Peter doesn’t say anything about the fact that she has a bag packed and ready to go when it’s her turn to stop at home.
In all fairness, there is a lot going on and he seems pretty wracked with guilt over the whole 'fleeing from his enemies and murder charges and making them come with him' thing.
At some point she’ll probably want to assure him that it’s fine, it’s not like she had better plans for the rest of the summer and also she’s sort of a complete sucker for Peter Parker and honestly is maybe a little too down to follow him anywhere he’s heading, but that’s another thing like the bag that might lead to a conversation and well… she’s not a fan of conversations.
The bag is a new thing. A post-Blip kinda new thing. For the days when the world felt paper-thin beneath her, the bag was a physical little thing she could look at, reach for, proof that no matter what she has this collection of essentials she can grab and run with.
Conceptually she’s had a bag for years though. In her head, there was a bag, packed and ready, a reassurance that she could leave wherever, whenever.
She told Peter she’s never been good at getting close to people and she meant that as thoroughly as can be interpreted.
For as long as she can remember, she’s stayed in her room more often than not and listened to thing,s with headphones on and made her own dinners and lunches and cleaned up after herself when she was done. She presses her hand to her mouth when she laughs and if she ever cries, which is a big if by the way, she does it in the shower at two am, swallowing hard around any sounds she might make.
Most days she thinks it’s not even anyone’s fault. This is just how she exists, taking care of herself. It actually felt like a good thing, not relying on anyone else, since when everything fell apart it meant she landed on her feet mostly unscathed in all the practical ways. She doesn’t really feel like giving the job over to someone else: if you want something done right, do it yourself and all that. Not to mention figuring out employee benefits and pension plans and all that. Ugh, exhausting.
They get to the first safe house just after midnight and she doesn’t waste any time, just gets to work settling in, unpacking her bag, setting her pillow on the cot closest to the bathroom and laying out her water thermos and a granola bar for the morning. Peter and Ned are a lot slower, taking stock of the supplies in the bunker, stopping to talk about things, dividing up the stuff in Ned’s backpack. They’re still working through it all by the time she ties her hair back and curls up under her blanket.
She watches them for a second and feels a warm burst of pressure in her chest like a tiny bottle rocket when Peter turns and locks eyes with her. He smiles, and it really doesn’t even try to meet his eyes, but she smiles back anyway on pure instinct and wonder at this thing between them and how much more it is now.
He goes back to helping Ned move some of the furniture around and she spends an additional overwhelming second watching the muscles in his arm flex before she forces herself to roll over and face the hard stone wall, pretending there are totally justifiable reasons for the way her mouth is dry and her heart is pounding. It’s… dusty down here and it’s been a stressful day.
There’s a lot to unpack emotionally as well so she gets started on doing that by herself too.
She’s been operating under this whole assumption that the Blip was a wake-up call for her to try new things and it all felt ultimately pretty justified because despite some turbulence, the things she has tried have all turned out pretty exceptional.
She’d never been to Europe and it was beautiful in the moments when she wasn’t running for her life. She’d never tried risotto before but it was the cheapest thing on that menu in Venice and it was delicious.
She’s never had much luck getting closer to people, but with Peter, for this past year, it had felt so less painful than she thought it would be, like a pile of warm laundry in her chest where she was expecting a fire.
She’d never hit a drone with a mace before but that was great.
And she’d never kissed someone before and that was… still almost too much to process. She can’t take it in all at the same time. The moment exists in fragments in her brain, sparks of sensations and twists of emotions with names she’s probably heard before but forgot in the face of kissing Peter. It’s almost too much to think that she could have died before she did that, kissed someone, because she knows now that none of the books or movies ever got it right. And never could have gotten it right because not a single one was about kissing Peter, specifically.
And the Peter of it all was so essential, maybe the most essential.
His hand on her arm, fingers pressing steadily against her through layers of clothing. The soft ends of his curls beneath her fingers, his exhale against her cheek, the cut on his lip, the scratch of his hair against her forehead, the warmth of him everywhere, against her arm, beneath her hand, pressed to her lips.
She can evaluate it all individually, all good, all great, all building together into one whole sensation of Peter.
So yeah, very good. The kind of experience she decides she'd like to do again, and again, and again. The kind of moment that makes her wonder why she waited so long to take these sorts of leaps, why she was ever scared of opening up and getting closer because closer was good.
Closer like his head on her arm and his hand against hers and the million different ways she wants to rearrange them together in a million different places. Their fingers laces while walking the High Line, his shoulder bumping against hers as they move slowly through the Museum of Natural History, his temple against her shoulder as they sit in the aisle of a library, his mouth on hers in the shade of a tree by the Reservoir.
The summer, the year, the future, opened up into something new, and the prospect of things being different, being changed in some fundamental way didn’t make her stomach twist. She didn’t have to observe these sorts of things from the outside, she didn’t need to read about them, pick them apart analytically, fit all these pieces of human existence into her theoretical puzzle of it all, she had this way in right in front of her, a path to the thick of it, to living in it.
So of course now it’s gone. In the blink of an eye, her heart still lodged in her throat from swinging over the city, that future, that path crumbled and scattered, dust in the wind.
And she’s laying on her side on the most uncomfortable mattress in the entire world in a cold damp room, back to square one, world shifted beneath her, future uncertain, feeling unbelievably small and stupid and fragile for thinking she at any point had her feet on solid ground.
She’s smart enough to realize this thinking isn’t pragmatic, this desperate search for the exact reasoning things went wrong, the exact lesson she’s supposed to learn from this, is just that: desperate.
But the cot is really uncomfortable and it’s just cold enough down here that she can’t seem to fall asleep.
She rolls over again, half hoping Peter and Ned will still be awake so she can distract herself watching them, and nearly chokes herself on her necklace in the process. Gratefully, they aren’t awake so she untangles herself as quietly as she can, cradling the glass carefully as she pulls the chain over her head. She can’t really make out the finer details in the dark like this, but she doesn’t need to, just runs her fingers over the surface the way she can’t seem to stop doing ever since she first slipped it on in the airport bathroom.
The past few days, she’s taken it off before her shower, draped it over her decathlon trophy from sophomore year decathlon, one of the few things her parents kept through the five years, one of her only belongings from before the Blip.
But for now, her bag is the safest and only place to put it so she climbs out of bed and crosses over to where it's tucked away next to a pillar. She takes stock of the bag for a second, her few changes of clothes crumpled and rolled, the neatly folded wad of twenties hidden beneath them, her library card, and an old copy of The Second Sex . It’s been a while since she’s read it.
It’s been a while since she’s read anything, since drifting into a book didn’t feel like drifting into nothing and losing five years.
She thinks for a second about that girl who skipped school to read on a rooftop all those calendar years ago, who observed, who kept her distance from things to see them better, who had never been to Europe, who had never hit a drone with a mace, who had never kissed anyone, whose biggest risk was texting Peter Parker back. That girl who was mostly lonely, but was safe at the very least, physically and emotionally, when the world felt sturdy and solid beneath her.
Or felt safe, at the very least, until she suddenly wasn’t, until everything was anything but sturdy and solid.
“MJ?” comes suddenly from across the room. She tucks the necklace into the pages of the book and slips it back into her bag before turning. Peter’s propped up on his elbow, his hair pressed flat against one side of his head and up and out on the other.
“Shh,” she hisses. “I’m sleepwalking.”
“Oh sorry,” he says quickly, before pausing, and she can tell from across the room that his eyebrows are scrunching together. “Uh… what?”
She notices almost absently that the corners of her mouth are tugging up, that there’s a sudden quiet and calm folding over her, one part the soft fluttery warmth of just being near him, one part the life-affirming satisfaction of messing with Peter Parker.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping, loser?” she asks, setting her bag down and settling her weight back into her heels.
“Probably,” he says. “Shouldn’t you be?”
She scoffs in the back of her throat. “What? Just because it’s incredibly late and I’m more exhausted than I’ve ever been in my life and it’s extremely important that we’re all well-rested tomorrow, I should be asleep right now? That pretty reductive thinking, Peter.”
From this distance, she almost misses his smile, the little hitch of a laugh in his breathing.
And that sucks, so she stands, her knees cracking, and walks over to him with her shoulders rolled back.
His eyes are a little wide when she reaches him, and he shuffles up and back as she comes in, so they’re both sitting on his bed, side by side. And just like on the bridge and on the plane and soaring over New York, and every other time they’ve ended up side by side, everything fits itself together neatly. She kicks her legs out, crosses her ankles, and tips her head back against the wall, and he pulls his knees towards his chest, cheek pressing into his crossed arms as he looks over at her.
“Is everything okay?” he asks, his voice dropped low now that they’re close. A rogue shiver works its way down her spine but she shrugs to cover it.
“Could be worse,” she says. “We could be in gym.”
He chuckles, his head ducking forward. “You know back in freshman year I used to hate gym because of my asthma and because Flash would always throw those dodgeballs at me.” She remembers the dodgeballs. She also remembers filling Flash’s locker with trash from the second-floor girls' bathroom and getting detention for a week and a half after that time one of them broke Peter’s nose. “And then after the uh…” He gestures absently with his hand. “I would be worried about being too good and seeming suspicious.”
He glances over at her, smiling a little sheepishly. “Oh, was that-?”
"Oh yeah,” she says, nodding. “That was actually most of my major evidence before Washington.”
His shoulders slump a little. “Really? I thought I was doing a pretty good job.”
“Peter, last September you kicked a soccer ball so hard it literally exploded.”
He squeezes his eyes shut, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I didn’t think anyone noticed that.”
There is very little about Peter that she hasn’t noticed, but she thinks she’d rather explode like that soccer ball before she spells it out for him any more than she already has.
His smile slips slowly, and he glances down into his lap.
“I guess I don’t have to worry about that anymore,” he says and there’s something heavy in his tone that sends her stomach churning.
So she slumps down into the mattress until her head hits the pillow.
“Uh, what’re you doing?” he asks. And confusion is better than whatever the last thing was.
“Sleeping,” she says, grabbing the edges of the blanket and tugging it up and over her chest.
“Here?” It’s practically a squeak.
“It’s really dark in here,” she says, closing her eyes. “And my bed’s all the way over there. I could trip or something.”
She opens one eye again to peek at him.
“Are you gonna lie down or…?”
He drops down so fast the mattress bounces a little. There’s barely any room and his shoulder is so warm where presses against hers. Technically this bed isn’t any more comfortable than the other one, but her eyelids feel heavy and her brain seems content to stop spinning out and settle.
She reaches for his hand, a riskier bet here because of the way their bodies are close and the proximity of his thigh. But just like every other time, her fingers find his and in an instant, he’s turning his palm to fit against hers.
“MJ?” he whispers.
She hums under her breath. He shifts under the blanket, and she tries not to think about all other little ways they could press in closer to each other right now.
“Thanks,” he says. And she wants to ask what he’s talking about because it seems important, but she’s already drifting off.
Considering he fell asleep tracing circles on the back of MJ’s hand with his thumb, he’s kinda surprised when he wakes up in an even better position, but there he is, curled into her, her hand on his side, her chin pressed against his forehead.
He can hear her heart thumping slowly against his ear, can feel her short breaths against his scalp.
It seems like a dream, too soft to be real.
Though the things that have been fake, or any of his dreams lately, haven’t been this kind, so he’s pretty confident this is really happening.
He doesn’t move, even though his hand is lodged under his leg and is completely numb in an almost painful way. If he moves, if he changes a single thing about this moment, he thinks it’ll disappear. Not the moment exactly, but the feeling in his chest, the security, the peace, the calm. He hasn’t felt this way in a long time. Maybe since the plane home but even then he could feel his ribs stitching themselves back together and his ears had been popping with the altitude change.
And he’s not sure if he will get to feel this way again. Everything lately seems to be suggesting he’s speeding towards a solid wall and he won’t bounce back.
Every time something like this has happened, every disaster, every fight, every screw-up, he’s found a way out. Things settled back down, maybe not exactly the same, but close enough that he could keep going.
He doesn’t think that’s going to happen this time. And he’s not sure what to do about it.
But for a moment with his eyes closed right here, it’s like he’s back on the plane, flying towards something hopeful, something settled. That there’s this place for him to hide where her shoulder meets her neck, a little well-protected corner of the world that’s safe for landing.
He can feel when MJ wakes up in a million little ways: the shift in her breathing, the sharp clearing in the back of her throat, her leg stretching out until she meets resistance by kicking him in the shin.
“Ow,” she grumbles and he can’t stop the little laugh that jumps right out of his chest.
He winces after though because she definitely knows he’s awake and there’s no reason for them to stay like this if they’re both up. But she doesn’t pull away, just dislodged her elbow from his ribs and flexes her fingers before gripping his hand again.
He doesn’t know what to say to this, to the relief that it’s not over just yet.
He dares to open his eyes just a peak, glancing up towards her. Her hair has half fallen out of its messy bun, sprawling half on the pillow behind her and half on her face and that’s almost enough to knock him right out with how unbelievably pretty she looks.
The fact that she’s looking back at him, eyes still heavy with sleep, is the only thing that keeps him from combusting and dying on the spot because it would be so embarrassing and she would never let him live it down.
“Hey,” he says instead, his voice only mildly croaky.
“Hi,” she responds slowly, her free hand coming up to press her hair away from her face, unfortunately. It takes him an extra second and her eyes narrowing slightly before he realizes he’s still just staring at her, probably looking like an idiot. “You okay?”
He nods quickly even though it’s mostly just rubbing his temple against her shoulder.
“Yeah,” his voice cracks and he swallows hard. “Yep. You, uh… you look— I mean your hair was…” He shuts his eyes again because even though he’s speaking he doesn’t want to watch this trainwreck. “This is nice,” he finally manages to squeak out.
MJ’s face is scrunched up, almost like she’s laughing at him, but it doesn’t make him feel stupid, it just kinda makes him want to laugh too.
“Yeah,” she says slowly. “It is.”
And he really can’t help but smile at that, because everything about this feels like bathing in warm sunlight, the joy pressing up against the inside of his chest and threatening to expand outward.
She grins back and he feels the way her heart beats contentedly under him.
“So, uh…” she starts, her knee brushing his as she shifts a little. “Should we—?”
“Could we,” he starts before he can catch himself. “Just… wait for a second?”
Ever at this angle, he can recognize the look on her face, the one he gets all the time from May and sometimes even Ned: a concern that makes his stomach twist because the last thing he wants is them worrying about him, he should be handling himself and worrying about them and protecting them so they don’t even have to worry.
But she nods and settles down into the mattress again, drawing the blanket back up over her shoulder and he’ll take the swirling guilt of not being strong enough for one more second if it means he can stay here just a little while longer.
“Did you know that 8% of people experience some form of sleep paralysis?” she offers. And oh God, there are so many things about her that he loves, and he couldn’t possibly begin to list them all or compare them, but there’s just something about this, the way she keeps all these facts inside her and how if the conversation pauses for long enough she’ll start to share them.
“Uh… no, I didn’t,” he says and doesn’t even mean for his voice to be so reverently hushed. But it works because she keeps going.
“Well, I was reading into it because I found this documentary about famous ghost hauntings in Europe, and the most widely supported skeptic theory for most of the hauntings is that they’re just symptoms of sleep paralysis.”
Maybe it’s her voice, the steady ebb and flow of her inflections, the way she speeds up over anything too personal but slows down over the facts and figures like a soft respect for the information. Maybe it’s the insight into the way her brain works, the way she thinks, the way she sees the world. Maybe she somehow is attuned to finding the most interesting facts and is gracious enough to share them, or maybe he just thinks MJ is the most interesting thing and anything she says he’ll do his best to memorize.
Whatever it is though, lying here listening, he's completely enraptured by her, and it’s like none of the problems at his doorstep matter.
(That is until Ned wakes up and makes the worst assumption possible about their positioning, which leads to one of the most uncomfortable conversations of his life with Ned insisting that they need to establish healthy boundaries and rules about privacy, him denying that anything untoward even crossed their minds, and MJ being unnecessarily cryptic and incriminatingly suggestive. Comparatively though, still the best he’s felt in days.)
MJ didn’t really have expectations for what it would be like to be on the run from the government, but she’s still a little surprised by what it’s been entailing.
She certainly thought about it before the summer, but less in this sort of context and more in the ballpark of eventually getting entirely disillusioned with society and academia and becoming a complete recluse from society. When she thought of it like that, she always assumed her biggest problems would be figuring out how to survive off the land and the agony of no longer being able to cyberbully sitting senators on Twitter.
She wasn’t expecting this many late-night conversations. Or cuddling, probably because cuddling is a very practical sort of thing and when thinking about relationships and Peter and the like, it was all very abstract and amorphous. She’s spent a non-zero amount of nights thinking very philosophically about relationships and love from just about every angle, and now she’s discovered that Peter Parker is a little spoon and trying to figure out the best way to do this without cutting off circulation in her arm.
To be fair, a lot of things have been unexpected lately. But there’s a certain level of absurdity to the way that every night now she climbs into a bed with Peter and they talk for about half an hour about nothing, a movie he watched, an article she read, and then fall asleep next to each other, pretending like his life isn’t imploding, like he doesn’t come back after his misadventures with a million new hurts, like she hasn’t been zoning out in every other conversation they have because of increasingly hard to ignore that maybe she should have done the whole recluse thing ages ago if the world is going to just continue throwing her off the deep end for trying to get closer to people and putting herself out there.
Not that the cuddling isn’t something of a powerful counterargument.
It’s just a little undercut when sometimes that cuddling is interrupted by the ceiling of their safe house exploding.
The ceiling exploding isn’t what wakes her up, she actually is yanked out of sleep a second earlier when Peter shoots up from the bed. She barely has time to process what to do with her arm now that there’s empty air where his body used to be, before he flings some webbing across the room towards Ned’s bed and crashes on top of her, arms coming up to cover their heads.
It’s a chaotic tangle of limbs, her arm pinned between their chests, foot trapped beneath his shin, forehead pressed into the side of his neck. But then there’s all sorts of rock and debris raining down and no time to rearrange themselves into something more comfortable.
The bed frame creaks under the sudden force and if she was even a little asleep still, she’s as awake as she’s ever been when she feels the slam of pressure of a chunk of ceiling, hears the air gust out of Peter’s lungs.
It’s over quicker than she expected, but again, she hadn’t really built up a lot of expectations of how long it takes a ceiling to collapse.
Peter seems to shake off the whole thing, hooking an arm around her waist and shooting a web out, swinging them across the room and to their feet.
Ned is up and fine, thank God, tucking his laptop under his arm before he steps towards them.
There’s more non-ceiling stuff coming down from above, other explosives or shrapnel, and Peter quickly knocks some out of the way.
“You guys go,” he says without looking back as he jogs out towards the center of the room.
She’s not the biggest fan of this whole plan of him staying and them going, but she’s also not an idiot. She doesn’t really have a mace this time or anything and around two minutes ago she was asleep, so she watches Peter for a second as he shoots up towards the place where the ceiling used to be before following Ned towards the back exit.
It’s a little jarring since they have these certain routines for leaving places to make sure there’s no trace that they were even there in the first place, but that probably doesn’t matter as much this time if they forget-
“Shit,” she breathes and turns on her heel, dashing back towards the demolished back of the room.
“MJ,” someone shouts, and she gets it, this is a very bad idea. But her bag is over her bed, in the back of the room (because every time they show up to a new place she needs to set up her own shit and can only cave and head to Peter’s bed later) and literally everything she has is in that bag: money, clothes, book, necklace. She’s not leaving without it.
So she barely breathes and runs for it, doing her best to cover her face against the dust and smoke, and stepping out of the way of things falling and crashing.
Her corner of the room is the most destroyed and she ends up having to dig through some of the rubble before she finally grabs hold of a strap and drags her bag out. There’s a sudden bang in the air above her head though and she turns just in time to see something large speeding towards her face.
She barely has time to recall the concept of ducking before it’s yanked out of the air and flung back the way it came from.
And there's Peter, s weeping down, hand out and she doesn’t have to think, she just takes it. She does these things on instinct now, reaching for Peter, gravitating to him, not thinking twice before trusting him.
They swing across the room and h e sets her down by the doorway, and the second her feet touch the ground she realizes, despite the chaos and the noise and the world seemingly falling apart around them, from the second she grabbed his hand she never doubted they would. There’s this… security, stable beneath her, a knowledge that Peter won’t let anything happen to her, a trust in that, a tight thing in her chest that relaxes for the first time ever.
“Don’t d-die,” she offers helplessly in response before he’s off again. And Ned beckons her from the door so she puts a pin in the whole thing.
But there’s this idea circulating suddenly, that she keeps tabs on as they deal with the fallout of all that: that maybe she doesn’t have to hold herself up in this, that she trusts Peter to have her back, that if there’s a lesson to learn here it’s not about moving back or moving away.
They reach the next safe house with no guarantee it’s any more secure, but at least it’s somewhere.
Ned collapses on the nearest flat surface and passes out immediately. She feels the same bone-deep weariness, but her brain is still buzzy, crashes and bangs still ringing in her ears.
Plus she moves to secure her little corner of the room and has to stop and reconsider.
She’s not going to sleep in the corner bed by herself, she’s gonna end up wherever Peter is and she’s known that for the past few times she’s done this, but it just felt so necessary, to prove to them, to herself, to the universe that she had things under control, that she could unpack her stuff and set up her corner and even if she ventured out from it, that corner was there, hers to retreat to at any point.
But right now she doesn’t want to leave her bag over in this corner she knows she won’t use, she doesn’t want to pretend like she’s not going to spend the night next to Peter.
Whatever pretense she’s trying to set up, it’s only that. It’s pretense and performative, and she thinks being someone who’s suddenly not interested in bearing the truth no matter what it looks like is a change she can’t make. And the truth is, she has been trying to retreat, trying to fortify the walls between her and the rest of the world because even though she’s the one who decided to let them come down, the world seems like a much more dangerous place, and being open to it doesn’t feel like the revelation it did even a few weeks ago.
But the thing she’s failed to consider, the thing she didn’t realize until a ceiling came crashing down and she made it out completely unscathed because of Peter, is that she doesn’t have to build her walls alone and stay behind them alone.
She grabs her bag and turns back to the center of the room to find Peter dropping a pillow and blanket next to Ned.
And her chest goes tight, and even though this is something that has been building for years now, she thinks she falls in love with him in a single second. Free falling, wind in her ears, heart in her throat.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. It was one of the earliest observations, earliest truths she marked down about Peter Parker. One of the clearest if most empirical pieces of evidence that he could be Spider-Man. He takes care of people.
She’s crossing the room before she even decides to take the first step, still gripping the strap of her bag. He meets her halfway, brow wrinkled with concern, but she doesn’t want to explain herself, just takes a breath and crashes into him. She presses her lips to his, and it’s like this key to everything else snapping into place, her hands settle on his waist and he kisses her back without question, his hand coming up to brush delicately across her cheek.
And everything settles, all the doubts and fears, the way she’s been racking her brain trying to find the exact way to fit everything together into something comprehensible. It calms over.
She doesn’t want to retreat, she doesn’t want to close everything up again. And she doesn’t have to.
“I couldn’t leave my bag behind,” she explains when she pulls away. He looks a little punch drunk but nods along as he catches his breath. “It has my copy of The Second Sex. My second copy, because my parents didn’t keep my original copy during the Blip, so I had to get another and reannotate the whole thing. And I didn’t want to do that again.”
“Oh,” he says, head tilting in confusion.
“And, uh… it’s where I keep my necklace,” she continues, even though it makes her face feel hot.
“Oh,” he says again, softer, smiling sweetly. “I could… I would’ve gotten you another one. If you lost it.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t want another one.” It’s irreplaceable, she knows that. No other necklace would break the same way.
He presses his lips together, his throat bobbing as he swallows. And his hand slips down, taking hers. “I just want you to be safe.”
Which makes her smile and step close to him, so their foreheads can bump together. She is safe. She’s with him. And when she finds a way to say that out loud without spontaneously combusting she’ll tell him, but for now, she slots her fingers between his and says. “Where do you wanna sleep?”
He’s not sure what exactly it says about him that he doesn’t really feel the pain anymore.
Probably nothing good, but it’s falling a little low on his list of concerns.
There’s some cut on his arm and he may have broken his ankle, but it’s all just a dull ache as he swings his way back to the safe house of the week, fades to the background easily enough.
MJ is up still when he sneaks in. She and Ned are seemingly taking turns to wait up for him, and the thought of them talking about it, being concerned for him, makes his stomach turn over with guilt and embarrassment.
Even with that though, it’s not like he can see MJ there, sitting cross-legged on top of the desk in the back of the room, flipping through her book, and not immediately start to smile.
“Hey,” he says quietly, dropping down from the ceiling to his feet, forgetting for a second that his right ankle isn’t quite up to holding his weight. He thinks he covers the wince and the stumble well enough.
She looks up and blows her hair out of her face. His heart stutters over its next beat.
“Hey,” she says, slipping off the desk and moving towards him. He catches her easily in a hug, trying not to think too hard about how quickly his whole body relaxes the second he’s holding onto her. “You okay?”
He nods and closes his eyes as her hand brushes through his hair.
“Do you need me to get that cut for you?” she asks. And the answer is probably, but he really doesn’t want to let go right now.
“I’m fine,” he says. “It’s mostly healed.” And MJ is the most perceptive person he knows, so she can most likely see right through him, but doesn’t call him on it.
She tugs him over to the bed against the wall by his wrist and lets him curl into her side. He thinks he should change or something, but it feels incredibly good to be laying down and exponentially better to be laying down next to MJ.
“Hey,” she says, shoulder tilting towards him. “Uh, just, by the way, I’m in love with you.”
He’s so busy being comforted by the sound of her voice in the dark that it takes him a moment.
“What?” which is the wrong thing to say but he can’t imagine operating at full capacity after something like that.
“Yeah,” she says quickly. He can feel her hands fidget and her weight shift under him. “I was thinking about it a couple of days ago and I forgot to tell you, but… just thought I’d… give you the update.”
“Oh,” he says and he needs to say something more substantive but his brain is blue screening.
“Well… 'night,” she says, tugging the blanket up to her chin.
“You don’t have to say it just because I said it,” she says in a breath. “I just said it because it felt like a piece of information relevant to your interests and-”
“MJ.” He fights against the sleep in his bones so his head is on her level, so he can actually see her. Her lips are pressed together in a tight grimace but she raises her eyebrows.
And he still doesn’t know what to say, just kinda stares at her for another million seconds with his eyes wide.
“I’m sorry,” he says because the words have been sitting on the tip of his tongue for weeks now.
She halfheartedly rolls her eyes. “Dude, really, it’s fine, you don’t have to-”
“No, I’m sorry about all of this,” he says, glancing up and over at the dusty cramped room, pitch black except for a few harsh emergency lights in the far corners because there are no windows in this whole building. “This isn’t what I… I never thought that…" He groans and starts over. "It’s not fair, that this is happening and that you have to be here and-”
“Whoa,” she says, her hand tightening around his. “What are you talking about?”
He takes a breath but his heart still races and the words keep coming. “I’m sorry I messed this all up,” he says. “I thought I could handle it and fix things but I couldn’t. And I’m sorry that things are never going to go back to normal, and that I’m going to screw everything up again. You, uh… you deserve better than this.”
It feels like cutting his chest right open, laying everything out in the open air. His eyes feel wet and he swallows around the lump in his throat.
“Do you remember when we were ten and the Chitauri invaded?” she asks after a moment of him trying to breathe through it.
“My mom wouldn’t let me watch the news when it was happening because she didn’t want me to get traumatized or something. Like I couldn’t just look out my windows and see aliens,” she says. He can almost picture her at ten, rolling her eyes at the whole thing. He can almost smile about it. “So I spent the whole afternoon reading this book by some astrophysicist about first contact and… it calmed me down. And afterward, I thought if I could just keep reading, I’d find answers for anything life could throw at me. But then there was that whole thing with SHIELD in seventh grade and I spent, like, a whole week, staying up all night and reading through those documents. And everything got messier. So I started reading up on all sorts of conspiracies and any fringe theory I could get my hands on, so I could take in all the evidence and figure out for myself what I thought was going on. And then… we Blipped and it felt like I had spent so long trying to find answers about the world that I forgot to be in it.” She lifts a shoulder half-heartedly. “And so I tried to do that. And now I’m here so...”
“This isn’t your fault,” he breathes, shaking his head.
“I know.” Her eyebrows knit together. “It’s not yours either.”
He swallows hard. “I really want to believe that.”
“Ever since the Blip, I’ve kinda felt like nothing is real,” she says. “Like I could just disappear again, any second.”
Her hand is solid in his. He nods, pressing the side of his face firmly into the pillow. “Even though I know the illusions are over, but sometimes it feels like anything could just fade away. And I don’t know what to do about that.”
Saying it out loud, letting the words sit in the air instead of on his chest, feels a little bit better.
MJ’s hand bends against his, the pads of her fingers brushing gently over the back of his hand. “I think… these things are just going to keep happening,” she says. “Which should be obvious right, second law of thermodynamics and the ever-increasing entropy of the universe. And I guess I could keep trying to ascribe meaning to the things that happen or try to fix myself, or…” She smiles a little ruefully, eyes flickering away from his for a second. “I can focus on how things feel stable when I’m… with you.”
He can’t help the way his breath hitches, the way he beams, the way a laugh pushes its way out against everything else.
“I love you,” he says.
She narrows her eyes. “Don’t just say it because I said it. That’s cheating.”
He shakes his head. “I’m not. I love you.”
Her lips twitch into a smile for a second before she calms her face again. “Okay, because academic dishonesty is really important, Peter. I put in a lot of brainpower coming to this conclusion and showing all my work.”
He wants to laugh again but decides to kiss her instead.
“I can show my work,” he offers, pulling back a little. She frowns.
“Is that an innuendo?”
“No!” he squeaks, and she hums in the back of her throat, eyebrows furrowing as she scrutinizes him through the dark. “Uh, s-should it be?”
She rolls her eyes, but she kisses him again so there’s that.
“I really don’t want to screw this up,” he says the next time they part. “With you. But… there have already been so many times that I thought I’ve screwed everything with you and… here we are anyway, right?”
“Right,” she says. “It’s kinda like… we’re solid.” And her smile is enough to convince him of anything.
And he beams right back, feeling a little hopeful for the first time in a while.