MJ has a plan.
Apparently she needs one because Peter comes up to her after lunch on a Wednesday with his small smile and that light blue sweater that makes his eyes pop and hands her a ticket stub.
“There’s this independent film festival that’s happening in Astoria this weekend,” he says before she even asks, bouncing a little on his toes. “And they’re screening this documentary about those MK Ultra experiments they did in the Cold War and it, uh, seemed like something you’d be interested in so...”
There’s this warm tingling feeling that starts in her chest and spreads all the way to her fingertips. Peter’s smile is wide and earnest, his excitement this soft palpable thing that fills the air between them until she’s breathing it in too.
The little printed piece of paper feels fragile between her fingers but it’s still tangible, right there, this physical thing of it.
It is something she’s interested in.
And he just… knew that. Because he knows her.
It’s not what she thought it would feel like. It’s so much better, it’s not mortifying, it’s just… wonderful.
She folds the ticket into her palm before she can build up the courage to look at him again, schooling her expression into something that’s not as horribly love struck as she feels.
He smiles hopefully, his eyes like a question.
“This, uh…” She swallows hard. “Thanks. It sounds… really cool.”
He nods eagerly. “Yeah? I mean, awesome. Uh, it’s next Saturday at two and uh, well the ticket has the address.”
Oh this might just be more than just the sudden overwhelming realization that love is being known and that she wants to feel it over and over again forever. This might be him saying something or asking something and the answer is yes, period, if she can just compose herself and get the words out.
“Do you wanna meet for lunch beforehand or…?”
And Peter’s eyes go suddenly wide. “Oh… I should have bought myself a ticket too.”
Her eyebrows furrow together. “You… you didn’t buy yourself a ticket.”
“Uh, no,” he says, stepping back. “But I will because… yeah, uh, I’ll go do that now.”
He walks right into an open locker before he finally decides to turn around and hurry down the hall and she doesn’t even laugh and that basically means she’s in love with him. So she has to do something about this.
Therefore a plan.
She comes up with it in the back of the tiny theater in Astoria showing the documentary because while Peter does manage to buy himself a ticket, he also ends up texting her fifteen minutes before the showing to bow out under the pretense of having a sudden intense bout of stomach flu. Sitting by herself in the theater, she starts to feel a little floaty, and in the dark it’s hard to confirm that she still has a body that’s whole and sturdy. So she grips the arm rest next to her and shovels popcorn into her mouth and tries to ground herself by systematically building out a plan for what she’s going to do about Peter.
For one, she is not balking in the face of this thing.
Yes, she’s been nursing a very mature and well maintained crush on Peter since early freshman year, and has been having a pretty good time keeping it in her back pocket, thinking about him in nice and vague terms without any presumptions of more. And yes, maybe last year she would have liked to keep it that way to keep a careful control of the situation.
But that was before. She is no longer contented to sit on the sidelines or spend ages trying to find the right words and the right reasonings for things (and she has already spent so very long portioning out the exact words to explain all the million things she thinks and feels for Peter). She’s going to do something about it, and she’s going to do it right.
She’s never done something like this before. But she likes Peter too much in an unromantic way to risk doing it sloppily and potentially ruining the comfortable warmth they’ve created between them.
So she starts not with the sort of plan that has clearly outlined and definitive steps because she doesn’t trust those. Her plan is more like a floor plan, like a blueprint. With measurements and angles and artistic design. Something foundational.
She wants to make Peter feel the way he makes her feel on a pretty much daily basis now. Settled into herself and grounded and known.
And that’s a good enough place to start. Because she knows him, has been studying him for years now, can list off every single thing she likes about him in qualitative order, chronological order, alphabetical order.
It shouldn’t be too hard to show her work.
Peter knows it’s a problem but he’s trying to handle it.
He knows it’s a problem because he comes in the window after a long patrol and collapses promptly still in the suit right on top of his bed and sleeps so solidly with something like calm settling into his bones. He wakes up naturally to the soft sunlight in through his window and smiles to himself and realizes he has MJ’s name on the tip of his tongue.
There was a dream, he contemplates in horror. He can’t remember all the specifics of it but whatever it was it made him feel so fuzzy and relaxed and there was absolutely no mistaking the fact that he woke up thinking about her, rolling over with his arm extended like he was searching for something ( her ), curling his shoulders in because the bed suddenly felt so big like there was something missing from it ( her ).
It’s like a flip that switches so suddenly and all his brain can process is MJ, MJ, MJ. Like it was all right there deep within his brain and then something sparked it overnight and now he’s on fire.
He’s in class and his head swims with thoughts of her, how her hair is falling today, what book she’s carrying, what brilliant thing she’ll say that will make him smile or make him think or make him like her ever more than he already does which feels increasingly impossible.
He’s at lunch with her and every molecule in his body wants to lean closer to her, wants to drop his hand to hers on the table, wants to tap his shoe against hers, wants to catch her eye and watch her give her little smile and stare until he can figure out how to breathe again.
It takes this maximum effort every night when he’s laying in bed to not think of her, to not reach for his phone and text her or stare at her phone number like hell actually work up the courage to call her, like he actually has anything to say. And every time he’s closing his eyes he’s already picturing her in his mind's eye.
He feels trapped with all these romantic notions, these feelings and dreams and hopes, and not the faintest idea of what to actually do about them.
“Don’t do anything,” Ned offers when he brings it up. “Peter, remember Liz? That was a disaster.”
“Yeah, I know but… I think it probably won’t be as bad as that,” he says. “For one, MJ’s parents don’t live in the city anymore and her cousin works for a childhood education nonprofit so…”
Ned just shakes his head. “Dude, you’re Spider-Man. And an Avenger. And we’re taking three APs this year. Do you even have time to date MJ?”
Which is a fair question. He has such a better handle on things than he used to but it still feels like life is pulling him in a million directions. But he doesn’t know how to explain to Ned that every night he doesn’t wake up from some vaguely warm dream about MJ, he’s shooting out of bed in a cold sweat with his heart in his throat and pain echoing through every bone in his body.
When he’s thinking about MJ, he doesn’t have to be thinking about being Spider-Man or the past five years or Tony or graduation at the end of next year or the way he feels panic constantly, the threat of something around every corner.
And it’s nice to not be Spider-Man for a second, to be Peter and to worry about small things like if he said something stupid during decathalon or had something in his teeth when they were talking after lunch instead of if there are more evil aliens out there that are coming to earth and what he’d possibly do about that.
So he’s not ready to give up on this just because he has no idea what he’s doing.
“Hey, May,” he asks, with his mouth full over dinner (from the ‘new’ Vietnamese place down the block from their apartment). “How… how do I get a girl to like me?”
And she drops her fork to her plate and claps her hands together. “Oh, Peter,” she cooes and he is thoroughly mortified, slumping into his seat and feeling his face go hot. “Sweetie, that’s so exciting. Who is it?”
He shakes his head. “Just… hypothetically,” he mumbles.
May tips her head to the side, unconvinced and thoroughly unimpressed.
“Well,” she says, going in for another bite. “You should just be yourself. Let her get to know you. Get to know her.”
“It’s MJ,” he says because she’s being sweet and all but this advice isn’t really helpful yet. And he desperately needs some actionable advice about this.
“Oh, Peter! I’m sure she already likes you,” she says. “Just… tell her how you feel. Be honest. Honesty is the bedrock of any good relationship.”
He stares down at the food on his plate and pokes at it absently.
“But… it’s MJ, I can’t just… tell her how I feel. It needs to be… special.”
May makes another little face like he’s a baby animal of some sort trgin to walk for the first time. She reaches across the table and pats his hand.
“Oh, you’re going to be just fine,” she says, nodding. “Trust your gut.”
His gut is twisted up in butterflies and swoops and knots, and his head is flashing fantasies of every romcom cliche he can think of. All these things seem too basic to even think of in relation to MJ who deserves something incredible and perfect and also imperfect in that weird unique way she seems to like a lot.
He needs a plan.
The abroad trip was inevitable.
Traveling across Europe, having unique and wild experiences she’s never had before, seeing parts of the world she’s never seen before. It’s all deeply appealing to the part of her that is less afraid of herself disappearing again and more afraid of the world slipping away from her again.
She submits her application the day registration starts.
And then she takes the extra flyer she has laying around, folds it into the most aerodynamic paper airplane she can, and throws it at the back of Peter’s head in the middle of APUSH.
He spins around to look at her with a mix of confusion and wounded puppy. She flips him off and he grins back, turning back to his desk and flattening the paper on top of his notebook.
To drive the point home she corners him after class as well, drawing little shapes into the desk next to his while he finishes packing his bag so it doesn’t seem like she’s exactly waiting for him.
“So…” she says. “Any tips for European travel?”
He blinks up at her. “What?”
“Yeah… you know from when you went to Germany?”
“Oh! Germany,” he says, nodding. He closes the zipper of his bag so she starts heading for the door. “Uh, what about Germany?”
“Not Germany specifically, but Europe,” she says. He catches up by the time they turn out into the hall. “I’ve never left the country before. Well, unless you count the Blip, since I wasn’t here, like metaphysically, but I don’t really count that. Anyway there’s an abroad thing this summer through the science department, so I thought I’d fix that.”
“You’re going to Europe,” he asks. He has to squeeze sideways to fit past a group of people and she only very briefly contemplates how wonderful it would be to hold his hand right now. Purely for practical purposes of course, to not have to deal with trying to stick together in the crowd. “For the summer?”
She nods. “For a few weeks.”
“Oh,” he says and sounds just objectively relieved, she’s not reading into things, she’s not letting her perceptions be clouded. “That’s cool.”
“Yeah,” she says. And because he still doesn’t seem to be getting it. “I can’t believe there are still seats open and that applications are being accepted until next Tuesday.” They come up to the next intersection in the hall and she turns left to head to Calc. “See you at lunch, dork.”
And when she reaches their table at lunch, she catches the tail end of Peter pitching the trip to Ned, so, yes, she does consider phase one of her plan a success.
The trip is a solution to one problem and the creation of another.
Because he doesn’t know what to do about his feelings for MJ, since anything he’s been able to imagine has seemed too simple for her. She deserves better than some promposal poster in the cafeteria or a bouquet of flowers before first period or any romantic speech he could possibly string together. There may not actually be words yet to describe just how incredible she is, because he can try to use words that exist (like beautiful or smart or funny) but it almost feels disrespectful to use words that have already been used to describe other things or other people because those things and people aren’t MJ.
But the trip. The trip might be perfect. No distractions, no Spider-Man, no school. New places to see and things to do and no ghosts that hang around corners, the way they do everywhere in school.
And that’s the sort of thing MJ deserves. Handcrafted necklaces and Eiffel Towers and things that are unique and amazing and perfect.
The problem now is that he spends way too many hours of the day staring at pictures of Venice and France and skimming through Google earth and comparing street corners to see which one might be the most aesthetically pleasing for them to people watch from.
He spends one weekend translating and reading every menu and Yelp review to every cafe within a five mile radius from their hotel in France to find which one has the flakiest croissant because last month MJ got a croissant from Starbucks during a free period and said that it wasn’t flakey enough.
Ned thinks he’s losing it. May thinks he’s adorable.
He just really doesn’t want to screw this up.
Because for some reason there’s peace in opening dozens of tabs and comparing different pictures of the view from the Eiffel Tower to select the best fifteen minute time frame to be on the observation desk for the exact day they’ll be going so Paris looks the most beautiful when he gives her the necklace. There are answers somewhere here in all the research and details, answers that he can’t find in anything else these days.
He doesn’t know how to be Spider-Man, he doesn’t know how to get over losing the past five years, he doesn’t know how to fix anything or what he’s going to do when he graduates or who he even wants to be at the end of the day.
But he does know how he feels about MJ. And he thinks if he can just try hard enough, if he can just lay down the plan with as much precision as he can, this might just be something he can pull off.
Up until the bridge she considers the trip mostly successful.
In that she has laid out goals and accomplished most of them. Her ears didn’t pop on the plane. Jet lag didn’t hit her too hard (thank you espresso). She walked down cobblestone streets that predate centuries and centuries of history. She discovered a new way to tell people to fuck off.
(She also hasn't died despite several incidents with giant monsters, which she doesn't technically count since she hadn’t laid that out in her preliminary expectations for the trip, but she does still view them as accomplishments.)
She also figured out how she’s going to tell Peter she’s kinda halfway in love with him.
“MJ, I--” he says. His hoodie sleeves hang loose around his wrists and the street lights make his hair look golden. The air smells like water and Europe and hope and she feels grounded and real and steady the way she always seems to with Peter, so she goes for it.
“-am Spider-Man,” she finishes, before he can say it. Because what other way is there to explain it.
She knows him. She knows this about him. And that’s where the love is, in the knowing, in the way she sees him in every room they’re in together, in the way she notices when he disappears always.
In the fact that he doesn’t need to confess things to her because she already knows them, and the way she doesn’t need to confess things to him because somehow, despite everything in her that used to be so afraid of being known or being seen, she’s spent months catching him looking at her and he’s proven again and again that he does actually know her, and it’s maybe the best thing.
And here’s the way she can just prove it. Prove that she knows him, that they know each other, that there’s this thing between them, this looking and knowing and feeling, and now it’s out there.
Except… he doesn’t seem too thrilled.
And she realizes slowly that maybe he wasn’t about to tell her he was Spider-Man, and that he’s doubling down on denying it all, and that he doesn’t want her to know he’s Spider-Man, that he wants to have this be hidden from her, that he doesn’t want to tell her, that he doesn’t want her to know him.
(And worst of all, there’s a moment when she thinks maybe she is wrong. Maybe he’s not Spider-Man, and maybe she really doesn’t know him at all.)
It all gets drowned out seconds later by the fact that there actually aren’t any giant monsters and Mysterio’s a fake and needs to be stopped.
But it sits with her for a while, this little discomfort in her chest that if it wasn’t literally a life and death situation, he wouldn’t have told her at all.
She wanted him to. She wants him to tell her everything. She wants his weird thoughts about dorky movies and his opinions about her favorite books and the articles she sends him at three am. She wants him to tell her he’s Spider-Man and tell her where he’s been when he gets back from wherever he’s disappeared to and what it was like to fly over the city and everything he noticed and everything he felt. She wants to guess what his favorite part is before he says it, she wants that surety of knowing how his sentence is going to end because she knows him. She wants to make him feel known, the way he’s made her feel known, and the incandescent kind of beauty of it. She wants to store all these little things about him that maybe nobody else knows inside herself, where it can be safe alongside all the other facts and figures she’s collected over the years, in case he ever needs a backup.
And if he doesn’t want her to do that then she’s not sure what he does want from her.
Her ears pop on the flight to London as she stares out the window and feels half as unsteady as she did that first week after the Blip. Untethered and fragile, this weird invisible thing that could vanish in an instant. The sky goes grey over the city and she almost dies again, wondering if this is better, staring down a killer drone or that half second of panic she felt when she disappeared.
But on the other end of it, having survived again, another accomplishment for the list, she decides that in the chaos of it all, in how fragile everything is,in how everything could disappear in a moment again, she doesn’t care. She just goes for him, to find him, to help him, whatever is there when she gets to where he is. The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world but there is one truth that she does know and has known for a while and it’s that she loves Peter Parker. She’ll keep trying to say it until he hears her.
He doesn’t dream on the train. He hurts too much for that, that even in the darkness he gets no reprieve it’s just an empty sort of sleep.
He’s not sure what’s left for him to dream about, if there will ever be dreams again or just nightmares, because it always goes like this doesn’t it. Everything he manages to touch falls apart beneath him.
The trip is over. Everyone is in danger. The pain echoes and radiates up and down his body.
And he’s ruined everything with MJ. She knows he’s Spider-Man, she knows how bad he screwed up with Brad and with Beck. She knows everything, every single way he’s gotten everything wrong, every single reason why he doesn’t deserve her and doesn’t deserve any kind of reprieve from all this.
He doesn’t even deserve his dreams of her.
They’re not going to make it to Paris and all he’ll have left of rant stupid fantasy is the nightmare of her dropping, her screaming, and him failing again.
She knows him too well. All she had to do was watch him and it’s all there, isn’t it?
That’s all anyone has to do. Look at him and see that he’s just some kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Who’s easy to lie too and trick because he messes everything up eventually.
He hits rock bottom.
And the thing is, he looks around and he realizes he’s been here before. It’s been different every time but… he’s been here. And he’s pulled himself out and so he’ll do that now.
Any plan he had is gone, but maybe he doesn’t need them. Maybe he doesn’t need the specifics and details and steps all laid out, maybe he just needs a foundation, a vague shape, and his gut instinct, which is screaming at him to get back up, to get back out there, to fix things again.
And so he does.
It’s the kind of victory he’s used to as well, the kind that hurts, the kind that doesn’t feel like any kind of triumph but just this absent bone-deep relief because it means that at the very least it’s over. The exhaustion crashes over, the pain still aches through him, and he starts the slow limp back through the wreckage and it’s all still so familiar.
But then there’s MJ. And that’s new.
And for a second, hugging her, closing his eyes to her voice in his ear and her chest against his, it stops hurting, it stops being this weary moment, and starts feeling like something special and good and different.
The necklace is broken, his leg is too. They’re standing in the middle of the road on some bridge in London he forgot the name of and the air smells like burning rubber because they’re feet away from a car that’s on fire and it’s none of the things he wanted. He doesn’t think he could have imagined this moment in his weirdest dreams.
But she kisses him and it’s better than any of it, any romantic notions he’s ever had, any of his most perfect rose tinted hopes for this.
Because it’s MJ, in all the ways he could try to fill in but never fully capture, with her smile and her hair in her face and her hand in his hair.
(He thinks he has a dream on the flight back, has some vague feeling of something soft flickering behind his eyes as it starts to slip away, but then he looks up sleepily and finds MJ there, looking back at him, and he smiles and lets whatever it was fade away because he doesn’t need it.)