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all i've ever known

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There’s a lot to notice about MJ once you decide to start noticing. 

But it does take Peter a while to start noticing, mostly because one of the first things that you can know about MJ is that she doesn’t seem to like to be known.

She almost exists in a bubble. She holds herself off from the rest of the world, tangential to things that are happening, always in the room, always close enough to overhear and butt in when she deems necessary, but off to the side. A table away, a chair in the corner, up the steps or the bleachers so she can literally look down at a situation.  

If you want to notice her, you have to look for her, which Peter starts to, one day after she makes a particularly dry joke at lunch that has him almost snorting milk out of his nose, and then he finds that he can’t stop. 

He’s no stranger to being on the outside of things, looking on from a distance. He’s maybe too painfully familiar, actually, with the ache that comes with wanting to fit in somewhere, to have a place that feels secure and safe and stable, that ever-present longing to belong. 

But it still surprises him when he starts feeling that way when he looks at MJ, in her little bubble with her books and her legs kicked out and wry sardonic grin, when he realizes he wants to move closer, he wants to fit there somehow. At the same table as her, the desk next to hers, the area vaguely near the counter she perches on at a party. 

But boundaries are important to MJ. He assumes. Based on careful analytical observation. The way she side-eyes anyone that dares to settle in the seat next to her or otherwise get anywhere near close. The way her eyebrows crease together when her shoulder bumps into someone else’s in the crowded halls between classes. The way Flash comes up behind her at decathlon practice once, right in the middle of his prank video phase, and barely taps her shoulder before she spins on her heel and punches him in the nose.

Peter keeps his expectations in check, with every exchanged look that lingers for a second, every soft smile he wins from her, every moment that makes him think maybe, maybe, maybe, this time it’ll work out. 

Boundaries are important, in romantic things especially. May had drilled it into him from a very young age, about listening to girls when they say no, no matter what. (Or boys, she added, a little later when she realized it was also relevant.) And he thinks it’s impossible to be as halfway in love with MJ as he is without having listened to at least four full hours of her talking about society’s strict controlling of female bodies and internalizing it. 

So yeah, boundaries are there, and he is respectful of them. 

Honestly, he’s excited enough by the way that MJ starts to approach him, appearing from around corners or behind locker doors and walking with him to his next class. She has a discerning eye and particular taste and feeling even a little bit chosen by her settles over his chest like a warm weighted blanket. She makes this easy for him, not intentionally he’s sure, but where he usually finds himself floundering through conversations, she takes initiative, infodumps about her latest subject of interest, letting him be reactive, listening and offering questions, relaxing into the flow of her voice.

And that’s something. That’s enough.

So it’s a bit of a shock to the system when on the other end of it, after Prague and Beck and everything, like waking up from a nightmare, she comes barreling right into his arms.

“Are you okay?” she asks. And he thinks, yes, yes, of course, how could I not be like this?

His arms settle around her, muscles relaxing, soul decompressing, and this is what he does now, his entire being decides, he hugs MJ and that’s it. 

There’s a pattern here, he thinks, of MJ crashing right through whatever expectations he has, sending him spinning, his plans crashing and failing, but finding something better hiding in the aftermath. 

He plans Paris and romantic speeches and gets the London Bridge and flaming rubble and broken necklaces. He expects boundaries and navigating them carefully and respectfully, and instead, he gets bone-crushing hugs and hand holding and more. 

When they get back to New York, and everything settles, it’s all different than he thought it would be.

There’s no more seeking her out in classrooms and club practices, she just appears in the seat next to him, leaning onto his shoulder, her hair brushing his ear as she whispers some conversation she overheard in the teachers’ lounge or holds her phone out in front of him with some meme pulled up. Elbows brushing at lunch, her feet in his lap in study hall, her hand in his on top of library tables, tucking into his jacket pocket when they’re outside waiting on the train platform, tugging him with her when she finds her space in the corners or on top of the bleachers. 

Despite his expectations, he has been invited into her bubble, and he finds himself smiling, pretty much all the time now, because somehow he fits. 

*

While MJ wishes she could blame her entire current crisis on Peter Parker, since he is very clearly the inciting incident, the truth is it probably started in middle school. 

It’s not like she was particularly outgoing in elementary school or anything, but things were mostly alright, she was fairly well adjusted and mostly content. And then suddenly, almost overnight, everything about her was wrong. There were all these expectations of who she’s supposed to be, who everyone wanted her to be, teachers, classmates, society as a whole. Apparently, she’s too loud and too smart and she slouches too much and it’s bad that all she wants to talk about are books thicker than her head and the new words and concepts and theories contained in them. Her teachers don’t like that she finishes work too fast and reads for the rest of class and corrects them when they’re wrong. Her classmates don’t get her jokes or her outfits or her ideas about the world, and there’s this really fun thing some of them do sometimes where they approach her and ask her about what she’s doing, reading or sketching or whatever, and then afterward go back to their other friends and laugh about it. 

It’s great.

Basically by the time she enters high school, she decides that she doesn’t need friends, actually, and that she’s better off alone with her books. She doesn’t care to try to meet expectations, to be what people want her to be, to do things any way but the way she wants and fuck everything else. (Except not literally because… yeah, not interested in sex any more than she’s interested in sitting up straight or looking at Flash Thompson’s spring break pictures.)

Only despite her best efforts to not care about other people, to be content by herself, along come Ned Leeds and Peter Parker, and half a decathlon team who seem to like that she’s annoyingly smart and sometimes smile at her jokes and make her care all over again. 

She really wants them to like her. And also absolutely hates that she wants them to like her. Because she refuses to compromise anything about herself, the way she was tempted to briefly in middle school. 

But they don’t seem to care that she won’t. 

In fact, Peter seems to really not care, seems to really like her actually, without having to change anything to make herself fit. And now she’s losing her mind, waiting outside a history classroom during her Wednesday pre-lunch free because she misses her goddamn boyfriend. 

The bell rings and she leans hard into the wall next to a block of lockers, eyes darting between the book she absolutely has not been reading and the classroom door feet away. Once the door opens though, she glues her eyes to the page because god knows she will not be making eye contact with other people today, no thank you. 

And she doesn’t have to, because as soon as Peter spots her, he makes a little noise and bounds over. 

“Hey,” he says, and he’s smiling so she’s smiling, and it’s this flood of emotion in her, this insane satisfaction and anticipation that has her pushing off the wall and walking over to him so she can hold his goddamn hand already.

She’s never done this. Hand holding. Touching, really. Being close in any sense.

It’s addicting. His hand is soft and warm, and he’s always happy to see her, and she feels like a dam bursting, flood gates opening and flooding her out. 

It’s fucking terrifying, but the way his fingers press gently on her skin is enough to make the fear fade into background noise.

They walk to lunch together, and he listens to her complain about her commute and buys her a bag of SunChips from the cafeteria vending machine because somehow he figured out she likes them, and she doesn’t know what to do about the fact that she thinks she’s been starved for this, and she might die without it when it crashes and burns. 

Her brain screams at her to pull back before she ruins the whole thing, but she can’t help herself. 

It was so easy a while ago, convinced that she’d never get this close to someone else or to the very concept of romance that she’d have to plan how to establish boundaries, how to have the Conversation. Because she doesn’t have a plan. The vaguest concept, once, when she started noticing that Peter was staring at her the way she’d been staring at him, was that she’d follow middle school dance rules. Lots of space for Jesus or whatever other deity wanted to get in there. Keep things chaste, keep things moving slow, glacially slow, plate tectonics slow, to buy her time before they crashed into that hard upper limit of what she’s okay with. 

If she ever had a worry, it was that Peter might be the problem, would want to move faster, would push the issue before she figured out how exactly she wanted to explain this. 

And instead, it’s her. She’s the problem. She’s insatiable, always wanting to press closer and closer to him, lean into his side and never let go of his hand and touch him always. She wants to cling, she wants to wrap herself around him, she wants to pull him obnoxiously close to her at all times, be draped together anywhere and everywhere because of how good it feels. It’s terrible. It’s embarrassing. It’s dangerous. 

Because she’s still holding herself back. For now. As much as she can. Containing herself to hand-holding and socially acceptable touches, like sitting next to each other and leaning over to whisper about shit and showing him things on her phone so his hand will come up to steady hers and handing him things like snacks or books or cups so their fingers brush. She hands him so much shit these days, it’s unreal. 

She’s running out of excuses for this, but she still needs it, feels it like a craving under her skin.

And, regrettably, she’s always been good at problem-solving. 

“Hey,” she says, near the end of the lunch, tipping her head towards his to whisper (because she knows how to keep a secret goddamnit and also because it brings her close enough to feel his hair brush against her cheek). “We should try swinging again.”

“Really?” Peter asks, frowning at her. “I thought you hated it.”

She did. She really did, but in between all the hating it, there was the feeling of being pressed tight against Peter, being held close, having a reason to bury her face in his neck and wrap her arms around him. 

She shrugs half-heartedly. “I hate the bus more.”

Which is a lie. The bus is garbage, but at the very least, it stays on the ground. 

So the end of the day sees her meeting Peter behind the school building where he changes into his suit and offers her another out, that she rejects, reluctantly. And then they go off, flinging through the sky over Queens on a string of floss. But Peter’s arm is steady around her waist, and sometimes for a few seconds, with her eyes squeezed shut, it feels good, fits right into the empty place in her chest that she didn’t even know was there. 

There’s also the wind rushing and the swooping up and down in her gut that reminds her of the pirate rides at carnivals that made her sick when she was little. 

She makes it halfway through Astoria biting hard on the inside of her cheek and taking careful, measured breaths before a particularly hard turn rips a scream out of her anyway. 

“You alright?” Peter asks, voice loud in her ear. 

“Mmmhmm,” she hums through gritted teeth, and tightens her arms around his neck. It also gets Peter to hold her a little tighter so… pros and cons. 

“How was it?” he asks, almost nervously, after they land on her roof. He fiddles absently with his mask, glancing over at her.

She nods, even though her throat still feels tight and she can’t feel her legs and she’s pretty sure a bug flew directly into her face. “Better than the bus.” 

It’s terribly unconvincing but Peter doesn’t push her on it and even holds onto her shoulder when she tries taking a step and almost falls over. 

He swings away, and she barely waits a full half-hour before texting him to pick her up in the morning. 

*

Peter comes from a very touchy family. May is always reaching out to squeeze his shoulder or ruffle his hair or rub something off his face. So he’s used to being touchy in return, high fives and secret handshakes, and lots and lots of hugs. 

It’s almost instinct to be touchy with MJ, too, but he quickly starts catching himself. 

Because when he reaches for her hand in the hall or walking down the street, she gets this strange look on her face, her eyebrows pulling together as she glances at him out of the corner of her eyes, like she’s thinking really really hard about something. And one morning at school after a long night patrolling, he finds himself too tired to stop himself from walking up to her outside the steps by the front doors and pulling her into a hug. She makes a little noise in the back of her throat and freezes for a moment before her arms wrap around him, and the whole time her breathing is weird and her hands feel unsteady against his back, but when he pulls away, face hot but feeling miraculously settled, she doesn’t say anything about it. 

Just because they’re dating and he’s been allowed into her bubble doesn’t mean there aren’t still boundaries. So he works on fighting down the touchy instinct in him that always wants to reach out, and lets MJ take the lead. 

MJ likes her space so MJ gets to decide when and how he gets to be in it. 

And he is very okay with her decisions, which include a lot of hand-holding and kissing in between classes if the hall is empty enough and a lot of swinging around Queens together. 

Which is weird, a little more than the usual MJ weird, because she still screams half the time and can only open her eyes for about three seconds at a time, but apparently it’s better than trying to take the Q36 during rush hour. (She could also probably take the 7 if she was okay with walking an extra few blocks, but he’s not complaining since it means spending more time with her.)

The issue, or maybe the opposite of the issue, begins with MJ coming over for dinner. 

Because Peter’s family, as small as it is at this point, is still very touchy and he forgets to communicate to either party about this. He and MJ walk through the door to his apartment to the sound of approximately twelve pots clanging. 

“Hi kids!” May calls before sailing out of the kitchen with an excited noise and greeting MJ with a bear hug. 

“Oh,” he starts from where he was tipping off his shoes by the coat rack. But it’s too late.

And May is still talking, the panicked way she does when she has company. “Do you like meatloaf because Peter said he would ask you if you liked meatloaf and then he didn’t, so I have a meatloaf in the oven right now, but there’s a Korean barbecue place down on the corner if you are allergic or morally opposed to meatloaf in any way.”

And MJ… her eyes go slightly wide for a moment, but before Peter can intervene, she settles, hugs May back a little awkwardly. Her face relaxes into something soft and warm, but also a little scrunchy, like she’s holding back. It’s very reminiscent of the look she wears when she’s trying not to smile at one of Ned’s bad puns.

May keeps a hold of her shoulders when pulling back, eyebrows raised and questioning. 

“Uh,” MJ says, looking half-dazed for a second before shaking it off. “I am cool with meatloaf. Both the food and the person.”

May beams at her and claps her hands together. “Oh, that’s great!” MJ moves to put her back down and take her jacket off, and May smiles over at him, all excited and knowing, the way she has for months of him talking around his crush on MJ with her. 

And Peter feels his face get hot and his chest go tight, like his heart is suddenly too big as he follows them into the kitchen. 

“Sorry about May,” he offers, a little while later, during a brief meatloaf crisis that drags May away to the oven. “She’s a hugger.”

MJ shrugs, her eyes down by her hands where there would usually be a book. “It’s fine.”

“It’s okay if it isn’t,” he adds, torn between wanting to pay more attention and dig deeper into this, but also knowing he should probably be keeping an eye on the fire alarm just in case. 

“We don’t really do hugs in my family,” MJ says, and then May shuts the oven again with a deep sigh and comes back over to the counter. 

He feels like it deserves a follow-up, that he’s getting closer to the core of this thing that’s unspoken between them, but for now, he’ll have to settle for her hand folding into his. 

After dinner, May lets them head to his room to watch a movie. “Just keep the door open,” she says, with a suggestive raise to her eyebrows. 

“May,” he whines as MJ snorts. Her mouth opens and her eyes gleam excitedly, so he expects some light joke at his expense, but then she cuts herself off, tucking her hands into her pockets and shifting on her feet. 

“You’re smart kids, I trust you,” May continues, waving her hands. “The door stays open.”

So he leaves the door cracked open while MJ watches with a puzzling look on her face.

She’s never been in his room before. There’s actually never been a girl in his room before, let alone a girlfriend, and he swallows hard, folding his hands together to stop from fidgeting. 

MJ’s eyes scan over his walls and he fights against sheer panic because she’s extremely observant, absolutely nothing gets past her, she put together that he was Spider-Man watching him from a distance for a few months so he has no idea what other deep truths she might glean from something as private as his bedroom. 

“Uh, I’ll grab my laptop and we can sit on the bed,” he offers, gesturing jerkily before turning to his desk and busying himself with his computer. 

He really wishes May hadn’t said anything about the door, because all it’s done is make him excruciatingly aware of the fact that he and MJ are rarely this alone, and the last time they were this alone she kissed him for the first time. And he’s also aware of the fact that she’s probably aware of how nervous he is, hopping up onto his bed and shifting awkwardly as he tries to decide how close he should be sitting to her. 

He balances his laptop on his thigh, tilted towards her. MJ reaches forward, quickly typing in the password and pulling open a new browser. 

He blinks at her, catching the edges of a small self-satisfied grin. She’s showing off.

“You’re really bad at secrets,” she says, shrugging. “Also Godofthunder42 is a terrible password.”

And see, he’d be embarrassed about that if there weren't a million other things he was already freaking out about. 

She turns back to the screen, clicking around through movies on some pirating site, and her hair falls over her eyes. He gets that tingly feeling he gets sometimes when he’s in over his head in a fight, but he reaches out anyway, brushing it delicately behind her ear. She freezes, ever so slightly, eyes flickering over to his, but doesn’t do anything else so he lets his hand linger for another second. 

And look, Peter is a scientist. There’s a way you do things in science: hypothesis, experiment, reassessment. His hypothesis has been that MJ doesn’t like being touched and that he shouldn’t touch her.

But he hasn’t really done anything to prove it. 

He turns into her, moving slowly just in case, but she lets him wrap his arms around her waist, hook his chin over her shoulder. Her chest is still for a second, like she’s holding her breath, but her arms come up around his shoulders, her hands brushing along the back of his neck. 

It’s relaxing and terrifying and exhilarating, all at the same time. MJ’s exhales are steady and slow against his ear and he closes his eyes, tucking his nose into her messy bun. 

“Are you dying?” she asks suddenly. 

“What?” he squeaks, pulling back and frowning. “No!”

“Am I dying?” she asks flatly, tilting her head to the side. 

“Why would you be dying?” he asks. 

She shrugs. “I dunno. That was weird.”

He shakes his head. “Nobody’s dying.”

“Okay,” she says slowly, eyeing him like she’s still suspicious. 

“I just… like… holding you,” he says, before grimacing, squeezing his eyes shut tightly. 

“Oh,” MJ says, blinking. “Um… cool.”

She doesn’t sound sure. 

“Really?”

But she’s leaning back into his space, her hand finding his on top of the covers as she presses her lips to his. It’s soft and slow, but her hand grips his tightly. He rests his free hand against her cheek, fingers brushing against the shell of her ear.

When she pulls away, she rests her forehead against his. 

“I’ve, um… never done this before,” she says softly. “I mean, the relationship thing, obviously, um…”

He can’t see her full face this close, but can make out the way her eyes are closed, just barely, eyelashes fanning down across her cheeks. He strokes his thumb against the side of her hand. 

“Or the friend thing really,” she adds. “So… I don’t know what I’m doing, with the whole… but, it’s… I, uh, like being close to you, too. So…” She clears her throat loudly, backing away and blinking around at his room, like searching for a diversion. 

“Okay,” he says, dumbly, nodding along. “That’s cool, that’s… yeah.”

They spend another second staring at each other, and he still can’t quite catalog all the dozens of little expressions across her face. 

“Movie?” she asks after the moment stretches out for too long. 

He lets her pick and barely dares to breathe when she guides his arms back around her waist and slumps back against the pillows. His head fits into the curve of her shoulder, which he quickly discovers is the ideal place to hear every little joke MJ makes under her breath. He can feel every rise and fall of her chest, and about halfway through the film, her hand comes up, raking through his hair in steady and rhythmic strokes. 

It’s calmer and softer than anything he’s felt in a really long time. 

The movie isn’t great (it’s French and really sad, he thinks), but he still feels a little pang in his chest when the credits start rolling. 

“You’re… the first person who’s ever wanted to be this close to me,” MJ breathes, almost quieter than he can hear, her eyes still glued on the screen, calmly, observationally. “And the only person I’ve wanted this close.”

It feels so heavy on his chest, like all the million times the reality of being Spider-Man hits him, the importance of something like this, the care he knows he has to approach it with. 

He tightens his arms around her, and wishes that he spent more time reading or paying attention in English or just anything to give him the words to respond to this properly. Because she deserves big words, poetry and eloquence and everything else gorgeous. 

“I never wanna let you go,” he whispers back, which isn’t enough but feels right.

And MJ glances over at him, raises her eyebrows just a little, like when she’s drilling him in decathlon or reading right through him, teasing and skeptical and cutting right through him. “Then don’t.” 

*

The worst part is she used to scoff at couples she saw all over each other. 

To be fair, most of those couples did often reach almost inexcusable levels of PDA, and she has enough courtesy for her fellow man to not suck face in the halls or classrooms or worst of all the cafeteria where people eat, goddamnit. 

But yet, here she is, skipping her sixth-period chemistry class to make out with Peter beneath the bleachers like a cliche wrapped in an aphorism. It’s almost a little too cold out to be doing this, winter hurtling around the corner at the city, but it means that no one else will be outside and Peter is quite literally inhumanly warm. 

She’s usually fond of pushing him up against flat surfaces when they do this, because his eyes get all big and shell-shocked. But she’s warmer like this, with her back against the wall and Peter pressed against her front. He has to lean up a little to kiss her, his hands sticking to the wall by her shoulders to keep his balance, so she lets hers settle against his sides. 

Kissing is weird when she thinks about it for too long or too abstractly, but unlike the couples all over the halls, she and Peter take their time with it. It’s relaxing, like a marathon, not a race. And there are all these little things that enhance it, the soft hitch to Peter’s breathing, the tip of his nose brushing against her cheek, the dumb slack-jawed look on his face every time they separate. 

She’d be content to do this forever. 

But she moves to slide her arms more securely around his waist and her hand slips into the space between his shirt and his jeans, finding warm bare skin. 

He gasps a little, spine straightening, and falls back from her onto his heels. 

She pulls her hands back to her sides quickly as he blinks at her and she blinks back. 

“Do you… uh, should I take my shirt off?” he asks, eager to please as ever. 

“No,” she replies before she can gather her thoughts and come up with a strategy. It’s not entirely the truth. She’s never been interested or impressed by muscles, but she is, always, very interested in Peter. The thought of expressing to him the exact intricacies of her interest though, namely that she thinks she might like him shirtless but might not and also definitely doesn’t want to even think about her shirt, is something she’s not ready for. 

“O-okay,” Peter agrees easily, even though he looks a little unsteady. 

“It’s cold,” she offers lamely.

“I don’t really get cold.” 

Which yes, they both know. She joked about it earlier even, that she was entitled to hot chocolate compensation for freezing her hands out here. 

“Did you hear the bell?” she asks, even though he can hear better than her and they still have ten minutes before periods shift. 

But even though Peter blinks at her with confusion, he follows her lead back towards the school building, holds her hand until they reach her French classroom.

“See you by the gate?” he asks. Because, gratefully while he doesn’t swing her home anymore, they do take the train together, sitting in the smaller two-person benches on the ends of the car. He sounds a little uncertain about it, which is fair, she is being weirder than normal about all this. 

“Yep,” she says, and then overthinks kissing him again, even though they’re in the hall and the periods are going to change at any second so there’s no pressure. But she just holds her hand out and Peter meets her in the middle for an awkward high-five-handshake hybrid that makes her want to die. 

She watches him head off down the hall with a tight smile, knowing that she’s gonna have to do something about this.

The issue is fucking middle school, again. 

Because she did her big soul searching and self-identifying in freshman year after reading every book the Queens library on Steinway had on queer theory and history, and she was all by herself for it. She hasn’t been close to people, hasn’t had any chance or reason to ever talk to anybody about this. No trial runs, no baseline for what this looks like, or if she needs a pamphlet or something. 

And there’s absolutely no reassurance that this won’t change everything. Because relationships are about more than butterflies and blushing. Relationships that go places are about compatibility and convergent desires. She’s not sure if she’s more scared of the fact that she wants this relationship with Peter to go all the places, or the idea that when it comes down to it their desires won’t converge.

She doesn’t know how to do this, how to just say something deeply personal, make herself intentionally vulnerable, lay this out in the open where they’ll have to talk about it. 

Middle school sucked and it was halfway in part because middle school always sucks, but the rest of it was because she opened herself again and again, telling people about the things that mattered to her, clinging to anything resembling interest in her, and getting looks and laughs and then nothing at all. Sitting at a table alone sucks so bad, but it sucks less when you choose to sit at an empty table instead of waiting for someone else to sit down, instead of watching people get up from your table and walk away. 

She avoids Peter for fifty-two hours, hiding in the bathroom after her last class and sends him a text about not feeling well, showing up late to school the next day, taking the back staircase between periods and sending texts with transparent excuses and the occasional meme to try to make up for it. She hides in her corners and eats her lunch in the empty auditorium and spends two nights unable to fall asleep without her arms wrapped around herself in a sad little facsimile of a hug. 

Somehow this being alone is worse than the way it was before. 

And then it’s the middle of the night after two days of Peter withdrawal and she gives up. She just won’t say anything, she decides, rolling out of bed and heading out the front door. She doesn’t have to say anything yet. It’ll be fine. They’ve only been together for a couple months, Peter is incredibly respectful of her boundaries, there’s no need to rush into this conversation. 

She quiets the voices in her head with the walk over and the fresh evening air, and by the time she reaches Peter’s bedroom window, after scrambling up the four stories of his fire escape, it’s fine, she has everything under control. 

“MJ?” Peter says, halfway between shocked and concerned, when he opens the window for her. “What are you… is everything okay?” 

“Yep,” she says, and learns quickly that there is no way to casually and coolly climb through a window. Her shoelace catches around something on the lip of the windowsill and she goes tripping into the room, nearly getting unfortunately intimate with the carpet before Peter catches her by the shoulders.

His hands are still warm and sure, and she’s already fighting against a smile, already feeling this bone deep relief to be here, to be with him, to not be alone again. He holds her steady as she gets her shoe untangled, pulls her foot properly into the room. 

“They teach you that in superhero school?” she asks him once she has her feet under her. 

He still looks a little confused but his eyes are bright and he’s smiling at her. He’s always just so happy to see her, never seeming to need or want anything more. It can’t possibly be her fault that this is driving her crazy. 

“It’s one-thirty in the morning, what are you doing here?” he asks, moving to close the window behind her. He still has homework spread out messily across his desk and she feels halfway guilty for the fact that she hasn’t seen him in two days so they haven’t been doing work together in the library during frees. “Not that I’m complaining. Because I’m absolutely not complaining, do I sound like I’m complaining?”

He doesn’t hesitate reaching for her, wrapping his arms around her in a secure hearty hug. This is what they do now. This is what she gets. Peter and hugs and an indescribable warmth that she’s been searching her whole life and didn’t even know. 

“I missed you,” she says, as unapologetically as she can manage, like she’s daring him to say something about it. 

He nuzzles his nose lightly against hers before he pulls away, and her heart stops, her brain fries. She wants this forever. She wants him forever. It’s gonna kill her to lose this. 

She didn’t know that there were all these little things she could want. She didn’t know they’d all feel so good. 

“Em,” he says sweetly. “I missed you too. Are you feeling alright? Did you see the nurse yet because I was looking into it and food poisoning usually isn’t supposed to last more than a couple hours so if you’re still feeling sick it might be something else.” He pulls a little further away, over to his bookshelf, gesturing vaguely to a sad little pile of medical stuff. “I tried to leave you some ibuprofen in your locker today, but I couldn’t figure out the combination lock and then Mr. Harrington saw me with the pill bottle and got the wrong idea so, uh…” 

“I’m not gonna have sex with you,” she says and almost physically feels the bandaid being ripped off. 

Peter freezes. “Um… okay,” he says slowly. “I mean… if you’re feeling sick we don’t have to kiss either or anything.”

“I’m fine,” she says, feeling the panic crash back in. For half a second the weight had been lifted, the brief relief that either way she wouldn’t have to keep worrying about this anymore, but now she’s right back in it, facing the reality of the either/or, that she’s gonna leave this conversation with everything squared away or she’s leaving it without Peter. “I’m feeling fine, I’m not sick.”

Peter nods like he’s relieved. She swallows hard.

“I’m just… not going to have sex with you, um, ever,” she repeats, unable to tear her eyes away from him as he blinks. “It’s not a you thing. It’s a me thing.”

Peter frowns, turning more fully towards her. “Oh… are you… breaking up with me?”

“No,” she says quickly, squinting at him like she’ll be able to see how he made that leap of logic. “I’m asexual.”

It takes her a second of watching his face flicker through expressions like a literal loading screen to realize that she said it. 

She’s never said it before. She’s never had anyone to say it to before, but she’s also never said it before. 

She feels a little tingly down to her fingers, the way she did back in London with Peter’s messy dirty face smiling at her, like pieces slotting into place, like she’s gonna be okay.

“Um,” she says after another moment of settling back into her skin. “It means—”

Peter nods. “I know,” he says. “It was in that YouTube video you sent me about heteronormativity and gender.”

“Oh,” she says. That was almost a year ago, and it’s almost distracting that he actually watched it because it was like forty-five minutes. “Cool.”

He nods again, jaw still working like he’s shaping his next words in his mouth before he says them. “So… are we okay?”

She swallows, trying not to think about how much she wants to be holding his hand right now. “Are we?”

He nods quickly, steps towards her almost hesitantly. “Yeah, of course.”

She narrows her eyes. “Are you sure? Because this isn’t gonna change, so…” It’s hard to keep her voice from wobbling. “So you should be sure.”

“MJ,” he says, moving closer again, face soft and open. “You’re already, like, the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” And she can’t not be holding his hand anymore, just reaches out and tugs his fingers into hers. “You know that, right?”

She gives a half-jerking nod, an attempt at some casually arrogant agreement, even though he can probably feel the way her hands are shaking. 

“You have been for a while,” he says, so earnest and careful. “So… yeah, as long as you're comfortable, then I think we’re okay.”

He's still looking at her like the ball’s in her court, like she has some judgment to pass and this isn’t, somehow, miraculously, the best case scenario. 

“Okay,” she says, like it’s that easy, and buries her face in his neck. She has to bend down a little to do it, but Peter rises up, leveraging himself with his feet against the wall behind him. His skin is warm and soft against hers, and she can close her eyes and breathe him in, that sweaty boy-ish smell, part New York, part superhero, part sharp woodsy deodorant. His hand rests easy against her back, tracing small circles against her jacket. His arm fits around the curve of her waist like it was always meant to be there. They lock like puzzle pieces, tight against each other, exact and secure. 

She’s not gonna let go. Ever maybe. She’s gonna have to plant roots or something, right here in Peter’s stained and grainy carpet, stare at the same Studio Ghibli poster for the rest of her life because she doesn’t want to let go, maybe can’t let go. 

“And, um,” he says gently, his voice soft and rumbling in her ear. “If you’re okay with telling May, she might let you sleep over.”

Okay, she can briefly let go. 

(May says yes. They wake up in the morning, curled together in Peter’s bed like a tied ribbon, all in and out and overlapping. She lets her hand rest against the dip of his lower back, right along the hem of his soft sleep shirt, and dozes off again with a smile.)