Excuses, Excuses ... (Part V)

A/N: I realize MJ's apartment probably doesn't have a balcony. It looked pretty small, and I don't remember seeing an outside door anywhere in her bedroom. However, I needed there to be one for all kinds of reasons, so I hope you can pretend with me that it does. I should add that one part of this chapter is once again heavily indebted to the movie. Parts of this chapter are also excessively fluffy. You have been warned.

It was time to end the fantasy. Peter leapt backwards across the narrow alley to the building opposite, and went bounding rapidly all the way up the wall by bouncing back and forth between the two buildings. Landing on the top of the apartment building where he'd left MJ, he paused a moment to catch his breath and to prepare himself to see her again. He felt a pang of guilt. He had no idea how much time had passed since he had left her up there ... twenty minutes? Half an hour? ... Another reason why they couldn't be together ... MJ deserved someone who could give her his undivided attention, who wouldn't keep her waiting or stand her up on dates. He sprang to the edge of the building, balancing himself on the high cement balustrade that surrounded it and looking down at her, as she stood on the top of the fire escape, waiting patiently.

She was leaning out over the metal railing of the fire escape, obviously wondering where he'd gone and perhaps trying to catch a glimpse of him. Even from the back, she was so beautiful that his throat closed with emotion. He didn't know what he was going to do when he'd sent her back to the arms of her boyfriend after tonight, except grieve. He'd been grieving her loss for two years, he knew. Sometimes he thought he mourned the loss of MJ almost as much as he had mourned the death of Uncle Ben.

Enough with the pity party, Parker, he told himself sternly, and jumped down off the balustrade, landing lightly just a few inches away from MJ. She started violently and pressed a hand to her chest.

"You surprised me!" she exclaimed with a little laugh.

"Sorry," said Peter, contritely. "Were you waiting long?"

"Just ten minutes," said MJ with a twinkle in her eye. "That's got to be a record for you. I can't remember the last time you kept me waiting for only ten minutes. And a very interesting ten minutes it was, too. I saw you catch that car on your shoulders and flip it onto the street."

"Oh well," shrugged Peter indifferently. He turned away from her, resting his hands on the railing and looking down at the intersection, where he could just make out Officer Flaherty writing in a little notebook under a streetlight. "I wouldn't have had to catch it, if I'd remembered to come back and get it down earlier."

MJ frowned. Something was wrong. She wished she could see Peter's face beneath his mask, but even though she could not, she could practically touch the blue funk hanging over his head. "What did that cop say to you?" she asked, quietly.

"Oh nothing ... he was just thanking me," Peter said diffidently. He turned back to her and added, "Let's get you home."

At that, she came willingly into his arms. He held onto her for a long moment, resting one gloved hand on her silky, sweet-smelling hair, and one on her slim waist. Then he gathered her up with his hands, jumping up onto the railing of the fire escape. He balanced there for a moment, keeping her tight against him.

"Are you ready?" he asked gently, resolved not to frighten her this time. When she nodded gravely, he sent out a web line, stretched it taut, and leaped off the railing.

For a second, MJ felt the familiar heart-stopping sensation of falling, but Peter let go of the thread almost immediately and fired out another web line so that they didn't fall far. As they rose towards the sky on the new line, MJ felt as free and as light as a bird. She'd had an interesting ten minutes watching Peter get that car down and thinking over all his contradictory actions during the past two years. In particular, she'd been remembering one heart-breaking conversation beside a gravestone. If she was honest with herself she had to admit that she'd never recovered from it. As soon as possible they were going to revisit that conversation, she had decided, standing alone on that fire escape.

Recalling all the intense or tender or passionate looks Peter had given her over the years, she was sure that Peter loved her – not just as a friend, but fervently and deeply. Hadn't the Green Goblin said so? Why else would he pick her of all people to taunt Peter with? She felt a fierce surge of anger at the monster who had tried to force Peter to choose between being a lover and a hero, when he was so obviously both. The whole incident, which had once been so mysterious and confusing to MJ, made sense now. And after tonight, she was certain that Peter's feelings for her were as strong as they had been the night he'd saved both her and those kids in the gondola car. She was equally certain that no one in her life had ever loved her as much as Peter loved her.

Her own emotions were still a confusing tangle, but she couldn't deny that her heart was drawn to Peter whenever she saw him. When she spotted him in a crowd, he seemed like the only real person there, and she could usually read his mood in seconds each time they were together. And unfortunately the deep pain she'd felt every time he'd abandoned her and left her alone with an empty chair was the most powerful, real emotion she'd felt over the last two years, too. She was beginning to be very afraid that she was still desperately in love with Peter – that she'd never stopped loving him.

No, it was more than that ... in a crystal instant of clarity, she knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that she couldn't survive without him. What had she been doing for two years but waiting? She'd always be waiting for him. She had thought she'd grown tired of waiting at last, but her anger and grief when Peter had apparently missed the play tonight proved that she wasn't yet ready to move on. Yes, MJ thought determinedly, tossing her now loose hair out of her eyes, they were definitely going to have that conversation soon.

They alighted, and MJ realized in shock that they had arrived at the small balcony behind her bedroom. She couldn't believe how quickly they'd reached her apartment. Come to think of it, Peter hadn't even asked her for directions – how had he known where to go? MJ found it very telling that Peter knew where she lived without asking.

Peter steadied MJ on her feet and then took his hands off of her. MJ's heart sank as she realized that their fantastic journey was over. Once again it was too soon. Once again there hadn't had been enough time for her to savor it, and she was left craving more of those indescribable sensations of rising, rushing and falling.

"Can you get in here?" Peter asked, looking at the door to her bedroom.

"The balcony is high enough off the ground that I don't normally keep this door locked," said MJ, reaching a hand out to the door knob. It turned easily and the door swung open, revealing a rosy glimpse of her bedroom, which was bathed in the golden glow of her little bedside lamp. MJ's heart was tripping fast in her chest: how many evenings had she stood out on her balcony, picturing Spider-Man swinging down to her, and imagining a romantic idyll between them – and now it was really happening! She turned to Peter in excitement, only to find him backing away from her.

"Well, I'll be going, then, MJ," Peter was saying.

"What?" said MJ in dismay. "No! Stay! We can talk out here, or I can give you something to drink inside ..."

"No, I'd better be going," Peter insisted. "I've got lots of papers and assignments to catch up on."

MJ's lips tightened when she heard that familiar excuse. "Can't we talk a little more?" she pleaded.

Peter sighed. He pulled his mask off his face, ruffling his hair with a gloved hand, and making it stand up on one side. He never could resist MJ when she wore that adorable look of entreaty. "What do you want to talk about now?" he said impatiently, folding his arms across his chest. Avoiding her eyes, he looked down at the row of little pots, full of tiny seedlings, that MJ had lined up along either side of the balcony door.

For a moment, MJ was at a loss for words, and then she bravely decided to jump in with both feet. "I've been thinking about us," she said conversationally.

Oh great, thought Peter. He felt grumpy that they were going to have this conversation now, after such an emotionally exhausting evening. "What us?" he shot back snarkily. He tossed his mask irritably onto the back of a nearby wicker chair.

MJ raised her eyebrows at that. "You're right," she said coolly. "There's never been an us ... and I've been wondering why for a long time."

Peter was getting more ticked off by the second. "MJ, we're friends. That's why there is no us."

MJ couldn't believe it. Before her eyes, the earnest, sweet and confident man with whom she'd spent the last two hours was transforming into that incredibly annoying, shifty-eyed man she knew so well from various missed dates. "Of course there's no us," she snapped. Her eyes glittered and blazed with green sparks. "Because you won't get on board. Well, Peter, you know, you can't get off if you won't get on."

"I don't want to get on ... or off, for that matter," Peter exploded. He closed his eyes and pressed his gloved fingers to his temples to calm himself down. He certainly didn't want to be yelling at MJ. He knew why he was angry ... he was frustrated at the whole horrible, unresolvable situation.

He opened his eyes and there was MJ, standing so close to him that he could feel the heat radiating off her body and smell the lavender scent clinging to her clothes. She leaned so far into him that all he could see were her wonderful green eyes, which he stared into as if hypnotized.

"Don't you?" she whispered, giving him the most alluring look he'd ever seen.

"No," he breathed, trying to back away.

MJ swallowed, feeling the prick of tears in her eyes. She was not going to cry, dammit! She was an actress, after all. She took a step nearer to him, aligning her body with his so that they were almost touching at every point.

"Peter ... do you love me or not?" she pressed, keeping her eyes wide and clear, and then sweeping the lashes down over her cheeks and back up again, shooting Peter a second provocative look that pierced right through him.

Peter's heart sank. After an evening of refreshing, powerfully liberating openness, it nauseated him that he was going to have to lie to Mary Jane again. He'd always hated it, which was why his excuses had been so lame, and now he could hardly make himself do it. He tried envisioning the Green Goblin dropping MJ off the bridge; he tried recalling her scream as she lost hold of the cable of the gondola car. But all that horror was drifting away from him under the beguiling spell of MJ's eyes. Finally, without any resources left to rely on except his own will, he simply said, "I don't," and looked away.

"You don't," said MJ flatly. Peter shook his head determinedly, still ducking her icy glare. MJ thought idly that it was strange she wasn't feeling as destroyed as the last time Peter had rejected her. Instead, she felt almost numb. Numb and disgusted. There were those shifty eyes again. The sight of them reminded MJ of her realization earlier and she decided she had to get through Peter's protective wall somehow. She knew he loved her, she was sure of it – and she was going to prove it to both of them. If knocking at his door wouldn't do it, she'd just have to use dynamite.

"I need you to do something for me, Peter," she said sweetly.

Peter looked up into MJ's face at that, and was arrested by the dangerous spark that was leaping into her eyes. "What?" he asked warily.

"Kiss me."

Transfixed, Peter just stared at her for a moment. Had she said what he thought she'd said? No way was he going to kiss her; if he started, he seriously doubted that he would be able to bring himself to stop. That kind of intimate contact would also make it impossible for him to disguise his feelings ... which he had no doubt was exactly the reason why MJ was suggesting it.

"K-kiss you?" he stammered. He struggled to maintain his resolve but, unfortunately for him, the expression on MJ's beautiful face was becoming openly seductive. At the sight of it, he wanted to kiss her more than ever; he could barely restrain himself. He took another step backward, and found he had backed himself into the side wall of MJ's balcony.

"I need to know something," breathed MJ into his face. Her breath was deliciously cool and smelled of strawberries. She lifted her hand and placed it palm forward on his chest, causing Peter to stand bolt upright at the electrifying sensation. "Just one kiss," she insisted softly. Then she pursed her lips, lustrous in strawberry lip gloss. Taking a step forward until her slender body was brushing against him, she tilted her face up to his.

This is a bad idea ... scratch that, this is a horrendously bad idea, Peter thought desperately. But suddenly he found he couldn't help himself, couldn't prevent what he was going to do, even though what was left of his rational mind was begging him not to do it, frantically telling him to swing away.

Their lips were almost touching. He could smell the delicate floral scent of her hair, see her tawny eyelashes fan gracefully over fair cheeks as her eyelids fluttered closed, and nearly taste her luscious mouth. In a last-ditch effort at self-preservation, Peter whispered, "Don't you have a boyfriend?"

With a jolt, MJ remembered John. She hadn't thought about him once since Louise had mentioned him at the theater hours ago. He seemed to belong to another life, to someone else's life, not to the life of Mary Jane Watson, that extraordinary girl loved by the amazing Spider-Man himself. She spared John a pang of guilt, because he was just so nice that he didn't deserve to come second, and then she pushed him resolutely out of her mind. A girl had to do what a girl had to do. And Peter was still trying to get away from her, damn him!

"I don't know, Peter Parker," she murmured with an enticing smile, "I think it depends on you ... tell me, do I have a boyfriend?" She arched an eyebrow, and the look she gave him could have melted steel.

Peter breathed hard. His eyes were on her exquisite pink mouth, which was once again forming a perfect rosebud. It looked so delectable that he couldn't tear his gaze away ... and all at once, before he knew it, his lips were on hers and she was enclosed tightly in his arms and he was kissing her, oh boy, was he kissing her, without knowing quite how he had begun. She tasted sweet, like strawberries, and it was all so good, so delicious, that he dipped in again and again, trying to get more. His head spun, and in the dizzying swirl of emotion and sensation he knew only one thing: he could never get enough of MJ Watson. He lifted her slight form right off the ground and cradled her against his chest, spinning her slowly around and pressing her into the wall of her building with his body, and still he went on kissing her. He kissed her with all the pent-up hunger and frustration of his lonely, isolated life, finally allowing the passionate emotions he'd bottled up for years to burst forth and overwhelm him. Inwardly, he exulted in his total loss of control, because kissing MJ felt as liberating and as exhilarating as flying; it was even better than web-slinging.

MJ kissed Peter back just as eagerly, passionately and wholeheartedly, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him as close as possible. Her heart swelled with happiness and wonder while her body stirred fiercely, coming alive. Peter's clinging kisses, which sometimes lingered fervently and sometimes brushed her lips with feather-like touches, scorching and tantalizing them, were driving her wild. She felt her knees buckle, and she was sure that she would have fallen if he hadn't picked her up and supported her back against the wall. Then, incredibly, Peter's kisses deepened further. Their heat and tenderness moved her profoundly, causing two tiny tears of joy to begin seeping from underneath her eyelids.

Feeling ecstatic at this overwhelming evidence of Peter's love, MJ broke the kiss for a moment. She had something to prove. As she pulled away, Peter gently set her back down and buried his face in her hair, murmuring "MJ ... oh, MJ ..." over and over in a husky voice while stroking her back lightly with his gloved hands. MJ felt her lips curve in a triumphant smile, and stepped back a little within the circle of Peter's arms to look into his stormy blue eyes. They were naked, seemingly completely bottomless, full of need and wonder and ... love.

"See, Tiger?" MJ said roguishly, "That was the kiss of a man in love. I've felt it twice before, so I know it well." Smiling radiantly, she reached up to kiss him again ... but all at once he reared back and slipped out of her clutching hands.

At her words, Peter's heart had plummeted. He was caught and he knew it. He looked at MJ almost fearfully, with a deer-in-the-headlights sort of look. The real world was crashing back around him with all of its ugliness and pain, its violence and misery. What did he think he was he doing? He would always be Spider-Man; he had no choice. And Spider-Man's destiny was a solitary one. It had to be, or people, precious people like Mary Jane Watson, would get hurt or even killed.

With nowhere left to hide, and no excuses left to offer, Peter did the only thing he could think of in his panic: he caught up his mask and fled, taking a swift and silent swan dive backwards off the balcony.

He didn't allow himself to fall far, though, flipping himself under MJ's balcony and hanging there beneath it for an instant while he tried to collect himself. His heart was pounding, his blood was pulsing heatedly throughout his body, his eyes were burning, and he felt sick with self-loathing and regret. As he had slipped out of MJ's arms and backflipped off her balcony, he'd heard her give a startled cry of distress, and he knew that he had once again wounded her to the core. Now he could hear muffled sobs coming from above him, and he hated himself for breaking her heart a second time. Why had he allowed the two of them to spend so much time together and to get so close? he raged. How could he have permitted her to discover his secret? Why had he indulged himself by holding her in his arms, by kissing her, for God's sake? His actions had been prompted by a selfishness of the worst kind.

He quickly swiped the back of his hand over his eyes to dash away some scalding tears of anger and shame. As he did so, he remembered the mask, which he was clutching in the hand that he wasn't using to grip the underside of the balcony. Better pull it on – better remember that it was his life. If he'd acted responsibly and remembered Spider-man's job earlier, he would never have gone to the play, never have tried to justify himself to MJ, never have led her on by spending so much time with her. If he'd only stayed completely away from her, he could have avoided causing them both the grief and anguish he could hear in MJ's sobs. He'd better make sure that he learned from this mistake and left her alone from now on.

He pulled on his mask and crawled sideways along the building and around two of its corners, until he was clinging to the wall on the side farthest from MJ's balcony. This wall faced in the opposite direction and he knew he could launch himself away from her building without MJ seeing him. If he could manage to stay in the air, that is. His limbs felt like they were made of lead, and his heart felt even heavier. Bleakly, he raised an arm, wrist bent and facing upwards, in order to fire a web line, and a gossamer strand of the thinnest, wispiest web he'd ever created issued forth. It looked like it might disintegrate entirely at his touch. Heedless of its fragility, he caught the flimsy thread and pulled it taut. Then Spider-man swung away into the darkness, numb with misery.

MJ was sitting huddled in her wicker chair. She'd wept helplessly for the first few minutes after Peter had so suddenly disappeared from her balcony, but now she felt as though she literally had no tears left to cry. She pushed some damp strands of hair back from her face, and tried to understand what had just happened. One minute she'd had everything: knowledge of Peter's secret life – knowledge he had willingly shared with her! – Peter in her arms, Peter's wonderful kisses, the certainty of his love. The next minute she had nothing. Peter had disappeared so quickly that she hadn't even seen which way he'd gone, and she also had no idea why he'd left in the first place. Hadn't he trusted her with his secret? Surely he should know that he could trust her with his heart as well?

Feeling utterly drained, MJ stretched her cramped muscles and stood up. She walked to the edge of the balcony and peered out into the darkness, as if she could still catch a glimpse of Peter swinging high above the city in the distance. Remembering their spectacular flight, she understood now that Peter had meant it as a farewell. His revelation next to that mangled bike had not been intended as a way for him to let her into his life, or to allow her to share his burden, but as an excuse – the most plausible, the best and most satisfactory excuse he'd ever given her – but an excuse all the same. It was an excuse for why they could never be together. What had he said? Spider-Man doesn't leave much room for Peter Parker. All at once, although she had thought she'd cried herself out, hot tears were stinging her eyes again. Why don't I get to have any say in this decision? MJ thought piteously. Why can't he respect me enough to let me make up my own mind? She couldn't believe he'd placed her in the same hateful position again: once more he'd gone off and she'd been left behind wondering.

MJ turned her back on the city and walked through the half open door of her balcony into her bedroom. Her small apartment appeared forlorn in its emptiness, the normally cheery theatrical posters on her living room wall looking garish and discordant in the shadows cast by the solitary light of her little bedside lamp. The digital clock beside her bed read 1:30 am ... wow, it hardly seemed possible that she could have experienced so many emotions in the three short hours since she'd left the theater. No wonder she felt completely wrung out.

MJ unwound her scarf, took off her trench coat and hung it in her closet, and began to get ready for bed. She was just coming out of the bathroom in her robe, brushing her hair, when she noticed the light blinking on the answering machine. Oh dear, she could bet she knew who that was: good, reliable John, calling her to find out how the play had gone tonight and to tell her how much he'd missed her, just as he'd done nearly every night of the two weeks he'd been away. She crossed over to the machine and pressed the playback button.

"Hi, honey," came John's cheerful voice. "Gosh, I'm sorry I missed you. I came to the theater tonight after the show. That was my surprise – they let us go a day early. But you'd already gone. Your friend Louise said you left in a hurry to go back to your apartment, so I hope you get this message. I'd still like to see you tonight. Call me at Dad's. I love you."

MJ looked at the machine quietly and weighed her options. She could go on with her life as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened, call John tomorrow – it was too late to call him now – maybe meet him for breakfast. She could continue a normal relationship with a good, ordinary guy who would always be there for her. That was what Peter had intended her to do, she was sure of it. Or she could ... what? Wait around for Peter to come to his senses? Call and give him a piece of her mind? Confront him face-to-face? She wasn't sure, but she was sure of one thing. Whatever Peter had meant to do by letting her in on his secret, he had also done something she knew he hadn't intended to do. He had made it impossible for her to return to that ordinary life. With a slowly forming resolution growing in the back of her mind, MJ pressed the delete button on her answering machine and went to bed.

The End

A/N: This is really the end, folks! Thanks for reading!