulous look. “So, can you fix it?”
“Can I fix it? Don’t insult me, kid.”
Peter bites his lip. He can’t stop himself from saying, “You came all the way to New York just to be my seamstress?”
Tony points at him. “Rule 1 of superhero-ing, kid: don’t insult the person supplying your tech.”
Peter smothers a yawn in his hand. “Right, sorry.”
Tony frowns. “Take it from me; you don’t waste a night off. You have gone to bed at 7 like all the other good boys and girls. Caught up some z’s.”
“How do you know I’m not sleeping right now?” Peter rubs at his eye with a fist. He really hopes none of the neighbours step out of their apartments while he’s standing there. He doesn’t have the energy to explain away Iron Man’s presence at his front door.
“Get some sleep, Peter,” Tony says.
“You’re not patrolling right now, and I’ve seen your IQ stats, homework really shouldn’t—”
“No, I—” Peter makes a frustrated gesture in the air. “I can’t. I tried, but I just can’t fall asleep. I keep staring at the ceiling, and thinking about…”
Peter lets his hands fall. He scowls at the hallway, the chipped paint on the walls, the individual welcoming mats stationed in front of each door. He jumps when Tony puts a hand on his shoulder and squeezes.
“About?” Tony prompts.
“Just… stuff. People I couldn’t save. Toomes, his face, and how he almost—I almost—”
Peter sucks in hot air. “I’m Spider-Man,” he says when his breathing evens out, when he feels more solid. “I’m—I can be Spider-Man. I can do this. I just… it just…” He screws his eyes shut. Tony doesn’t take his hand off his shoulder.
“Do you remember the Battle of New York?”
Peter pries his eyes open. Tony isn’t looking at him; his gaze is fixed on the stairwell door, off white with a faulty doorjamb, hanging slightly ajar. Light seeps out from the stairwell and into the dim hallway. “Of course.”
“It’s been almost 10 years, and I still see stars when I close my eyes. I took that nuke through the portal, and I—” Tony cuts himself off, and shakes his head. “I see a lot of things. Sleeping is hard sometimes. It’s an occupational hazard.”
Peter gestures at his chest. He’s only wearing a Midtown Science High sweatshirt, but he mimes something larger—a rock, a boulder, a heap of twisted rubble crumbled over him. “I keep imagining the building collapsing on top of me, and I remember how cramped and heavy it was, and it gets hard to breathe. But if this is just a part of being a hero, if there’s nothing actually wrong, then—”
“What building?” Tony asks.
“Oh,” Peter says. “I met Vulture out in this, uh, warehouse? His wings are detachable. They attacked me, or, I thought they attacked me, but it was actually taking out the load barring pillars, and then then the roof dropped on my head. I think I blacked out for a while, but when I came to, Toomes was long gone, and I was.” Peter exhales roughly. “I was trapped under the rubble. I panicked, and I didn’t know how to call for help, but I— ”
Tony doesn’t scold Peter for his long winded explanation, or cut him off mid-sentence. When Peter stops, Tony says, “But you…?”
Peter rubs a hand over his ashen cheeks. “I got myself out. I lifted the rubble off, and I went after Toomes.”
Tony studies Peter. He hunches into his sweatshirt, avoiding Tony’s eyes, and only just stops himself from fiddling with his cuffs. The gesture makes him look younger. Peter already looks too young and inexperienced in front of the Avenger. He’s already faltered, already said too much. Peter tries not to squirm.
“It was bad,” Tony finally decides.
Peter unsticks his jaw. “Yeah, it was bad, ” he says; one, two, three, four words. Not too many, this time.
“You got out from under a collapsed building. By yourself.” Peter nods, yes. Tony examines the long gash in his spider suit. “Your leg, it’s okay?”
Peter nods again. “You’re not… you’re not going to take my suit away again, are you?”
“If I did, would you stop being Spider-Man?” Peter stares at him, until Tony laughs to himself, and says, “Yeah, I didn’t think so. I’m not going to take the suit away. You earned this. Your aunt might hate me, and I might be condemning myself to a world of guilt if anything ends up happening to you—anything worse, because I think your trauma is giving me trauma, and I already have a guilt complex like you would believe—”
Tony cuts himself off with a shake of his head. Peter says, “Trauma?”
“You’re actually not bad at this hero thing,” Tony continues, poking Peter in the chest, right over his heart. “You’re made of the right stuff.”
“But…” Peter gestures to the ruined suit.
“I’ll make it stronger this time around.”
“And my insomnia?”
“What did I say: occupational hazard. That’s not your fault. But, hey.” Tony fixes Peter with a stern gaze, and Peter instinctively straightens up. “If it gets bad, you talk to someone, alright? It doesn’t have to me; I’d prefer if it wasn’t, actually, but I do have experience with bad brain days, even if heart-to-hearts give me acid reflux. Your aunt knows, maybe talk to her. You’re fifteen, you have friends. Talk to them. Hell, ring up Happy and cry to him for a while. He’d love that. He loves being involved in your life.”
“This is kind of a heart-to-heart,” Peter points out.
Tony rubs at his chest, and winces. “I know, and it’s already starting to burn. I should go before your kicked puppy dog look makes me regurgitate my dinner.”
Tony shoves the suit under his arm, and starts down the hall. He harasses the elevator button half a dozen times. Peter doesn’t go back inside. He wets his lips, and calls out, “Mr. Stark?”
“Call me Tony, for gods sake.”
“Tony…” Peter bounces on his heels. The elevator opens with a jolt, but before Tony can disappear inside, Peter blurts, “Does it get better?”
Tony slips on his sunglasses, and laughs. “If it ever does, I’ll call you.”
Peter arrives to school and there, stashed in his locker in a red and gold box, wrapped nicely with a bow, is his repaired suit. The card sitting atop the freshly washed fabric says, I’m not a seamstress. Learn how to dodge. Below that is a phone number. Peter knows it’s not Happy’s, this time. Something a little more direct.
bug boy (8:01): did you break into my locker?
bug boy (8:01): i’m pretty sure that’s a federal crime
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (8:15): You’re welcome.
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (8:16): And don’t get all starry eyed and hand out this number. Or put me under any dumb nicknames. I’m trusting you with this.
bug boy (8:16): i would never
Peter ends up at school early, for once; his homework assignments have been piling up and soon, May is going to start seeing through his lies about being on top of everything. Peter heads to the library, and finds an empty table. He zones out somewhere between finding a pen and cracking open a book.
Tony’s words rattle around in his head. Occupational hazard, he’d said. Unavoidable, then, if Peter’s going to keep being Spider-Man.
Peter’s a better hero now than he was a year ago. He has the suit; a mentor; tentative acknowledgement from the city. He’s not hung up on the Avengers anymore. He knows who he is, what Spider-Man’s place is in the sprawling metropolis of New York.
Peter was a mess a year ago, too, but a different kind of mess. A grieving, floundering mess. It was hard to sleep then, just like it is now, but for different reasons.
Peter thinks about seeing stars behind his eyelids for the better chunk of a decade, thinks about looking up at the night sky and seeing only death. He thinks about one day looking at a thickset building and seeing only a thickset building, not each individual cement column, not a possible bear trap ready to spring shut around his head.
Something collides with the back of his head. Peter whirls around. This corner of the library was empty when he arrived. Something hits him again. It bounces off his temple and rolls onto the carpet.
Peter stares down at the crumpled paper ball. “What the hell?”
MJ stares out at him from between the bookshelves. The pockets of her hoodie bugle with balls of scrunched up notepaper. Maintaining eye contact, she throws another ball at his face. Peter catches it easily.
“MJ, what the hell?”
She ditches another ball, and he catches it with his other hand. “Someone had to wipe that dumb look off of your face,” she says. “You’d still be in a funk if I hadn’t intervened; you’re welcome.”
“I’m not going to thank you for throwing stuff at me.”
“Whatever. Come on, follow me.”
Peter scoops up his books, and she leads them through the library, weaving through the aisles until they reach a cramped back corner. A beanbag is stuffed against the far wall next to chip jackets and piles of books. A tiny space, invisible from the outside, where one could see the other people in the library through the slots between the books.
MJ pushes Peter into the beanbag, and snags one of his books. She leans against the shelves as she leafs through it.
She pulls out a loose sheet of exercise paper, only half filled with Peter’s chicken scratch. “This essay is due last period.” She pulls out a math sheet next. “And these trig questions were due yesterday, and they’re still unfinished. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Peter reaches up to take his book back. She holds it out of his reach. “Is this bullying or some crazy kind of intervention? I can’t tell.”
“You’ve been acting weird, lately.”
“An intervention, then.” Peter grabs a chip packet and rips it open, if only to have something do with his hands. “What do you mean, weird?”
“All spacey, and jumpy. You were sitting at that table for a good 15 minutes staring at a poster about the dewey decimal system.”
“I like the dewey decimal system,” Peter says, and then winces.
“I don’t actually care, Peter. I’m just making sure you haven’t been replaced by a pod person.”
“Pod people can’t compete in the Decathlon.” She braces an arm on the far wall, and bends down into his space, looking him in the eye. Peter tries to lean back, but there’s no room; this corner of the library wasn’t design for someone to be there, let alone for two people locked in a weird not-intervention. “So, tell me: are you a pod person?”
Peter closes his eyes, and counts each individual inhale, and when that doesn’t work, says in a small voice, “Can you back up a little bit?”
“I’m—” Peter presses a hand over his chest. “I’m a little—”
“Oh, shit.” She steps out of his immediate space. “Can I do anything?”
Peter shakes his head, no. His lower body feels static-y. It’s like pins and needles, like someone has laid on top of him and one half of his body has fallen asleep. “Space,” he grits out.
And then MJ is gone, disappearing out of the corner and into the surrounding bookshelves. Peter knows she’s there, hovering behind the wall of book spines, but he’s too busy sucking in hot air to care.
The panic passes fairly quickly. Peter grips the front of his t-shirt. The library’s stale, recycled air in his lungs doesn’t taste like cement dust, or river water, or blood. He breathes in, and out, and in, until his fingers don’t feel so numb, and his heart isn’t trying to beat out through his ribcage.
When Peter’s breathing has evened out, MJ pulls down a fat dictionary so she can talk to him from the other side of the bookshelf.
“I didn’t know you were claustrophobic.”
Peter runs his fingers over the rough material of the beanbag, and says, “Neither did I.”
bug boy (2:41): what do you do when you can’t sleep
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (2:43): Build something.
bug boy (2:43): like what???
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (2:44): Something useful.
“Very specific,” Peter says into his pillow. He gives up on sleep, and slips out of bed. He sketches out a rough design. When he’s happy with it, he pulls out the boxes of miscellaneous tech (tripled since he meet Tony, who loves throwing things at him to see what he’ll do with them) and starts on making his design a reality.
The hours melt away. His fingers burn in a familiar way, and the waves of anxiety roiling in the pit of his stomach ease.
bug boy (4:58): you were right
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (5:03): When am I not?
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (5:04): Is your tech baby marketable?
bug boy (5:04): maybe. needs some more work, idk.
bug boy (5:05): [photo]
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (5:05): Not bad.
Peter slips in through the window just after midnight. May hasn’t set a firm curfew; she doesn’t want Peter to feel like he has to go behind her back to do these things, especially now that she knows he will, if he has to. She wants to know when he comes home, if he doesn’t come home, if he’s hurt. He know she prefers it if he’s back before 1am, though.
He hides more from her than she’d like. Injuries, especially. He thinks she knows. Healing factors only stretch so far.
Peter doesn’t take off the spider suit. He tugs on a hoodie over the suit, wrapping his fingers around the too long sleeves, and heads into the kitchen. Peter feels stretched thin and powerless and tired—really tired, in a way that aches, in a way that won’t be tempered by sleep. It’s barely been a year since he became Spider-Man, but it feels so much longer. He almost wants to ask Tony if he feels the same way, if 10 years feels likes 50, but he can’t bring himself to.
The living room is lit by a lone lamp, and the oven’s glowing clock. May leans against the counter, mug of tea in hand, and watches him quietly.
Peter perches on the counter next to her. Their shoulders brush together. “Hey,” he says in a near whisper. He steals her tea, and talks a long drink from it.
“Hey,” she says back, equally quiet. “Hungry?”
Peter shakes his head, no, and drains the rest of the tea. May pours him a glass of water, and watches as he finishes that, too.
“You don’t even want a sandwich?”
Peter shakes his head again, and curls into his hoodie. May rubs at his arm. He leans into her. She wraps him up in a hug, and he falls into it, head slumping in the crook between her jaw and shoulder, where she can feel his face screw up, his breaths grow shallow. She clutches him tighter, and he clings to her like he had when he was a kid.
“You’re okay. You’re okay, Pete.” When he’s calm enough to pull away from her, rubbing his sleeves over his blotchy face, she asks, “Did something happen?”
Peter glares at the oven clock, the illuminated 00:49. “That’s the thing, nothing out of the ordinary happened. I’ve just been feeling weird.”
“Weird?” she prompts.
Peter flaps a hand in the air, grasping for words. All he’s left with is the thought that’s been running through his head all night: “There was this dilapidated building out near Hell’s Kitchen, rotted all the way through, and I kept staring at it and thinking, This thing could go down at the smallest breeze.” Peter gestures at the roof over their head. “Even this apartment could go down easily enough.”
May rubs his hand. “Buildings don’t just collapse, Peter. Did something happen to make you worried about that?”
Peter shakes his head. He doesn’t ever give her details—specifics, maybe, but not intimate description. He doesn’t break it down for her, or for Ned. He doesn’t talk about how his bones had turned to liquid atop the Washington Monument, and on the hijacked plane, and on the fractured bridge. He climbs walls; heights shouldn’t make his stomach swoop or his palms sweat.
He can’t tell her about the burst of light when a fist drives home across his jaw, or the pressure of metal claws against his chest, or the familiar tang of blood and river water and sweat. He doesn’t tell them about the intimate, gnawing kind of horror that came with being trapped beneath a collapsed building and knowing no one was coming to save you; the way it felt like his bones were being ground into the damp cement; how he’d felt small and very soft, and how his thoughts keep going over the components of a building—rusted metals, long nails strong enough to jut through cement—and how that might’ve pierced him if he’d moved wrong, like a fork pulled through slow cooked meats.
Peter isn’t scared of being Spider-Man. It makes him feel strong, amped up by adrenaline and Karen’s voice in his ear.
It’s Peter Parker that can’t shake these nagging thoughts. It’s Peter Parker, sitting in class, thinking about homework, and then Star Wars, and then about briny mouthfuls of river water in his lungs as he sunk like a rock, where his body might swell up and bob in the water, face down, if he didn’t make it back to the surface. It’s Peter Parker, chewing on a sandwich, listening to Ned and MJ’s half-hearted bickering, and remembering the weight of the rubble on top of him, the deafening crash of the cement structures giving way, the explosive crash of a plane against a sandy beach.
“Nothing happened. I’m just.” Peter gestures at his own head. “My thoughts are all crossed and… wrong.”
May cups the back of his head, and matches his scowl with an intense glare of her own. “Listen to me, Peter; there’s nothing wrong with you, do you hear me?”
Peter sighs. May prods him in the cheek until he looks at her. “Yeah, I hear you.”
She kisses him on the cheek. “Can we have tomorrow be a break night? You could have Ned over.”
Peter nods, yes. “Thanks, May.”
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (6:49): Downstairs, 5mins.
Peter squints at his phone blearily, woken by the phone going off on his bedside table. His alarm isn’t set to go off for another 15 minutes.
bug boy (6:50): whaa
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (6:50): 4mins. If you’re not here, we’re leaving without you.
bug boy (6:50): you’re HERE?
I’m Not Like a Regular Mom, I’m a Cool Mom (6:51): 3mins.
Peter scrambles out of bed, and throws on the nearest clothes. He shoves his spider suit and homework into his backpack, speed-brushes his teeth, snags an apple from the counter, and kiss May on the cheek.
She looks up from her cereal. “You’re early. What’s the rush?”
“Meeting up with a friend,” Peter says, racing for the front door. “Love you, bye!”
The aggressively expensive sports car illegally parked in front of Peter’s apartment building can only belong to one person. This early, there’s only a few people to gawk as Peter slides into the backseat, chomping down on his apple.
“Hey, Happy. Hey, Tony,” Peter says through a mouthful of fruit. “’s really early.”
“Hey,” Happy says vaguely from the front seat. As Happy eases the car out onto the road, Tony snags the apple from Peter’s hand, rolls down the window, and chucks it out of the moving car.
“Dude! That’s littering. And my breakfast.”
“No, it’s not. We’re getting breakfast somewhere else.”
Peter half-expects Happy to pull into a McDonalds drive-through. He’s surprised when they end up at a restaurant with carmel coloured panelling.
“I’d say don’t wait up, but that’s literally your job,” Tony says to Happy before getting out and heading toward the restaurant.
Peter hangs back. “Am I supposed to…?”
“Tony’s definitely not the one that’s going to be eating here.” Before Peter can grab the door-handle, Happy adds, “Hey, kid… I heard about what happened with Toomes.”
Peter finds the upholstery suddenly fascinating. “Oh. Tony told you?”
“I was supposed to be keeping an eye on you, but in the end—”
“Thanks,” Peter says, “but I don’t need a babysitter, man. Maybe just, er… don’t hang up on my friend, next time? Ned Leeds? He’s my guy in the chair.”
Happy studies Peter through the rear-view mirror. “Guy in the chair?” he repeats with disbelief.
“You know, like, my sidekick? Don’t tell him I called him my sidekick. He’d kill me.” Tony raps his knuckles against the tinted car window, and gestures at his fancy watch. Peter slides across the backseat. “Do you want me to bring you anything back?”
Happy shoos him off with a wave of his hand. “Get out of here, kid.”
The inside of the restaurant is more intimidating than the outside. The cream carpet, the medium sized chandelier fixed overhead, and the other occupants dressed up in suits makes Peter hunch into his beaten up jacket, and tug at his hair. He wishes he’d taken more than 30 seconds to get dressed.
“This is a little…” Peter winces.
“I’m a billionaire, and you’re an intern I’m trying to impress so you’re not seduced away by my competitors, remember?”
Tony gestures at a waiter. He leads them to a table tucked away by a pottered fern. Peter shoves as close to the plant as he can. Maybe, if he gets close enough, people will think he’s a part of the foliage. As the waiter lays out menus, Tony says, “You haven’t had any house calls from Norman though, have you?”
It takes a moment for Peter to place the name. “Oh, as in Oscorp’s CEO? No, no. I don’t think I’d accept an offer from them anyway. Last time I was there, I ended up… changing career paths.”
“Good, Norman’s a dick. Pray you never run into him.” Peter opens the menu, balks, and puts it back down. Tony takes it from him, and tells the waiter, “Two coffees. One cooked breakfast with everything.”
The waiter scribbles down the order. “How would you like your eggs, sir?”
Tony raises his eyebrows at Peter. “Uh,” Peter says. “Sunny side up?”
“Is that all?” he asks.
Tony hands over the menus, and shoos the waiter away. Peter starts, “You don’t have to—I mean, you could have called, you didn’t need to come all the way—”
“I’m in New York to harass the locals—locals, as in plural. The people that bought the Stark Tower are more irritating than I originally guessed.”
Peter perks up. He’s been keeping up with the process, since the new tenants are almost as interesting as the last. “Dr. Richards? We read some of his stuff in class. Really amazing.”
Tony neatly stirs the conversation away from Reed Richards. “How’s the new suit measuring up?”
As they wait for their meals, they discuss the suit, the team, Peter’s headway in dismantling Toomes crew—or what’s left of it—and recovering other renegade alien tech. Tony actually breaks down some of the spider suit’s hidden functions. Peter takes out one of his exercise books, and takes notes.
Breakfast arrives. Peter gawks at the steaming mountain of sausages, bacon strips, fried tomatoes and mushrooms and eggs. Tony steals a hash-brown, and gestures for Peter to eat.
“Your calorie in-take is too low for your metabolism. One apple for breakfast isn’t going to cut it.”
“Are you nagging me?” Peter asks. “Is that what’s happening right now, you’re nagging me?”
“Well, if you don’t want it…” Tony tries to take the plate away, but Peter hauls it out of his reach. He picks up a fork, and begins to shovel the food into his mouth. Tony pretends not to look smug. “That’s what I thought.”
After Peter has scrapped the plate clean and Tony has paid, they leave the restaurant and climb back into the car. Tony talks about the Avengers’ progress as Happy weaves through traffic. Vision still doesn’t understand walls, and Wanda has started to use her powers to ignore them, too.
“This isn’t a recruitment drive, is it?” Peter asks slowly.
Tony squints at him. “Why, you interested?”
“Sorry, no. I think… I think I’m beginning to make a difference here, in New York.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” They pull up around the corner from Midtown High. Peter grabs his backpack, but before he can slip out the door, Tony says, “Happy, get out of the car.”
Happy smacks a hand over the steering wheel. “Seriously? Again?”
“Seriously. Off you go.”
Happy grumbles something Tony pretends not to hear, and steps out of the car. When they’re alone again, Tony turns to Peter, and says, “Have the nightmares stopped?”
Peter swallows; his mouth is suddenly dry. “A little. I’m still struggling to sleep, though.”
Tony looks at the leather headrest in front of him, not at Peter. “Panic attacks?”
“Sometimes. Not as often.”
“Kid,” Tony begins, and then stops, scrubs a hand over his face. “Peter, what I said about this life coming with occupational hazards… Don’t listen to that. You shouldn’t accept feeling shitty all the time because I told you its a part of being a hero. You should be better than that.”
“Better?” Peter swallows. He still doesn’t know what that means when Tony says, Better. He doesn’t know how to be better.
“I didn’t talk to people about what has happening to me, about the things I’d seen, the specifics. It ended up pushing everyone away. I want you to be better than me.”
“Have you been talking to someone?”
“May, sometimes. And, uh, I might talk to some friends. I’ve been thinking about it.”
Tony nods like he’s satisfied. “Make sure that you do. Don’t shut them out. You’ll lose them that way, and you might think that you’ll be fine without them, that you can protect them that way, but that’s not how it works.” Tony looks out the window, and the moment is broken. Peter scrambles to remember the last few minutes, to hold onto the words Tony had just dropped on his head, even as Tony waves an imperious hand at the door. “Shoo, my acid reflux is acting up again. New York coffee, it’s horrendous. Tell Happy he can get back in the car.”
Peter slides out of the car. Happy scowls at him. “Finished?”
“I think so,” Peter says, still a little dazed.
Happy eyes him for a moment, then shakes his head. “Make my life easier, and take care of yourself, alright?”
Happy climbs into the drivers seat. Peter watches as the sports car pulls away from the curb and disappears into the morning traffic. He laces his hands around his backpack straps, and heads to school, re-energised.
Flash runs into Decathlon practise and slams his hand down on the table with a resounding thud. Everyone jumps, and watches with rapt attention as Flash shoves a finger in Peter’s face.
“Why the fuck didn’t you tell us that you knew Tony fucking Stark?”
The teacher doesn’t scold Flash for his noisy entrance, the near-hysterical pitch to his voice, or for swearing. He turns with the students to stare at Peter.
Peter would comment about the declining level of professionalism in the workplace, if Flash’s finger wasn’t an inch away from poking his eye out. “What?” Peter says instead.
Flash pulls out his phone, and unlocks it. He shows him candids posted on twitter (a handle Flash follows: @TonyStarkWatch) of Peter and Tony heading out of the restaurant that morning. Tony is turned to him, mouth open; Peter is pulling a face.
“Oh,” Peter says. “Uh, Tony was trying to convince me to come back to the internship.”
The boy to Peter’s right says, “Tony”, with something akin to awe.
“The internship was real?” Flash flaps a hand in the air. It comes close to hitting Peter in the head. Ned is biting down a smug smile across the table, but Peter wants Flash to shut up and move on. He might’ve wanted something like this to happen a few months ago, but not anymore. “And Tony Stark knows who you are? Enough to try to convince you to stay?”
The teacher looks at Peter with wide eyes. “Could you introduce me?”
Flash collapses into the seat across from Peter, suddenly weak-kneed. In a small voice, Flash asks, “Do you really know Spider-Man, too?”
“Wow,” MJ says flatly. Peter lays his head down on the desk. Ned bursts into hiccuping laughter, and has to go sit in the hall until he calms down.
On one of May’s imposed break nights, Ned and MJ come over for dinner. Peter snuck in an easy afternoon patrol after school, but bundles the suit and incriminating tech away for the night when he gets home.
MJ looks around the apartment, taking in everything hungrily. Ned laughs at the way she stares at an ugly antique displayed on a high shelf. Ned’s been warming up to MJ more and more, lately. Peter often isn’t there to play mediator between them, and Ned and MJ have worked out their own dynamic.
“Ned, hello,” May says, ushering them in. “And you must be MJ.”
MJ startles, her gaze snapping away from one of Peter’s ugly childhood drawings framed by the front door. “Uh. Yes.” MJ waves, a small, jerky gesture. “Hi, Mrs. Parker.”
“Call me May. All Peter’s friends do.”
“All?” MJ questions, glancing at Ned with raised eyebrows. Peter has other friends, aside from us?
“Ha ha,” Ned says.
May continues on without pause. “Peter’s in his room. You can go on in, and I’ll call you when dinner’s ready. You kids like pasta?” They nod obediently. “It’s vegetarian, don’t worry, MJ. Peter already told me you don’t like meat.”
“Peter knows that?” MJ asks, mostly to herself.
May escorts them to Peter’s door. “Door stays open,” she tells them.
Peter appears in the doorway, hair uncombed and cheeks flushed. “May!”
He’s dressed in long shirt, baggy and soft with how often it’s been washed, holes worn into the sleeves. When MJ first met Peter, his hair was combed and his collared shirt, though old, was ironed and laid neatly over his sweater. He’s a teenage boy, he’s always been a little messy, but lately, it’s not strange to see Peter with tangled hair and rumpled clothes. About a month ago, he’d arrived halfway through the school day, limping, slightly damp, and stinking of the river.
“No buts,” May says. “Door stays open.”
MJ had thought it might be weird being in Peter’s room, studying with him and Ned, but there’s something easy about it. They spread out on the carpet in a loose circle, textbooks stacked in the middle so they don’t peak at the answers, taking it in turn to quiz each other.
After dinner, May invites them to stay over. Ned and MJ look to Peter. He fiddles with his cutlery, and says, “We could watch movies.”
“I’m not watching any anime,” MJ says. “Not the stuff you guys probably like.”
They watch several old Star Trek films, and after, May lays a sheet over the couch, and hands MJ a pillow and spare comforter. MJ thanks her. She lies down on the couch for about an hour, and then gets up, and heads to Peter’s room. Like she expects, he’s staring up into nothing. There’s something twisted in his expression, like he’s in pain, that stops her from returning to the safety of the couch.
“Alright, now you have to tell me what’s wrong,” MJ says. Peter yelps, and tugs the comforter to his chin. She scoffs. “You’re wearing pyjamas. I can’t see your tits. Chill.”
Peter lowers the blankets, and sits up against the headboard. MJ picks her way through the room, stepping neatly over quiet, open eyed Ned, and sits on the edge of the bed. Peter squirms away from her. It’s too dark to see the blush staining his cheeks. She prods him in the arm, hard.
“Don’t be like that,” she says. Peter settles, smiling shyly, a bit guiltily, up at her. “Now: what the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She pokes him again, harder this time. “Ow! Okay, okay. I’ve just… been having trouble sleeping.”
He shrugs. “I keep… I keep thinking about bad things that’ve happened. I can’t turn my brain off. It’s stupid, I know.”
“You’re a moron.”
Peter shrinks into his blankets. “Yeah, I know.”
“Okay, this makes you an even bigger moron.”
She gestures at the guilty, twisted expression he wears too often, and the comforters hiding him from view. “This. You’re going to keep feeling guilty forever?”
He sits up, and the comforters fall into his lap. “Look, sorry, you don’t have to listen to me. You probably shouldn’t even be in here—”
She whacks him over the head. He barely feels it, but clamps a hand to his head anyway. “I’m you friend,” MJ says.
“So why are you treating me like a stranger?”
Ned peaks over the edge of the bed. Peter jumps, but MJ is unsurprised. “Don’t take it too personally,” Ned tells MJ. “He treats me like that sometimes, too.”
“Peter, did you know that you’re kind of an asshole?”
Peter points at Ned. “You’re supposed to be asleep, and you—” He points at MJ next. “—are kind of an asshole, too, if I’m completely honest. Why are you guys picking on me now?”
“Ned’s been awake this whole time.”
MJ pushes Peter further onto the bed, and settles down next to him against the headboard. She tucks her feet under her. Ned sits on the bed across from them. Peter glances from her to Ned with wide eyes, hands clenching and unclenching in the blankets.
“So,” Ned begins, “you haven’t been sleeping.”
“Is this an intervention?”
“You’re balancing everything, right? You said you were on top of school.”
“You haven’t skipped a decathlon practise in a while,” MJ says.
“I have the time to sleep,” Peter says. “I just can’t sleep.”
Very seriously, MJ asks, “Have you tried counting sheep?”
“Hot milk?” Ned tries.
“Hot milk is nasty, dude. Serious suggestions only.”
“You’re right, MJ. I’m sorry.”
“You guys are teaming up against me.” Peter presses his hands over his face, and groans into his fingers. “I should’ve seen this coming.”
“Have you been drinking too much caffeine?” Ned asks. “Those energy drinks are bad news.”
“No, that’s not it.” Peter removes his hands, and sighs. He looks more exhausted in the near-darkness of his bedroom, bundled up in pyjamas and piled in blankets and still unable to sleep. “I meant it when I said couldn’t stop thinking about stuff that’s happened.”
“Is this about you being Spider-Man?” MJ asks. The two boys gawk at her. Ned’s mouth is fully open. Peter looks dazed, like someone has struck him across the head with a bat. It’s satisfying, not that MJ would ever let them know that. “What?”
“You… know?” Peter manages in a choked voice.
“I’ve known for weeks,” MJ says. “You guys really aren’t subtle. Also: I steal Ned’s phone all the time to text you. I know how to scroll up. You guys need to learn how to be more discreet, or use some kind of code.”
Ned’s mouth opens and closes like a fish. Peter puts his hands in his lap. He wets his lips, and says, “Yeah, it’s about being Spider-Man. Stuff that’s happened when I was Spider-Man.”
“I saw what happened on the ferry, the one Iron Man had to help with a few months back? That looked real bad.”
“It was.” Peter swallows once, twice. “Bad, I mean.”
“And Liz’s nutcase dad, that was you?”
“And me,” Ned says. “I’m the guy in the chair.”
MJ scoffs. “Alright then, Wade.”
“The hacker guy from Kim Possible? Wade, the computer guy?” MJ turns away from Ned, and prods Peter in the stomach.“Okay, keep talking. Trauma time. Let’s go.”
“I don’t know where to start.”
“The worse place,” MJ says. “Start there.”
“Well,” Peter begins, “when I went after Toomes, that last time… that was bad.” He tells them the details, this time. He describes the taste of damp cement dust, the weight of rubble, unmoving on his back and legs, the echo of his pitched voice around the empty wreckage, swallowed up by the night, and the moment he knew no one was coming to dig him out.
He works through the worst parts, the moments dogging his heels. He talks about Toomes; about Ben; about the murky river that almost drowned him; about the crashing plane; about the feeling of a building folding in on him. He tells them about the claustrophobic anxiety that rises in his throat sometimes, without warning; about the way the fear sometimes doesn’t hit him until hours later, when the adrenaline is gone and footage of an incident is being replayed on the news, and his thoughts are a chorus of, I could’ve died, I could’ve died.
“Fuck,” MJ says when he’s finished.
“I wouldn’t be sleeping after any of that, either,” Ned says. His hand is around Peter’s wrist, wound there within minutes of Peter talking. Ned is shaking. Peter is, too.
“Supportive,” MJ says.
“What? You heard what he said. It’s insane.”
Peter laughs weakly. “Ned, I told you about most of it the first time around.
Ned wipes at his eyes. “You majorly censored it. You left out all the really awful parts. I’m mad at you for that, by the way. You tell the guy in the chair, so they can help you, like I’m helping right now.”
“I didn’t want to freak you out!”
While Peter and Ned argue, MJ slips out of bed and heads into the kitchen. She should be surprised to see May seated at the dining room table, but strangely, she isn’t. May Parker is a spectre in the nighttime darkness. She stares blankly off into space, unmoving, her face streaked with tears.
MJ pours two glasses of water, and places one down in front of May. “He’s okay, Mrs. Parker,” she says. When May looks up and sees her, she comes back to life. She wipes frantically at her face with the sleeves of her fleecy cardigan. MJ steps away so she’s not crowding her, like she might if May was Peter. “I won’t tell him you were listening.”
May picks up the water. When she smiles at MJ, she looks a little stronger, a little more solid. “I’m glad he has you and Ned.”
In the morning—after Peter falls asleep mid-conversation, after Ned had to whisper-shout at MJ not to draw a moustache on him, and the three of them have managed a few hours of sleep—they head into the kitchen for breakfast. It’s a Saturday. May, all trace of tears gone, sweeps Peter into a hug, and kisses his hairline until he squirms out of her grip, and complains about being embarrassed in front of his friends.
May cooks them pancakes. The teenagers pile onto the couch with their plates, and eat like they’ve been starved.
MJ tears off a piece of her peanut butter pancake, and points it at them. “Does this mean I can be the woman in the chair?”
Ned makes a sound like a dog that’s been stepped on. “But that’s my thing!”
“Sure,” Peter tells her.
“Oh, and by the way: here.” MJ shoves her phone at Peter. He holds it in his hand like its a fish, a little wondering at its presence, a little terrified that it’s going to squirm through his fingers and flop onto the floor. “Put your number in there. I don’t want to have to keep stealing Ned’s phone.” She chews on a mouthful of pancake, before she relents, “Put Ned’s in there, too.”
Peter makes two new contacts. He labels the first, bug boy. He calls the other, wade the computer guy, and hands the phone over to Ned to punch in his own number.
Later that morning, when Peter dons the suit for a slow morning patrol around Queens, he doesn’t have one person chattering in his ear; he has two.