Actions

Work Header

The Greatest Good

Work Text:

 

Four years ago, MJ was required to take an ethics course. Everyone in her major had to, for obvious reasons. The professor was named Monteau, and he had a reputation: a hard-ass, unforgiving, with no hint of how his own morals skewed. He taught in a swift, efficient manner, and didn’t tolerate cell phones or tardiness.

The day Monteau covered utilitarianism, Rhino attacked Times Square. It wouldn’t have affected MJ, except that last week, after a frat party, she’d shoved Peter against a wall and kissed him senseless, and now they… hadn’t talked.

Which meant that night consumed her every waking thought. And if it affected Peter even half as badly, he wouldn’t be able to focus the way he needed to tackle someone as dangerous as Rhino.

So she sat in her dorm room twenty minutes longer than necessary, eyes glued to the TV, watching live coverage of Spider-Man webbing Rhino’s horn to direct his rampaging charge away from Times Tower.

Peter did just fine.

MJ wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed.

But it meant she would be 12 minutes late to Monteau’s class. The last latecomer was reamed in front of everyone, then ordered to write a paper about the ethical aspect of ignoring prior commitments.

MJ almost didn’t go. It’d be easy—she was already absent. She could just get coffee and “write” another article for the school newspaper… which, this week, meant staring at a blank document, reliving Peter’s hot breath against her neck, the hard concrete wall against her back, a heat between them she knew could exist, but was never bold enough to explore.

Goosebumps prickled along her skin, and warmth flushed her cheeks. Jesus, Mary Jane, she thought furiously. Get a hold of yourself.

Setting her jaw, she wrenched open the classroom door.

That day, after Monteau’s scathing welcome, she learned about utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number.

 

She couldn’t comprehend how fucking terrible that mindset was until she heard May’s heart monitor flat-line.

 


 

 

Peter didn’t come home that night.

It wasn’t… like that. He didn’t live with her, not really. But after the Osborn rally, after Winter Storm Gia and all the drama that came from a homeless Peter squatting on a high rise during a blizzard, he’d been staying with her.

As friends. Just friends.

It had only been a couple weeks. And to be fair, he hadn’t come home the night convicts swarmed the streets, either. But at least then, there was a discernable reason. She wasn’t happy when he let slip that Yuri plucked him from the river, that he spent the night in an honest-to-god hospital before regaining enough sense to flee, that he had broken bones and bruises and maybe internal bleeding, but—she understood.

This was different. The city was quiet for the first time in weeks. An estimated 87% of infected citizens had been cured. Rio and Miles were still staffing the distribution lines, but Spider-Man couldn’t help with that.

MJ did, for a while. Long enough that her eyelids seemed to stick when she blinked, that her mind was a foggy mess when she staggered out of the elevator, unlocked her apartment door.

“Pete?” she called wearily, only halfway paying attention as she dropped her bag on the couch.

Silence.

But tonight, it felt… wrong.

MJ peeked into her bedroom, her bathroom, her fire escape, but he wasn't here. Heart twisting like it always did when Peter was unaccounted for, she turned on the news, flipped through channel after channel praising Spider-Man’s efforts, how many people he saved, how the city-wide quarantine had been lifted.

They had no idea what Peter had lost to give them that headline.

Exhaustion had settled into her bones, but she pulled out her phone, called Peter anyway.

It rang.

And rang.

Voicemail.

MJ swallowed and waited for the ding. “Hey, Pete. It’s me. I just—wanted to check on you. Call me back if you want.”

It wasn’t half of what she wanted to say, half of what she suspected Peter needed to hear, but she wasn’t his girlfriend anymore. She wasn’t even his roommate, really. She was just a person he used to know, someone too cowardly to stand in the room while he wrestled with the consequences of killing his aunt to save the city.

Sick with guilt, she stared at her cell phone’s black screen, breath hitching. She should track Peter. He was obviously hurting, beyond anguish, maybe even doing something risky or stupid because he had nothing to lose. She should find him. She should talk to him.

She should have done a lot of things.

“I’m sorry, May,” she choked, and her phone crashed to the hardwood floor as she sunk onto the couch. She hunched over her knees, shaking so hard she thought she might shatter, thick tears slipping through her fingers, staining her jeans. “I’m so, so sorry.”

She fell asleep there, drained.

Numb.

Peter didn’t come home.

 


 

 

“You were always best for him, Mary Jane,” Aunt May had whispered, gripping her hands with fading strength. She coughed, but somehow smiled through it. “I hope you two can fix things.”

MJ had smiled, noncommittally.

Then Spider-Man arrived, and the doctor laid out the ethical dilemma, and fear rose like a hot, terrifying tidal wave as Peter collapsed at Aunt May’s bedside. The doctor left. MJ hesitated, feeling like she should go to Peter instead, like she should hold the hand of the woman she so dearly loved, comfort the broken man she never deserved.

But one terrifying, selfish thought slammed into her, an ice pick to the brain.

If she stayed, would she have to help make this decision?

Utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number.

She couldn’t do it.

Trembling, MJ spun from the room. In the empty hallway, she pressed out of sight against the painted drywall, covered her mouth so Peter wouldn’t hear her uneven breathing, her heart breaking in two.

If he heard her, he might beg for help. And what could she say?

Peter made the impossible decision.

Aunt May flat-lined.

MJ hid.

 


 

Spider-Man has single-handedly rounded up a vast majority of the criminals roaming the streets. Rykers is operating at a 46% capacity after the recent prison break, and although renovations have begun, so many escaped convicts have been captured that the PDNY is forced to house them in the precinct holding cells until repairs are made.”

MJ clicked off the TV, glancing at the clock. 7pm. Almost two full days after May’s death. She’d slept solidly until noon, then helped with distribution until Rio clucked over her lack of food and sent her home. Already, the lines were dwindling, the panic fading. The cure was spreading to every corner of New York.

The crisis was over.

And Peter still couldn’t be found.

MJ was sick of wallowing in guilt, sick of waiting for a glimpse of Spider-Man on the news, sick of worrying about him constantly. She just wanted—

… Wanted what? For things to go back to normal? Because things hadn’t been normal for weeks.

MJ clenched her eyes shut, drew a centering breath, and opened his tracking app. She tried not to use it, tried not to care where Peter was, but she’d spent half a decade fishing him out of bloodied alleyways, patching up bullet holes and broken bones and keeping him alive long enough for his healing powers to remedy whatever stupid thing he’d done that night.

Old habits died hard.

He only found out she tracked him a couple weeks ago, after the snowstorm. But even though he was smart enough to hack her app, could easily unravel the coding that kept her informed, he didn’t.

Almost like he appreciated that she cared enough to track him.

Of course, this was the first time she’d gathered the courage to check it since he found out, as if he might somehow see her tracking him, know she was worrying. For two not-dating people, it definitely crossed a line. But she couldn’t deny the unfettered relief that slipped into her bones when his little blinking dot appeared on the map.

He was moving, swinging through Central Park.

Doing the Spider-Man thing.

MJ pressed her lips into a firm line, but closed the app and forced herself into the kitchen for dinner. He had to be mourning. Hell, she was mourning, and she hadn’t been holding May’s hand while she died.

She hadn’t made the decision to watch her die.

But… the news said he was doing good work. People were singing his praises on social media, posting amateur videos of him swinging through the streets after the escaped convicts. Even Jameson was suspiciously silent about the whole thing.

As long as Peter kept moving, he must be fine.

 


 

 

Another eighteen hours slipped by before MJ began to question what would happen if Peter never stopped moving.

She stared at the news headlines. A MAN POSSESSED: SPIDER-MAN’S CRUSADE TO REPAIR NEW YORK, the Bugle reported. SPIDER-MAN CAPTURES MORE CRIMINALS THAN ENTIRE NYPD, the Times wrote. WHO NEEDS COPS? a tabloid snarked.

Something dark and fearful curdled in her gut. MJ paid for her protein bar almost automatically, wrenching her eyes from the newspapers and magazines. But the clerk saw her gaze, smiled broadly. “Wish I was some kinda superhuman,” he offered a wink, totally oblivious to MJ’s unease. “Guy’s a hero, working day and night like that. I’m sleepin’ a lot sounder, that’s for sure.”

“Sure,” MJ echoed, distant and cold.

New York said “hero.”

MJ said “stupid.”

She trailed away from the stand, weaving through the midday crush of people as she tugged out her cell phone. Peter didn’t answer, again. The phone went straight to voicemail, so clearly he hadn’t charged it in a few days. Still, MJ opened her mouth to leave her seventeenth message when a tinny voice said, “The mailbox is full.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” MJ growled, and opened the tracking app for the second time.

He was moving, always moving, but over by the Financial District this time. MJ glanced west, eyes trailing down the street as if she could see Spider-Man webbing thirty blocks away. Even if she took a cab there, he’d be long gone before she could catch up.

She texted him instead.

Getting worried, Tiger. Call me.

Delivered.

With nothing else to do, MJ continued on to the Bugle.

 


  

Her news alert pinged, and MJ spun in her desk chair, eyes locking on the computer screen. Around her, the Bugle’s office bustled, fellow reporters racing to tell the stories of the plague, the prisoner riots, Octavius and Li and Spider-Man.

MJ had work to do too, but at that tiny noise, she abandoned everything to open the NCC broadcast.

“—to you live from East Harlem, where Spider-Man is engaged in fierce combat with the Vulture, who escaped during transport to the Raft—”

MJ inhaled sharply. She couldn’t help it; Peter had subdued the Sinister Six days ago, but that was before Octavius. Before the plague.

Before May.

It only took a few seconds of shaky camera footage to confirm her worst fears. Peter could outsmart the Vulture. He was fast, durable, and used intelligence and raw strength against the Vulture's mechanics. It might take a while, but on a good day, in a fair fight, Spider-Man had the advantage.

But this?

This wasn’t a good day.

The Vulture dove, a 200 pound bird of prey, metal claws outstretched towards Spider-Man. Usually, facing a serious injury, time slowed. Peter once described it like the aftermath of an explosion, where the world muted and his senses honed to hyperawareness, centering to the threat and his possible escapes.

MJ didn’t understand. She pretended to, but she didn’t. Not really.

Not until the Osborn rally.

Now, she held her breath, waiting for Peter to leap away or web the Vulture to the ground or throw something to disrupt his dive.

Peter tried the first option. MJ saw the moment he stumbled, like he was lightheaded, like he blacked out for a single breath.

One breath too long.

The Vulture’s talons pierced his chest, and Spider-Man’s whole body jerked upwards. The newscaster—MJ couldn’t even remember her name amidst the blind panic—gasped. The report went eerily silent.

Spider-Man slumped to the ground. The Vulture spread his wings, like he was going to hike Peter up, drop him from a fatal height, but before he could an electrified net fell from the sky—no, from a shining white craft branded with the Sable International logo. Violent sparks were visible even from the news helicopter.

“No!” The word was wrenched from MJ’s soul.

The Vulture convulsed.

Under his metal talons, Peter convulsed too.

MJ didn’t even realize she was moving until she was in the elevator, tears streaming down her face. When they opened on the ground floor, Betty Brant was waiting to come up, take-out in her hands, but she gaped wordlessly as MJ shoved past.

“Mary Jane—” she called, but MJ was out the door. There was a traffic jam—there was always a traffic jam—so MJ lowered her head and sprinted towards the subway.

God, she’d have killed to have web-slinging abilities right about now.

She wrenched her phone from her pocket, panting hard, dodging pedestrians and tourists and delivery bikes and moving vehicles. More than one person snarled a curse, more than one car laid on the horn.

It hardly mattered.

With shaking hands, she pulled up the tracker, desperate to see if Peter’s dot had moved. But it hovered, ominously, in that same spot in East Harlem, well over a city away. MJ was in shape, went for runs in the early mornings when the weather was nice, but casual jogs were different than run-for-his-life sprints.

Damn it,” she gasped, nearly leaping over a small child as she barreled down the subway steps, fumbled past the turnstiles, shoved her way to the train. Her Queens upbringing flared to life when someone tried to elbow in front of her. “Out of the way, jackass!”

He shot her the dirtiest look a New Yorker could manage, which would peel paint anywhere else. She returned it with a snarl of her own, and he backed down pretty fast. Rookie.

The train lurched, and she staked her claim by the doors, nearly bouncing with impatience as they raced towards the upper side. She tried to pull up the news, but cell service was spotty at best underground, and nothing loaded fast enough.

The doors dinged at her stop, and she sprinted ahead of the crowd, breathless and sick.

The battle had gone down near the riverfront, so she started south and ran until she heard police sirens. Kept running, right over the civilian barriers, right to the waiting ambulances and police. They congregated on the outskirts, and she slipped past most of them, getting close enough to see the low-rise building where Spider-Man had been pinned.

“Hey! What are you doing here?”

Busted.

“I’m press,” MJ gasped, wheezing for air, flashing her badge.

“No press allowed,” the cop snapped. “Move it. Back behind the barrier.”

Her eyes flashed again to the building, but the Sable International helicopter had moved on and the Vulture was being carried—carried—into an ambulance.

Because the voltage was high enough to utterly incapacitate him.

MJ choked with fear, pulled up the tracking app again. Before it could load, the cop gripped his belt menacingly. “Did you hear? Move it. I won’t say it again.”

For a brief moment she almost threw out Captain Watanabe’s name. Peter gushed about her, and MJ had seen firsthand how capable the woman was when she strolled into FEAST with Peter, broken and unconscious.

That was three days ago. Just three days, he’d been beaten within an inch of his life. And then he rallied enough to face Octavius and still managed to find the cure.

And now this.

God, he was an idiot sometimes.

But the tracking app loaded, and his dot flashed a few blocks away. Moving slow, but moving. Maybe he’d webbed onto the Sable craft and escaped like that. Or—Or maybe he wasn’t hurt as badly as she thought. Maybe she was overreacting.

Christ, she hoped she was overreacting.

“Sorry,” MJ muttered to the cop, already spinning towards the dot. This time, she didn’t bother with the subway, or running. She flagged a cab and gasped, “Drive south.”

“Any particular place?” the cabbie drawled.

South,” she hissed.

He clamped his mouth shut and drove, weaving through traffic while she watched Peter’s dot inching towards her apartment. For a moment, she almost sighed in relief; he was done, finally done, and going home to patch himself up. He was fine. Might need a Nurse MJ moment or six, but he was fine.

And then he made an abrupt left, swinging onto the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

Swinging to Queens.

MJ went cold. He wasn’t going back to her place. He was going home.

And that meant he wasn’t fine at all.

 


  

The cabbie screeched to a halt outside Aunt May’s townhome, and MJ threw an exorbitant amount of money through the open passenger window. She didn’t even say goodbye, or count to make sure it was enough.

Because Aunt May’s front door was hanging off its hinges.

The cabbie rolled out, as unconcerned about the obvious damage as any New Yorker would be. For a brief moment, MJ was mildly grateful her people were such assholes. Especially as she stepped over the drops of blood staining the worn wooden porch, gently pushed the askew door aside for easier access.

This would be hard to explain.

She had the presence of mind to close the door as best she could, buy a few more minutes before Aunt May’s overly-curious neighbors noticed. A cabbie was one thing, but she’d grown up near Mrs. Mallow, and there was nothing that woman wouldn’t do for a slice of gossip.

A yellow lamp was on in the corner of the living room, illuminating the undisturbed space with a cozy glow. Had Peter turned that on? Or—Or did May leave it days ago, in anticipation she’d be returning late?

MJ’s breath caught, tears springing to her face.

She was always welcome in this home. Hell, she’d lived here during her senior year of high school, after her father went to prison. But now, suddenly, she felt like an intruder, like this was sacred land and she had no right to press any further. This was May’s house. Peter’s house. What the hell was she doing?

And then she noticed the blood. It was almost invisible against the flowery pattern of the staircase carpet. If she hadn’t been looking, she might not have noticed at all.

Peter was here.

She pocketed her cell phone, her tracker, and climbed the stairs. It didn’t take long to hear where he went.

His sobs shuddered through the house.

MJ crept past her old bedroom, the tiny guest space Aunt May so generously invited her to use after her father nearly cracked open her skull. It was right near the top of the staircase, devoid of anything that made it hers, now. But Aunt May still kept the door open, as if she’d been waiting for MJ to visit.

Peter’s room was wedged in the middle, with a bathroom separating his room from hers. Aunt May used to sleep with her door open. She said it was to help with airflow at night, but MJ suspected she was keeping an eye on the two of them.

Not that it mattered. Peter always used the windows.

Another choked sob, masked with a gasp of pain. MJ crossed the dark hallway in seconds, passing Peter’s empty room in favor of the modest master bedroom. Aunt May’s bedroom.

Pressed against the threadbare carpet, rocking back and forth with hitching sobs, was Peter.

Relief nearly crippled her, but fear and grief followed fast on its heels. He was still wearing his suit, his mask, but he didn’t even notice when she crashed to her knees beside him.

“Oh, Pete,” she breathed.

He hunched further into himself. Blood was pooling around him, staining May’s carpet forever. Not that it mattered anymore. His face was pale, even in the darkness. He was hurt in so many ways that for once, MJ wasn’t sure where to start.

She touched his shoulder, tentatively, felt the slick material of his suit, the raised edges where blue crashed into red, where webbing roped around corded muscles. It was somehow foreign, like she hadn't spent her early twenties with her hands all over these muscles. Like she didn’t still flush at the sight of them.

But she didn’t have any right to him anymore. She shouldn’t even be the one doing this, not after how she treated him, not after their break-up. A few weeks of flirting didn’t erase six months of separation.

Yet somehow, she was still it.

With Peter Parker, she doubted she could ever stop being “it.”

“Peter,” she whispered, squeezing his shoulder.

He didn’t even seem to hear her. He was shaking so hard his teeth were chattering, but heat radiated off his body. His healing factor… not that it seemed to be doing much good. The bloodstain had reached her knees, soaking into her jeans.

She winced. Tried a different approach. “I have to see that wound, Pete. Okay? Roll over for me?”

“She’s g-gone,” Peter moaned.

He sounded awful, but some small part of her brain sighed. He was coherent. He could talk, which meant he could listen. MJ pushed to her feet, clicked on the bedside lamp. It cast the room in light, enough that MJ could properly see what the damage was.

And Jesus, it was a lot.

“Fuck,” MJ said, sinking back beside him. He’d ripped off his mask before she arrived, and his skin wasn’t just pale—it was waxen. His cheeks were bright red with fever, and dangerously dark circles hung under his clenched eyes.

He looked like death.

Almost like Aunt May had, minutes before Spider-Man burst into the room with a tiny blue vial.

MJ tried very hard not to look at May’s personal effects as she gripped Peter’s shoulder, harder this time, and pulled him onto his back. Her fingers fluttered to the center of his neck, the inconspicuous zipper hidden there, and tugged it open.

Peter stared up at her, eyes too bright, breath too short. Tears streamed down his temples, disappearing into his hair. “S-She’s gone. She’s—she’s go-ne.” His words shuddered with his body, breaking with anguish.

“I know, Pete,” MJ said, as tears welled in her own eyes. She cupped his cheek, briefly, then pulled his suit open to see the Vulture’s damage. The talons pierced through his chest in three separate points, but the electricity actually seemed to help his case; the wounds were almost completely cauterized. Only the center one, the deepest one, was still bleeding.

But it was bleeding a lot. Peter inhaled sharply, and in the stillness of the house, his rasping breath couldn’t be missed. Punctured lung? It wouldn’t surprise her.

“I thought—I t-thought it was a b-bad dream,” Peter sobbed.

Bad dream? Had he slept long enough to have bad dreams?

“W—hat am I g-going to do? MJ, what c-can I do?”

She spoke without thinking. “You’re going to get back up, even if it’s hard, because that’s what Aunt May would have wanted. New York needs you, Pete.”

“But I k-killed her,” he shuddered, gasping harder now, rambling like a madman. “I killed her. I killed her I killed h-er I killed...”

His words faded, and his eyes rolled back into his skull. His body went limp against the carpet, eerily still, although his chest rose and fell at a much smoother pace now.

MJ’s breath hitched. “You didn’t kill her, Peter. Don’t ever think that.”

But he was already gone, lost in the darkness he’d shoved away for so long.

 


 

 

It was a small blessing that teenage Peter wasn’t a careful vigilante, because hidden under a floorboard in MJ’s old closet was an impressive stash of medical supplies. But the true reprieve was his loss of consciousness. At least now she could handle his physical injuries without his mental ones getting in the way.

Still, guilt flickered in her gut as she settled beside him, tearing open a packet of thick gauze to staunch the blood flow. It was messed up that she preferred him unconscious.

But she hadn’t seen Peter this broken since—

—since Ben.

MJ drew a centering breath. They’d get over this. Time fixed that, and it’d fix this too. And at least this time, her father and his suddenly violent temper was out of the picture. At least now, she was actually in a position to help Peter, instead of fearing for herself.

She worked quietly, almost automatically. Shocker had left nasty wounds like this in the past, so she was at least somewhat familiar with the smell of charred flesh, the grotesque image of blood creeping over blackened skin.

But it was unusual, how long it took for the bleeding to stop. His healing factor was insane, especially when it accompanied a fever this high. Usually, wounds stitched themselves closed under her eyes.

Not this one.

Unease slid through her veins like poison, and she set her jaw. “You’re such an idiot, Peter,” she muttered, ripping open another pack of gauze, piling it on top of the sodden gauze already glued to his chest.

The house was silent in its answer, and MJ suddenly felt self-conscious saying that in Aunt May’s space.

“S-Sorry,” she whispered, even though for all intents and purposes, she was alone. “I’m sorry.”

She wasn’t sure if she was apologizing to Peter, or May.

An hour later, she finally bound his wounds well enough to haul him off the blood-soaked carpet. Grunting under his weight, she turned to May’s bed. Considered it for a breathless moment.

Then dragged him towards the door instead.

Even if it was easier, safer than hauling him down the hallway, she wouldn’t make Peter wake up in his dead aunt’s bedroom.

His room was dark and comforting, a relic of times long past. MJ had cleaned every trace of herself from this house after graduation, except for those medical supplies, but Peter left most of his stuff when he traipsed off to college. When she mocked him for it, he laughed and said, “May told me she loves it.”

“She has to say that,” MJ replied, rolling her eyes.

But probably, he was right.

She’d mostly stripped his suit by this point, at least down to his waist, which meant the arms trailed behind him like a half-assed cape. It would have to come off if he was going to get any real rest. She lowered him onto the bouncy mattress, groaning under his weight, under the bulk of solid muscle.

He didn’t move, his chin lolling onto his chest. Now she wasn’t relieved. Now, she was mildly terrified, because Peter was a lot of things, but a heavy sleeper wasn’t one of them.

She laid him prone on the space-themed comforter, then tucked an Iron Man pillow under his head. His feet were brushing the floor, and she used the angle to tug his suit off. It required slipping her fingers between his warm, sculpted abs and the stiff material, rolling the spandex over his plaid boxers.

It was nothing she hadn’t seen before, but now her cheeks flared to life. No right, no right, no right, she chanted silently, averting her gaze, thinking of Aunt May watching with judgement from high above.

God, she wished Peter was awake to do this himself.

The suit slapped to the floor, and she left it in a bloody heap, lifting Peter’s legs onto the bed too. She immediately covered him with a cozy blanket, shivering in the chill of the near-empty townhome, squinting through the darkness.

He was stable, at least. She brushed his forehead, pushing his sweat-matted hair aside to feel the progress of his fever. It was high, so much higher than anything a normal human could handle, but there was nothing she could do about it. Not yet, not until his body regained control of the injuries.

She stood, awkwardly, unsure of what to do next.

When it was obvious he wasn’t waking up, she slipped from the room.

 


  

She addressed the front door first. Peter had a key, but he didn’t carry that kind of thing with him on patrol. It was obvious he wasn’t thinking straight, obvious he feverish and exhausted and hurt. Based on the bloodstains, it was easy to see where he thumped onto the porch, shoved against the door.

It probably only took one solid push, with his strength.

For nearly a year, MJ lived in a house with an abusive, destructive parent. No one knew, and no one knew because she was smart enough to keep the blinds closed, smart enough to repair damage visible from the streets. She found Ben’s old toolbox in the tiny garage and went to work, methodically, automatically.

Without shopping for parts, she couldn’t repair the thing properly, but she re-drilled holes for the hinges and got it closed, at least.

Stop. Check on Peter.

Then onto the next thing: her cell phone. She called skipped past Betty’s concerned messages and called Robbie instead. “Sorry,” she said, quietly. “I—uh, just found out my mom was sick with the virus. I had to bring her the cure.”

“Not a problem. Gonna take a while before we get back to normal anyway,” Robbie replied. “You get your family healthy, you hear?”

“Sure.” It sounded hollow, even to her ears. Because the closest thing she had to family, the nearest thing to a real mother in her life, died days ago.

She hung up without another word, drew a ragged breath, and trudged upstairs.

Stop. Check on Peter.

After that, she slipped into Aunt May’s bedroom. It smelled sour, coppery, reeking of blood that almost masked the gentle scent of soap and cinnamon. MJ plucked a few ratty towels from May’s bathroom, draped them over the stain, applied pressure to soak up what she could. Her hands were already stained with blood and grease, so she barely noticed the cold damp of the towel beneath her fingers.

She disposed of the towels in the bathtub and googled “how to get blood out of carpet.”

It was complicated and involved dishwashing detergent, a steel brush, ammonia, and tons of physical labor. MJ threw herself into the task, scrubbing the carpet until sweat dripped off her face, until she was panting and her throat was scratchy with thirst.

A bloodstain in Aunt May’s bedroom was simply unacceptable.

When it looked more like a dark smudge instead of a crime scene, she turned off the light and backed out of the room, quietly closing the door.

Stop. Check on Peter.

Her stomach growled, and she vaguely realized it was late, well past dinnertime now. She descended into the kitchen, maneuvering through the fridge and cabinets with ease, because Aunt May had been in this house for decades and everything was exactly where they’d been when MJ was eighteen.

She cooked. Mindlessly, poorly, but she cooked. There were vegetables in the fridge, chicken in the freezer, spices in the cabinets, and all she could think was, it’s going to go bad. She bought this food for herself, and it’s going to go bad.

Peter was the chef between them, who grew up at Aunt May’s side, cutting vegetables and rolling dough, but MJ had lived alone long enough to make a meal. Coconut-crusted chicken salad was a simple recipe, and afterwards she meticulously cleaned every dish, restoring the kitchen to exactly as she found it. Then she plucked the finished dinner plates off the counter, turned off the lights, and climbed the stairs.

Check on Peter.

She ate at his bedside while he moaned in pain, sweating and panting from fever.

His food went cold, but she didn’t dare go back downstairs to slip it in the fridge. It felt like she was a little kid again, imagining ghosts roaming the hallways so late at night. She was barely brave enough to slip into the bathroom, wholly convinced she could hear echoes of Aunt May’s laughter in the dark living room.

She fell asleep at Peter’s bedside, feeling almost feverish herself.

 


 

He slept for fifteen hours.

Fifteen hours.

Even at his most exhausted, MJ had never seen Peter sleep longer than nine. He claimed it was some side effect of the spider bite, but she suspected he’d gone so long without a full night’s sleep that he forgot what it felt like.

The fact that he lasted fifteen told MJ an awful lot about his state before the Vulture attacked.  

Which was why, when Peter groaned awake, the relief nearly had her groaning too. She wanted to be mad, wanted to be furious—he’d pulled this lone-hero shit before, and she’d made her thoughts on it quite clear—but… that was before May.

She was terrified, but today, that couldn’t translate to anger.

The sun was just starting to peek through the blinds, a late winter morning, and the slices of light cut across the bandages on his chest. Her fingers intertwined with his, squeezing like he was a balloon string tethering her to Earth.

“Hey, Tiger. You back?”

He blinked with heavy eyelids, struggling to focus on something. His eyes were still too bright, his face still flushed with fever, but he was awake. That was something.

“Did—you track me?” he croaked.

Her cheeks colored, and she averted her gaze, retrieving the water cup she’d brought up with his dinner. “You weren’t doing so hot against Vulture. Sue me for being worried.”

She thought he’d grin, tease her like he did in the days after the blizzard, but his brows just knit together. Like he was puzzled, like he didn’t understand what she was saying.

“Vulture?”

Her arm wound around his back. “Can you sit up for me?” she asked, and when he pulled himself upright with a pained grimace, she tucked a couple extra pillows behind his back. Then she eased the water cup to his lips. He could probably do that himself, but it was nice to be needed. Nice to help.

Especially since she wasn’t sure what else to do.

His voice sounded stronger after a few sips of water. “Was—did I fight the Vulture?”

“Funny.”

But his blank stare had fear racing down her spine.

“You don’t remember?” she whispered, pressing a hand against his chest, the bandages there. He looked down, eyes widening, as she chewed her lower lip. “Jesus, Pete, how far gone were you?”

He didn’t answer. His hazel eyes, dazed and distant, swept the room. “This—this is May’s house.”

MJ nodded.

That was the exact moment reality crashed down on Peter, a kaleidoscope of emotion flickering across his face. Confusion. Hurt. Anger. And finally, anguish. His hands tangled in his hair, and he drew a shuddering breath, hunching over himself.

“Oh god. Oh god, what have I done?”

Ever since last night, she'd been imagining her response to this question. She kind of sucked at these heart-to-hearts, but he needed to hear something aside from the terrible soundtrack repeating in his own mind. 

“You saved the fucking city. Millions of people, cured because of you.” MJ summoned her toughest, get-through-Peter’s-thick-skull tone, but it was like he physically couldn’t understand her. He just clenched his eyes shut, gripped his hair with white knuckles. “Peter. Pete, look at me. They’re safe. You stopped the plague. You did that.”

“I k-killed her,” he gasped.

MJ slapped him upside the head.

Yep. Fifteen hours, and that was the best she had. 

He rocked forward with the impact of it, finally turning bloodshot eyes on her. Guilt coiled in her chest, but she kept her expression firm, fierce.

“That was from May.”

His hand snaked to the point of impact, rubbing the pain away. Tears streamed from his eyes.

MJ set her jaw. “You may have had to choose, but Peter, there was only one option. Aunt May said it herself. And if she saw you here, sleep-deprived and injured, sobbing over ‘killing’ her, she’d slap you too.”

“S-She’s gone, b-because—”

“Because a madman unleashed a plague,” MJ interrupted, harsher than she intended. “Because you’re a hero, and if there are people at risk, you’ll do anything to protect them. You know who else did that? May. So stop remembering her as a victim. Stop pretending like you held the scythe.”

He moaned, a strangled sound, and she suddenly worried she’d gone too far. It was just—so hard. Peter was the most amazing, selfless person, and somehow he still thought everything bad that happened, happened because of him.

How could he miss the good he did? She could shove an encyclopedia of proof under his nose, and he still wouldn’t believe he helped.

Especially when there were casualties.

“S-She knew,” he choked, voice thick with tears. “All this time, she k-knew about Spider-Man.”

A smile crept across MJ’s cheeks, and her own eyes brimmed with tears. “Of course she did. You’re not sneaky, Peter, and I'm pretty sure you didn't get your smarts from Ben.”

He laughed, a watery sound. For the first time in days, it felt like maybe, just maybe, they could find a bit of normalcy in the chaos.

 


 

 

Physical recovery was slow.

Mental recovery took even longer.

She spent another four days at Aunt May’s house. Peter slept through the first two, until his fever vanished and his skin regained its olive tone and the cauterized wounds closed and healed.

He almost stayed in bed the third day, but she tangled with depression enough to recognize the signs. So she caught a pancake on fire, and when the alarm blared and the kitchen filled with smoke, Peter propelled himself down the stairs.

“Oh no,” she said, voice flat as the flames reached for her hair, her clothes, its heat spreading over her bare arms. “Whatever have I done. Help me, Spider-Man.”

“MJ!” He leapt into action, plucking a fire extinguisher from underneath the sink and sweeping it over the reaching flames. It wasn’t until minutes later, when the alarm stopped and they opened a few windows, shivering in the winter chill, surveying the white dust that covered everything in a four foot radius, that he said, “Did you do that on purpose?”

She crossed her arms. “Nooo, of course not.”

A smile played on his lips, the first one since May.

“You’re a terrible actress.”

“Only when I want to be.” MJ winked, sliding onto one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table. “But hey, Peter, now that you’re here, I'm kind of hungry.”

He heaved a sigh and began wiping extinguisher dust off the stove.

On the fourth day, she came in from a trip to the store to see Peter flicking through a physical newspaper. When he noticed her staggering under the grocery bags, he leapt to help, but not before she glimpsed the article he was reading.

SPIDER-MAN SAVES MANHATTAN, VANISHES WITHOUT A TRACE

They needed him.

“You going back to it, then?” MJ asked, almost dreading the answer.

Peter was quiet for a moment. “Yeah. I mean, yeah, of course. I can’t—crime doesn’t stop. So I can’t either.” He set the bags on the countertop, then began sorting the contents.

MJ hovered behind him. “Not literally, though.”

“Huh?”

“You aren’t talking literally, right?” she said, firm and kind of desperate. “You can’t stop all crime. So tell me you’re not planning to hit the streets like you did before, because that scared the shit out of me, Pete.”

He turned to her, drawing a shallow breath. “I’ll take breaks. But there are still escaped convicts roaming the streets, forming gangs, hurting people. It’s already getting worse. They need help.”

“You need help too. Jesus, Peter, we share a wall. I hear you crying. You’re not okay, and the last time you went out like this, you wound up with seven inch talons through your chest.”

Peter flinched, eyes downcast as he opened the fridge and began storing the vegetables. She thought he wasn’t going to respond, that she’d be left with the awkward decision of how far to press this as his decidedly not-girlfriend, but then he closed the fridge and whispered, “I don’t know what else to do, MJ. If—If I don’t stay busy, it’s like a riptide. Crashing in from every angle, drowning me in what-ifs and you-should-haves. At least out there, I’m helping.”

“And what if you get hurt? Who’s that helping?”

Peter clenched his eyes shut. “I’ve lost everyone, MJ. Everyone. D-Does it matter anymore?”

She couldn’t breathe.

Say something, her mind screamed. Do something!

So, she kissed him. Words were overrated anyway.

It was abrupt and passionate, and when she pulled back, Peter was panting and glassy-eyed. Before he could comprehend what just happened, she snapped, “You have me, okay? And don’t you ever forget it.”

Their next kiss tasted salty, and MJ couldn’t tell if they were her tears or his.

 


 

 

That night, they parted ways.

Part of MJ wanted to stay in that house forever, doing the domestic thing in this cute little townhome, because Aunt May’s belongings were like a warm hug and her essence was everywhere. But life beckoned, so when Peter suited up for the night, MJ gathered what she’d arrived with—her cell phone and her bloodstained clothes—and followed him out the door.

“If you don’t call me with regular updates, I swear to god I’m tracking you again,” she said, curtly.

He flushed. “That’s really not necessary.” When she squinted at him, he cleared his throat, adjusted his hold on the backpack over his shoulder, the one he’d stuffed his suit in a few minutes ago. “I’ll be careful, Mary Jane.”

“Promise.”

“Pinky swear.” He held up his pinky, which was somehow just as stupidly muscular as the rest of his body. MJ took it, goosebumps prickling along her skin at the warmth of his hand, the strength in the gesture.

Satisfied, she hopped down the porch steps. “Okay. Well, I’ll see you at home, then.”

“Oh—” Peter cut himself off, awkwardly.

“What?”

He gestured at the townhouse. “I’m… I’m going to stay here. For a bit. It’s—well, it’s mine, I guess. I can’t afford it for long, but until then…” he trailed off, helplessly.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?” MJ suddenly felt derailed; for some stupid reason, since Peter spent the last couple weeks at her place, she just assumed he’d spend a couple more there. Maybe longer. She wasn’t ready for a relationship with him, not yet, but they’d been best friends longer than they’d been significant others.

She missed him over those six months apart. She hadn’t realized how much until he’d stayed a couple weeks.

Until it was all falling away.

But this wasn’t about her and her feelings.

Peter swallowed, voice thick. “I think it’ll help. With… with grieving, and the f-funeral.” He stumbled over the word, clenched his eyes closed, drew a shaking breath. “It’s nice to have her nearby. Is that okay?”

It isn’t about me.

“Of course, Pete.” MJ smiled. “If you need anything, you have my number. Seriously.”

“I know,” he replied.

He escorted her into the city, as far as the entrance to her building. She hesitated at the glass doors, and just as he said an awkward goodbye, she threw her arms around him. Not a kiss; they weren’t dating… not now, maybe never again. But his words—does it matter anymore?—stung her mind, and she squeezed him hard.

“No more sleepless nights, okay? I don’t have that many sick days left to play nurse.”

“Pretty sure you do,” he replied.

She elbowed him.

“Ow! Okay, okay. I promised, didn’t I?” Peter rubbed his chest, expression softening. “But... thanks, Mary Jane. For being there. It’s… well, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.”

She shrugged. “I mean, I’m pretty inconsequential, for a guy with 15.3 million followers.”

Peter frowned, opened his mouth to object. MJ laughed and held up a hand. “I know what you mean, Tiger. And in case you didn’t notice, you’re all I have too.”

His smile was soft and stunning as a sunrise. “It’s nice, having a partner.”

“Yeah,” she said. “It is.”

 


  

Later, MJ skimmed through her notes from Monteau’s ethics course, typed four years ago and saved in case she wanted to relive her college days. Tonight, it came in handy. Her eyes settled on the document’s heading.

UTILITARIANISM: The greatest good for the greatest number.

Monteau had talked a lot about happiness, and promoting happiness within society, even at a personal hit to the individual. Most of it was pretty relatable, agreeable, almost. But she’d highlighted one portion of the lecture in red.

As special as you are, you are no more special than anyone else.

Apparently MJ knew that was bullshit, even as a stupid, idealistic college kid. She wasn’t vain enough to think she was special—not yet, anyway—and in a simpler world, it was obvious why these stuffy old philosophers hadn't fathomed true heroes amidst the crowds of sheep.

But things were different now. Now, they had mutants and spaceships and criminals with the technology to decimate a population.

Suddenly, utilitarianism seemed pretty black and white in a world of red and blue. Because Peter? He was special.

More special than anyone else.

And that was a hill she’d die on.