Peter’s used to it. The dull, constant tingling signaling every passing thing, every breath, every sound.
But this isn’t dull. It’s a screeching in his head, the thunder of a migraine he associates with nightmares and falling too fast and too far.
He shuts his eyes. There’s too much stimuli, too much data—the AcaDec team’s on the way home from Regionals, and winning has made them rowdy. Plus, this tingling—it’s making him dizzy, and he’s not sure how his lunch is still down.
“Peter,” Ned whispers behind him on the bus. “Are you seeing this?”
No, he is not. He is trying to sleep.
He feels it, though. The hairs on his arm rising. Peter’s eyes shoot open, and there they are—hair standing straight up, as if pulled by…
The window shows him the circular...ship? It looks alien at best, world-ending at worst. Something is casting its shadow over Manhattan, and he is stuck on a bus full of high schoolers, about to cross a bridge.
“Dude, what is that thing?” Ned asks under the buzz of all the other kids leaning up against the windows.
Someone shoves their way through the bus to their seats.
Peter knows her gait too well to bother turning. He keeps his eyes on the Crazy Floating Thing, hoping someone’s about to call and explain.
“Peter,” Michelle says by his ear. No loser. No nerd. Just Peter. “If you need to go,” she whispers, huddled by his side on the window now, “I can handle the distraction.” There’s a terseness to her voice that is more than the norm.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he whispers back.
The bus is on the bridge.
Ned is shaking beside him, one hand on a window and the other gripping his backseat.
“Don’t insult my intelligence, or you’re back to first alternate.” Michelle’s eyes are on The Contraption. She shifts her body downward, and when she’s at full height again, his backpack is being shoved to his thigh. “Go.”
(They find out for the first time that the emergency brake on school buses actually work, and that running out of cars like in movies gets you farther and safer than previously thought. Ned’s the one who convinces Michelle to follow him to Peter’s apartment, and they hole up there until the news starts and they get a bearing on what’s actually happening.
Their families—and May—say to stay put.
They’re pretty bad about listening to them.)
Thanos is very big. That’s about all Peter can register before Doctor Strange does the weird magic thing, and then they’re not watching from a bunker—they’re in a fight.
“Let’s go Underoos!” Tony yells, grabbing his attention from fifteen feet above him. “Avengers! Assemble!”
Maybe they should’ve gone and seen that Broadway show earlier. Like, last week. May really wanted to—now he’s not sure it’s going to be able to run after, well, Times Square gets razed.
He wonders where she is. If she’s safe. If Ned picked her up and got out of town.
If the Midtown kids are alive.
He thinks, I’m going to see them again.
Tony yells for backup and he’s swinging, swinging, swinging.
The closer he gets the louder the sensations feel in his head, around his body. He’s where the Floaty Circle Ship Thing is, and Peter’s headed straight for the big guy in the scary throne.
He closes his eyes on the last swing and everything feels like a slow-mo shot in an action film.
“Karen,” he whispers. “Call Ned and May.” A pause. “And MJ.”
“Cellular satellites are out of service.”
“Are you recording?”
“I am always recording.”
“‘Kay. Hey, guys.”
Air rushes around him. He’s tilting up.
“I’m gonna try to kick Thanos' butt now. I love you. Especially you, May. Thanks for everything. I’ll try not to die. But, um, if I do, Ned can have my laptop, and MJ can have that book she's been trying to steal for—”
Crash, above him.
"—Okay, gotta go for real. I love you. I'll see you soon."
Peter’s wondering why death is so...blank.
No music, nothing to see—oh, is that the proverbial light?
...Should he follow it?
He should follow it. Maybe Ben’s there. And his parents.
Maybe even Tony and Steve, unless they’re okay and it’s just him who fell all the way down the rabbit hole.
What a sucky thought. The one Avenger casualty is the youngest one. Tony’s gonna kill him if that’s true.
He’s already dead.
Huh. He’s not thinking things through so well in this state.
“One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand…” he chants to himself. It takes twenty-six one thousands to reach the light.
It’s a pretty big light. LED. Seems to surround anything and everything with a dull white-yellow glow.
“Why does the afterlife smell like the shoe floor at the 6th Ave Macy’s?” he asks in a raspy voice to no one in particular.
“‘Cause you’re not dead, loser.”
He jumps, and the tall off-white-tiled walls come into view. Ah, except for that one spot he must’ve crashed through. Very much not white on that part.
He’s starting to feel the pain creep in. “Ow.”
He feels familiar hands grab and drag him to one of the special brand alcoves, careful to avoid tumbled shoe shelves and fallen debris. Michelle’s hands, and Ned’s. Hands he’s used to having on his shoulders and back at lunch or on the couch, not stained with his blood and looped across his torso for support.
“What are you guys doing here?” he asks from his nice, comfy spot on the carpet at Burberry.
“Something stupid,” Ned says with a grin, already pulling out bandages from one of the many stacked first aid kits they must’ve salvaged from around the store. “May’s fine, Tony got her out before he could catch us.” He passes them to Michelle and proceeds to plug his laptop into Peter’s suit.
“What are you—”
Peter hears it.
Or, the lack of it.
As far as he can tell, his mask is still on his face, but the AI he’s grown fond of isn’t talking back anymore.
He scrunches up his face, but the eyes on his mask don’t follow. “Where’s Karen?”
“Downed by some special EMP,” Ned replies, tap-tap-tapping away. “Don’t worry, I’ve been keeping a backup since last year. Tony, uh, doesn’t know about it.” He grins sheepishly, but the tapping continues.
Peter feels his mask getting tugged from behind, and he instinctually catches his friend’s hands before they can pull the fabric off.
First thought: MJ has callouses.
Second thought: I am holding her hands.
Third thought: Where are my gloves?
“Hey, it’s okay,” she says soothingly, which he didn’t know was all that possible outside of talking to little nerdlets—the kids in her outreach program—and he feels very fortunate to be one of the few people over twelve to be on the receiving end of her cooing. “I just need to check your face, Pete. That cool?”
“You know,” he says, loosening his grip but not letting go of her hands. He’s still wearing his gloves, he concludes. They’re just not whole anymore.
“I’ve known,” she says, slowly removing the mask from the back forward. “Why do you think I let you skip practice with minimal punishment? Or completely ignore that fact that you show up with a limp the days after Spider-Man supposedly gets shot while on patrol?”
Peter mutters something like, I dunno, I thought you liked me, and the disinfectant-soaked gauze being pushed over a gash on his jaw has more than the necessary force to it.
Michelle’s face is unreadable. “Watch it, idiot, or the next cut’s getting pure isopropyl.”
Ned laughs at his pain, because that’s what friends are for.
(He’s up and running in what feels like the longest five minutes of his life, forcing his friends out of the city proper before he tries to regain contact with Strange.
Ned hugs him harder than Hulk, and Michelle tells him if he dies he doesn’t get any more free passes for AcaDec.
He doesn’t hug her or anything, and it annoys him to no end within his conscience when he’s back with Tony and outfitted in his new—bulletproof!—suit, because he has no idea if they’re safe, if she’s safe, if she cares.)
So, on some weird scale, the whole Thanos thing at least teaches him a little about alien genetics.
Namely, they make zero sense to him.
Why is Gamora green? Why is Nebula blue? Like, okay, looks department could be their mom’s side(s), but? The color thing? What the heck’s up with that?
Aside from that, though, there’s also the whole, Everyone Ignored The Accords Because They Suck thing, but he’s pretty sure half the UN staff is hiding in a bunker anyway. Captain America’s group moved faster than the State-side Avengers, so that questionable piece of paper is either going to be erased from legislature or amended, no question about it.
Something in Peter’s brain clicks while Karen fires off calculations in his Iron Spider suit as he swings towards one of the scarier henchmen with Hawkeye watching his back.
Michelle’s been going to a lot of those protests.
The ones about the Accords.
She’d been taking Ned, sometimes Cindy or Abe. But she’d been going.
And she knew, this whole time, she knew.
“Kid, watch your six!” Hawkeye yells into the comms, and Peter remembers why one should never be distracted while driving and/or swinging.
“Mmph,” he groans, catching a mouthful of—The Spaceship Has Arms Now.
Ned’s gonna freak out about this when he tells him.
“Welcome back to the land of the living. Don’t eat any pomegranate seeds, we don’t like it when you visit Hades,” Michelle says casually, slumping down beside him on the outskirts of Astoria.
Their city should be a mess. It should be on fire, or at least missing some skyscrapers.
But those infinity stones…
Peter shudders, wishing he’d made the trek back here in his suit before he feels a jacket plop over him. “She just said not to die, dude,” Ned says above him.
“Those things were weird,” Peter says.
“I’ve seen weirder,” Michelle quips.
Ned turns to her as he sits down on the other side of his best bud. “Where?”
She juts a thumb at Peter, smirking. “Don’t know if you caught on, but Spider-Man is a high school senior of questionable social standing and still managed to stay out of the Raft for the past two years.”
Peter and Ned squint at her in unison, but only Peter speaks. “You know about the Raft?”
She shrugs. “One of my best friends is a hacker. I get to read confidential information before bed.”
“He must be very good,” Peter adds, smiling.
They look at Ned, and Michelle grins. “He’s the freakin’ best.”
“Awww, guys,” Ned says, sniffling. He leans over and makes an attempt to hug them both. “Keep it coming, don’t mind me, I’m just extra emotional from almost dying.”
They sit like that for a while, Peter sandwiched between his two favorite people under the age of...whatever age May is, squished beyond belief onto Michelle’s (sharp) jaw on one side, and Ned’s unbelievably soft hair on the other. He’s content to feel them breathing for a while, content to stay here and watch the magic buzz of New York coming back to life like nothing’s happened, because that’s just what it does.
His phone buzzes in his pocket. It’s May, asking when he’ll be back home. If he wants pizza. If Ned and MJ want to come over.
The sun slows its descent, casting a warm glow on the three of them. This is contentment, he realizes: being alive. Having someone who cares enough to worry. Having someone who chases you into chaos to make sure you’re okay. Having someone to love.
To be loved.
He texts back: yes + yes.
“How did you find me?” he asks with a dry throat and a happy heart. Ned’s loosened his grip by now, but he’s still in Cuddle Mode, leaning over his friends lazily.
“We may have snuck into the city right after ditching Stark,” Michelle replies, head leaning on his shoulder and an arm lazily draped behind him, reaching for Ned. "Followed Ned's tracker."
“I may have hot-wired a car,” Ned adds to his right.
“It may have been a police cruiser,” Michelle finishes, and readjusts her position. Her hair tickles his neck, but he’s not about to tell her to move.
“Sorry,” he says, a light, empty laugh escaping him. “I think I made you vigilantes.”
“Eh,” Ned says, waving a hand, “I kinda already was. By association.”
Peter laughs. It’s true. “Oh, hey, not that I don’t enjoy the cuddle puddle, but May’s buying us pizza. Wanna head out?"
Michelle stands, brushing off her jeans. There’s blood on the cuffs and more where she’d put his head on her lap, but she’s whole. Singed a bit, but whole. She offers a weak smile. “I’m actually, I, uh. I’m gonna go home, check up there. Y’know.”
Ned nods from the ground. “No problem, MJ.”
Peter’s a dunce. “Oh. Right, yeah, um, tell me—us, tell us if you need anything.”
“Stay safe, dude,” Ned says, getting up and giving her another hug.
She hugs him back, patting his head when he pulls away. “Don’t even think about changing your grade for History.”
Ned scoffs—like he would dare. “I would never—”
“Just because the school database got ‘reverted’ doesn’t mean it’s a cool move, Leeds.”
“...Fine,” he whines.
Peter's watching them like they’re not real, not alive, not safe. Illusions he’s being granted for making it this far. The tingling is back, but it feels off.
He doesn’t remember grabbing onto Michelle’s hand the same time she gives them a final, “Bye, losers.”
“Hey,” he says.
She raises a brow at him. “That’s the opposite of what you say when someone says ‘bye’, Peter.”
“Sorry,” he says, squeezing her hand. “Thank you.”
Michelle hesitates. She waiting for a goofy smile, a joke, maybe. But all he does is hold her gaze like it’s glass, breathing.
Ned watches. He was always pretty good about watching when he takes the time to slow down.
So he knows how they would take turns glancing. He knows when Michelle’s posture is a little more saggy than usual, because her grandma's not doing so well. He knows when Peter’s trying to hide a wince when Flash slaps his shoulder, because there's a huge bruise there.
He knows when the eyebags Michelle has are from nightmares and not from studying all night.
He knows when Peter’s staring at Michelle because he doesn’t know what to say, other than ‘thank you’, when he could be saying ‘I’m so glad you know my secret because I feel guilty about hiding it from you even though you’re the third to our trio and I almost lost you today and, and, and’.
...Thankfully, Michelle’s smart and gets the message. She squeezes back. “Just...show up for Decathlon, okay?”
Peter’s face is sad and taught and exhausted. “Okay.”
They get pizza, and Peter drops Ned off at home.
None of them fall asleep.
Peter’s used to nightmares. Used to Ben, or his parents. Used to showing up to school with no pants on. Used to the world ending. Constantly.
He’s not used to the part where his aunt doesn’t get whisked away to a shelter before he can get to her.
Or that new one, where his friends are caught on the way home, because he was in a hurry to rejoin the fray.
Or the one where Tony doesn’t wake up.
He doesn’t like these nightmares. They’re not about him anymore. They’re about other people. People he loves. His family. His Spidey-Squad, as Ned would put it.
He sees his therapist twice a week on a good week, and won’t admit how many times on a bad one. She’s this nice middle-aged lady at the facility upstate, and Shuri’s holographic communicators make it easier on him when he can’t swing over after school.
One day, Michelle tosses him an empty sketchbook in the hallway, like that’s the most natural teenage thing to do. Lob a sketchbook from ten feet away and assume it’ll land on your friend’s hands instead of a passing freshman’s head.
“What’s this for?” he asks. It’s a plain, black-covered, unimpressive, cheap tool.
“It’ll help,” she answers, deadpan with no sting. “Trust me.”
(Ned shows up later and asks him if he, too, received flying bound-paper-mail via school hallway this fine morning.
Peter laughs a yes.
Ned’s has wires doodled all over the front page. Peter’s is blank.)
(...Until he gets home and finds a letter tucked under a flap on the back binding.)
Peter writes her a letter every other day, and she does the same.
Michelle compiles the footnotes, the essays, the sprawling worlds he’s created on paper—every piece of his fragmented brain trying to just.
To remember what wholeness is like.
...Ned doesn’t tell Peter it was his idea. He lets him live in a world where Ned Leeds is oblivious to his friends' new habit of shoving papers and post-its into the other's bag, even if one time Michelle had to leave for the hospital and couldn't have possibly gotten her—three-page—letter into Peter's bag without superspeed.
It happens, finally, one week to graduation.
Peter feels it.
He’s swinging, the dull tingling running through his brain, expanding the world one millisecond at a time. There’s a light on a car five paces away, an engine, a pair of feet. He can hear again, as if it’s the first time—one floor up is a television running, a sink dripping, a sizzling plate being carried from a kitchen.
There it is, he thinks. He doesn’t know what it is, exactly, but it’s there.
He calls up Ned.
“I can breathe,” Peter whispers, running faster and faster on a rooftop, before jumping. “I can breathe, Ned.”
“Pete,” Ned replies, awestruck. “Man. That’s great, dude. That’s so great.”
Peter nods, even if his friend can’t see. There’s that light again—not LED, not too bright. Just enough.
(He tells May when he gets home by hugging her and laughing, for real for the first time in months. She buys him Thai food and they walk around the block four times over to relish the sounds.
He tells Michelle when he sneaks out at eleven, rap-rap-rapping on her window. He’s finally got that goofy smile she’s been expecting, and she smiles back, because he’s earned it.
He stays for a minute, just smiling and laughing and looking at her, because it’s nice.
It’s nice to remember how to live.)
They sit on the couch in Peter’s apartment in their graduation attire, Michelle’s feet by his face as she lounges on Ned’s side.
Not the smartest idea to shove the tallest person in the middle, but it’s still comfortable.
“Gonna be super maroon at Harvard and MIT when we move,” Ned says, chugging down soda.
“Oh. Ew. You’re right,” Michelle says. “There’s already a ton of Spider-Man paraphernalia on campus. It’s abhorrent.”
Peter smiles. He’s doing that a lot more now again. It feels nice. “Can’t get rid of me, MJ.”
“Not like I want to,” she mutters, shoving toast into her mouth.
He smirks. “Heard that.”
She sticks her tongue out at him. “Don’t care.”
Ned starts laughing behind her, shaking her off. “That was real smooth.”
Michelle tries to tuck her bangs away, fails, then shakes her head so her ponytail smacks Ned in the face.
Peter smiles wider, teeth present. “Thanks for taking care of me, guys.”
“You say that like we’re done,” Michelle snorts, forcefully leaning back on Ned. “Which is stupid, because you’re gonna get in trouble at Cambridge. Because you’re Spider-Man.”
“Don’t worry, Pete,” Ned says, twisting enough to have line-of-sight on Peter, but still not take in a mouthful of Michelle's hair. “If you get smacked down in—anywhere, y’know? We’ll find you. We’ve got you.”
“Except during finals,” Michelle cuts in. “I will not ‘got you’ during finals.”
Ned squints at her, tone accusing. “You checked on him every day after school during finals week to make sure he took a nap at least.”
She’s not blushing. Peter’s not blushing. It’s just...warm. “Kinda suspect if super-nerd here failed Physics, okay?”
“I hate you, Leeds.”
He hums louder.
“But Peter,” she continues, pointedly nudging her living armrest. “Seriously? We’ll come running. Don’t say we can’t, ‘cause we’ll do it anyway.”
Ned grins, offering a thumbs-up. “Always, dude. Alien or nah, we’d do cardio for you.”
Peter Parker cries a lot.
He’s an emotional boy, and it’s a good thing.
But nothing, by far, has made him cry harder, for a happier reason, than hearing his best friends say they’ll do cardio for him.