Woohoo, update. This is a plotty chapter, without much fun I'm afraid. Because there was such a delay and then the chapter you finally are getting isn't all that fluffy in terms of Alex/Peter platonic!Broship, there'll be another chapter up this week. Yep, I'm on a roll.
I hope you enjoy it!
P.S I now have a tumblr. The URL is hold-it-hawkeye and you should totally check me out there for any questions/chats/pictures of pretty boys you might like to see.
The path was bustling with movement when I stepped off the tube.
It was almost enough to send me straight back onto the next one home, but I grit my teeth and elbowed my way through the crowds to the concrete steps, towards the light of the street outside.
Fresh air wasn't exactly an accurate way to describe what I exited to, but the smell of the city was salvation enough after nearly an hour waiting for the tube, followed by twenty minutes standing in it.
I kept a brisk pace as I made my way along the footpath, turning corners and crossing twice before I finally got away from the main hussle of the tube exits and the crowds started to disperse.
There was really no good excuse for my presence in the city on a Saturday afternoon. I'd known it was going to be busy, so I couldn't complain about the crowds. Not that it stopped me, but hey, my thoughts are my own.
The truth was, it was a certain someone's birthday on Tuesday, and I wanted the Sunday before school to hibernate from the world. It took a full day to recover from shopping, after all. So Saturday it was.
I wasn't entirely sure whether Peter and I were at that stage yet. We hadn't known each other for one of my birthdays, to be honest I don't think he even knew when my birthday was. But I couldn't imagine he'd let it go without at least a gesture, and I didn't intend to let his pass us by unnoticed.
So it was that I'd put on my big girl panties this morning and decided to brave the crowds of New York just long enough to grab Peter a gift to acknowledge that he had aged another year. Let's face it, with the way he'd been going lately it was a miracle.
I crossed another street and slowed down, finally starting to scan the streets for a shop that looked like it might hold something that would appeal to him. I knew him well enough that I felt confident I'd find something he'd like, but when it came to where exactly I started my search, I was stumped.
After a few minutes of aimless strolling and passive-aggressive glaring when people hit me with their shopping bags, I spotted a store across the road. It was small and boxed-in between two larger shops, stacked with books in the window on top of which sat action figures and cut-outs of popular television characters.
Now that I'd seen it, it seemed obvious that a comic book store was the place to go for nerd-boy. Without hesitation, I walked to the traffic lights and crossed with the crowd. The door was wooden and windowless, more like a house door than an entrance to a shop. It creaked when I pushed it open, and straight away I found four pairs of eyes on me.
They were all standing in a huddle around the counter, and looked genuinely surprised to see that someone had come in. Two of them were teenage girls, one holding a graphic novel and clearly in the middle of discussing it with the others.
The other two were a middle-aged woman and a teenage boy , both wearing black shirts emblazed with the name of the store. The woman wore thick rimmed glasses, pushed up on her head to hold blonde hair from her face.
She grinned broadly, the look of surprise sliding from her face. "Hey there. You need any help just call."
The others quickly resumed talking and looked away from me. Relieved, I smiled and nodded before hurrying to the back of the store. In truth, the place was so cramped and tiny that the back of the store wasn't very far from the counter, but it was at least hidden behind ceiling-high stacks of books and character cut-outs.
I wasn't sure where to begin. I knew Peter's interests, but only the basics of them. They weren't my interests. I browsed aimlessly for a while, settling into it and crouching down to peer through the bottom shelves.
There was so much to look through that I decided to start on the other side of the aisle, where they seemed to be arranged alphabetically before deteriorating into the chaos of the next side. I was so engrossed in my task that I didn't hear him until he was directly behind me.
"Can I help you with anything?"
I jumped, throwing my hand back to hold my balance. I steadied myself and glanced up at the teenage boy who had been at the counter, unable to hold back a laugh of my own when I saw that he was staring at me in amused disbelief.
"Sorry," he said, though he just sounded amused. "You okay?"
"Yeah, fine," I said quickly, feeling my cheeks heat up with embarrassment. "I just got kind of caught up in looking at the books, I wasn't paying attention."
"I could see that." He held out a hand to help me to my feet, and I ducked my head to hide my flaming cheeks. "So, other than tumbling around behind the shelves, were you here for anything specific?"
"Actually, yeah," I said, straightening up and trying vainly to regain some dignity. "I was looking for a birthday present for my friend."
"I see," he replied, looking thoughtful. "What does your friend like?"
"He likes science-y things, I guess," I shifted awkwardly, realizing how dumb that sounded. "I mean, he's got a giant poster of Einstein in his bedroom, model DNA strands hanging from the ceiling, that kind of stuff."
The guy laughed, and I narrowed my eyes a little because I honestly wasn't sure whether or not it was at my expense. "Sounds like a smart guy."
"He tutors me," I told him. "So I guess he is. You got anything a guy like him might like?"
"I think we might." He turned around and headed back down the aisle and towards a small alcove between a shelf and the side of the counter. I followed him there, idly hoping that I'd brought enough cash for this. "These are the gadgets, little tech types that the geeks love. You might find something here to suit you."
He wasn't wrong. The selection was smaller than the rest of what the store had to offer, but what they had got was pretty nifty. Right away a small Albert Einstein bobblehead caught my eye. I picked up the box, dusting it off and turning it over to find the price on the bottom. It was a little bit more expensive than I'd been hoping, but nothing I couldn't realistically afford to spend.
Besides, the close-together shop was starting to trigger my inner-claustrophobic and the dust had me scrunching my face unattractively to avoid sneezing. I stood with Einstein in hand and turned to the counter, placing him down and pulling out my purse.
The guy who'd showed me the section grinned when he saw my choice. "I thought you'd like that," he said, tossing it into a plastic bag and handing it across to me.
I shrugged and handed him the money. "Peter certainly will."
"I hope so." He handed me my change, but abruptly pulled his hand back when I reached for it. Confused, I frowned up at him. "Is something wrong?"
He pretended to think about it, glancing off to the side before smiling at me. "I never got your name."
I'm not gonna lie, the guy was pretty cute. He had a narrow kind of face, with freckles scattered across the bridge of his nose, bright blue eyes and blond hair that had definitely seen more product than necessary.
Deciding to play along, I smiled, "I don't think I got yours, either."
"Paul," he extended a hand across the counter and looked positively delighted when I shook it. "Now you have to give me yours, it's only fair."
"I'm Alex," I said lightly. I held up my bag, complete with Einstein bobblehead, and started for the door. "I'll see you around, Paul."
He called a goodbye after me, and I waved over my shoulder before emerging back into the street. The daylight seemed harsh after the dim lighting of the comic book store, but once more that day, the city air was a relief.
I felt better with Peter's gift bought, and while it was still early I decided to run into the nearest dollar store for a giftbag. I wasn't even going to attempt wrapping paper, lest he think even less of my hand-eye coordination.
I was at the end of the street, dollar store in sight, when it happened. Everything went silent, and a light flashed from somewhere behind me. Instinctively, I turned to see what it was – a deafening bang resounded through the street, and the entire building crumbled from the top.
Bricks fell like little projectiles, and it wasn't until one whipped into the ground mere inches from my head that I broke out of my stupor. Panicking, I looked around, taking in the scene. People were screaming, running from the scene and without thinking about it, I followed them.
Another building exploded, further up the road in the direction I'd been walking. This one crumpled from the bottom, causing the entire thing to topple sideways and fall like a game of Jenga. People who had been running in that direction quickly changed their path, darting across the street when another building, this time on the side I had run to, was hit with a separate explosion.
In a matter of seconds, the city seemed to close in on itself. All the people who were caught up, myself included, gathered in the centre of the road, weaving between cars in an effort to stay away from any more buildings that might spontaneously combust.
Then, as I stared at the scene around me in abstract horror, something new added itself to the mix. It was human in shape, but it moved like a flash of footage across a freezing computer screen, seeming to teleport forward through space without moving. It looked, for all the world, like a teleporting shadow.
For a while I just stared, unsure of what I was seeing. Then a new, brightly coloured blur swung from the gap between two untouched buildings and slammed into the shadow-man like a wrecking ball.
Spider-man. Of course. The first time I traveled into the city in months, and I got caught in the middle of a superhuman pissing contest. Typical.
I pushed my way further into the centre of the crowd of now awe-gazing spectators, securing myself in as safe a position as was possible given the circumstances. I could already see that both ends of the street were covered in debris; the buildings targeted hadn't been random.
Spider-man reappeared on his own, swinging from wall to wall before coming to rest on the roof of one of the crumbling buildings. He landed in a crouch, scanning the skies for the shadow-man. It wasn't until after he was pushed, falling rapidly towards the ground, that I spotted the shadow glitching his way back across the sky.
Before he hit the ground, Spidey shot a web at random and it caught on the edge of a nearby fire-escape. He somehow managed to swing himself into a safe landing seconds before colliding with the ground, and instantly swung back up to pursue the shadow-man.
I could hear police sirens approaching and knew it would probably scare off New York's latest big bad. It usually scared Spidey pretty quick, though I doubted they were out for his blood any more. He had already proved himself to be a hero.
Sure enough, by the time the cop cars started pulling up and us naive citizens were being herded away from the damaged street, both Shadow-man and Spidey had vanished.
"No phone call, no text. I suppose you didn't think to check your voicemail on the way home?"
I cringed, shaking my head. "I was kind of in shock, mom."
"Don't you even try to pull that one on me. I had to find out at 2am that you were okay. Do you know how many times I called the police? Do you have any idea how worried I was?"
"I'm sorry, mom."
I really meant it, too. It's not like I had intentionally neglected to contact her after the incident, but everything had felt so surreal. Getting herded off the street by the police and milling out into the dark subway station had all been a bit of a haze. I honestly didn't even remember most of it.
I'm pretty sure I just sat on the tube home staring blankly at the opposite wall. People probably thought I was stoned.
My mother sighed, running a hand through her already tousled hair. "Just – go to bed. We'll talk in the morning."
I slid off the chair, but before I could scurry to my room I was enveloped in a tight hug. I barely had a chance to return it before mom pushed me back and held me at arms length. For a few seconds she just stared at my face, her own bloodshot eyes staring into mine.
Then she let go, turning around and dismissing me without another word.
I can't say it weirded me out too much. Mom was known for being overprotective with myself and my sister, and I could tell she was out of her mind with worry. All the same, I wasted no time running to my room.
"So how does it feel?" I asked, grinning.
Peter gave me a sour look. "I can already feel my joints welding together."
"Is that so?"
"I'm concerned about my pension plan."
"You should be. Maybe look into life insurance."
He rolled his eyes and handed me an unopened juice box, which I glanced at before looking at him quizzically. He said, "It's grape. I hate grape."
"Then why did you buy it, genius?" I asked, though I quickly stuck the straw in and started sucking before he could take it back.
"It was the only thing in the vending machine and the shelf was too high for me to see what flavour it was."
We were walking through crowded hallways in the top floor of the school building, on our way to the one class we both shared that day; English II.
It wasn't an important subject for me, but I knew I could pass it easily. The fact that the teacher wasn't much one for bothering to control the classroom made it even more appealing. We basically got to talk amongst ourselves for forty-five minutes.
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for everyone to realize the relaxed nature of the class, and so we shared it with the classic bunch of boisterous troublemakers. Some of the more quiet and introverted members of the class were targets for balled up paper and spitballs, but Peter and I had desks in the corner by the window, away and ignored by the rest of the class. It was a getaway that I looked forward to on the days we had it.
"So what happened on Saturday?"
I looked away, sucking at my straw and hoping maybe he'd take a hint and drop it. Speaking about my brush with disaster was something I'd been doing my best to avoid since coming back to school this morning.
Evading Peter was easier said than done, however. The sharp little idiot had spotted me among the crowd being ushered out after the attack on the evening news, and had been harassing me about it since.
"I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," I said noncommittally.
He looked skeptical as he sat down and turned his seat around to face my desk. "Why were you even in the city? You hate crowds."
"Jeez, what are you, my mother?" I sat down and purposely looked out the window, away from his face. "I was shopping, and I had every right to be. It's not my fault that some freaky shadow thing decided to attack the city while I was in it."
"No, I know," he said, shaking his head. "It's just weird. There hadn't been an attack on the city for a while. They seemed to be teetering off into nothing...then suddenly it starts up again."
"You seem to know a lot about this," I pointed out.
"I watch the news," he replied easily. "Maybe if you did the same, you wouldn't have gotten into that situation."
"Hey, quit the victim blaming," I snapped. "I can go wherever I like whenever I like, and I shouldn't have to plan my actions around the possibility that someone might hurt me."
Peter huffed out a sigh, and we both looked out the window. From the corner of my eye, I saw his jaw tighten. He was angry, but I didn't think the anger was directed at me. I hadn't done anything to earn it, if it was.
"Anyway," I said, breaking the tension between us with a change of subject. "Any plans for your birthday tomorrow?"
He looked away from the window slowly, and shook his head when he caught my eye. "Nothing interesting. Aunt May will probably arrange something, even though I just want to sleep until it passes."
"Why would you want to sleep your bithrday away?" I asked, genuinely baffled at the idea. "It's the one day of the year that everyone has to celebrate you. You get presents literally just to celebrate the fact that you were born. That's pretty cool."
"I don't like the attention."
"Don't be such a sour puss, everyone likes attention on their birthday!"
"Yeah, well I don't."
He sounded tired, and looked even worse. I was confused, and I'm sure it showed on my face.
Peter was an anomaly. He was smart, funny, attractive even. He had everything going for him, yet something about him just seemed wrong.
He looked deflated and rough, like he was always just moments from snapping. The other students seemed to notice it too. People avoided him, veered away and barely interacted with him. They sensed it the way I did, that something wasn't right. Unlike me, these people listened to that nagging self-preservation instinct and steered clear of him.
I guess I just wasn't that smart.
"Peter, you know that we're pals, right?" I ventured, offering him a little smile. "If something is wrong, you can tell me. I promise I won't tell anyone, if you don't want me to."
There I was, putting myself out there. It was scary, as if I was doing something much more important than just offering support to someone who I already knew would reject it. In fact, it was the anticipated rejection that had me feeling so on edge. Being shot down was never pleasant.
"Thanks, Lex." He smiled tentatively back at me. "I don't – I mean, nothing is wrong. I'm just tired. Schoolwork and everything. But I appreciate it."
I returned his smile, reaching across the desk to slap him playfully on the shoulder. "As long as you know I'm here, Parker. I promise not to make fun of you. That much."
He looked relieved, which was enough of an indication that I really shouldn't believe his reassurances.
As if I had.