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Paper Rings

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I like shiny things,

but I’d marry you with paper rings

uh huh, that’s right

darling, you’re the one I want

and I hate accidents,

Except when we went from friends to this…

 Peter Parker was five-and-a-half-years-old. And he was very bright.

 He knew this, not just because his Aunt May and Uncle Ben said so. He knew this because every adult said so. Mr. Delmar from the local bodega said so whenever Peter beat his old, rickety cash register at figuring out totals. Mrs. Costanza, his most favorite librarian, said so whenever Peter checked out a book that weighed almost as much as he did and only had a few pictures. Mr. Curtis, who played chess in the park, told him whenever Peter successfully carried out a tricky move without Uncle Ben’s help. Dr. Vasquez from Aunt May’s work said so whenever Peter managed to figure out the medical terms she gave him for fun. Ms. Alvarez, his kindergarten teacher and one of the  kindest women in the whole wide world, told him often, when he answered her questions correctly.

Peter Parker was indeed a very bright boy. Which is how he knew, at the tender age of five-and-a-half, that being bright wasn’t everything. Knowing how to add dollars and cents in his head didn’t make the teasing of the class bully, Eugene, go away. Being able to read chapter books didn’t give him someone a friend to share his sandwich halves – cut into little brontosauruses with Aunt May’s special sandwich cutters – like Betty and Liv did. Knowing how to use his queen to trap Mr. Curtis’s rook without risking her didn’t get him invited into playing rounds of Candyland during rainy-day recesses.  

Being bright didn’t give Peter a friend. And that was his biggest, most special and secret wish. And what was the point in being bright, if he couldn’t use it to fulfill the one wish he had in the whole universe?

This is what he always thought when he walked home every day from school, holding tightly to his uncle or aunt’s hand because he knew it was a very smart thing to do.  He never, of course, told any of the adults, except once. He had told Aunt May after the first week of school, when everyone had made friend groups but him, and she had seemed so sad that he pinky promised himself he would never mention it again. After all, it was not a very bright or a very nice thing, to make someone sad. And it wasn’t like Peter was excluded all the time or left out of all the games the other children played. Liz and  Betty were always perfectly willing to let him join their games of hopscotch and dolls. And Abe let him join in on his and Charles’ chats on what their favorite cartoon was.

 It was less exclusion and more that Peter didn’t really click with the other children. He didn’t really want to play family with dolls all the time when it was so much better to play Engineer with them and have Ken design the next best cellphone or make Barbie the next Iron Man – Iron Woman Aunt May always gently corrects - with her own super suits. He didn’t want to just talk about cartoons when reading about the misadventures of the poor Baudelaire children with Aunt May and Uncle Ben every night left him with so many questions. And although the other children sometimes tried to go with whatever Peter suggested, he knew it wasn’t as fun for them as it was for him. And it wasn’t fair for him to ask them to play how he wanted, when he was the only one dissatisfied.

No, Peter didn’t want to make Betty or any of the other nice kids feel like they had to play something he liked. He would much rather have a friend who wanted to play them because they also liked it. He wanted a friend like him, someone who also got excited about big books and science. Someone who might also have all the elements of the periodic table written on brightly colored construction paper tacked in the proper order on their bedroom wall. Someone who might also try to replicate the patterns of the sky on their ceiling with glow-in-the-dark-stars.

Someone like that as a friend was Peter’s deepest, most secret wish. And one bright spring day, the universe gave Peter his wish in the form of a new boy in his kindergarten class.

Ned Leeds was a chubby, dark-skinned boy with a bright grin and the most pretty brown eyes Peter had ever seen. He had moved to the city all the way from Hawaii – which was nearly four thousand and nine hundred miles away, which explained why it had taken so long for the Universe to answer Peter’s wish. His parents had been born even further away, in a country called the Philippines, and when Ned spoke to them, it was always in a lilting language Peter didn’t understand. It was very bright of the whole family, Peter knew, to speak two languages instead of just one.

Ned was the perfect answer to Peter’s wish. He was nice, always wearing a smile even on that first day when Eugene had rudely mocked his Iron Man backpack just because Eugene thought Captain America was so much better. But more importantly – because lots of the kids in Peter’s class were nice – Ned was like him. All the adults in Ned’s life called him bright too, and Peter knew they were right. Ned didn’t have the elements on his wall like Peter did, but he knew all the parts of a computer and how to put them back together after taking them apart. He didn’t have the constellations on his ceiling, but he knew what special meanings flowers had and the differences between a peony and a dahlia, which Peter thought was very impressive.

He liked playing Engineer with Peter more than he liked playing Family. He wasn’t reading A Series of Unfortunate Events because his family was currently reading  Harry Potter, but he listened when Peter talked about his favorite character – Violet, of course, because she invented the most marvelous things – and Peter listened when Ned talked about how similar she seemed to his own favorite, Hermione. And they both agreed that when they had finished their series – which wasn’t going to be for quite a while because Peter’s series had thirteen long books and Ned’s had seven really long ones -  they would read the other’s so they could really talk about them.

Peter was an intelligent five-and-a-half-year-old. But being bright wasn’t the most important thing in the world. Having a friend to share all his interests in, however, just might be.


 

Peter was an eight-and-a-half-year-old boy. And he was very energetic.

He knew this because everyone told him so. Aunt May often said it with exasperated fondness, whenever she was scolding him for running through the apartment or skidding down the hallway. Uncle Ben often said it with a sort of envy-filled tiredness, after Peter had run him ragged playing at the park. Mr. Delmar said it with appreciation whenever Peter helped chase down Murph, who often stole newly purchased items from bodega customers if he didn’t get enough attention.

Ms. Goldsmith, who had replaced Mrs. Constanza at the library, said it with consternation whenever Peter got a little too loud at the library. Mr. Curtis said it with amusement, whenever Peter jumped up and down or did a little victory dance when he won the chess game. Dr. Vasquez said it cheerfully, whenever Peter couldn’t sit still at his check-ups. And his third-grade teacher, Mr. Ramirez said it with concern, whenever he fidgeted too much in class.

But Peter didn’t just know because all the adults said it – adults say lots of things, some nice and some mean, about Peter and Aunt May and Uncle Ben had always been clear about not believing things just because an adult told him it. And besides, Peter was still a very bright boy, and he knew that sometimes adults didn’t tell the truth. He knew, for example, that the supposed Tooth Fairy was really just Aunt May slinking into his room late at night to take away his teeth and Santa Claus was just Uncle Ben with a sack of presents and a pillow stuffed under his shirt. Not that he told Aunt May or Uncle Ben that he knew they weren’t being truthful – he was pretty sure it would make them sad, and Peter very much liked watching them share their little secret smiles whenever one of these untruths came up.

No, Peter knew he was energetic because he could feel it. He was filled with restless energy constantly. An energy that made him tap his fingers against his desk in a rhythm very few others knew. An energy that made him dance around his room, singing the latest Disney songs at the top of his voice. An energy that had him spewing out chemistry facts faster than he could breath and that kept him staying up at night to read the latest science articles or the newest fantasy book with a flashlight in his hand and his Iron Man sheets pulled up over his head.

Peter knew some adults thought him being energetic was a problem. Ms. Goldsmith – who really didn’t hold a candle to the wonderfulness that was Mrs. Constanza and Peter was never going to get over her retirement – always muttered under her breath that Peter needed some proper discipline in the type of voice that would have had Aunt May furious if she knew. But Peter was a smart boy and he never told his aunt what was said. Mr. Ramirez, although he was much nicer about it, also thought it was something wrong. “Peter’s such a smart and nice boy, but he really needs to learn to sit still” was an oft repeated refrain on Peter’s progress reports and in parent-teacher meetings. It didn’t matter, really, what these adults thought, though. Because Aunt May and Uncle Ben didn’t seem to think it was a problem, and, perhaps more importantly, neither did Ned.

Ned, his very best friend of three years now, was also very energetic. All the adults said so, although Peter didn’t need them too. He could recognize the same restless energy radiating off his friend that Peter himself felt. He knew this every time Ned shook his foot to the same beat Peter tapped his fingers. He knew this whenever Ned was over, bouncing on his bed and singing all the counterparts to Peter’s favorite songs happily because they were his favorites too. He knew it when they reenacted all the best fighting scenes from Star Wars together, whacking each other with lightsabers and then dancing away and laughing when the other gave chase. He knew it when he listened to Ned spouted out computer facts without breathing. He knew it when Ned gave him a tired smile in the morning, a mirror to his own, and gushed about all the new things he had read about under the protected cover of his own Thor-and-Mjolnir sheets.

 He knew it when he and Ned did victory dances over newly completed Lego sets. Knew it when they gushed together over the Avengers without pausing to breath. Knew it when their attempts to build pillow forts together erupted into spirited pillow fights that lasted until they collapsed into giggling heaps, tangled up in the sheets that would have been walls. He knew it when Ned excitedly helped him mix random parts of Peter’s deluxe chemistry for kids set together just to see if they could make something explode. He knew it in the unapologetic sound of his voice when he promised Mrs. Leeds or Aunt May that he would calm down, which mirrored Peter’s own  tone exactly.

Peter was an energetic eight-and-a-half-year-old. Some people didn’t much like that, but it hardly mattered what they thought. Because his best friend was right up there with him and there was nothing wrong with having the energy to play with Ned.


 

Peter was fourteen years old. And he was determined.

He knew he was determined, not because anyone told him so but because he could feel it, a deep pulsating determination that lived on his body like a second skin. His uncle Ben was gone, shot in the very home he had made with Peter and Aunt May when Peter had been out goofing around, and the pain of his loss and the guilt of his inability to help had lit a fire underneath Peter that he had never felt before. He was determined to make a difference, to make sure no other woman would collapse into the blood-stained arms of an emergency room doctor the way his aunt had. To make sure no other boy would lie, numb, on his bed, as his best friend looked up how to tie ties because neither of them knew how but they both wanted to look their best for Ben’s funeral.

And Peter would be able to make a difference. Not just because Peter had powers now – real powers bestowed onto him by a really weird spider on an unforgettable school trip, not pretend like the ones he made up when he and Ned played Avengers as kids – but because he was determined. He would make a difference, he would save people, because he had the ability to. And if one had the ability to enact change, then they were obligated to do so. His uncle had taught him responsibility and Peter was determined to honor Ben’s teaching with every breath that left his body. With every child he saved from a speeding car, every cat from a too-tall tree, every woman or man from a mugger, he was determined to honor his uncle.

Peter was fourteen years old. His whole life had been rocked down to its core by an unforeseen tragedy. And he was determined to ensure that tragedies like that happened to no one else.


 

Peter was fifteen years old, and he was a bit stupid. He did not know he was stupid because other people said so – in fact, most everyone else said the exact opposite. Mr. Delmar, who still ran the bodega across the street, always waxed on about how intelligent Peter was. Mr. Curtis, who no longer played chess in the park because it was too cold for him even during the hot summer months, gushed at how smart Peter was whenever Peter stopped by the nursing home to play chess with him. Ms. Goldsmith mentioned it begrudgingly when she checked out copies of Mr. Stark or Dr. Banner’s works to him. May mentioned his intelligence every day before school, with proud fondness in her voice. His favorite teacher, Mr. Harrington, could go on tangents for hours on how Peter was one of the best students to ever grace his classroom.

No, most people in Peter’s life never called him stupid. But that didn’t matter, because most people in Peter’s life didn’t know that much about him. They didn’t know he could lift an overturned car with one hand and reach in to help the people inside it with the other. They didn’t know he could stop a careening truck from hitting bystanders without losing his breath. They didn’t know he could develop chemical webs with the tensile strength to hold back a freight train in a single AP chemistry period. They didn’t know that he could use those webs to get back a bag from a purse-snatcher with clear precision from fifty feet away.

 They didn’t know these things because they were secret. Or, rather, they were supposed to be secret. But Peter was a bit stupid and people kept finding out.

First had been Mr. Stark. And what a shock that had been, coming home with his arms full of old electronics he couldn’t wait to take apart with Ned and finding May entertaining Tony Stark in their small living room. Even more of a shock had been the fake internship Mr. Stark had come up with to get him through the door and the revelation that the man had figured out Peter’s secret without ever actually meeting the boy. And then of course, the visit to Germany and the brand-new suit Mr. Stark had constructed just for him, had been the biggest shocks of all.

Peter had been a bit stupid; not because Mr. Stark had figured out who he was – the man was a multi-billionaire genius superhero so of course he could figure out who the elusive Spider-Man actually was. No, Peter had been stupid because he hadn’t thought someone would figure him out. Not that he wasn’t grateful for everything Mr. Stark had done for him because he absolutely was -  the suit really was amazing – but the man’s appearance had made it clear to him that he would have to work harder to maintain his identity a secret. And he truly had – or at least thought he had.

But, since Peter was a bit stupid, all his careful attempts had gone out the window when he entered into his without thinking to look inside the room first. He had definitely been stupid when he had taken off his mask before turning and seeing Ned by his bed, staring at him while a lovingly constructed, beautiful Lego model of the Death Star fell from his open hands and shattered on the floor. What followed was even more proof of Peter’s stupidity – he tried to deny being Spider-Man while at the same time trying to remove the suit. Which resulted in him being dressed only in his boxers, far too close to Ned, when May knocked on his door to talk about dinner. That had made for some very uncomfortable conversations after Ned had made a hasty retreat back to his own apartment.

Peter was definitely a bit stupid and people kept finding out about his secret identity. It was going to be a problem, he knew, if he didn’t smarten up and figure out how to keep it an actual secret. But, while walking to school with Ned excitedly talking his ear off and asking a million questions on what it was like to be Spider-Man, Peter couldn’t really feel that Ned knowing, at least, was a problem. Ned was his best friend, after all. Even though Peter had forced himself to pull away on account of his Spider-Man excursions. He was the second most important person in Peter’s life after Aunt May, really. It was nice to have someone to talk to about all his Spider-Man stuff – leaving messages on Happy’s phone really didn’t count at all – and the fact that it was Ned – energetic, loving, smart, kind Ned – made it even  better.

Peter was fifteen years old, and a bit stupid. But he still had his best friend, so it didn’t really matter.


 

Peter was eighteen years old. And he was in love with his best friend.

Quite a few people had hinted at it to Peter, but he hadn’t realized it himself until quite recently. Mr. Delmar had hinted at it, with winking nods and knowing smirks, whenever Peter entered the store with Ned by his side. Aunt May hinted at it every time she asked the boys to keep the bedroom door open and each time she insisted that Ned would be more comfortable on the couch, as he was far too big now to share a bed with Peter during sleepovers. Ms. Goldsmith hinted at it with soft, knowing smiles every time the boys came into the library – the only smiles she ever gave Peter. Mr. Curtis, had he still been alive, probably would have come up with some chess scenario that hinted at Peter’s newfound emotions. Mr. Stark hinted often that he thought something was going on by asking Peter if he was seeing anyone with pointed looks every time Peter came up for his internship. His friend MJ had outright said it, in that deadpan way she had of revealing startling information, but he had dismissed it as ridiculous. He had dismissed or ignored all of it, actually. Which is why it had taken him far too long to realize the truth. That, and the fact that Peter was a bit stupid, which had already been determined, and hadn’t realized it was love he had felt for all the years he had known Ned.

He hadn’t realized it was love when Ned sharing a room with him during academic decathlon meets brought a blush to his cheeks. He hadn’t realized it was love that made him feel irritable all throughout junior year when Ned had dated a boy from a different school. He hadn’t realized it was love when his heart ached the summer between junior and senior year when Ned spent two months visiting his family in the Philippines and they could only text at odd times because of the whopping twelve-hour time difference. He hadn’t realized it was love when he turned down Betty Brant’s invitation to senior prom because he and Ned had already made plans to go together as friends. He hadn’t realized it was love that had pulled his heart strings when Ned accepted his spot at MIT and Peter decided to attend Columbia so that Spider-Man could stay in New York.

Peter hadn’t known it was love any of those times, but he definitely knew it now, as he stared at a very drunk Ned who had just confessed years of feelings alongside half his red solo cup while they were supposed to be celebrating their graduation. It made sense – more than anything in his life had before this – and Peter would absolutely be mocking himself for being so blind later on, but the present held no time for introspection. Ned was stepping back from Peter, a look of acute horror showing through his drunken stupor and Peter had to do something to wipe that look off his best friend’s face.

Peter wasn’t sure if it was the stale beer running through his system, the euphoria of finally, finally understanding what had felt off about his friendship with Ned recently, or a mixture of both – but something compelled him to reach out and pull Ned back close to him. Compelled him to lean down and close the distance between them completely.

Peter was eighteen years old; he was in love. He was kissing his best friend. More importantly, his best friend was kissing him back.

And it was wonderful.


 

Peter was twenty-five-and-a-half years old. And he was running very, very late to a very important date.

That’s what Mr. Delmar leaned out of his shop door to yell, his voice still strong despite his grayed hair and the cane in his hand. It’s what the voice in the back of his mind hissed, sounding suspiciously like Ms. Goldsmith despite it being years since he’d heard her last scold him for a late book. It’s what the half a dozen texts from his aunt would have told him, if Peter could take the time to stop sprinting down the street and open them. It’s what Mr. Stark was whispering to Mrs. Potts, holding a squirming six-year-old Morgan Stark in his lap, although Peter could hardly have heard that, even with his superhero hearing.  

But Peter didn’t need anyone to tell him he was running late. He very much knew it himself as he ran down the streets of Queens. Briefly, he wished he was wearing the Spider-Man suit underneath the tuxedo Aunt May had insisted he looked absolutely wonderful in – it would have been so much quicker to swing himself around the streets than it was to skirt around people and cars. But he had promised both Ned and himself that today of all days would have absolutely no Spider-Manning and he’d given his suit to Mrs. Potts herself to help him keep his vow.

It didn’t matter as he finally neared the Queens Botanical Garden. He slowed from his near sprint to a brisk walk, running a hand through his hair in an attempt to calm down the wild curls. He wished he had put some gel or hair spray in, to keep them calm during his sprint, but Ned had always loved Peter’s hair without anything in it. Now they were both going to have to deal with the fallout of that.

He knew he how he must look, walking swiftly through the Botanical Gardens in a full tuxedo, but he was born and raised Queens and knew how to push past curious stares. Still, even without running, he made it to the proper garden space in hardly any time and was greeted by a very harried looking woman. Her name was Tiffany Brouder, a planner who came with the venue, and she didn’t like Peter at all. Considering he was often late to appointments with her, he couldn’t much blame her.

She whispered furiously at him to hurry up and pushed him through the arched walkway that led to the main area. Peter could see friends and family, already seated, all turn to see him as he walked closer. There was May seated up front next to Althaea and Will Leeds, all of whom were smiling with exasperated fondness. May looked like she was about to cry through her smile and Peter watched as Happy, seated next to her, wrapped one of her hands in his as Peter continued walking up to the central arch in the center of the garden. Mr. Stark and Mrs. Potts were also in the front row, Morgan jumping down from Mr. Stark’s lap to run about the front of the aisle to throw handfuls of bright yellow sunflower and baby pink peony petals all around. She was supposed to have done that earlier, but they must have forced her to wait for him.

There were others all around, of course – extended family members for Ned, old high school and college friends. A couple Avengers and other heroes Peter had met during his nightly activities – he could see Matt Murdock keeping a strong hand on Wade Wilson’s shoulder to keep him from jumping up in excitement now that Peter was finally here and he could have sworn he saw Natasha Romanov discretely hand over a handkerchief to Dr. Banner from the corner of his eye.

But none of that mattered, really, the moment Peter caught sight of Ned looking absolutely stunning in a white tuxedo waiting for him under the arch. Peter had expected him to be mad – who was late for something like this for God’s sake? – but Ned was positively beaming as he took sight of Peter. Peter couldn’t help himself, he broke into a run halfway down the aisle. It sparked quite a bit of laughter from the crowd but he hardly cared. Ned was waiting for him and nothing else in the world mattered.

MJ – who had agreed to being their officiant as well as both of their best woman – scoffed lightly as Peter jumped up the small set of steps that separated him from Ned but Peter could tell she was hiding a smile behind it. Peter and Ned’s groomspeople – a six-person mixture of friends from college – were all openly grinning and he heard at least one of the women mutter something that sounded suspiciously like “about time” but he ignored it. All that mattered right now was Ned smiling up at him as Peter grabbed onto both of his hands. The run hadn’t really winded him – he was used to much more strenuous exercise and he hadn’t even been able to run at his full speed anyway – but Ned’s bright smile was enough to knock Peter’s breath away. It always had been and Peter hoped it always would be.

“You’re so late.” Ned stage-whispered, still smiling. His words got a few more chuckles from the groomspeople and those close enough to hear his words.

“I’m so sorry! I forgot to pick up the rings!” Peter admitted. That prompted quite a few laughs and a rather loud “Jesus Christ, kid!” that couldn’t have come from anyone but Mr. Stark.

Their laughter didn’t matter, though, because Ned was still smiling at him. “Darling,” he intoned fondly, his voice and the pet-name sending pleasant shivers down Peter’s back. “We didn’t need the rings – I’d marry you with paper ones.” His words brought another round of laughter from the crowd and Peter couldn’t help but laugh as well, pulling Ned close to him as the other man joined in.

Peter was twenty-five-and-a-half years old. And he was ecstatic because twenty years to the day that he’d met his best friend in a brightly lit kindergarten class, he was marrying him.

There was truly no feeling more wonderful in the world.