When Peter used to have panic attacks, there was usually a pretty clear inciting incident. Nowadays they just sort of happen without warning.
He’s in class and everything is fine and then out of nowhere, his stupid tingle explodes across his senses like a five alarm fire. It’s like touching a live wire and his eyes whip around the room in the second before a thud rings out, Flash’s textbook hitting the floor. And even though that’s all it is, he still feels shivers wrack through his body, feels the electricity of the panic in his veins for the next twelve minutes of class.
He practically holds his breath until the end of the period and then bolts as soon as the bell rings, barely remembering to sling his bag over his shoulders. He sprints down the hall and his vision is swoopy and unfocused, so he can’t really make sense of where he’s going. The other rooms doors start to open and people start to pour out into the hallway as well, the sudden swell of body heat and unidentifiable figures coming at him making the walls close in even more. His heart is pounding and his senses are screaming at him so he abandons his mission of trying to find the bathroom and turns down the next quiet hall he finds, throwing himself into the first classroom.
The second the door closes he throws his backpack to the ground, it’s cloying weight not helping as the panic rises and rises and fills him up. His breaths echo a little and he paces fast, trying to just burn out the energy as fast as he can even as the pressure continues to build.
“Fuck,” he whimpers and tugs his sweater off too, throwing it toward his bag. For a moment only in his button down, he feels lighter, feels like he can start to breathe again. And the second the dark classroom starts to come into focus, he spots MJ sitting on the floor in the back corner of the room, cocooned in a blanket, face lit by her laptop in front of her. Like ice in his veins, he realizes her sharp gaze is right on him, eyes wide and contemplative and that’s as far as he gets before he unfreezes finally. “Sorry, wrong room.”
He speeds for the door, abandoning his sweater and backpack because god, he just needs to be out, needs to escape the burning deep humiliation as fast as possible.
Classes have changed. The hall outside remains quiet and empty, and his adrenaline plummets, so he lets his knees give out and sits against the cold linoleum, back pressing hard into the plaster wall behind him.
He breathes unsteadily, but he breathes and that’s enough for now.
All his attention gets focused to a single point on the other side of the hallway because squeezing his eyes shut just sends all sorts of unpleasant images flooding over him, MJ’s wide eyes notwithstanding.
He presses his palms flat onto the cool floor and ever so slowly feels his heartbeat slow.
A weight settles in next to him against the wall without him even noticing and he flinches. MJ’s still wrapped in a blanket and his mind gets caught up, trying to process where she could have possibly gotten it, and just like that, the buzzing in his brain starts to settle.
She rebalances her laptop against her knees and holds out one of her headphones to him.
For a second he can only bring himself to blink at her hand, trying to figure out if it’s a test or a trick before he gets over himself and takes it.
She tilts the screen towards him and hits the spacebar to play.
The voices are dull and slow, some kind of documentary, and it’s a balm over the other voices in his head, loud and overlapping.
He takes deep breaths and watches swirling images of the Earth from afar, and catches glimpses of MJ’s face in the screen in the brief moments of black to confirm that she’s not looking at him, she’s watching as well with her eyebrows drawn and her chin up.
It takes him far too long to fully come down, probably, and to actually start to hear the documentary.
“Wait,” he says, so shocked he forgets to filter himself. “He’s saying that the Earth is flat?”
MJ turns to look at him, and he’s still thoroughly bewildered so he turns to look back and they’re… well, they’re really looking at each other, huh?
“Yeah,” she says and tilts her head ever so slightly. “What? Are you saying the Earth isn’t flat, Peter?”
He blinks at her.
She blinks back.
“Um… the Earth isn’t flat.”
“How would you know?” she says, raising an eyebrow. She is thoroughly inscrutable and he suddenly and deeply wishes that scrutting was some kind of spider-power. “Have you seen the curvature from the Earth?”
He exhales a nervous laugh. “Well, yeah, actually,” he says before catching himself. “Um, I mean, in pictures and stuff. From satellites.”
MJ leans back. “Well, how do you know they haven’t been faked?”
He pauses for a second, studying her face, like maybe he’ll find a tell before she breaks. But she doesn’t break, just keeps staring back at him, face absolutely still.
He feels an inkling of the panic again, but not in a typhonning earth stopping kind of way, in a small funny kind of way because she has given him the choice to either say nothing or try to explain to her why the world isn’t flat and he really doesn’t know what to do.
He swallows hard. “Well, in physics we went over that whole thing about those two obelisks in Alexandria and, uh, that other city and they had different shadow lengths because, um…”
The corner of her mouth twitches and something in his brain perks up, tucking that away as an important piece of information, a tell, a precursor to a full chaotic grin spreading across her face.
“The Earth isn’t flat,” she says with half a wry smile.
And there’s something about the moment, the snap of tension, the look on her face, the poor quality of the narration audio as it continues to play, and he laughs, his chest light and relievingly empty.
“Right,” he says, nodding, stifling his chuckles behind his fist. “Yeah.”
“Yeah,” she echoes, squinting at him out of the corner of her eyes.
He joins her in watching again, as images of different flat maps flash across the screen. MJ shifts a little against the wall.
Her hair is down, he notices, spilling soft around her head and shoulders. But he can still see some calculations flash across her face in profile.
“I, uh,” she says, clearing her throat. “I think it’s interesting to see how people reason things out even when they’re, you know… wrong.”
Her throat bobs as she swallows and her eyes dart between the screen and him.
He nods quickly, leaning in a little to show that he’s absolutely paying attention.
“That’s, yeah, that’s really cool,” he says. Because it is. Because she is.
She shrugs, crossing her arms over her chest, pulling the blanket in a little tighter. He thinks maybe this is his turn to share, to confess something of his own, about the panic and the pressure in his chest and the way his nerves are so fried they never stop sensing something wrong, something catastrophic right around the corner.
But she doesn't ask, doesn’t seem to want an answer for the sorry state of him, or at the very least doesn’t seem to need one, so he doesn’t say anything, just watches to the end of the documentary and completely misses his Spanish class.
It comes down to two things, when she finally has time to think it all over. (Because there wasn’t a lot of time for really processing losing five years to a pseudo apocalypse when she was sharing a hotel room with Peter and his aunt for three days, trying to figure out where she was going to live even and wearing the cheapest T-shirts and leggings the nearest drugstore and eating meals from the vending machines with what little cash she and Ms. Parker had left in their wallets.)
Now, staying with her cousin Stephanie, sleeping on a futon in her home office, with a newly reinstated bank account and debit card, MJ decides that she will focus her trauma into two main problems and seek solutions accordingly.
One, she never really lived life. She was so deep in her own head, in another world, that she didn’t even notice her real world and real life start to slip away up on that rooftop. And that might have been it for her. She might have disappeared into the wind, never having really done anything, just consumed as many words about the world as she could but never bothered to see it all for herself, to find her own words for it.
Also sometimes now, in the After, if she spends too long in words and pages, she feels herself start to drift, thinks she might disappear all over again. So… she’s taking a break from reading. She’s watching objectionable documentaries that demand her full attention at all times and foreign films with subtitles to keep her from ever falling too deep into the images. She listens to podcasts and audiobooks, but only half pays attention to them. And that’s fine. That’s coping.
She’s also going places. Seeing the world.
She tacks up a little list on the wall (because Stephanie has promised the office is totally her room now and she can lock the door and decorate it however she wants and they’ll absolutely have a real bed in a few weeks.)
And she crosses experiences off, one by one. Rock Center, the Roosevelt Island Tram, a boat tour of downtown, even goddamn Times Square. She gives coffee a second chance, spends a few weeks trying every drink on the menu at her favorite cafe. Which is ultimately a mistake but she’s decided to allow herself to make mistakes now because mistakes are experiences and that is her currency nowadays, moments.
She’s doing pretty well with that much.
The second part is a little harder.
She was alone when she vanished. And nobody knew where she was and nobody knew what to say about her when she was gone. There were a lot of memorials, in New York in general and in school, people remembering those that disappeared. And MJ gets a clear sight into how she was remembered while she’s still alive.
Members of decathlon with a sentence or two about how she was an intimidating but passionate team leader, teachers who mentioned her sharp personality but nevertheless incredible intellect, all abstract terms and benign condolences. And ultimately, just the barebone facts of her, just another name on a long long list: Michelle Jones, 16, student.
See, before, it seemed like a game. Observe but never be observed, be aloof, be ambiguous, be an ultimately unknown entity.
It’s a mortifying ordeal to be known. So don’t be.
Only what that leaves her with now is the realization that she wasn’t known. That when she crumbled from the inside out, everything she was, every thought she had whether her grand theories about the very nature of the universe to her insignificant opinions about non-iced PopTarts were gone, just like that, in the wind with everything else.
She used to think that she was the safest place to hold herself, but now she can feel every day how fragile she is, how easy it is to disappear.
So, solution two for problem two, get a better, safer storage unit.
And well… it’s not like she doesn’t have one in mind.
School used to be neutral ground. Separate from Spider-Man, usually separate from his stresses and fears.
And now it’s not.
There’s a pretty clean divide in their class, once they start class again, between who was blipped and who wasn’t. He and Ned used to sit alone at lunch, with MJ occasionally, but now everyday, other people seem to clump in too, Betty and Flash and Julia from band and Trevor from the chess club.
He gets it. It works. Sometimes at lunch, surrounded by familiar faces, talking about things that happened earlier in their year, time seems continuous again, everything is the way it should be. He can pretend he doesn’t notice Abe and Cindy missing, act like he doesn't know this never would have happened a few months and five years ago. Things feel close to normal.
Just at lunch.
Classes have a weird energy to them. Professors will either know him well from the past two years or know everyone else better than him. Sometimes there’s new stuff, recent stuff he’s missing that half the class has and he doesn’t. History especially gets overwhelming quickly, to the point where he just starts to accept that fact that he will be in over his head for an hour during class and maybe want to throw up after.
There’s new members of the decathlon team. A new captain too, which makes him hurt not because something about MJ as captain felt so right and earned.
“I’m so sorry,” he says to her, because he feels like he has to say something. “That… that sucks. We should…”
And she just shrugs. “It’s alright,” she says, like she means it, eyes steady, grin soft and unbothered. “It’s just decathlon.”
She’s not wrong. It is just decathlon. And just history. And just another person in their grade he’s never met. And just another meme he doesn’t get. And just another thing that’s changed that throws him for a loop.
But it all feels like so much.
Ned seems to only see the positives, or wants him to see the positives at least.
“I thought I was going to have to wait two years to play Battle Monsters 3 and now it’s out and also super cheap,” he says.
And they do play Battle Monsters 3 and it is great. They watch dozens of movies, sequels and prequels and spinoffs, and carefully don’t talk about how half the characters were recast. They catch up on shows, watch series finale after series finale and pilots of half a dozen new things that everyone claims is the best show on television.
Ned takes the time to reinvent his wardrobe. May gets extremely into interior design once they finally have another apartment to decorate from scratch. They try a bunch of new restaurants in the area.
“Nothing wrong with a new start,” May said, rubbing his shoulders when he stood in the doorway of his new bedroom.
And she’s not wrong.
So he’s trying to make this new start into a good thing. He picks out different posters for his rooms, prints out pictures and tapes them above his desk, buys a new desk with a little shelf and a more comfortable chair than his old one, and a full size bed instead of a bunk bed.
But it’s all a little much. And it builds and it builds against his chest until one day in the library he has to look up a map of the subway and he kinda snaps.
“The Q train goes up Second Avenue now,” he says, way too loud and way too outraged.
MJ looks up from her notebook and gives him a slow solemn nod, eyes wide. Like she gets it, that this is a thing to be outraged by. Like she’s not going to offer something about how useful a second avenue subway is or how the W is running the old line so it’s not like there aren’t enough trains.
“I tried to take it to get home from Times Square and ended up on the Upper East Side,” she says instead, eyebrows furrowing together. “It was horrible. There were so many people in Aeropostale shirts.”
And something releases. Which hasn’t happened in a while. Usually when he gets worked up about these things they just build and eventually, he’ll be with Ned or May or at lunch and it’ll quiet again.
But something about the half disgusted look on MJ’s face doesn’t quiet anything. He smiles.
“Why were you in Times Square?” he asks.
She brushes her hair out of her face. “I’m one of those part time Spider-Man cosplayers.”
He chokes on his breath for a moment, but is able to cover quick with a laugh. She smiles, just a little, something in her eyes going bright before she turns her attention to her notebook again.
“I was people watching,” she corrects after a second. And this is a new thing too, the way she lets one of her jokes settle and follows it up with an actual response.
He nods, because he likes it, likes that he gets these little glimpses of her more and more. There’s nothing wrong with a new start.
“See anything interesting?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she says. “A whole fucking lot of Spider-Man cosplayers.”
He hides his laugh behind his hand because he’s pretty sure the librarian is about to put him on a hit list.
He feels looser, better. Glancing back at the map on his computer, he traces a line from the Upper East Side to Times Square.
“Also,” MJ says, half under her breath, still staring down at her work. “PopTarts taste better without icing.”
“Wait, so he died,” Peter asks her in a whisper. Technically they’re in decathlon practice but also technically she doesn’t care.
“Well, that’s the thing, no one knows,” she says. She doesn’t even bother to whisper. The new captain, Jess, is kinda scared of her, like she might start a coup or something. It’s not like she doesn’t have the favor of half the team, but she also would much rather just have carte blanc to fuck around in practice. “He just jumped off the plane.”
“With all the money?”
He leans back in his seat, eyes going all wide. “Wow.”
Peter is startlingly easy to impress, she’s discovered, but it still feels like a reward every time when he blinks quickly and nods slowly and grins at her like she’s said something incredible.
“Anyway, I tried to do a project on him in seventh grade,” she says. “But apparently he’s not a ‘historical figure’ which is bullshit because he is a figure and he existed in the past, but when I told Mrs. Applebaum that, she-”
“Hey, Peter!” Jess calls. “Can you hop in for a sec?”
He startles and she almost does too, because for a moment, sitting here in the back of the room, she almost forgot where they were, almost like she used to when reading but also not because she was still present, still her, and not alone.
“Uh, yeah,” Peter says, hopping to his feet. “Yeah, coming.” He flashes her an apologetic little smile before he goes jogging off towards the stage.
She watches him go, respectfully, even as he passes through a sunbeam from the window and for a moment is lit this warm golden that makes her breath catch.
There’s this thing in her chest with him lately, all the same disgusting fluttery feeling she’s been feeling with him since pretty much the moment she first saw him, but also this new building pressure. Something is happening here, something is coming, and she’s here for it, not reading it, not watching it, but in it, deep in it. There used to be a million reasons to hold herself back from something like this, from getting close or opening herself up. She used to think it would be a lot more terrifying, crumbling the walls within her, like pulling stitches or getting salt in a wound, leaving parts of herself exposed to the elements.
But she watches Peter take his seat and shoot her a little knowing smile before jumping into questions, and it feels like a tether, a knot, a rope that’s keeping her tied to the ground where she can’t drift off again.
So the problem starts here, of course, because she’s alone in the corner of the room again, watching from afar as the team runs drills. And she thinks maybe she should get closer, enough to hear better, enough to catch someone’s eye occasionally because right now she feels like she’s a non-entity and there’s no longer security in that, in not being seen. But Peter’s answering questions and Ned is writing out flashcards and Betty is reading from the textbook.
And she’s stuck here in the back of the room doing nothing, and here comes that feeling again, that she could disappear, that really there’s nothing inside her at all, that the forces holding her together, all the gravity and electromagnetism in her cells, could stop just like that.
She stands, to remind herself that she still has a body, but even as she does, she’s unnoticed, everyone is still busy and she is still alone.
It’s fine, she decides, and turns to push out of the room because what she really needs right now is to get to the bathroom and stare at herself in the mirror to reassure her that she is still really here.
Except she steps out into the empty hall and takes a deep breath, and then she can’t bring herself to go any further, just leans back against the wall and folds her arms over her chest, like that will keep everything perfectly in place.
This is fine. Everything is fine. She’s just fighting hard to keep her eyes from unfocusing, staring down a wall of flyers on the other side of the hall and taking one breath after another, feeling her lungs fill each time as proof that they’re still there. She presses her thumb to the inside of her wrist where her pulse thuds along.
Her head tips back, pressing into the hard wall behind her because it’s solid and real and stable.
She doesn’t have to confirm it’s Peter, just flips him off in greeting and continues to read along the posters. Bake Sale for the dance team on Thursday. Speech and Debate spring tryouts.
“Uh, are you alright?” Peter asks, stepping closer.
“Who’s to say?” she says, shrugging.
“Oh.” He leans against the wall next to her, adjusting a few times before he ends up crossing his arms too. “Uh… what’s wrong?”
And the urge is there, to brush it all off, to say some non sequitur, to be this perpetually unaffected unshakeable unfathomable kind of person. To keep it all inside, safe from any prying eyes. As much as she knows she trusts Peter, as much as she thinks she can safely store these little parts of her brain with him, it’s still such a task to get it out past the million layers of defense she’s built over a lifetime.
“You know the weirdest thing about literally dissolving?” she says instead, as nauseous as it makes her feel. “I keep waiting for it to happen again.”
She peeks at Peter out of the corner of her eyes, braces for whatever reaction comes now.
“Well, it’s not,” he says, brows furrowing. His hands move a little, like he wants to reach out but he holds himself back. She’s kinda grateful because the thought of Peter touching her right now is a dozen different types of overwhelming that she needs maybe three calendar weeks to think through. “It’s not going to happen again.”
And it’s not like she hasn’t properly conflated the whole Peter and Spider-Man thing, but for a moment, she really sees it. There’s something about the look in his eyes, something hardened there, determined and sturdy. This strangely enticing promise of safety. It’s not going to happen again, because Peter won’t let it.
And she believes that, believes in him.
Her shoulders slump a little, and she settles into the wall.
“You know what it felt like,” she says, already grinning. “It felt like when you eat like twenty bucks worth of Taco Bell and you can feel the residue on your soul.”
Peter blinks once before a smile so wide breaks across his face like the sun in the spring.
“What?” he asks through a startled exhale.
“Come on, Parker, you’ve never had three quesalupas in a row and felt your stomach literally try to dematerialize?” she asks, narrowing her eyes.
And she watches as he laughs so hard his shoulders shake, not a hint of Spider-Man in sight, just Peter Parker, and yeah, she’s not gonna disappear again right here, not with the sound of Peter’s laughter in the air.
It’s not going to happen again. And she’s not someone who can just walk out of the room and not be noticed anymore.
Her shoulder brushes Peter for a second, and she grounds herself against the warmth of it, the feeling of being this close to Peter, the surety of him here next to her.