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where the spirit meets the bones

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MJ’s alone when it happens.

 

She decided to skip their grade-wide field trip to the MoMA since she has beef with two of the five tour guides who work Tuesday mornings, and is waiting for a London fog latte in the coffeeshop three blocks from her house when she gets the text. 

 

Hey MJ, its peter, it begins, like all his texts do even though they have a steady chat going back for a few months now. just noticed ur not on the bus, everything ok? 

 

Her face gets a little hot just staring down at the words on the little screen, and she almost throws up right there on the linoleum floor in front of her before promptly deciding to remove herself from society as thoroughly and promptly as possible.

 

She waits for the latte first though. 

 

There’s this nearby apartment building with a broken intercom that unlocks the door if you press two apartment numbers in quick succession that she discovered because she was bored last summer, with an incredible rooftop to access. She started leaving a blanket hidden in a plastic bag beneath the water tank to save time. 

 

She sets up in her favorite corner and takes a moment sipping her hot drink, contemplating the text now safe from being observed, Schrodinger's MJ, both crushing and not crushing on Peter Parker at the same time. 

 

First of all, she has to respond to the text because the last thing she needs is Spider-Man swinging down Broadway to come save her from her intentional personal day. 

 

Which isn’t a problem. She can reply to a text. She actually takes great pleasure in replying to questions like this specifically since she does consider herself a cryptid and what is a cryptid without some good lore. But here comes the first problem. 

 

She doesn’t want to reply to Peter’s text with a devastatingly hilarious reply no matter how enjoyable it would be. 

 

She wants to tell the truth. She wants to tell him that she got into a twenty minute argument with an NYU grad student working at the MoMA over which feminist readings of Frida Khalo’s paintings have more merits, and also she has a whole passive aggressive thing with Brenda, the shift manager because she once tried to impersonate a tour guide. (She had the script entirely memorized and the German family actually tipped her fifteen bucks so take that, Brenda.)

 

And the other thing, equally concerning, is that she doesn’t really want to text him about it either, she wants to like talk to him about it, and actually see the corners of his eyes crinkle when she does an impression of Brenda, bask in the semi-agast look when she tells him exactly where she told the grad student where he could stick his subpar artistic interpretations.

 

“Well, we’re really in it now,” she mutters to the pigeon that pokes at the edge of her blanket. 

Because she has this whole thing going on most of the time, she thinks it’s called the mortifying ordeal of being known, which has been the guiding principle for her interactions with others for so long now.

 

And it’s so frustrating that because of one group hug at nationals and a near death experience that she wasn’t even a part of, she was forced to admit that actually, wait a second, she did care about the losers she went to high school with, and she wanted to actually talk to them and sit at their lunch table and talk about stuff. 

 

And now she voluntarily wants to proffer detailed information about herself to Peter Parker, all because of a stupid text, a kind of text she’s never received before because she’s never let herself get close enough to someone else to have them actually notice when she isn’t there. 

 

She taps her fingers across the spine of the book she’s determined to finish today and glances down at her screen and the blinking cursor and the short but goddamn sweet text from Peter that’s making her have half an identity crisis.

 

Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop to look around once in a while you might miss it. She types it fast and stares down at it for a short eternity before exchanging another look with the pigeon. 

 

“I’m not obsessed with him,” she tells it. The pigeon seemingly startles itself and flies off in a sudden cacophony of feathers and air.

 

She sends the text. 

 

I love that movie! Peter shoots back almost immediately.  

 

We watched it together nerd .

 

And that’s enough, right? That’s enough to ensure that he won’t freak out or anything, not to presume that he’d freak out because she wasn’t there even if he noticed and cared enough to send a text.

 

Whatever, it’s enough. 

 

She briefly considers chucking her phone off the roof, but decides to just turn it to airplane mode before she cracks open her book and dives in. 

 

And yeah, she needed this, okay? A day for herself with fresh air and the sun and no other people around making her think about her philosophies about life and remaining unknowable. 

In between the pages she doesn’t exist and neither does Peter or the decathlon team or Brenda. There’s no decisions about what to say, no versions of herself to negotiate, no warm and sticky feelings for cute boys who notice when she’s not on the bus. There’s just words filling the spaces in her brain where those meandering trains of thoughts would go. 

 

She can pass a day like this, floating outside it all in the space between her brain and her eyes. 

 

And she almost has passed the day when it happens. 

 

The worst part, the thing that will haunt her for the rest of her life probably because isn’t that fun, is that she doesn’t notice it happening until she’s already gone. 

 

She just feels a little loose, feels a little more untethered than usual, and it feels nice, to really sink into it, the weightless spacy feeling of just reading, of being unknowable even to herself. 

 

But then it keeps growing, the spaciness, and then, like the feeling of falling when you’re about to drift off the sleep, the panic spikes through her and she looks down to find herself truly gone, half dust in the shape of herself and half already gusting away in the wind.

 

And then there’s nowhere for that panic to grow because she’s already gone. 

 

~

 

After it all ends, after the bittersweet victory settles over everyone and the people smarter and older and better than him start to move again, Peter sits on a bench in the middle of a wasteland and tries to stop crying. 

 

Captain America— “Steve, okay? Just Steve.” —sits next to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. 

 

Peter feels weird, feels like all his insides have been rearranged, and it could be literal or emotional at this point, and all he really wants to do is go home but he has no clue what has happened and doesn’t want to be the goddamn kid asking to go home when he had to fight so hard to be here in the first place. 

 

Steve squares his shoulder and turns to him. 

 

“Okay, I’m not going to dance around this thing, I’m just gonna lay it out for you,” he says, and pauses like he’s waiting for Peter to respond. 

 

He doesn’t know how to and doesn’t want to try to speak so he just nods. 

 

“It’s been five years,” Steve says, bluntly, eyebrows knitting together. “Half of everyone disappeared, five years past, and now you’re back.”

 

“What?” Peter croaks. And then winces, a little because his throat is so tight and a little because his voice is so embarrassingly wreaked. 

 

Steve’s eyes go somewhere distant and soft. “You lost five years, but it’s gonna be okay.”

 

Peter glances down at his hands like maybe he’ll find answers there. They’re still covered in dirt and scars, and he wants to take a shower so bad. 

 

“I’m… twenty?” 

 

“Um,” Steve says frowning. “No, I don’t think that’s how it works actually, uh…” He scratches the back of his head and then sighs. “I know it isn’t easy, to comprehend or to process. It doesn’t feel really, it probably won’t for a while because you didn’t feel it, right? One second you were here and the next you’re still here but everything else has shifted a million miles to the right. And it’ll be confusing and it’ll feel like a joke some days, or a dream. But no matter how much it feels like you’ve slipped, like there’s nothing holding you to the ground, it’ll be okay. You’ll find your roots again, I promise.”

 

The words wash over him like white noise. Well, not like white noise because he hears every single word, feels them press deeply and uncomfortably in his chest. 

 

Five years. 

 

Five years is unfathomable. It’s like an interview question, one of the ones he never knew how to answer. They always wanted to know about five years, where he wanted to be. And he practiced his answers with May beforehand so he always had something to say about science and academics, but without that he thinks he’d be stammering away. Five years always feels unreal, too far, too unknowable. 

 

It shouldn’t be something that just happens. It shouldn’t be something he can blink through. 

 

He stops crying, mostly because the implication of this isn’t something tinged with grief like everything else, it’s just this cold encroaching horror that makes his hands start shaking and his breath come in quick. 

 

Steve rubs a circle on his shoulder and nods sympathetically. “It’s going to be okay, trust me.”

 

Seventy years, Peter thinks with a sudden horrifying guilt. 

 

“Oh… oh no. I’m sorry,” he says, because that’s rude, right? To let five years knock him down so hard when Captain America lost seventy in an iceberg. He can’t get the rest of his apology out through his wheezing, which is new and great, so he just keeps stuttering through sorry’s while Captain America sits there, talking him through breathing exercises. 

 

“How about we get you home?” he offers once Peter has his head between his knees but can actually think again. 

 

A part of him wants to protest, wants to argue for his place here somehow, to prove that he’s not just a child who needs to get a ride home, but in all honesty he doesn’t have a license, he does need a ride home somehow and there’s a comfort in having an adult talk him what to do to next. 

 

“Is there, uh, someone we should call?” Steve asks. 

 

And Peter doesn’t have another panic attack but he does feel a cold settle over him again. 

 

“M-my aunt,” he says. “My aunt May, is s-s-she…?”

 

“I don’t know,” Steve says. “But I can sit here while you call and we can figure it out from there, alright?”

 

His hand shakes when he grabs his phone, and he thinks please, please, not May. Please she’s all I’ve had for so long and she’s all I have left and I miss her even though it’s been barely a day for me and I can’t stand it if for some reason something has happened and she’s not

 

The call rings for barely a second before the line picks up. 

 

“Peter,” May’s voice is clear and steady and the relief scrapes along the inside of his chest. “Peter, sweetie, is that you? What happened? Is everything alright?”

 

And then he starts crying again and Steve has to take the phone to work out logistics. 

 

It’s a bit of a blur after that until he gets to the hotel room that May has rented for the week since their apartment is long sold and she comes jogging out of the lobby to him. She hugs him, and he does have many tears left in him so he doesn’t cry just holds onto May the way he has been through years and years of moments like this, when their worlds had shaken apart. 

 

The implication of five years echoes in his head, losing Tony settles deep in his chest, but he’s here and May’s here and whatever else five years means, they’ve survived like this so far, they can keep going. 

 

~

 

MJ comes back to the rooftop with no blanket and no book. 

 

“What the fuck was that about?” she says, just for herself. She glances around the rooftop, and no blanket, no book, no pigeon anywhere. From the street below she hears noise explode, tires a-squealing and horns a-honking and shouts and screams and she looks first towards the skyline, searching out the giant beam of light or the huge fucking portal full of aliens or whatever it is this time. 

 

There’s nothing there, everything looks just the same… except… there are some buildings that weren’t there a second ago. 

 

Well, this should be fun. 

 

She turns in a little circle before remembering she doesn’t have anything up here anymore. So she heads to the rooftop access door and tugs on the handle. 

 

It’s locked. 

 

It definitely wasn’t locked before. 

 

She tries again, just in case it’s stuck somehow, but no, nope, it doesn’t budge, it isn’t stuck, it’s absolutely locked. 

 

“Hello!” she shouts into the thick metal. 

 

No response. 

 

She steps back and rubs at her forehead. This is an interesting one, for sure. 

 

Her phone is still on airplane mode so she turns it off and heads over to the browser to see what exactly is going on and what she should be doing about it. And then she almost goddamn drops her phone when it explodes with notifications. Texts and missed calls and emails and more texts and on and on. 

 

She feels a little weak in the knees, feels cold stretch out from her chest and into her fingers as she presses on into the first news app she spots. 

 

New York’s Memorial: What Life Looks Like Five Years After The Snap

 

Breaking: Billions Around the Globe Return After Unknown Avengers Action

 

So it turns out to not be a giant beam or aliens, but this. Half the population of the universe disappears, dead and gone, dust to dust and all that, and then five years later the Avengers figured out how to fix it and just like that everyone comes back, just where they left off, five years later. 

 

And the other thing is that five years ago she ditched school and never told anyone about it so for a while nobody knew if she was gone or not. She finds an article from five years ago buried deep in opinion pieces and other investigations asking if anyone has seen her, Michelle Jones, or has proof of her dusting to contact the Queens police or her parents directly. Another article from a year later announces the closing of her missing persons case, presumed dead or dusted.

 

She swallows hard and closes the browser. 

 

Texts and texts and texts. She scrolls through them. They list days in the future, her future, everyone else’s past. 

 

Towards the bottom she has one text conversation left from a day that looks familiar. Peter Parker. 

 

Right! are you okay tho? And then a few minutes later. Oh! Skip day I get it! Have fun :)

 

She tries the door one more time and then sits down on the roof again. No one in the world knows where she is and that used to be such a comfort. It’s been five years and no one in the world knew where she was. 

 

It sinks in her stomach like lead.

 

~

 

It takes him three hours in the hotel room with May before he works up the courage to call Ned. 

 

His hands shake the whole time and he paces so quickly he thinks he gives May whiplash as she watches him. The line rings and he has his heart in his throat, can’t bring himself to breathe when the call connects. 

 

“Ned?” he says when there’s a moment of silence. It feels like seconds have past since he slipped out that school bus window. 

 

“You sound like you're still fifteen?” Ned says. “Are you? Because I am and I’m really hoping that—“

 

“Yeah,” Peter says, nodding fast, feeling something unknot in his chest. “Yeah I am.”

 

“That’s really good,” Ned says. “Wow. Really good odds actually. I started doing the math and like mom and dad also got blipped and if it’s fifty fifty for each of us it’s like one eight for all three of us to have been blipped and you too makes it one sixteenth.”

 

Calm crashes over him like a wave. Ned's voice which is the same as it was all those hours ago and the numbers, the ease of a simple statistics problem makes everything feel the same, like nothing has changed, like time still exists as it should in a pocket right here. 

 

“One thirty second,” he says. “May got blipped too.”

 

“One thirty second,” Ned echoes. “I wonder who else—“ 

 

He cuts himself off and Peter swallows, makes a list in his head of others, of people who are a little less than family but that were still his in little ways, and—

 

MJ, he thinks with a sudden dawning horror. Can he be one sixty fourth kind of lucky? 

 

Can he stomach trying to call her, reaching out with the chance that he won’t reach the her he remembers, the her he was getting closer to, the her that he was starting to figure out, but some new MJ, some older different MJ that’s lived five years while he was nothing. 

 

“Have you, uh, heard from anyone at school?” he asks. 

 

And then, like fate or some other increasingly thinning odds, his phone buzzes with a call on the line flashing a picture he took a couple months and five years ago of MJ flipping off the camera. 

 

“Ned,” he squeaks. “Uh, give me a second.”

 

He’s not ready for this but he takes a breath and accepts the call. 

 

“MJ?” he asks, and feels like stepping into a free fall. 

 

“Hey, what up?” she says and she sounds exactly the same, which shouldn’t be a surprise, it hasn’t been a long time for him. “How’s your apocalypse been going?”

 

His knees go a little weak and he drops to sit on the edge of his bed in the hotel room. 

 

“A-are you--? What, uh, what are you…?”

 

“You know how you’re constantly late for decathlon and I’m super chill about because I’m really cool like that,” she says. Like everything is fine, Like she’s still just MJ, like nothing has changed. Making him believe that maybe she hasn’t changed, that maybe somehow he is lucky. 

 

“Yeah,” he says, cradling his phone closer to his ear. 

 

“Well, Parker, you will no longer be forever indebted to me because I’m gonna call in that favor.”

 

~

 

It’s not that she expected him to Spider-Man up to the roof since they haven’t had that whole conversation yet but at the same time she kinda did expect him to Spider-Man up to the roof instead of apparently sprinting up twelve flights of stairs. 

 

The heavy door slams open and great that’s one problem down. And Peter Parker spills out onto the roof, breathing hard and thoroughly fifteen, and awesome, there’s another pro for the column. 

 

“MJ,” he says, eyes wide when they land on her, hair windswept and voice a little breathless, very beautiful, quite literally a sight for sore eyes. And she’ll claim that as another pro because, well, the day has been, as the kids say, shit… though she wouldn’t know what the kids say anymore actually, that’s the whole problem, right?

 

The rest of the problem being that she’s been on this roof for six hours now after discovering neither of her parents live in the city nor with each other and also her grandpa and her cat died so…

 

“Did you bring the tea I asked for?” she asks even as Peter approaches alarmingly fast and sort of tackles her in a hug. 

 

It’s like a five alarm fire for a second with her brain screaming at her to retreat like a turtle into a shell, before she can cut that shit out. Peter is hugging her and it almost feels like everything is going to be okay. 

 

The whole time she’s been up here, in the fall cold because it’s fall now, not spring like it was five seconds ago, feeling the wind on her skin, placing calls and tugging at the roof door and debating climbing down the side of the building somehow, she’s felt off. Anytime she spent trying to read on her phone for too long, anytime the implications of all of this would send her down rabbit holes in her head, anytime she felt herself start to drift too much, it felt like she would vanish all over again. 

 

All alone up here, unobserved, intangible to the universe, she still felt half unmade, like she was still just dust, like she would drift away again. 

 

And turns out it’s very hard to feel that way when being hugged. Especially when being hugged by Peter Parker, who’s warm and whose breath is still loud in her ear from the running up to the roof, who’s arms stay respectfully on her waist, right around her center where she feels the most fragile. 

 

She settles into her skin again, into her bones, into her soul. 

 

“I’m so glad you’re— I mean I’m not because it sucks and I can’t imagine— oh man, sorry, I just—“ Peter gets out in between breaths. 

 

Just like that the hug ends but she still feels more like herself than she did five minutes ago. 

 

Peter stumbles a few steps back a few steps and gives her one of those classic Parker looks, all anxiety and stammered apologies. She cuts him off before he can really get going. 

 

“Should I make a joke about how you’re still as short as you were five years ago or is that too tacky?” she asks. 

 

He makes a little strangled noise of protest, his nose scrunching, the corners of his eyes crinkling. 

 

“Also I don’t see a tea,” she plows. “Did I tell you I had a tea and a book up here and somebody must’ve snatched them? Honestly you step away for one second.”

 

“May and I are staying at this hotel until we can find another apartment,” he says, awkwardly shoving his hands into his back pockets. “I talked to her and she said you should absolutely stay with us until you, uh, figure out what you’re going to do.”

 

Oh dammit. 

 

Okay, fine, a con of liking a superhero and calling said superhero to come help her, the hero complex of it all. 

 

“It’s fine,” she says, waving him off. She half opens her mouth to give her excuse before she realizes that actually she doesn’t know what she’s going to do right now, where she’s going to sleep tonight. She was so focused on getting off this roof and she’s just now realizing that the world down there is different than she left it, and there’s nowhere for her to go. 

 

“I’ll buy you a tea on the way,” Peter offers with a small sheepish smile. 

 

She rolls her eyes because it’s easier than coming to terms with all of this, this offer as the lifeline that it is, the reassurance of Peter right in front of her, just as she left him. “You had me at you’re buying.”

 

And she follows Peter back into the apartment building, back down until she has feet on the ground again.