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The first time MJ sees Peter Parker is one of the worst moments of her life.

 

It’s freshman year and she’s fourteen and gangly and wearing a brown jacket that just about swallows her whole. She has firmly decided that being perceived is the most disgusting thing about an overall underwhelming existence and would really rather be reading in the alcove behind the main desk in the library instead of sitting on this uncomfortable stool in the basement waiting for the biology teacher to show up, but she hasn’t worked up the courage to do things like skip class to read just yet. 

 

And then Peter Parker walks into the room. Also gangly, with these thick rectangular glasses and his backpack over both his shoulders and his hair flopping over his forehead in these perfect soft waves. 

 

And that’s as far as she gets, face hot, heart pounding, before she snaps her eyes away, over to the wall on her right, like the poster there about the rain cycle is the most interesting thing in the world.

 

Something in her swooped. One glance at Peter Parker and the harsh fluorescent lights glowed soft and warm. The buzz of the central air system and different groups chatting harmonized sweetly. The quick ticking clock eating up the last few minutes before class seemed to slow as time bent around this little glowing golden moment. 

 

And oh... oh boy, she’s read about this. She knows where shit like this goes and she wants none of that, no thank you. She is cutting it off right here right now because stories are just that and reality always inevitably disappoints. She doesn’t believe in love in first sight or true love or people actually being as attractive as Peter Parker. 

 

She traces a water droplet from evaporation to a cloud and takes a deep breath. 

 

“Hi, uh, is anyone sitting here?” Peter says, right there, hovering awkwardly on his toes from the aisle. 

 

She gives the water droplet an apologetic look and faces him again. With certainty, because there’s no way he’s that attractive actually, not world stopping, light bending, slow motion attractive, because that’s not real. 

 

And yet…

 

His shoulders are tense and he has this awkward little grin on his face as he patiently waits for her response. He looks sweet and stands a respectful distance from the seat, and his eyes are this honeyed brown that practically she knows she must have seen before as an eye color but can’t remember because it certainly wasn’t like this, refracting light and... 

 

And there’s the swoop and her stomach kinda flutters and she starts to not mind how uncomfortable the stool is.

 

Damnit. 

 

Okay, it’s fine. She’s not gonna do something stupid like panic. 

 

“I dunno,” she says, calmly, collected. 

 

Peter swallows and blinks, eyes owlishly large behind his glasses. 

 

“Uh… you don’t know if someone’s sitting—“

 

“Well, it kinda depends if you’re going to sit down ever.” She presses her hands flat on the cool table, because she will not be getting clammy hands right now, why would she?

 

“Oh,” he says and slips his backpack off his shoulders. “Cool.” He sits, and she is painfully aware that the distance between their shoulders is probably six inches total and she could lean and maybe be a little closer. 

 

She wishes the stupid lab wasn’t in the basement because she would really like to fantasize about throwing herself out a window right now. 

 

“I’m Peter, by the way,” he says, turned on his stool to face her.

 

She nods, staring ahead at the blackboard. He keeps looking at her, she can feel him looking at her, the way it gets twisted up in her chest. She can only really sneak glances at him out of the corner of her eyes, to minimize exposure before the disease spreads. 

 

“Michelle,” she says, and presses her lips together tightly, subtly glancing up at the ceiling in case there is higher power up there responsible for this. 

 

“Are you a freshman?” Peter asks before wincing. “I mean, obviously, this is freshman biology, uh...” His arm comes up to rub at the back of his neck and she grinds her teeth together. 

 

“You have toothpaste on your sleeve,” she says, because she can’t just see here and stare at the spot of it on his wrist and think that it’s heartwarming and adorable because that’s ridiculous, it’s toothpaste, this is all so ridiculous. This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to her.

 

“Oh,” he says, and goes to rub it off, smiling awkwardly the whole time. He swipes at the spot and ends up with a splotch of toothpaste on his finger that he frowns at, eyes glancing around the space for something to wipe it off on. 

 

She wants to slam her head against the table, she really really wants to and think she might have actually gotten to it if the biology teacher didn’t walk into the room and call the class to attention. 

 

She had been planning on discreetly reading the copy of Parable of the Sower that she’s tucked in the center of her notebook, but now she feels all thrummy and weird and can only bring herself to stare at the head of the classroom and write down pretty much every word that the teacher says. 

 

Her eyes keep trying to sneak off, peek over at Peter Parker again, to keep double checking that he really is that beautiful and her brain didn’t just make it all up. 

 

He ends up delicately wiping the toothpaste back onto his sleeve with a guilty grimace and starts taking notes in a sloppy doctor’s scrawl. There’s a curl of hair that curves around the bottom of his ear and his eyelashes are a little pale when they fan out as he looks down at his notebook, and that’s… yeah, that’s as far as she’s going to go. 

 

She sits very still for the rest of class and does not catalogue every little motion she can pick up in periphery. 

 

*

 

The thing is there’s nothing she loves more than books. She reads like she’s starved for it and always has. Bodega receipts, any billboard she’s ever passed, entire libraries one ten-book-card-limit at a time. Textbooks and science fiction and political theory and romance. And romance books are books, and yes, she could launch into an entire treatise on how the devaluation of romance-centric literature is a direct result of women being the primary demographic, but that’s a topic for another day. 

 

It’s not that she doesn’t like romance. It’s just that… well, it’s in the fiction section for a reason. Unfathomable attractive men with soft tender hearts that fall in love with the protagonist and live happily ever after. That’s all fictional. And sure, okay, she’ll believe that romantic love is real, but it’s definitely not what it is in books. There’s no one perfect person for everyone because no single person is perfect, period. 

 

There’s no such thing as love at first sight, it’s just chemicals in the brain reacting to visual stimulant. That’s not love. 

 

If love is anything, it’s choosing to ignore any of the little things about someone else that annoy you. And that can be beautiful. Love as a choice. 

 

So she doesn’t trust this… this infatuation that’s all sparkly and golden. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and she’s read a lot of shitty books with pretty covers so…

 

So here’s her brilliant plan, right? Continue to watch Peter Parker, read him like a goddamn book. Find the annoying things, the bad things, the flaws that the stupid chemicals in her brain have missed. And then stop flushing every time she sees him. 

 

She gives it a week or two before she sees him pick his nose, or from an unflattering angle, or in an ugly shirt, and whatever this weird little blip is will pass, just a flash in the pan. 

 

#

 

Maybe that makes it seem very deliberate and reasonable. It is a little bit of a biased account. 

 

The other unbiased unflattering side of the story is that Peter Parker continues to be beautiful and her eyes catch on him in every room they share, decathlon and debate team and marching band and World History and multiple hallways a day. 

 

The way her finger will trip across a loose thread on her shirt sleeve and start tugging unconsciously, unraveling a line or two before she catches herself enough to stop. 

 

Peter Parker makes her unravel. Just a little. Just a line or two. 

 

She doesn’t trust it. 

 

*

 

“You set up this equation wrong,” she says, two months into freshman year during their biology lab, still waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

 

“Oh, oh right. Thanks,” he replies and nothing more, no argument, no condescension, none of the bullshit she gets from the other “genius” guys in trig. Her heart thuds and there’s a stupid smudge on his glasses that she can only see when they both lean in to share the lab notebook.

 

She has decided to accept in her own mind that yes, he’s beautiful and she thinks he’s beautiful and looking at him is like looking at a sunset, like no matter how many times you see one it’ll still bowl you over. 

 

But that’s fine. 

 

She’ll get out of this eventually. MJ is annoyed by most people. And fun fact, most people actually suck, which isn’t necessarily their fault, it’s just kinda a part of the human condition. And she has her own predisposition to not like most things, so inevitably pretty much everyone ends up giving her some reason or another to be annoyed. It’s just… it’s better to know that it’s coming, to not do something stupid like think that Peter will be different and be disappointed later on.

 

So she’ll keep watching and waiting. For Peter to throw his food waste in the trash can instead of the compost bin, or have a completely wrong interpretation on whatever book they’re reading in British Lit, or to wear a graphic t with something stupid Family Guy character or something. 

 

It’ll come, eventually.

 

“Wow, great work, you two,” their biology teacher says when they finish their lab and lab report fifteen minutes before anyone else. 

 

He’s not wrong. They do incredible work together. She is great with setting up equations and Peter churns through calculations in a way that’s genuinely impressive. It’s a sort of unspoken thing when they work that she handles the theoretical, the set up, the recording and organizing their data, and Peter handles the practical, getting the equipment, measuring out whatever chemicals they’re using, crunching the numbers.

 

They do great work and they do it fast. 

 

It’s really not helping her case against him. 

 

They end up getting out of the lab early, walking side by side down the hall to the only staircase out of the basement. There’s no way to not walk next to each other despite MJ’s attempts. 

Peter clears his throat, sneaking a glance at her.

 

“Uh, you’re really smart,” he says, just like that, out of the blue. Her heart gives a little thump, like those notifications that pop up on her laptop, “Hello, your In Love With Peter Parker application needs an update!”

 

Yeah? Great, remind me again in four hours. 

 

“For a girl?” she asks, squinting at him accusatorily. 

 

His face sort of freezes for a second, eyes widening. He blinks owlishly behind his glasses. “N-no! No, just like, in general, you know?”

 

She raises her eyebrows because he’s still kinda squirming and it’s very cute, goddamnit. 

 

Usually this is where she gets someone. People don’t like being put on edge or being made uncomfortable or to consider unfortunate implications about the state of the world and their role in it, and that’s usually where they hide the unsavoriness. 

 

But not Peter, he just always has the cutest panicked look in the world before apologizing or back tracking. 

 

“I… I just was gonna ask if you… Uh, Ned and I- Ned Leeds, he’s on decathlon with us- we’re gonna study for the trig test tomorrow after lunch, if you, uh, wanted to join.”

 

He accidentally scuffs the toe of his sneaker against the linoleum, the squeak echoing through the empty hall as he almost trips. 

 

There’s something wrong with him, she reminds herself. There’s gonna be something annoying or bad. Whatever this is, is simply too good to be the real thing. 

 

“I’ll consider it,” she says, reaching the stairs first. 

 

*

 

The answer comes towards the end of freshman year. 

 

Something changes. He ditches the glasses, he starts filling into his hoodies, he starts disappearing all the time, zoning out in class, missing extracurriculars, falling asleep in the library during frees. 

 

She feels particularly vindicated, not disappointed at all, because she knew it. She knew there would be something, and she likes being right about things more than she likes Peter Parker. 

 

And incidentally she does really like Peter Parker. 

 

But this will fix it. 

 

Eventually. Because the surprising thing is that she still doesn’t know what’s his deal, what’s wrong with him, what will inevitably cause her to stop feeling all fluttery and soft when he’s around. She just knows that it’s there.

 

So she’s in this interesting limbo. She keeps watching him, observing always, taking little mental notes, to try to piece together and figure out what exactly his deal is. It’s not enough to know there’s something suspicious there, she needs to know what it is. 

 

Knowledge is like a suit of armor she can pull around herself, even if it’s bad, even if it makes the world feel harsh and cruel, even if it disappoints her. Knowledge is power, and power isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s something better to have, just in case, than not have when you need it. 

 

So she observes. 

 

Also Peter Parker has a crush on Liz Allen, but that’s not what the issue is so she tucks it right away. 

 

And unfortunately, while she is anticipatorily waiting for the catch, she still has all these feelings. He always apologizes when he’s late to stuff, and has the worst excuses she’s ever heard, always wincing like he doesn’t even believe himself. (She once got a late pass from the front office after telling the secretary she was abducted by aliens and barely got a second glance, it’s literally all about the confidence.) And he does this thing in class when he’s about to fall asleep, where his chin dips up and down and his eyelashes flutter and it’s just A Lot, okay? 

 

Ultimately, it’s her own fault for not solving this puzzle faster, but the heart palpitations are getting to be a little much. 

 

*

 

“Are you good?” Cindy asks her once while they’re taking a break in decathlon. 

 

She starts a little but covers it by turning carefully to face her.

 

“In this economy?” she asks, raising her eyebrows. 

 

“I mean, about that.” Cindy gestures with her shoulder towards Peter and Liz on the other side of the room. He’s explaining why he was late and doing the thing where he shuffles guiltily on his feet and doesn’t make eye contact like he’s actually trying to be the most suspicious person in the room. 

 

“What?” 

 

“Don’t you have a crush on him?”

 

MJ very carefully rolls her eyes. “Well, just because he’s the most attractive person in our grade doesn’t mean every--” She has a whole little thing ready about how assumption of romantic interest based on non-verbal cues is deeply rooted in compulsory heterosexuality, but gets thrown off when Cindy snorts. “What?”

 

“Peter Parker is not the most attractive person in our grade,” she whispers, leaning in a little. 

MJ frowns, quickly turns to check in on Peter and make sure that, yes, he does still look Like That. 

 

“I just mean objectively, like by objective Eurocentric beauty standards…” she starts, but Cindy presses her lips together and shakes her head. 

 

Oh… oh, this is interesting. 

 

“Really?” she asks. 

 

“Nope,” she says. “I mean, Brenda Tanner had a crush on him end of freshman year but that’s about all I’ve ever heard.”

 

Fuck. 

 

“Oh,” she says. 

 

Cindy places a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Man, you’ve got it bad.”

 

And yes, apparently she does, because here she was operating under the assumption that Peter being time stoppingly attractive as objective fact, as unavoidable, and something being wrong as some definitive proof to counterbalance that. 

 

So this changes things. She’s just not sure how. 

 

And also she might have to kill Cindy, who apparently knows way, way too much. 

 

#

 

The cincher is Washington. She had a lot of theories and him being Spider-Man was one of them, an oddball just to account for any and all circumstances but she put a deliberate pin in it, since being a drug runner or serial killer would really sink this whole crush thing more definitively. 

 

But then Spider-Man shows up in Washington D.C. the one weekend Peter Parker is also there and goes missing for most of the day. 

 

Occam’s razor. It’s insane but Peter being Spider-Man is literally the simplest of possible explanations. 

 

She stares out the bus window gloomily for the whole ride back. 

 

Everyone else is pretty traumatised so no one calls her on it, thankfully. 

 

She likes Spider-Man. Not the way she liked Peter, but she just… she’s heard a lot of good stories and she thinks it’s really cool that he helps people, like actually helps people, and cares about the neighborhood and… 

 

This is not a bad thing. She was promised a bad thing. This is just another thing about Peter Parker that makes her want him more. 

 

She doesn’t want to. They’re in high school and he has a crush on Liz Allen and, and, and… she was not built for things like this, crushes and blushing and romantic fantasies and… And she wouldn’t be a good girlfriend anyway and he’d get tired of her whole aloof superiority thing and it’d be so messy and it would hurt because she would have been swayed by this image of him to think that it could be perfect when nothing is perfect ever. 

 

She can’t bring herself to sneak a peak at him, where he sleeps with his head against the window three rows ahead. She wishes she knew how to stop looking. 

 

*

 

She watches Peter Parker go running off at homecoming and she knows. There he goes, saving the day, and she’ll watch it tonight on the 11 o’clock news. 

 

Liz doesn’t, standing abandoned in the middle of the dance floor, looking frustrated and sad but mostly just confused. 

 

This is her moment of disappointment, of watching a facade crumble, of finding out someone was too good to be true. 

 

It wouldn’t be for me , MJ thinks. Because I know.

 

And then she feels extremely shitty for even thinking that, and goes over to Liz with a cup of punch and a plate of tepid hors d'oeuvres from the plastic table in the back of the room. Liz smiles weakly before taking a deep breath and moving a little to the music, seemingly shaking it off in a way MJ thinks she could never be strong enough to. 

 

“I should have known,” Liz says at one point, after snacks and dancing, while they’re standing in the girls bathroom while Betty changes her tampon. (This is the closest MJ has been to having friends, and it’s a little daunting all things considered.) “Honestly, there were just so many warning signs.”

 

“Honestly,” Betty calls from her stall. “He asked you out and then he flaked so I’m pretty sure this is his fault.”

 

There’s a beat of silence that goes on for a second too long and she realizes that she’s probably supposed to say something comforting now. 

 

“People are weird,” she says. She’s not sure where to look when she decides she doesn’t want to be looking at herself in the mirror so she switches quickly between her shoes and Liz’s. “And contradictory. And so… they’ll inevitably disappoint you because you just… find out they’re not who you think they are.” 

 

Liz lets out a groan, and MJ looks up, watching her nose wrinkle. 

 

“No, that’s the problem, right?” Liz says with a heavy sigh. “That sometimes, someone isn’t what you expect because they’re actually better.”

 

MJ raises her eyebrows. Highly highly skeptical. “Really?”

 

She nods, a look of something deeper and contemplative on her face. “Yeah… yeah, that’s love, right? When you find out more and more about a person, and every single thing makes you like them even more.”

 

Which, you know… sounds a lot like what’s been going on with her and Peter for the past two years. 

 

But she can’t goddamn think about that right now, standing in the bathroom with Liz Allen. 

 

So she does what she does best and shrugs aloofly. “Seems like bad odds,” she says. “I think I’ll pass on the whole love thing.”

 

Liz turns to her with such determination that MJ meets her halfway, standing there, facing each other head on. It’s maybe the first time in years she’s actually looked directly into someone’s eyes, she’s more of an observer without being observed kind of person.

 

“Love isn’t just romance,” she says. She grabs MJ’s hand like they’re making a pact. “Okay?”

 

“Uh, sure,” MJ says because she’s sort of lost the plot. 

 

“And for what it’s worth, I know more about you now than I did ten minutes ago and I like you more.” With that, Liz seems content, and lets go of her hand, turning to lean her back against the tile wall. 

 

MJ swallows hard, feeling something in her chest release. 

 

Feet away, the toilet flushes and Betty pushes out of the stall. 

 

“Uh… me too,” MJ says as they watch Betty wash her hands. “For what it’s worth.”

 

And see if this is what having friends is about, she thinks… maybe, just maybe… 

 

She gets home at 11:42 and watches the nightly news on her laptop recap Spider-Man’s fight at Coney Island. She watches shaky camera footage of an explosion and Spider-Man saving the man he’s fighting, and it’s like she’s standing in the bathroom again, coming to this grand revelation that she’s been cynical and scared and going about this wrong. 

 

Knowing more doesn’t mean knowing something bad. (And letting other people know her more doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll find something bad either.)

 

And then live on the feed the newscaster identifies the man with the metal wings as Adrien Toomes, and she shuts her laptop. 

 

*

 

She’s very good at theoretical things, not as good with practical applications. She likes thinking, likes abstracting things and asking the how’s and why’s, and having that information for herself, not to really go on and do things with that information. 

 

Theoretically, she is very close to Peter Parker. 

 

Practically… she has a long way to go. 

 

She starts small. Actually sitting at Ned and Peter’s lunch table. Actually talking to them. 

 

It’s a little hard sometimes, since she’s spent years burying herself in layers or irony, sarcasm, and postmodern absurdist humor to avoid ever having to do something as vulnerable as talk about herself and her interests. 

 

But if she has to figure out this whole terrible getting to know people thing, she thinks Ned and Peter are a particularly good starting point because they’re sweet and soft and they listen intently and are smart enough to have something interesting to say after. 

 

There’s also the simple pleasures, like making fun of them when they start debating something so nuancedly dorky, or reading her book during their dorky conversation to establish just how dorky the whole thing is. And of course there’s the extremely entertaining days when she can tell they’re trying to talk Spider-Man stuff but can’t because she’s right there. 

 

She has this whole new problem though, which is that being consistently physically closer to Peter Parker presents a whole different data set to add to her current dossier on him. There are new angles from which to observe, and… it changes things. 

 

This close she can see the stray tufts of hair that fall a little out of place, the dark circles under his eyes, the fading yellow bruises on his temple or under his chin, the way his hand shakes sometimes when he’s not doing anything with them, the tiny little jump he does when a bell rings or a door slams. 

 

The way they’re studying together for a precalc test worth a third of their grade and he gets half the problems wrong and his eyes get glassy and he starts breathing heavy and he scratches at a scab on the back of his hand so hard it starts to bleed. 

 

“Wait,” he says, rubbing the space between his eyes hard before leaning over her notebook again. His voice is reedy, shaky as his hands. “H-how did you get log base 3, because I thought we were supposed to…” And he doesn’t finish the question, just trails off, squeezing his eyes shut. “Sorry. I… sorry.” He drops his head to his arms on the table and his chest heaves. 

 

Something twists and tugs in her chest. 

 

“I haven’t slept in like three days and I’m gonna fail this class,” he mumbles, muffled and wet into the crook of his elbow. And this is a rare little moment of honesty, some part of him laid bare where he usually tries to cover himself in ‘fine’s and ‘don’t worry’s. 

 

And… it feels like the moment she’s been waiting for, the gold paint peeling off, the shiny pristine image of him rubbing away. Like she’s been looking at him for so long now but this is her actually seeing him for who he is, the cracks, the messy non-perfect core of him she’s been so obsessed with finding.

 

It doesn’t ruin anything. It doesn’t disappoint her. It kinda makes her want him more. 

 

If she was a little bolder, a little less completely out of her depth, she thinks she’d reach out, touch his hand or his shoulder because that’s a comforting thing she’s seen people do before. 

 

But she hasn’t been trained to do things like comfort, like help other people deal with their emotions when she still ends up tossing most of hers into the nearest trash can and setting it on fire whenever she’s given the chance. 

 

“In 1984 this seventeen year old, Randy Gardner, didn’t sleep for eleven straight days to break the world record,” she says quickly, pulling her sleeves into her palms. 

 

Peter gives one last little sniffle before sitting up again, glancing over at her with red rimmed eyes. His forehead wrinkles as he swallows and clears his throat. “Oh… really?”

 

She nods, becoming very interested in her fingers. “Yeah, he, like, started hallucinating on day five and also had all these memory problems and personality shifts, but it still didn’t really prove anything about why we even scientifically need sleep so…”

 

She shrugs, and Peter makes an attempt at a smile that’s so devastatingly earnest it almost takes her out right there. 

 

“But he was perfectly fine after a long night’s sleep,” she adds, tilting a little so she’s looking at him properly. And wow, she’s really looking at him, huh? All those flecks of colors in his irises that she’s never seen this close up before. “Um, maybe you could try that.”

 

He presses his lips together tightly, and nods, something like clarity setting over him. “Yeah… yeah, you’re right.”

 

And oh… he’s looking at her. He’s seeing her this close up the same way she’s seeing him and… disgusting, that’s disgusting. She would like to be incorporeal or imperceptible, either one, dealer’s choice, universe, but like right now. 

 

Beneath the library table his knee tips over and bumps into hers. And she can feel basically every nerve ending in her leg explode with sensation and decides that yes, she’ll be passing away now and yes, she’ll haunt this place for the next few decades but there’s a lot of haunting potential in libraries and--

 

“Thanks, MJ,” Peter says. 

 

And then she has to look away because she’s pretty sure she saw the copy of The Second Sex she’s been trying to track down for weeks on the shelf in front of them. 

 

“No problem,” she says, when it turns out not to be, and they go back to the problem set. 

 

*

 

So Peter Parker isn’t gold. He isn’t this perfect untouchably beautiful thing, universally beloved, objectively wonderful. 

 

But actually, she doesn’t even care about gold. Why should she? It’s not a practical resource, she doesn’t really like jewelry, and without the gold standard it’s also a pretty poor investment of money nowadays. 

 

She doesn’t have any use for gold or shiny perfect things. 

 

She likes weird rocks that are mishmashes of colors and edges and shapes. She likes liminal spaces and books that are well-worn from being read a lot and ring-stained coffee tables and unsolved mysteries and tea that’s a little too bitter.

 

Maybe that was it, the whole time. That she wasn’t trying to find something wrong to stop these feelings in their sappy tracks, but to find the weird messy things that make her like him more. 

 

And she does like him more like this, real and jumbly, always fumbling and catching up and trying so hard always. Missing decathlon and covering terribly, but apologizing always. The way the shadows under his eyes make them pop a little more. The clench in his jaw before he runs out of some class that means she’ll see Spider-Man victorious on the news that night. 

 

All the color splashed across a canvas, the little squeak in his laugh, the scar on his shoulder, the half-broken heart he wears on his sleeve, the slump to his shoulders from the weight of the world.

 

The things that look like bugs but are actually features. The jagged edges of the puzzle piece, not the smooth and glossy painting on the box cover. 

 

That’s the kind of Peter that makes the rest of it worth it, the sweaty palms and unsteady pulse, the feelings of it all, warm and vulnerable in her chest. There’s this bone-deep instinct in her, everytime he catches her looking at him, everytime she realizes it’s because he’s also looking at her, everything she catches him doing it first, that tells her to get the hell out of there, to avoid the feeling of it, that drop in her gut like falling. 

 

And yeah, if it was that picture perfect Peter from freshman year that was looking back and smiling that soft little grin, she thinks she would. Because too good to be true or not, that Peter is too boring, too clean, too perfect. If she tried to touch him she thinks he’d disappear right beneath her fingers. 

 

She’ll take the nauseating vulnerability of it all for this Peter. She’ll do something as embarrassingly transparent as sprint through the streets of London with a broken necklace in her back pocket for a Peter Parker who’s sweaty and dirt-smudged and singed. A Peter who’s solid when she slams into him, a Peter who’s chest shakes a little, who holds her a little too tight, who smells like blood and dirt and smoke, who’s voice is stuffy and strained. 

 

She’ll unravel herself just a little, she’ll take the odds of falling apart for this, for his red-rimmed eyes and a kiss that tastes a little like blood. 

 

She doesn’t like gold, wouldn’t really want some glass necklace of a symmetrically constructed flower, murder or not. It’s prettier like this, a little broken, a little less shiny.

 

*

 

The other shoe drops. 

 

A lot quicker than anticipated actually, and a lot different than she had speculated. 

 

Theoretically, she’s crafted intense theorems and abstract equations for how sustainable this romance thing is. The issues those equations functioned in were things like college decisions, her over-reliance on sarcasm over emotional vulnerability, his massive hero complex. 

 

Not him getting outed and framed for war crimes in the middle of the city after what is essentially their first date.

 

The crowd, surprisingly still and quiet for New York pedestrians, stare up hesitantly at Peter who seems a little frozen. If she tries hard enough she can picture the look on his face, as someone who takes a certain pleasure in trying to freak him out. 

 

Some of the crowd’s attention turns to her after a moment. Which is… unfortunate, all things considered.

 

She tries to discreetly take a step away, just to be safe and all that. 

 

Though all it really does is draw more attention to her. So she’s trying to figure out exactly how she can posture her way out of this one when her feet are suddenly no longer on the ground. 

 

She doesn’t have the brain power to scream by the time she processes the fact that she’s flinging through the air with only Peter and a piece of synthetic string keeping her from being a smudge in the middle of 34th street, because they’re already standing on a nearby roof blocks away. 

 

Peter peels off his mask and doubles over, breathing heavy like he’s just… well, she actually doesn’t have a gauge for what kind of physical activity is actually exhausting for him. 

 

He’s making a concerning squeaking noise though and she doesn’t let herself do the thing where she overthinks implications, just rests her hand against his shoulder. 

 

“Uh, I’m pretty sure breathing is one of those things you’re supposed to do in situations like this,” she says. “I think it’s a self-care thing.” On the bright side, he takes her hand and squeezes, which seems like the sort of thing someone who is trying to calm down would do. On the… other side, he’s holding her hand and apparently even with a spandex suit as a barrier it still makes her heart slam against her ribcage to the rhythm of a Carly Rae Jepsen song. 

 

“I’m so sorry,” is the first thing he says, when he stands up again, eyes comically wide. He runs his hands through his hair and it sticks up like wild, and she decides that she would like to do that too someday, but it’s the sort of thing she’s gonna put a pin in for now. “God, MJ, I’m so…” His chest is still heaving a little and his breath hitches. “I know that this, like, isn’t what you signed up for and… I get it if you want to…” He cuts himself off, lower lip wobbling, and he struggles through another deep breath. 

 

She raises her eyebrows. “Last I checked, I didn’t sign anything and even if I did, I’m a minor so it’s not legally binding.”

 

Peter swallows, his eyes darting across her face like she’s gonna disappear any second, like she’s not on a roof in the middle of midtown with no conceivable way down. 

 

“I just mean…” His hands come up to his forehead again, the panic settling in for round two. “This is so bad… this is gonna be so bad.”

 

“Hey,” she says, and steps towards him, reaching out and pulling his hands down, holding onto them just in case, not for any other reason. “Hypothetically, if I did sign anything, I signed up for all of it, so…”

 

He blinks at her, and shakes his head just a little. “MJ, you don’t--”

 

And it’s not like she can exactly explain that she’s been obsessed with him since freshman year and invested a lot of time into trying to sabotage her own feelings for him, only to end up hardening herself for a moment just like this-- well, not just like this, but kinda like this, theoretically like this. 

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” she says, instead, shrugging like that will make it less of a Thing, of a Statement. Like she doesn’t mean, there’s so very little you could do at this point that would change the way I feel . “So, uh, jot that down.”

 

Peter sniffles wetly, and oh, shit, he looks closer to tears now than he did before and she definitely doesn’t know what to do about that. “Thanks,” he croaks. 

 

He sways forward and she steps in again and they’re hugging. She hooks her chin over his shoulder and wraps her arms around his waist and holds on, not tight, but not naively. Nothing is perfect. 

 

But she’s not about to let just anything ruin this.