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any universe with you can’t be the darkest timeline

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She gets about ten minutes of peace and quiet with her book and her thoughts before Peter finds her. He’s not supposed to be able to find her.


No one is. That’s the point of having fifteen different hiding spots on school grounds and thirty three other ones scattered around the city. She’s supposed to be able to make tactful and mysterious escapes, keep ‘em guessing, preserve her reputation.

Yet here he is, apologetic smile she can spot from miles away as he treks up to the top of the bleachers to meet her.

This is gonna be a problem. A very big, very terrible problem. Worse than she’s been predicting over the past ten minutes up here.

She doesn’t acknowledge him, returns to her book and shuts down her thoughts and focuses on concentrating her entire being towards telepathically telling Peter to fuck off. He sits down next to her anyway.

“Hey,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck all sheepishly. 

Dork. He’s such a dumb dork.

She does about fifty calculations in her head, playing through this conversation in all its iterations.

“Hey,” she replies begrudgingly, leaving her book open on her lap but looking up.

“So,” Peter says, a dumb dorky blush high on his cheek.

What do you know about me? She wants to scream, no, ask firmly and directly. What do you know? What secrets aren’t mine anymore? I need an itemized list, Parker, ASAP.

Instead, she says nothing. Because it’s easier and because maybe for the first time in history knowing would not be better.

“Look, I’m sorry about… that,” Peter says. “Like really sorry, extraordinarily sorry.”

He makes a move like he’s going to take her hand and then stops. She feels an emotion in her chest start to react but quickly shuts. that. shit. down.

“I’ve never once said this to a white guy before but you need to apologize less,” she says. It makes him smile for real and she looks back down at her book.

“I just feel really bad,” he says. “That that happened. Because I thought you were-“

“Yeah.” Someone else.

“And you would be okay with-“

“Yeah.” She was.

“But Ned explained that-“

“Yeah.” They’re not.

“So that’s why I-“

“Peter, I’m not sure if you know this about me but I’m like astoundingly good at reading context clues,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says, and she spots him grinning fondly. At her but not really at her, and then looking down at his hands.

“So I kinda pieced it all together,” she finishes. “And you don’t need to apologize.”

“Okay,” he says. “Okay. I just wanted to make sure. That you knew how colossally sorry I am anyway.”

“Cool,” she says. “Thanks for stopping by. You’re free to go.”

He nods but stays sitting for a moment.

“Hey Michelle?”

“What?”

“Do you-? Are we at least friends? Here, in this universe?” He asks, pulling in the hem of his shirt. Dumb dorky science shirt just tight enough to show off his goddamn un-dumb un-dorky biceps.

“Yes,” she says and shoves on his shoulder to get him to leave.

He looks like he wants to say something else, looks like he's pulled back her layers and is staring at her soul and wants to ask her the real questions, say the real things he came up here to say.

She’s off balance. Because for once he probably knows more about her than she knows about him. Can probably read her, can guess at all the questions in her head while she has no idea what’s he’s thinking right now.

All she knows is that his hands are almost vibrating in his lap because he wants to reach out and touch her.

Where? That’s her question. Where? Shoulder, arm, knee? Do you want to hug me? Do you want to kiss me again?

Instead, he stands up and smiles at her one last time before heading back down the way he came.

And she can try to stare at her page of alphabet soup all she wants, they both know she’s watching him until he’s out of sight.

***

Ned is understandably distressed when he gets back.

“How are you not dead?” He asks, amazed, awestruck. And Peter shrugs because he’s not entirely sure.

“Well I apologized a lot,” he offers.

“Good,” Ned says. “That’s good.”

“She just… well, she said it wasn’t my fault and that was it really,” he says.

“Wow. Wow. That’s crazy. This is all so…”
“Weird,” Peter offers. Terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible.

“Awesome,” Ned decides. “I mean, the fact that we made it this far without even noticing the differences.”

“Yeah,” he agrees, plastering a smile and trying to get half as enthused as Ned is right now because yeah, this is kinda amazing when he takes a step back from how terrible it is right now.

“Dude, are you okay?” Ned asks, catching on because apparently no matter the universe Ned is still the greatest friend he could ever ask for.

“Yeah, no I’m cool,” he says.

“Man, Peter, I’m sorry. I didn’t- that must really suck,” he says, frowning.

“I mean, it’s cool,” he says. “I’m fine. I…”

“So you and MJ were really-?”

“Yeah,” he says, tries not to slump his shoulders, tries to ignore the past tense.

“Wow,” Ned says. “That’s… of all the points of divergence.” Ned starts to rattle off other questions, trying to scope out the difference between their two tI Leone’s and Peter tries to fire back answers just as fast.

He does really have any other questions about this universe. None that he wants answers too anyway. None that Ned can answer.

Just why. Why is this the difference? Of all the things to be different, why does it have to be this?

***

Essentially she wakes up the day after the worst field trip ever- not because of the alien ship hovering over Manhattan, but because of the six hours of traffic trying to turn around on the bridge and go back to Queens- and her apartment is empty. Everyone is just gone. Even the cat.

She turns on the news and the world is on fire. She walks down to the street and everything is a mess, and there’s dust coating everything she touches and shop windows are smashed in and all the coffee shops are closed.

She goes back home, turns off the TV and opens her book.

Everything in the book is the same. Half the characters have not disappeared.

She reads.

And reads. And reads some more.

She makes some food, tries not to think about how she only has so much food and so much money, tries not to spiral and ration out everything she has left.

She stays calm. She stays put. And she waits.

And then the world fixed itself. Or rather the not-Avengers sanctioned by the government and the not-Avengers that are international war criminals and the not-Avengers from space do their avenging thing and fix the world, mess around with the timelines, smash some cosmic things together, probably do some irrevocable damage to the space-time continuum, and then her apartment isn’t empty anymore and the shop windows fix themselves and everything becomes calm.

Until…

So school opens up again and she slings her backpack over her shoulders and heads on over, deciding to make a game if she could accurately predict who had been vaporized just by looking.

She walks in and starts planning out first period and where she’ll sit to optimize reading time and minimize attention from the teacher.

And then Peter Parker- who definitely had something to do with all of this because when weird things appear, Peter Parker disappears- calls out to her and walks over to her and places his hands on her shoulders and kisses her.

(And she like 100% closes her eyes, kisses him back, almost pops her foot like she's Anne Hathaway, almost buries her fingers in his hair but her dumb thumbs are stuck in her backpack straps.)

And then Ned, who before this had never once disappointed her, grabs Peter’s arm and halts this interesting and not unpleasant turn of events.

“What are you doing?” Ned asks, eyes wide. Peter pulls back, releases her shoulders, and stares at him, looking all dumb and confused.

“What?” He asks, frowning. Ned is glancing between them very quickly and she stays very still.

“You were kissing Michelle,” Ned hisses like she isn’t standing right there, possessing average if not above average hearing.

“Yeah?” Peter asks and glances at her. “Sorry. I just figured being alive right now was a good reason to break our whole PDA rule.”

“Your what?” Ned asks.

Context clues. She absorbs them, shuffles them all together, creates the whole picture.

She turns sharply on her heel and walks away.

Peter and Ned are still talking, still getting there together. Which is fine. She needs the time to escape, get out, get some air before her brain explodes.

And look, she’s not gonna criticize all the not-Avengers on how they decide to save the universe but next time they do it by smashing two timelines together they should probably make sure they’re the same one.

***

He still doesn’t fully understand what the Avengers did, just that it involves a lot of time travel and makes his head hurt. He just really knows that he was dead and then he was not dead. So he was pretty grateful for the whole confusing time travel, timelines thing because it’s nice being not dead.

He just didn’t realize that it meant things were gonna be so different.

They’re not the only ones. Around school or around the world. People start getting into little arguments, remembering conversations different and both being right.

It’s mostly just little things, details that got smudged.

He and Ned work on the details, work their way backwards, pouring over their conversations to pick out the little shifts, and it’s fun. They write them all down, only finding around a dozen small dissonances. They track down the point of divergence. Last August 29th, a butterfly flapped its wings or didn’t and time went on in two different directions.

One where he has a beautiful, genius, wisecracking girlfriend and one where he has a beautiful, genius, wisecracking friend who won’t really look him in the eyes anymore.

Because things are weird now.

Because he knows too much and Michelle hates when people know more than her and more about her than she wants them to know.

It’s impossible to turn it off though, just pretend he can’t tell when she’s upset or when she's happy. And then pretend he doesn't want to do anything about it.

It's weird, trying to walk backward in their relationship. Having to continue on like they’ve only ever been friends and that they haven't hardcore made out and that he's not supposed to know what it's like to hold her hand all the time and he didn’t heavily considered telling her he loves her.

And by weird he means kinda devastating.

He thinks a lot about the last time he saw his Michelle (and he feels really bad and weird thinking of it that way too, that that Michelle was his or that this Michelle is somehow different when she really isn’t). He has this image of his girlfriend Michelle, sitting in the very back row of their school bus, glancing out the window at the alien spacecraft with mild annoyance. He thought about it then, kissing her, telling her he loves her even though she would have thought it was a ridiculous overuse of a cliche and highly unrealistic considering they were just high schoolers. But he thought about it anyway because he kinda sorta knew climbing out the window, things weren't gonna go great for him.

And they absolutely didn't, with the whole dying thing. But he just... He thought when he came back, when he hugged May in the threshold of their apartment and called Ned and put on his pajamas and went to bed that everything would be okay.

And it mostly was.

That was what really sucked. It mostly was okay. Indefinitely better than anything else, any other outcome.

***

He won't stop looking at her.

And it's not his fault. She is gorgeous and she is usually the most interesting thing in the room, though people aren't really supposed to notice that until she wants them to.

It's not his fault the universe got fucked with cosmically.

But she hates it. Hates how he makes her feel so off-balance. He knows things. About her. He's always looking and she just knows that he knows what she's thinking and it's the worse.

She wonders what the other Michelle was thinking, going around, spreading out all her secrets and tells to some stupid goofy kind-hearted boy like Peter. Other Michelle was an idiot. A lovestruck fool to forget her training like that.

Alternatively, Peter just picked it up. Her tells, her ticks. Everybody has something that gives them away. Even someone as mysterious as unfathomable as her. And Peter’s always been really smart when he's actually paying attention so if he hypothetically paid attention...

She can almost imagine it, almost imagined it before the world ended. Peter Parker. Her. Her and Peter Parker. What that would be like.

There's this thing in her that fiddles with the idea that there was a universe that exists when she and Peter Parker were... something. And she's kinda pissed that the not-Avengers would mess all that up. She kinda mourns it almost. This other her who was clearly living her best best life. and had it all shot to hell because her dumb boyfriend had to go save the world all wrong.

She feels kinda bad for that Michelle. And she feels kinda bad for this Peter.

He keeps reaching for her. Always stops himself, but always starts to reach, moves to sit down right next to her in classes and clubs and lunch. Moves to take her hand or brush her hair back or lean against her.

And he always catches himself and he always smiles just a little. And while she doesn't know all his tells (yet), she does know that his stupid puppy dog eyes are shit and covering anything up. And sure enough, he catches himself every time and in his eyes she can see his heart break just a little.

It's just not fair. And she really hates things that aren't fair.

***

He thought he was getting better at it. Keeping it together as days started to trickle by and the world started to pick itself back up and get back to a new normal.

He thought he was getting a little less obvious and then everyone, or at least she would forget, and things could get back to normal, some sort of normal. She said they were friends and he wants that too, because MJ is worth it, any bit of her is worth it. They just don't seem to act it and it's mostly his fault because he's still pretty obviously crushing on her.

Well, not exactly crushing, but there's not exactly a verb for missing your relationship with someone from a different timeline.

Either way, he's really obvious about it, even though he's trying super hard not to be.

Ned notices. All the time, shooting him worried glances everytime he and Michelle are even near each other. Always asking him if he's okay and patting him on the back.

He's pretty sure everyone in their weird circle of almost friends notices something is weird, but probably chalk it up to the weird timeline dissonance and don't ask because Michelle very clearly doesn't want to talk about it.

Because Michelle definitely notices.

She's good about not saying anything when he screws up, forgets for a second and leans a little too far into her space or stares at her a little too long.

He always apologizes and she always shrugs it off and then they're just there, uncomfortable and awkward but not in the fun way he's used to and not in the strictly platonic way she's used to.

He tries really hard to focus, reset their relationship to factory settings, remember what it was like to just be her friend and readjust. It's just a little hard sometimes.

"Sorry," he says, as self-deprecating as he can get without making it worse.

"Stop apologizing," she says, not smiling, not frowning, just squinting. But he can't.

He thinks maybe if he apologizes enough he can fix it and things can stop being weird and they can be friends again. And then maybe, after things get back to normal and everything starts to feel alright again, they’ll be back on track, heading towards... something, whatever they seems to be backing away from now.

***

She also likes to play with another idea. The idea that Peter Parker comes up to her in the middle of a school hallway and kisses her breathless, like a soldier coming home from war because that's pretty much what he is, and she kisses him back and Ned fucks off to Spanish and everything is beautiful and perfect. Peter is happy and not sad. She gets to make out with Peter Parker and whatever comes with that territory. Presumably good things. Just from her own educated observations.

But...

This Peter just looks at her and looks at her, like he actually sees her, like he lo-likes her. A lot.

And the other Peter (her Peter? the one from before the world ended), well, he hadn't really looked at her, not like that. Maybe he would have gotten there. It was definitely something she was priming him for, nudging him towards a little at a time. But he hadn't.

And then he died.

So even though there's this Peter, who is alive, who is basically her-the old Peter except for the obvious, who kissed her and who looks every day like he wants to do it again, and even though she really wants to let him, she can't.

Because it's cheating.

Because it's not fair and she hates things that aren't fair.

***

"So you guys were really together?" Ned asks, halfway through a sleepover, signaling the transition to the deeply personal and existential part of the night.

He nods because any other words on the subject take time, and get caught up in his throat on the way out.

"You know I had to tell Abe you guys weren't and he was really surprised," Ned continues. "He got snapped too. He's from your timeline."

"Really? That's cool," Peter says, makes a little note to maybe talk to Abe about it. He forgets he's not the only one sometimes, forgets that half the universe is from his timeline, mainly because the most important people in his life aren't. He also forgets a lot that the two timelines really weren't all that different.

"He said you guys were a total power couple," Ned offers.

Peter grins. They were kinda awesome. Really awesome. "I guess we were," he says.

"Crazy," Ned says. "I see it though."

"Really?" Ned had been kinda surprised when Peter called him told him about kissing Michelle around 16 minutes after it happened the first time. Though he had been high key freaking out at the time so maybe Ned was fine and he was just projecting.

"She's totally your type."

"What's that mean?"

"You like people who are smarter and cooler than you," Ned says, shrugging.

Peter scoffs and splutters and whacks Ned with his pillow.

"Tell me I'm wrong," Ned demands, shoving the pillow away.

Peter can't but that's beside the point.

"Kinda surprising Michelle would date you," Ned says.

"Dude!"

"Not like that. Just surprising that Michelle would date anyone really," he says.

He'll concede that much. Michelle is extraordinarily out of everybody's league.

"You still like her?" Ned asks, as inconspicuous as possible a few seconds later.

"Yeah," he says and can't help but let out a little sigh, stare at the ceiling.

Ned hits him with a pillow.

"You should tell her," he decides.

"Uh, I dunno if you remember what happened two weeks ago but I kinda did and it kinda didn't go well," he says.

"You should actually talk to her about it," Ned insists. "Peter, we know what's different about your timeline and hers. It's really just that three months ago you guys actually talked about your feelings. Everything else is the same."

"But what if it's not?" he says, pulling a pillow to his chest and holding on. "It's a lot of little things here and there. Like Betty dying her hair and Flash having a different car. So maybe in this universe, I never told Michelle how I felt, but maybe it's because she didn't feel anything."

"Or maybe you just chickened out," Ned says. "I think Michelle having a crush on you is not a little thing that just changes. It's not really a decision. Maybe it's just a fact, based on who you both are."

"Maybe," he says, like his heart isn't beating out his chest at the thought. "Maybe."

***

She never gets invited to parties but she's always there. To observe mostly, to compare to the countless recreations of the High School PartyTM in media, see what matches up. See what her classmates are like when drunk. Make sure the girls all get home safe.

She also likes snooping around people's houses.

Like tonight, just taking in baby pictures of Betty, imagining her in this kitchen and the dining room over there and the basement. Imagining the house without the crowding masses and making it a house where people live.

She's on her way to the den on the first floor when she nearly trips over Peter. He's sitting on the floor, leaning up against a wall, one knee pulled up to his chest and the other straight out in front of him. He's also kinda slanted. And holding a half-empty bottle of vodka.

His eyes go wide when he sees her and they get all bright and she absolutely can't just keep walking now.

"Hi," he says, glancing up at her. "MJ, hi."

"Peter," she replies and crosses her arms over her chest. He's smiling so much. "You look like you're having fun."

"I'm drunk," he announces proudly.

"Yep. Context clues, Parker," she says.

"Ned and I wanted to see," he explains and then honest to God hiccups. "If the, uh, powers-" he waves his hand around in the air, makes a little flicking motion with his wrist. "-if they, like, do anything to make me get not drunk."

"Powers?" she echoes, raising an eyebrow. Yeah, she definitely can't leave now because Peter will probably tell half this party that he's Spider-Man in the state he's in. She leans her shoulder against the wall, glances down at him.

"Oh," he says slowly. "Oh! You didn't know."

"I had my suspicions," she says. "But, verbal confirmation is nice."

Did she know? Other me?

Probably, but did he tell her? Was there a whole confession? She wants to know but she refuses to acknowledge... that.

Peter guesses anyway. "I didn't tell you," he said. "I was gonna. I'm pretty sure you knew anyway." He smiles again, laughs a little at whatever he's thinking. "Context clues."

"So where's Ned?" she asks, instead of trying to respond to the fond way he just keeps looking at her.

"Getting water, or a ride home, or a million gallons of coffee so May doesn't see me like this," he says. He pats the ground next to him. "Why are you so far away? Stop being so far away please."

And look, she's not dumb. She's actually really, really smart, but she takes a breath and slides down the wall anyway.

Because she likes floors and being close to the floor. It's a good atmosphere. Quieter, better for thinking.

Also super intimate apparently because suddenly she is very close to smiley warm Peter sitting on the floor, below the noise of the party and the sticky gross air.

"Hi," he says again, eyes still wide and smile still wider. He's not moving but she can still feel him reaching for her, with his stupid soul.

"What are you looking at?" she says, bumping her shoulder against his because alright, while she is in no way an idiot, she can sometimes make less than optimal decisions.

"I miss you," he says.

"Fuck," she says, under her breath. Because big mood, Parker. She misses him too, misses the weird banter they would exchange and the way they were figuring each other out, their relationship settling into something stable and kinda comfortable with a hint of what could be over time.

"Just hanging out mostly. Talking about things. We used to talk a lot about a lot of things," he says. "I miss the kissing stuff too though. I was starting to get good at it, you know. You're a really great kisser though."

She has so many questions because she's an inquisitive person by nature, loves knowing things about everybody and hates not knowing things and especially hates not knowing things about herself.

“What was it like?” She asks. Because in a way aren’t poor life choice the best life choices. And whatever, she’ll find a way to blame this on the alcohol even though she’s stone cold sober.

“Hmmm,” he says, blinking at her. He slumps towards her a little, warm and slow and something inside her is very warm and wants to reach back, because he’s still reaching out with his soul, meet him in the middle but she can’t because it’s like cheating and it’s not fair.

“Our first kiss,” she says while her brain shouts abort, abort, abort, abort, abort like that one scene in the first Incredibles. “What was it like? How’d you actually pull it off, loser?”

He laughs, a little exhale that’s unfairly sweet. “You did, actually.”

“Sure,” she says. “Sounds like me. Confronting emotions, being sappy.”

“No, it was very you,” he says, nodding close to a million times to emphasize the point. “We were in the library working on physics, and it was getting late. Like really late and everyone else was gone. Even the librarian because apparently you have a key to the library.”

“Gladys and I have an arrangement,” she says. The arrangement is Gladys is the fucking best and like recognizes like and she gets to stay in the library whenever she chooses.

Peter’s really gone in the memory, just keeps going, eyes unfocused like it’s playing out in front of him.

“So we pushed our chairs close together and we were kinda leaning on each other. We’re sharing your textbook in the middle, and just ploughing on through. And like you’ll fix something on my page and I’ll fix something on yours and somehow that gets us to the answer, and sometimes we would reach for the same pencil or turn the page at the same time and our hands would kinda brush and it was like… electricity. Or magic. Or both. And then you just finished a problem and boxed the answer and turned to me and said, ‘Well, Parker, are we doing this?’ And I said, ‘The homework?’ And you kissed me.”

Jesus, it sounds like a dream. Kissing Peter Parker over his dumb science homework surrounded by stacks of books. It’s like what she would imagine their first kiss as, if she were an optimist.

The worst thing is she remembers it. That day. Her version of it. Her shoulder pressed against Peter’s, absorbing that warmth of his. Warm skin, warm eyes, warm smile. All hers for the moment.

He leaned his chair back, balancing on the back two legs and she squinted at him and he toppled over. He yawned and stretched and she definitely saw a little peek of his stomach and Jesus H. Christ, abs, abs, abs. And there was a good part of her that really wanted him to settle his arm over her shoulders afterwards as cliched and sappy as it is. For comparison.

She even remembers the problem, finishing it, boxing it up and looking over at him and thinking maybe. Maybe soon.

Peter slumps a little more, leaning forward until his forehead rests against her shoulder. He closes his eyes and lets out a little sigh.

“Sorry,” she mutters, which by the way she’s never really said before, and definitely never meant before.

“And it was really nice too,” he mumbles. “Weird but still really nice for a first kiss. And after I said, ‘I really, really like you.’ And you said, ‘I don’t dislike you.’ And it was great.”

It sounds really great.

He sighs again, presses his forehead a little harder against her shoulder. She places hand on his head, twirls one of his stupid little curls around her finger and lets her head fall back against the wall.

Ned gives her a look when he finally gets back, one part ‘I leave you alone for five seconds’, one part ‘you good?’

And yeah, she is good. Mostly, right here on the floor where thoughts are quieter and Peter is leaning against her and breathing steadily.

But they can’t stay on the floor forever unfortunately.

So she gets up and helps Ned drag Peter over to their Uber and bats his hands away where they reach for her and watches him drive away.

She doesn’t go back to the party. Just stands outside, the small little sounds of suburbia circling around her, cars and crickets and cooling fall air.

***

Another day, another school bus. This time for Decathalon, a weekend tournament up in Albany.

He and Ned snag two rows around the middle of the bus and settling in like they usually do. He’s pretty excited too because it’s a three hour ride and Ned packed his old Gameboy so this weekend is gonna rock no matter what.

And then Michelle drops her bag in his lap and basically climbs over him, pushing him towards the aisle while she claims the window seat. His heart is racing and he knows everything he’s thinking is written all over his smile. He can’t really care though because it’s Michelle and she just doesn’t care about personal space and boundaries just goes and takes what she wants.

Ned gives him a look and he shrugs in response.

Things have been a little different. Better he thinks.

He knows they talked at Betty’s party, knows he was pretty sloshed the whole time. He doesn’t remember much of it just fuzzy bits of nonsense that he was saying and the way she stared at him, eyebrows scrunched together, like she was analyzing him, dissecting him and putting him back together.

But things are different now. Better.

She’s sitting next to him at least, her shoulder bumping into his when the bus jostles.

She pulls out her stacks of flash cards as the bus crosses the bridge. He kinda wants to take a picture of her. Just the way her hair looks, still super frizzy with bedhead, the light as the sun rises behind them, and the way she starts to flip through the flashcards with one hand, holding her tea in the other, the Hudson River out the window behind her and the city, sprawled out, just starting to wake up.

“Parker,” she says and he freezes because he’s totally staring at her. “I don’t know what kinda shit goes down in Albany but if you miss this comp I will murder you.”

Different. Things are better. Somehow.

“And I know you think I’m joking,” she says. “Because I usually joke about murder, but you would be wrong because I never joke about murder.”

He gives her a little salute. “You will not have to murder me,” he promises and then she stares at him just a beat too look, inscrutable look in her eyes.

She stands and whistles. “Alright losers, time to practice.”

***

Her eyes take a while adjusting to the dark beneath the blankets. Which is great, speaks to the quality and privacy of her blanket fort, assembled hastily yet thoroughly with duvets she carried down from her hotel room and two beach chairs placed on their sides.

What’s less great is Peter can probably see her clearly since his weird amalgamation of spider powers probably include night vision.

She only has a rough shape of him, his eyes mostly and some shadows she thinks is his hair.

For a while they just sit there, listening to the rest of their team splash around in the hotel pool.

“So is this a tradition now?” Peter asks, his voice a hushed whisper that would make her shiver if she was capable of that sort of thing.

“Liz is a genius,” she replies. “It boosts team moral and it’s free.”

“And the blanket fort?” He asks.

“It maintains my authority.” Her eyes are still adjusting but she can see his smile.

“Really?”

“I am the captain of our team, Peter. We have a competition tomorrow morning. I can’t just swim around and exchange memes. I remain a beacon of strength and focus for this team in the eleventh hour,” she says.

“And I’m here because?” he asks. He’s smiling a little too smugly.

“Well I need someone to monologue to,” she says, shrugging. He snorts. “You can go now.”

“I really like this fort though,” he says, pulling his knees up to his chest. “It’s very sturdy. Cozy.”

"I suppose there's room enough that you won't get in my way," she says. She can see most of his face now. There isn't that much room in here, not that they're on top of each other, but the only real comfortable way to sit was face to face. Which means there’s not much else to do but stare at him, and staring at him makes her brain travel down some paths she should be avoiding.

“Hey, can we talk?” he asks, his eyes meeting hers and then darting away. “I feel like we never really talked about what happened.”

Ah, talking, her old enemy.

“What happened?” she asks.

“You know… things have been weird since…”

“The world ended.”

He smiles tightly, rests his temple against his knee.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I guess the world kinda ended.”

She nods because what is there to say to that.

“Never really thought about it like that,” he says. “It just kinda felt like another adventure.”

“Felt like that on our end, too,” she says. His hand does that twitching thing again, like he’s about to grab her hand.

“And then the world ended,” he says. She nods.

And she’s endlessly curious, loves solving mysteries, hates not knowing things. So she says, “What was it like? On the other side of things?”

“You mean the, uh…”

“Disappearing,” she says, because it seems the most tactful.

He looks down, staring at his hands.

“I dunno, it was weird,” he says, shrugging. She looks down at his hands too, because they seem very interesting right now. “It just felt really weird. Wrong, all over. Like I was falling but my feet were on the ground. And like I couldn’t hold onto anything, everything was just… falling away. I couldn’t breathe but I think that was just me… I think I was maybe having a panic attack.”

“Well you were kinda dying,” she says.

“I guess. It was… scary. It was just a bone-deep wrong feeling. And then nothing.”

She sees a shiver work its way down his back.

“But it all worked out,” he says. “So…”

She reaches out and grabs his hands, traces his knuckles with his thumbs.

“Still really sucks,” she says. His hands are unfairly warm.

“Yeah. Ten out of ten would not recommend,” he breathes. And then they just sit there, staring at their hands.

And you know what, she realizes that Peter died. Like straight up died. And yet here he is, still warm and breathing right in front of her.

He cheated death. And maybe that’s not fair.

Maybe the end of the world just isn’t fair.

***

He's starting to understand why people hate teenagers.

Because they're being loud bouncing down the hotel hall back to their clump of rooms, carrying Chipotle bags and their first place medals and certificates. He can't make out a single word anyone is saying because five people are shouting at the same time and everyone is smiling and bumping into each other.

It's so loud and chaotic and happy and he feels it in his bones.

He's towards the back of the group, just watching everyone, taking it all in, coasting on the high. He almost doesn't realize Michelle is next to him.

Except of course he does because it's Michelle.

"That was amazing," he tells her, bouncing on the balls of his feet, smiling so wide it hurts his cheeks. "Holy shit. That was so great."

She nods, smiles back at him, a contented kind of thing.

There's this look that crosses over her, like she's placing the final piece of a puzzle in place and looking at the full picture. He's no stranger to this look, remembers it from homework and library time and their competition just three hours ago.

And then she grabs the collar of his jacket and kisses him.

It feels like the world is spinning faster than it was a second ago. His hands land on her waist and he tries to remember how to kiss her without looking like an idiot.

And it kinda feels like their first kiss, but also so much more, like coming home.

Somebody wolf-whistles. It's probably Ned. And yeah they're in the middle of a hotel hallway so they pull back just a little.

Michelle flips off all of their friends and bumps her nose against his and kisses him again. And again, and again, until he's kinda breathless and lightheaded.

"Get a room," Abe says.

"No, that's my room," Ned protests.

And yeah there's celebrations and Chipotle waiting so he steps back, rubs at the back of his neck until everyone stops looking at them and continues on down the hall.

Michelle follows along behind them and he follows her, pulled by the sheer gravitational force she has right now.

“You know you don’t…” he starts. “You don’t have to- like just because we were- I’m not expecting that- I didn’t…”

“You getting somewhere?” She ask, glancing over at him with a wry grin.

“I… I’m trying to, yeah,” he says.

“Well, I’ll make it easy for you, for the first and last time,” she says, reaching her foot out and kicking lightly at his ankle. “I don’t dislike you, Peter.”

Her hand closes around his, slips into his palm and laces their fingers together.

“Okay,” he says. “Cool. That’s very cool.”

He takes a breath and squeezes her hand.

“So…” she says.

“So?”

“What was our second kiss like?”