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Alright on Paper

Chapter Text

MJ reads the paper.

Oh, what, she’s supposed to be above reading the paper because print is dead and the internet offers both more news (stories and outlets) and faster access to it? Tough. She still reads it because her dad still gets it. He’s had a subscription since he graduated college and thought reading the Times―tucking it under his arm and flipping through the pages while he rode the subway―was a more accurate measure of adulthood than owning a car. (They still don’t have a car, by the way. MJ is never going to learn to drive. Ugh.)

The appeal that drew her to it, at the age of four, was the occasional editorial cartoon, utterly beyond her comprehension. These days, she’s a little more interested in the articles on domestic politics, but hey, people are allowed to evolve.

So if you’re her, you’re MJ, you’re living in New York and you’re paying attention, you’re going to notice the Avengers. Notice shit like violent attacks and streets covered in rubble―although, that’s basically the city at rush hour during construction season. She’s noticing other things though, Avengers voicing opinions, reviving a feeling of civic interest, pride, and responsibility. She’s noticing the tide turning; citizens less interested in blaming superheroes for unscheduled demolition in Manhattan and more interested in who does Hawkeye’s tattooing or which karaoke bar Thor can most likely be found at on a Friday night.

And the Avengers’ relationships. New Yorkers are feeding on (super-)human interest stories with their faces so close to the pages they just about rub all the ink off with their noses.

It’s a terrible thing to know this, to be as observant as MJ is, tracking these changing attitudes and becoming an accidental expert on the path to good PR for the biologically, magically, genetically, or otherwise enhanced. Reading the paper is what gets her in trouble―sooner, rather than later―when Spider-Man starts hanging around.

Technically, he’s always hanging (that web shit is strong stuff, by the looks of it), and he’s always around. MJ figured out ages ago that Queens is his home base. Still, their borough’s just big enough and just crowded enough that she’d never encountered him in person until a few months ago. Now she sees him all. The. Time. He says coincidence, she says to-mah-to, and it really is him saying that because they’re officially on speaking terms. It’s an improvement to their interactions, mutually decided upon after Spider-Man scared the bejesus out of her when she was standing on her apartment’s balcony one day, glanced over the edge, and saw him crawling up the wall.

The deal became that if he was going to drop by, he better be obvious about it. This led to a routine MJ is loath to describe with the word ‘charming,’ but which may or may not involve her going out to the balcony or chilling by the open window of her bedroom on Saturday mornings, after her parents have left to run errands, and offering Spider-Man a glass of orange juice while they chat and she shares her paper with him. He likes the arts section. She likes watching him read it, sticking to the wall outside her window, the posters for whatever’s in theatres appearing upside down.

He joked one time about them catching a Saturday matinee together. She’s pretty sure he was joking.

The deal evolves as the weeks go by. MJ’s apartment is less of a rest stop between crime-fighting gigs and more of a superhero counselling centre with only one client. Not that Spider-Man is looking to her, a high school student, to mend whatever trauma led to him donning a formfitting red costume and babysitting an entire city, but she’s sure giving him a lot of advice lately.

It’s just… life stuff, really, and MJ doesn’t know where he sees authority when he looks at her, yawning in her jammies as she passes his juice through the open window, but he seems to listen. Maybe her dad was right about the paper; it’s possible that reading it makes her appear wise.

But it makes her act like a damn idiot in a crisis.

She’s heading to a guidance appointment one Wednesday (it’s junior year and MJ is getting some assistance with scouting out colleges) and the halls are empty; she was given permission to leave class five minutes early. When she turns the corner towards the guidance room, there’s Spider-Man. Just standing there. Middle of the hallway. MJ drops a textbook and it strikes the ground with a deafening slap.

This is her comfortable weekend companion, the hero of Queens. She adjusted to understanding that Spider-Man can be both, but there doesn’t seem to be any room in her mind for him to also exist midmorning at Midtown Tech.

He’s staring back at her (she can tell―the aperture of the white eyes on his mask has expanded in shock), arms held away from his body sort of comically, and MJ’s trying to recall if she’s ever seen him upright before when the jarring old-school bell rings and students flood from the door of every classroom.

Spider-Man bounds towards her, grabs her book from the floor, pushes it to her chest until she grips it, and says, “I know what to do.”

Everyone’s starting to make sounds of surprise, recognizing the Avenger in their midst, but even though MJ knows Spider-Man is kind of a hero of the people, he’s not acknowledging them at all. In fact, he’s wrapping his arms around her, and her eyes―boy oh boy―are wide. There’s just one thing on her mind besides what his suit feels like against the backs of her hands…

She’s praying that Peter isn’t seeing this.

“I’ll swing by your apartment later,” Spider-Man promises, speaking quietly near her ear.

He puts another little squeeze into the hug before stepping back. Reeling, MJ watches him give their audience a polite wave as he walks backwards in the direction of the nearest exit.

“Sorry, guys,” he tells the gathered crowd. “Uh, duty calls. I just wanted to stop by and see my girlfriend.”

Heads are swivelling to stare at MJ even before she drops the book for the second time.


“How?” she demands of him that evening, pacing tightly on the balcony while her parents laugh along to a sitcom in the living room. “How could that be you ‘knowing what to do’?!”

“I was doing what you said,” Spider-Man says defensively. He’s pacing too, along the balcony’s two-inch-wide railing. (She’s too mad to be worried.)

“Excuse me? We’re putting this on me? When was I an active part of that plan, while I was holding that stupid textbook or while my arms were pinned because you were hugging me? I’d really like to know.”

“W-well, it’s what you said about public perception of the Avengers.”

“Specifics!”

“Like Iron Man,” he argues, lowering his voice after how she snapped. “People like hearing about him and Pepper Potts.”

“And have you always modeled yourself after Tony Stark, or is this sudden, public relationship announcement your first foray?”

They stare at each other for a minute, Spider-Man balancing and MJ looking up at him―which is kind of weird after they hugged today and she realized he’s shorter than she is. She sighs, regretting her harsh words.

“I’m sorry,” she offers. “I know what you did was thoughtless―”

“Well―”

“―ill-advised―”

“Literally your advice.”

“―and, frankly, moronic―”

Hey.”

“―but I get it, you panicked―”

“I had it under control.”

“―so I forgive you.”

“Oh. Well, thanks.”

“Now, come down here so I don’t have to keep resisting the urge to shove you off that railing.”

Once Spider-Man flips down (she’s already forgiven him―what, does he think he’s getting bonus points for landing the dismount?), MJ crosses her arms and gives that red mask of his a stern look.

“Still not thrilled, huh?”

“Good guess,” she says dryly.

“I might be missing something here, but… why? I mean, I didn’t think I did anything to embarrass you. Did I hurt you somehow?”

MJ shrugs and stares at her slippers.

“People saw.”

There’s a pause.

“…We already knew that.” His tone is almost clueless enough to make her apprehensive that this is the guy she and the rest of Queens have protecting them.

“I don’t know if… if a certain person saw.”

She’s blushing hard to admit even this much of a crush and she’d be mortified if she wasn’t making her confession to this socially illiterate superhero.

“Boyfriend?” Spider-Man asks. MJ glances up to see him leaning extremely un-casually against the wall, arms folded a little less tensely than hers.

“You sound skeptical,” she accuses.

“You’ve never mentioned him.”

MJ glares for a few seconds before backing down.

“No, he’s not my boyfriend. And you didn’t know that either because we only ever talk about you.”

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” Spider-Man immediately offers, like he’s trying to even things up.

Groaning, she lets her shoulders slump.

“You do now.”

“Yeah, I guess it’s pretty unlikely that nobody took a picture.”

“Safe to assume the students of a school called Midtown Tech are tech-savvy enough to work a cellphone camera. By the way,” MJ adds, narrowing her eyes at him, “why were you there?”

“Oh, um, gas leak in one of the Chemistry labs. They dispatch the fire department for that kind of thing and I hate for emergency services to get tied up if I can fix it myself.”

“Huh. I had no idea gas leaks were in your repertoire. Thought muggers and bicycle thieves were more your beat.”

She’s teasing him pretty lightly considering he definitely just lied to her. It’s fine, she’ll wait to crack him until he’s forgotten all about visiting her school.

Spider-Man swings his arms nervously.

“If it’s a community problem, I’m on it. I’m just a friendly―”

“―neighbourhood Spider-Man,” MJ finishes. “Yeah, I’ve heard the tagline. And you’re also my fake boyfriend until we figure out a way for you to tactfully dump me.”

He takes an excited step towards her.

“I know wha―”

She cuts him off with a swiftly raised hand.

“Don’t even say it.”

Chapter Text

She can’t slip down the hallways like she used to; the only person ignoring her now is Flash.

Unfortunately, Flash is only capable of giving MJ the cold shoulder for as long as he thinks she’s aware that he’s doing it. Because his shunning is the first little slice of peace she’d had since getting to school today, she actually finds it very relaxing. Which Flash hates. And so the silent treatment ends.

“I’m sure you know this is a personal betrayal,” is the first thing he says.

MJ groans, wanting to bang her forehead down on the keyboard. They’re in the computer lab, working on research projects for World History.

Flash’s statement is hefty with an accusation she, frankly, can’t account for. It’s not like they’re particularly close, so ‘betrayal’ seems like strong language. The forcefulness of his voice makes her briefly scan back through the three years they’ve been acquaintances. Nothing strikes her as sufficient reasoning for him to act like an asshole, besides his history of acting like an asshole, independent of her influence.

“I’m assuming this is about my boyfriend,” she replies.

Last night, Spider-Man pointed out that she kept putting ‘boyfriend’ in air quotes. He made MJ call him her boyfriend for half an hour. That was how long it had taken to coach her out of the sarcastic gesture. She still feels he should’ve been more impressed with that.

There’s a metallic shriek as Flash scrapes his chair over to hers. MJ tips her head into her hand to politely escape the aggressive overtures of his body spray.

“When did this happen,” he demands. “How did you meet?”

It occurs to her that suppressing the urge to air quote shouldn’t have been the only thing she and Spider-Man practiced. What Flash is asking… these are details they neglected to nail down. Saying something now and contradicting it later will have repercussions beyond Flash’s opinion of her―an insubstantial weight on her conscience.

Until she can confer with her partner in this stupid, stupid scheme, MJ must deflect.

“Why do you ask?” Her eyes are glued to a Wikipedia article she won’t be allowed to cite as a source.

“Because this is totally unfair!”

She side-eyes him.

“What was Spider-Man supposed to do, draw a name out of a hat? We… met, Flash. We got along.”

“Yeah, that’s likely.”

MJ rolls her eyes at his overcooked sarcasm.

“And yet here I am, Spider-Man’s girlfriend.” She’s proud of herself for not air-quoting ‘girlfriend’ either.

“I want my equal chance,” Flash insists. His vehemence inspires a sudden sympathy in her. “If Spider-Man had a broader selection to choose from, it’s pretty unlikely he would’ve picked you.”

Ok, sympathy revoked.

“Fuck off.”

“Ooh, I see why Captain America didn’t snap you up. Language, Michelle.”

“Get away from my station before I give you a wedgie,” she suggests. What? It feels like a suggestion to her. It’s like a friendly tip on how to not get a wedgie.

“That sounds like bullying,” Flash singsongs.

MJ looks at him, expression flat.

“What about the back of your underwear being swiped through your butt crack like a credit card? What do you think that’ll sound like?”

It’s a relief to see Spider-Man that evening, though they hadn’t planned to meet tonight. MJ shoves her window up and he sits, red costumed legs like an ad for cheap packaged hotdogs dangling into her bedroom.

“Wasn’t expecting you,” she says. There’s something about the way he tilts his masked head―she knows he doesn’t believe her. Well, there is the fact that she opened the window before she knew he was outside.

“I wanted to ask how things went today.”

“Ah.”

MJ’s bed is positioned along the same wall as the window and she stretches back to root a sweatshirt out of her blankets, yanking it over her Punk Virginia Woolf t-shirt.

“So how did things go?” Spider-Man presses.

She sighs, struggling to sit up.

“We need to get our shit together.”

“That a helpful note,” he jokes.

“I threatened someone with cruel and unusual below-the-belt punishment for asking me questions.”

“And here I’d been thinking you were so easy to talk to.”

That gets MJ to laugh.

“See how lucky you are not to know me in real life?” Though the words don’t feel wrong when she thinks them, saying them makes Spider-Man glance quickly away and MJ feels bad for a reason she can’t explain.

But, come on, talking about her antisocial tendencies with a superhero? The only kind of ‘real life’ that resembles is what they show in afterschool specials. Except Spider-Man would have to be Captain America, and she’d be getting advice for a change instead of giving it.

“What, uh, what happened with that then?” he attempts after a pause that has tried desperately to be meaningful. “With your threatening?”

She doesn’t quite laugh, but rather kind of exhales in humour.

“Oh, he immediately ratted. Tried to get me detention. Teacher just didn’t buy it.”

“Well, congratulations,” Spider-Man offers, more relaxed.

“Congratulations?” MJ jerks her head back with her mouth in a wry smirk. “Aren’t you supposed to be overwhelmed with, like, a burning urge to bring me to justice?”

He shrugs, kicking his legs a little. It makes her feel good to watch the swing of his feet. Less lonely.

“I’m off the clock.”

“Ah. I’d been assuming it was like a cab. You know, stopped, but the meter’s still running.”

“Come on, seeing my girlfriend? Best part of my night.”

She snorts.

“You’re a shithead.”

Instantly can’t believe she’s said that to an Avenger.

“That would look good on a mug.”

MJ glances up from her knees, equally stunned that Spider-Man has just blow right past her potentially offensive comment; she knows how to read the room, it’s just that she doesn’t always react appropriately based on her observations. She’s pretty sure that’s called exercising free will.

“Cool, you can have it made and give it to me for our anniversary,” she says.

“I don’t know if you’ve switched newspapers, but your advice has gotten a lot worse.”

MJ chucks a paperback book at him―a mass market douche-fest she’s only keeping because filling the margins with her critique and imagining sending the improved book back to its white male author (who probably thinks he’s done a real back-slapper of a job with his portrayal of women) is one of her favourite fantasies; it’s practically meditation―and Spider-Man snatches it out of the air effortlessly. He leans into her room a little, setting it on the bed.

She flops back, eyes on him. Exhales.

“You must be having a slow night.”

“What are you talking about? I just prevented an assault. If Spider-Man hadn’t stopped that book from hitting me in the face, I would’ve had to sue you.”

“Your face? I think I deserve more credit than that. I know PR, remember? The mask is your money-maker.”

“What was it then?”

“Hmm?” Her gaze has drifted to her backpack. She recalls the research project and the irresistible way Wikipedia spoke to her through the screen today, pleading to be used as a crutch. Fuck, MJ needs to find reputable sources. Peer-reviewed journals or some shit.

“The target?”

She focuses on him.

“Your chest. Larger surface area. Higher chance of success.”

“Well, I see you’ve deescalated from the below-the-belt violence. My work here is done.”

Spider-Man might be joking when he twists, pulling his legs back through her window and letting them hang outside, but MJ really does need to get to her homework.

“’K, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She sits up abruptly. God, that was weird. Of course she isn’t going to see him tomorrow. They don’t go to school together. Man, it was almost like… for less than a second… she’d mixed him up with someone else.

Quickly covering, MJ blurts, “Try not to publicly acknowledge any more women as your girlfriend.”

His legs have gotten a head start down the wall, but Spider-Man props his elbows on her windowsill.

“Jealous?”

She ignores that.

“Don’t make this mess any bigger than it is.”

He glances down, drumming his fingers, and MJ feels like she’s just chastised a child. Spider-Man has been especially perky tonight, but seriously, he can’t forget that they have to be responsible about this. With a nod, he disappears from view.

The next day, she doesn’t discuss Spider-Man. Not when provoked, not when approached politely. The reason is that, once again, MJ and her hapless interloper failed to formulate a plan. What did they even talk about? She considers this, strolling unhurriedly from class to class. The easiest part to remember is that she felt better than she had before he’d stopped by.

Spotting Peter at his locker gives her a clarity that her recollections of Spider-Man lack. MJ could be quizzed on her interactions with the boy in the nerdy t-shirts any day of the week and ace it. What time they spoke the previous Thursday, what they each said, the kind of sandwich he brings most frequently, the title of the last massive chemistry book she saw him reading and heard him claim was ‘extra credit.’

…The number of times she’s stared at his hair when it’s grown out a little, always hoping he’ll go one more day without a trim because she likes the curl in it, pictures her own fingers tangled in it every time he brushes it away from his forehead. The current count of the thoughts she’s had in which he’s holding her hand.

She adds one.

Of course, she doesn’t stop and say hi to Peter. Doesn’t even cross the hall. He’d know. If he saw her face right now, he’d know it all. MJ has to wait for decathlon practice, maybe lunch, where she can get there first and acclimate to the environment like an animal on loan from an overseas zoo. (Fuck zoos, by the way. Who do humans think they are to cage other beings for entertainment?)

MJ will be better at this soon, after the Spider-Man situation is resolved. She sneaks another glance at Peter as she passes, admires him in his blue sweatshirt. Right now, she just doesn’t know what she’d say.

Chapter Text

She’s thinking about sneaking out early. She’s really thinking hard about sneaking out early. It’s like that children’s hand game with the church and the steeple; there’s the door, here’s her seat (closest to the door), and across the classroom is her oblivious last-period teacher. Slyly, MJ sweeps her books from her desk into her backpack and begins to edge her chair backwards. It’s Friday and no one would care if they noticed, but no one’s going to notice.

Peter notices.

“Busy this weekend?” he asks from behind her.

She frowns a little for two reasons, one to do with the past and the other to do with the present. Chronologically: it bothers MJ that Peter sits behind her as this has made it very difficult to observe him (fucking surname-alpha-order) and the way he says ‘busy this weekend’ sounds like he already knows the answer. And that the answer is yes. Like all she can do now is confirm what he’s already suspecting, which proves him right and makes the entire conversation about him and his rightness, thus counteracting any sense of fulfillment or positive anticipation she might have about her weekend plans. Prick.

Mainly, MJ’s feeling testy because she’s mortified by the idea that Peter’s probably heard she’s dating Spider-Man. If Spider-Man were here now, she’d kick him right in the nuts. Honestly, the process of developing feelings for Peter Parker has been hard enough without the un-asked-for hero-vention.

“Oh, you know,” she sighs, twisting to face him. “The burden of my extreme popularity.”

Peter snorts a good-natured laugh (the dork gets it) and MJ’s heart goes rolling fast down a hill. Shit, she’s staring. She snaps back around and sits stiffly until the bell, then bolts from the room. Things were easier before this crush, MJ’s sure, but that period in her life is a little like her infancy: logically, it must have existed, she just can’t remember it.


What MJ and her father are: Times readers. What MJ and her father are not: Times hoarders. Those papers get delivered, read, and recycled; her dad’s very methodical about it. He doesn’t like clutter, so any page of the weekend editions left lying around by the time he gets home from work on Monday is cleared away without debate (there’s no debate because he doesn’t check to see if anyone’s still looking at that page). This means MJ will have to take her confidence in the newspaper into the digital age to consult past editions.

Basically, it’s Friday evening, after dinner, and she’s bookmarking articles on the Times website.

She’s getting organized. No more screwing around not knowing the answers to people’s questions. Although MJ’s kept her head down at school, those downward facing eyes have often been directed at the screen of her phone so, yep, she’s seen the handful of pictures gaining traction on social media. Her, folded into Spider-Man’s arms. Shit. If only he hadn’t loudly identified her as his girlfriend. The only fortunate thing is that the crowd of her classmates was behind her, so none of the pictures show the expression on her face, which wasn’t exactly swoony.

MJ hasn’t been bombarded by the press or overzealous Avengers fans yet, but she knows the window of anonymity has to be closing.

First, she needs to gather her source material. Second, she’ll look for trends, establish patterns. Third, she’ll draw conclusions, having created a template for the course of a superhero/civilian relationship. It’s weirdly similar to doing her World History assignment and yet the fact that two people (MJ being one of them) are counting on this research project to prevent the trajectories of their lives from plummeting like twin Hindenburgs makes this task slightly more compelling. She’s certainly never been so absorbed by World History that she fell into her childhood habit of chewing her pen lid, but she’s sure as hell gnawing away now.

It’s fine though. She’s zoned in, searching and bookmarking and shuffling her open tabs around like a machine. Just for a moment, the thought that no one would’ve been as equipped to handle this catastrophe as she is makes MJ feel lucky. Then, naturally, she recalls that being well-versed in Avengers PR is what caused all of this. That, plus Spider-Man’s annoying tendency to act before thinking.

“Hey, MJ!”

And guess whose head has just appeared, upside-down, outside her open window. She frowns because she can’t remember introducing herself to him as anything besides ‘Michelle.’ He must’ve heard someone say it the other day at Midtown.

“Was just thinking about you,” she mumbles, recording the title of the article she has on-screen in a notebook. Makes it easier to tally how many she has on each of the Avengers. Modelling her template too much after one superhero’s relationship would skew the data.

“You were thinking about me as you…” Spider-Man leans through the window, taking in the laptop screen, the notes she’s compiling. “…begin your new scrapbooking hobby?”

“Hey,” she says with exaggerated pep, “you might not be too hard to dump after all!” And glares at him. He holds up his hands, dropping into place on her windowsill. “Research,” MJ explains after a minute. “I’m collecting relevant articles.”

“Do you want to start printing them out to make a conspiracy wall?” he teases.

She gives a loud, fake laugh.

“Do you want to use your webbing in place of red yarn to link the articles with secret codes and subliminal messaging?

The fake laugh Spider-Man gives in return makes her a little proud.

“Ok,” he relents, “so we’re really working on this.”

“We’ve already wasted too―”

“I know, I know.”

MJ lays down her pen and studies him.

“How did that happen, by the way? You didn’t try to stamp out this rumour right after you started it.” She thinks for a second. “Actually, you’re still not doing anything, I am.”

“C-crime out there. All over the place.” Spider-Man whistles dramatically. “You wouldn’t believe it.”

She narrows her eyes.

“I thought the city was having a record year. Lowest crime rate for decades.”

He fidgets.

“Well… you know, some people, some people do say that, but if you were actually out on the streets at night like I am… I mean, I don’t know who you heard that from…”

MJ whips her laptop around so there’s no doubt that Spider-Man can see the 20+ tabs of New York Times articles she has open.

“You picked the wrong woman to bullshit, Spider-Man. You want my sources alphabetically or chronologically?”

A nervous laugh from the amateur in the window seat. God, she shouldn’t find his pathetic attempt to argue with her endearing.

“Anyway,” MJ says, “from what I’ve seen here,” she points at the screen, “it’s probably a good thing that we didn’t go into damage control mode right away. Contradiction would’ve either been buried by early dissemination of the rumour itself, or the turnaround would’ve been too quick for the public to be willing to find it credible. We need to give it at least a week.”

Spider-Man sighs loudly.

“Have I told you how grateful I am to have you handling this with me?”

“Like I had a choice.”

She waits to see if he’ll refute that, but he doesn’t. Good. She’s not interested in wasting time debating what they can’t change.

“I’m not doing a conspiracy wall, but you can still get in here and help me.”

“I can?” He straightens up. “I can come inside?”

“What are you, a vampire? Yes. Enter, freak.” MJ rolls her eyes.

“Should you close the door?” Spider-Man eyes it, across the room.

“My parents went out for dinner, but if it makes you feel more comfortable…”

She gets up, strides over, and shuts the door softly.

“Voilà,” MJ declares with an underwhelming flourish of her hands as she turns around.

Spider-Man’s standing next to her bed. There’s an awkward moment where he goes, “should I?” and she gestures for him to sit, but then he’s settling in and scooping up her notebook to check out what she’s got so far. She hopes that suit of his isn’t coated in miscellaneous urban grime, because it’s on her comforter.

MJ considers sitting at the opposite end of the bed, or even dragging in a kitchen chair, but seriously, if you can’t trust Spider-Man, who can you trust? Although, he doesn’t have the best track record with her. Fuck it. She sits, a foot of space between their legs.

“Why don’t you cross off any headlines on there you think sound irrelevant?” she suggests, handing over the pen. An instant too late, she recalls chewing the lid. Oh well. “Or any similar stories on the same hero/civilian relationship.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. We’re not writing an encyclopedia, we just need a guideline. I think I’m almost caught up with these,” MJ says, hauling her laptop onto her lap and scooting backwards until her back rests against the wall. After a moment, Spider-Man copies her. “I’m into the couple of stories where they speculated about the whereabouts of Thor’s girlfriend before he told a reporter that it was over between him and... what was her name?”

She’s about to click through her tabs to locate the name of Thor’s ex (because she hates letting a piece of information slip through the cracks) when Spider-Man supplies it.

“Jane. I wasn’t there,” he backpedals, “but I heard about it after. That was a rough time for him.”

The compassion in his voice surprises MJ. A lot of their conversations have been screwing around and though there’s been plenty of advice-giving (one-sided), it’s never been on such a delicate topic.

“It was?” Honestly, she’s never pictured the dude who throws that badass hammer around to be wounded in any way he wouldn’t have earned in battle.

“Yeah.” Spider-Man glances sideways at her, the expression of his oversized white eyes thoughtful. “He really loved her.”

MJ stares back at him, even after his attention returns to her notes, and worries that she isn’t qualified for this after all. What does she know about a romantic relationship? She can construct a timeline, but that won’t tell her how to feel as she acts out the steps. It’s going to take more than memorizing each other’s birthdays and favourite foods to believably pretend to be in a relationship with a guy whose face she’s never seen.

Still, for now, she’ll have to start with the facts. MJ exhales and nudges Spider-Man―her elbow into his upper arm.

“How old are you?” she wonders.

“Well, I’m a man. I’m Spider-Man. Uh…”

“That’s one answer you’ll have to work on, because my dad’s definitely going to ask.”

He’s sitting close enough for her to feel his sudden tension.

“I’m meeting your dad?”

“Both my parents,” MJ assures him, grinning with selfish amusement. “Get ready to be a boyfriend.”

Chapter Text

Now that they’ve figured their relationship will last for approximately one week, MJ and Spider-Man don’t really have any days to spare, so she introduces her parents to her ‘boyfriend’ the very next day. After a brief warning about what’s coming (which probably hits her mom and dad like a surprise transport truck), he shows up at the apartment midmorning.

They coordinated on the timing in advance because, for some weird reason, Spider-Man won’t give her his number. To MJ, this can either be him avoiding being inconvenienced, or just being rude, and she really doesn’t buy that it’s the first one because, hello, who’s been showing up at whose window? She’s probably the last person in this city who would call him voluntarily.

So her own personal Avenger (cough, pain in the ass) arrives and most of the bad things she could imagine happening happen. MJ’s mentally assembling moments in a compilation of embarrassment and suffering as they occur, a live gag reel for anyone with a taste for cringe.

Some of her personal highlights are her dad asking in an increasingly suspicious tone how Spider-Man knows where they live, her mom saying to her “but I thought you had a crush on―” (MJ hastily cuts her off and vows to never again cave when her mother’s trying to get her to admit who at school she finds attractive), and Mr. ‘I Know What to Do’ himself accidentally almost revealing the phoniness of their relationship in such a confusing way that it manages to sound like he’s using her for a publicity stunt.

It’s a disaster, but when Spider-Man leaves (through the door, thank god―she can only imagine if he’d headed for her bedroom window), her parents laugh about the encounter until they cry, so she assumes a rocky first meeting between parents and boyfriend is normal.

While they’re busy cackling at her expense, MJ retreats to her bedroom and starts rereading Michelle Obama’s memoir to calm herself down. The stress! And he’s not even her real boyfriend! Maybe she’ll be grateful that she had this test run in a few weeks (months, years) when she navigates her way out of her own head long enough to not only have a conversation with Peter, but flirt with him. Somehow, the flirting turns into them dating, she just can’t see the path clearly yet.

“He’s sweet,” her mom tells her later, leaning against her doorframe. “Once you get past the costume and the fact that he helped save the world, I can see how Spider-Man’s a pretty good fit for you.”

MJ is confused, self-conscious, appalled, but tries not to let it show.

“Thanks, Mom,” she says, darting her eyes up quickly, then back to her book.

“Do you call him that all the time?”

MJ glances up more slowly and her mother cracks up, waving a dismissive hand and walking away, unable to speak through her fits of laughter. Great.

They eat lunch together, she and her mom at the kitchen table―reading and doing a Sudoku puzzle, respectively―while her dad takes bites of a sandwich in between folding laundry with precision on the couch in the adjoining living room. The need to talk about her new boyfriend seems to have abated, though her dad does make one comment.

“Spider-Man seems like a good guy, from what I’ve read.”

It comes off just as benignly supportive as her mom’s earlier words of approval, but MJ knows exactly what her dad’s doing. She shoots him a look when he enters the kitchen in search of a pickled onion from the fridge to complement his sandwich (revolting) and he returns it with a knowing wink. His little assessment is a reminder that he’s been reading the paper since long before she was born―like he invented the pastime. It means he understands that, as long as she’s dating Spider-Man, his daughter’s relationship will be accessible to the general public. And that he’s a member of that public.

So that’s why her dad’s not more interested in prying; he’s counting on his trusty Times to keep him informed. Touché. Cleverness and being observant are both hereditary Jones traits. MJ shouldn’t have expected anything less.

Spider-Man’s back not long after she’s laid out on her bed, stomach-down, a pillow under her braced arms for optimal comfort, 33 pages into Becoming. His shadow flickers across the paper. MJ looks up to see him sneaking quick peeks through the window, head sideways, presumably checking for signs of parental supervision. She rolls her eyes and closes her book, crawling to the window to open it.

“Crime all over the place, huh?” she verifies wryly, reminding him of his excuse the day before, why he’d been too busy to help her stop the rumour of them dating.

“There’s a-a temporary lull. Right now,” he stammers.

“I’d hate to think you’re prioritizing your fake relationship above directing traffic at intersections with broken stop lights, or…” MJ waves her hand loosely as she thinks, “…untangling leashes for professional dog-walkers.”

“Well, I just wanted to―”

“Because sometimes,” she goes on, caught up in her own words, “they’re trying to walk, like, five dogs at once, and it’s really a serious―”

“―see you.”

“―tripping hazard.”

“What?”

What?”

“Oh,” Spider-Man covers with an awkward laugh. “Yeah, it can be a very dangerous occupation. Constant risk of a skinned knee.”

“You wanted to see me?” MJ presses. Her face warms and she wishes it would fucking stop that right now. What is she feeling? Flattered that he’s stopped by?

“No,” he blurts.

He’s still outside and leans back sharply as he speaks. It makes her jump, start to reach for him. She clamps her teeth together and sits back, stuffing her hands beneath her thighs.

“So you don’t want to see me.”

“Only for the, the timeline,” Spider-Man assures her. It’s how they’ve been referring to all the major relationship points they’ve agreed they need to hit.

His nervousness relaxes her and MJ slumps a little, less on edge.

“I think you went over pretty well with my parents.” She doesn’t think it would be helpful to mention that her dad’s going to be watching him like a hawk (in print).

Spider-Man sighs and relaxes his posture, arms on either side of her window.

“You were worried about that?” she guesses, sort of surprised. MJ knows about a lot of what he’s done, the crimes he’s interrupted and prevented, and can’t believe something like meeting her parents would phase him.

“If they believe this―us―is a real thing, then other people probably will too.”

It’s a very reasonable explanation. Not exactly Spider-Man’s MO.

“Well, there you go,” MJ allows lightly. “So far, so good. You’re welcome for the progress report.”

“I also wanted you to come with me,” he says, sounding more confident.

Huh. She really thought he would take off after she provided a pretext for his coming over only a couple of hours since his last visit.

“Come with you where?” MJ’s hesitant. They shouldn’t fall into the habit of hanging out purposelessly. It’ll… well, it’ll just make things complicated if they get too friendly.

“We need to be seen together,” Spider-Man reminds her.

Ok, he has a point. Meeting her parents does nothing to contribute to their viral presence as a couple.

“What do you suggest?”

“How about helping old ladies cross the street?”

She laughs.

Half an hour later, she realizes it wasn’t a joke.

They’ve walked out of MJ’s immediate neighbourhood (she told her parents she was going to sketch people at the park) and found a particularly faded crosswalk. Spider-Man gets to work as MJ watches from the sidewalk. This guy might not be great at handling his personal life, but he’s really good at what he does. He escorts the elderly, readily offering an arm for support each time, and chatting animatedly all the way to the other side of the street. MJ’s smiling to herself. In between, he gives thumbs up to anyone―drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, people leaning out of the windows of buildings―who calls his name.

When old ladies become thin on the ground, they move on, finding a blind corner that’s obviously a dangerous spot to cross. This time, MJ goes with Spider-Man, taking the man or woman’s other side and carrying bags of groceries, library books, a purse with a cat inside (she doesn’t realize it’s there until the purse shifts against her side and she nearly flings it away in a panic).

She notices the occasional person stop to snap a picture with their phone and at first it makes her feel watched, insecure, because it’s normally her doing the observing, but Spider-Man’s as good with MJ as he is with Queens’s senior citizens, distracting her and pulling her into easy conversation.

They stay long enough at the next intersection that passersby turn into a static crowd bearing witness to their local hero’s altruism. They jog back towards the gathering after seeing an old man and his even older brother safely across and MJ has… not so much an idea as an impulse. She slips her arm under Spider-Man’s and grasps his hand. He gives her a quick glance and it’s the first time she can remember really wanting to see his face.

Everybody’s eager to talk to him and MJ lets him go, becoming the photographer as she motions for phone after phone to help people get the best possible shot with their idol. They saw her hold his hand and definitely took pictures, she knows they did, but either they’re too star-struck or too polite to comment. Until Spider-Man and a little boy―maybe six or seven―are flexing their arm muscles for the dad’s phone and the kid goes, “Spider-Man? Is that your girlfriend?”

She sees her fake boyfriend’s attention shift from the phone she’s holding to her face, seeking permission. MJ gives a subtle nod.

“Yeah, buddy, that’s MJ.”

The child gives her an appraising look as MJ stands here, frozen, still holding the phone.

“I like her shirt,” he decides. It’s from the Women’s March she attended last year, a silkscreen of three overlapping faces tilted upward. The boy’s eye is probably just drawn by the graphic, an obvious thing to comment on as he tries to hold Spider-Man in conversation a little longer, but she finds the remark adorable.

MJ grins at the kid and the next day, that’s the shot. It’s on Twitter, it’s on gossip websites, it’s on MJ’s phone when Flash texts it to her, more outraged than ever. It’s her, smiling down at a child who’s leaning into Spider-Man’s side, and Spider-Man looking not at the kid, but up at her. ‘SPIDER-MAN’S GIRLFRIEND’ countless webpages proclaim, with hashtags and too many exclamation marks.

Where the first images from Midtown inspired curiosity and speculation, this photograph arrives like a confirmation. She has a face now, a name. These are things that people around the world are seeing. That people in Queens are seeing. That, in an apartment building likely very similar to hers, Peter Parker must be seeing too.

Chapter Text

Stretching her legs on a Sunday is just one thing that no longer works the same as it did last week―or even yesterday, prior to the photo. MJ knows before she ever steps into the outside world that the face she lets hot water hit with her eyes clamped shut while showering (and then calls it a skin care regime) is now recognizable. Not just able to be recognized, but possibly sought to be recognized. As in, New Yorkers will wake up today knowing that they have a chance of running into Spider-Man’s girlfriend.

That’s good, it’s fine, it’s part and parcel of this larger thing she and the goof in the suit have going on. While getting dressed, MJ admits to herself that the reason she’s more hesitant to publicly exist as Spider-Man’s girlfriend today than she was yesterday is because she’s doing it alone. Of course, that private acknowledgement pisses MJ off and she becomes determined to do this without him. She doesn’t need him to hold her hand (metaphorically) as she carries out the plan she contrived.

What she does need is to rely on all the ways she’s made herself invisible at school. She’ll just follow some of her own practiced rules until this thing is over. That’ll help her lay low―transient and forgettable as a spy―enabling MJ to basically carry on with her life as normal. She doesn’t strut around with Pepper Potts’s tangerine hair and disturbingly perfect posture, or lug Jane Foster’s incomprehensible instruments while science grants rain from the sky.

MJ will make a few concessions and survive until the breakup by being Spider-Man girlfriend when she’s with him and her wallpaper school-self the rest of the time. This does kind of erase the middle person: who MJ actually is, who she’s trying to be, bit by bit at school, and who she’s best at being while either at home or alone in the borough.

Whatever.

She temporarily retires her Women’s March shirt (annoying) and lets her hair hang in her face as she leaves her family’s apartment, incognito.

Yesterday, while she and Spider-Man were doing all that street-crossing, she ended up delving into Personal Information, just to keep the conversation going. Her fake boyfriend already knew she liked to read, which he brought up, which led to a shockingly (disappointingly?) brief discussion on contemporary fiction, which ended in her revealing that her home-away-from-home was a used bookshop she hung out in most Sundays. He asked if she’d be there the next day and MJ probably gave him a face that said Saturday’s hand-in-hand appearance was enough girlfriending for her for one weekend, because Spider-Man said he was going to be busy. He wouldn’t stop by, he was just getting to know her. Alarming, but fair enough.

So if she has to keep her head down and look through her hair and wear a different t-shirt, MJ can do that. The bookshop is her asylum of choice and it’s not far.

But today refuses to be completely Spider-Man-free; as soon as she starts off down the sidewalk, he’s on her mind. She even turns and glances up towards her bedroom window, trying to see the view from his side of the glass. Maybe MJ dramatizes him in her head until he seems like the worst, but it’s not easy to picture her Saturday mornings without him. He’s a good person. She exhales through her mouth, making a ragged peephole between the strands of her wavy hair. He’s a good person she’s going to have to dump. It’s on her, otherwise they risk Spider-Man looking bad in the media.

Like every other aspect of a relationship, dumping someone is something MJ’s never done before and isn’t really a component she’s keen to practice. Who fantasizes about their future breakups, even if they’re going to be the one ending things? Ok, probably sadists and contestants on the Bachelorette who just want to use the woman as a stepping stone to their own fame. (That show is MJ’s mom’s weakness, no matter how many times MJ points out how degrading it is to have a human being as a prize.)

Hopefully the bookshop will serve the function of helping her think. She’s certain that the shitstorm that comes with romantically linking herself to Queens’s favourite son is still on the horizon.

MJ pushes inside and breathes yellowed pages, sweet lavender, must, and other grandmotherly smells. The store’s a two-storey neighbourhood institution devoid of hovering sales staff and she inhales the quiet as much as the air. She wiggles a book list out of her pocket―frequently scratched out and added to, it reminds her of which titles to look for. Of course, this isn’t a shopping expedition, it’s a lazy browse, and the list isn’t to limit her, it’s her hall pass. An excuse to roam.

She spends a pleasant half hour judging books by their covers and tilting her head sideways to read spines. When her neck starts to feel the strain, MJ decamps to the biographies. While she loves novels, she believes it’s smarter to take a risk on nonfiction; even if you don’t like the writing style, there’s still plenty of engaging content as long as the subject is (or was) somebody interesting.

Half-distracted by a book on Simone de Beauvoir she might come back for, MJ rounds the end of the aisle and jumps, finding herself staring at Spider-Man. After a couple rapid breaths, the more rational part of her brain catches up to her fight-or-flight and she realizes it’s not the superhero, just someone reading a book with the web-swinger’s mask on the cover. There’s a whole subsection of the nonfiction section devoted to the Avengers. In this city, everybody wants to know more. Reading a paper’s not enough for a lot of people―they need the hardcover, coffee table-sized, full-colour illustrations, collectible edition.

Actually, the reminder that some people are slavering superhero nerds really puts MJ’s assorted tidbits of Avengers knowledge in perspective and she snorts a laugh.

The book lowers and she’s staring at the face of Peter Parker. What the hell is happening to her life that sitting in her bedroom doing research with the genetically enhanced darling of Queens is something she’s more prepared for than running into her classmate in a bookstore?

MJ’s feet decide to keep heading down the dead-end aisle, making her slip past Peter as he rotates to keep their eyes locked. Stop walking, she screams at herself in her head. Stop. Stop. Stop!

“Sorry,” Peter says about the same time MJ halts like a soldier snapping to attention, minus the salute.

She’s confused.

“Sorry?” She’s acting bizarre and he’s apologizing?

“Uhhh, never mind.”

Hastily, Peter stuffs the Spider-Man book back onto the shelf. She glances at it and, thankfully, it looks as though he’s returned it to the correct spot. Books out of order get under her skin.

“Am I in your way?” he asks, clearly thrown by her sudden appearance, but predictably well-mannered. One of the things about him that absolutely charms her. Goddammit.

“Nope. ‘P’ for ‘Plath,’” MJ says, reaching for a biography on the side of the aisle that wraps around from where she just was.

It isn’t something she was actually searching for, but the all-caps name on the spine combined with the fact that the shop owners order their biographies by subject rather than author (where the two names differ) is a straw and, holy shit, she’s grasping for it. She’s not even trying to seem intelligent right now―anything above ‘flustered idiot’ will suffice.

“Not the Avengers section, huh?” Peter says it almost to himself and she frowns in confusion, fingers clamped to the book on Sylvia Plath. With a self-deprecating smile, he lifts a hand to scratch through his hair. MJ’s thinking this might be the closest she’s ever stood to him. “Yeah, I should’ve figured. You’re probably an expert, right?”

He points at the Spider-Man book he was holding and it feels like Cupid has set aside his quiver and bow to turn a cannon on her, blasting her heart out.

“Oh,” she says. “I guess.” After a quiet few seconds of them looking at each other, she adds, “But it’s not like… I don’t really…”

Only, what can she say? There are two people in on this secret: MJ and Spider-Man. She can’t just blab the truth to Peter when they’re working so hard to construct this story. There’s a template. They even duped her parents, for fuck’s sake!

“I bet you’re in here a lot,” he says, tossing her a lifeline that comes complete with a smile. He could teach Flash a thing or two about tactful subject changes.

“Sometimes.”

Less words is a better strategy until she’s sure she can suppress the urge to confess the falsity of her relationship.

“My aunt’s at the laundromat next door,” Peter offers, even though she’s not up to her usual level of suspiciousness, demanding an alibi. “We have, uh, big comforters and they don’t, um…”

“Fit in your washing machine,” MJ finishes for him as he trails off.

“Right, yeah.”

He shrugs and sticks his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. The gesture is endearing in its little-boyishness, tugging at the corners of her mouth. She could be the Scout Finch to his Tom Sawyer, she thinks. Though Peter’s really not that mischievous. Not that rough-and-tumble.

When he smiles openly at her, MJ realizes she’s smiling herself. Immediately, she lets it drop off her face. Her lips part, but he speaks before she can.

“Have you started on that…?”

“No,” she says, making the jump to the homework they were assigned the other day in the class she almost snuck out of. “I was thinking of waiting until the last minute. It’s my last refuge of protest.”

Peter laughs and it’s soft, soft, soft like the pages of the oldest stock in this store.

“I’m doing mine tonight. Ned’s coming over.”

For a dizzy second, MJ thinks he’s going to invite her along. Where do those nerds study? Peter’s bedroom? She’s overheating.

Of course, he doesn’t though. Of course not. They don’t know each other like that.

“Anyway, I better get back to the laundromat,” Peter says instead. “She’ll need help lugging everything home.”

“You’re a good nephew.”

She says it, but she also mentally adds it to the list of things she likes about him. Ugh, stupid crush.

“It was nice to see you,” he says and gives her a small, awkward wave before leaving.

It was nice to see her? MJ backs into the wall between shelves, feeling the bumps of painted brick.

“You too,” she says, long after Peter’s walked away.

She looks down at the floor, laughs once in disbelief, and she smiles.

Chapter Text

“I’m not trying to tell you what to do,” her mother assures her, hovering while MJ rinses her cereal bowl in the sink.

Monday has arrived and kicked dirt over the weekend’s high points like a dog roughing up the ground after doing its business.

“Yes, you are.”

She scowls and lets her spoon clink against the drain. Her dad wordlessly set a box of normally discouraged sugary cereal on the table earlier, but MJ knew it was a pity move and went with something bitter and bran-tastic instead. Now, she misses seeing the swirl of artificial colouring as the remaining puddle of milk washes from her bowl.

“I just want you to consider whether this entanglement is worth it,” her mom persists. She follows MJ back to her room.

“Ugh, don’t say ‘entanglement,’” MJ pleads, finding her sweater and her backpack. “So melodramatic.”

“Michelle.” In a stern tone.

“You’re going to make me late,” she says and gestures to where her mother is blocking the doorway.

“The sooner you start listening, the sooner I can stop making you late.”

MJ sighs.

“Fine. Go.”

Her mom’s posture softens.

“Hon, I saw how happy you were over the weekend―” MJ feels a little guilty that she can’t admit most of that happiness was caused by a dude she’s not dating. “―but I can’t ignore how miserable you are today. If this was a one-time thing, trust me, I’d be telling you to hang in there and how you can get through it.” She pauses and spreads her hands before going on. “Only, as long as you’re dating this guy, I have a feeling it’s going to be a bit of a rollercoaster. Nobody wants to ride that ride for long. It’ll make you sick.”

She steps forward and brushes MJ’s hair away from her forehead. It makes MJ feel way too vulnerable and liable to open up. Before you know it, it’d be a whole heart-to-heart, with her spilling all the fucking beans. No. She can see this through to the end of the day tomorrow when her week as Spider-Man’s girlfriend is up.

“I’m seriously going to be late,” she says quietly, then meet her mom’s eye. “I’ll think about what you said.” I just can’t act on it, she thinks.

“Ok.” Her mom lets her pass. “Just try not to look at your phone today!” she calls out as MJ leaves the apartment.

She spends her trip to school thinking about the difference between protesting and confrontation. The former is something MJ is extremely comfortable with; while other kids got dropped off with sitters when their parents and guardians hit the polls on Election Day, MJ was always led by the hand right into the booth by her mom and taught how to fill out a ballot. Her mom told her how the format of the ballot got changed around sometimes, or the way you were supposed to mark it to show who you were voting for. MJ learned from when she was a little girl that even the processes that are meant to give all people an equal say can be manipulated and used against those they are intended to empower. She protests because pointing out these injustices strikes her as more than fair to counter their existence in the first place.

Confrontation is vastly less comfortable for her. She’s broken down her own unsociability enough to threaten Flash out of pestering her about her fake boyfriend, but taking on one person is not the same as taking on a group she doesn’t even know the size of. And maybe that’s a little like protesting too, only this time, MJ’s not marching in a crowd of change-seekers, thirstily absorbing the endorphins and encouragement of mob mentality―she’s solo.

What happened is, not everybody’s awing over Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Not everybody liked the picture. Not everybody liked her.

Hell, MJ didn’t think she was in contention for World’s Biggest Optimist, but she feels knocked back by the force of the online hatred aimed at her, directly or indirectly. She knew this kind of shit existed for the superhero partners who’ve stepped into the public eye ahead of her―Pepper and Jane and those who didn’t last long enough in their relationships to reach the stage of an article in the Times―but it really fucking sucked to wake up this morning and go online in time to witness her own persecution.

A recurring complaint (besides the top gross complaint about her boobs being too small and the top bigoted complaint about her skin being the wrong colour) is that she’s too tall. Too tall for Spider-Man? Too tall in general? Taller than the sticks these assholes have stuck up their… well, assholes? This one criticism that MJ noticed over and over until she put down her phone is enough to demonstrate that all of their superficial judgement is bullshit. It’s just that she needs to keep reminding herself that it’s bullshit, reminding herself until she’s saying it with every step she takes to Midtown Tech. Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.

Because MJ recognizes that confrontation would be pretty fruitless (what’s she going to do? Take on every sonofabitch on the internet?), she accepts that the best thing to do would be to walk away, like they teach you about bullies when you’re a kid.

That’s when she feels something more than frustrated, sad, furious, or exposed: she’s afraid. Not of the unqualified critics, but of what’s stopping her from just abandoning all of this and saving herself the stress. MJ has developed loyalty to Spider-Man. The thought of backing out of this phony relationship to spare herself pisses her off. Even though she doesn’t owe him anything. Even though he got them into this.

Anybody at school who didn’t see Spider-Man hug her last week has now had proof (she’d laugh that one photo can be considered ‘proof,’ but she’s still too bummed out) that she and Costume Boy are a thing and they don’t know how to treat her. MJ can take it from there. Head down, hair in her face, ignoring the common people.

Won’t they just be crushed that dating a hero doesn’t mean she’s been pulled aside and tutored into a gregarious personality and maybe that little cupped hand wave thing royals do?

Lunch takes its sweet fucking time to show up.

MJ heads to her usual seat, wondering how to play it when she sees Peter sitting alone, but he perks right up and motions her over.

“Emergency at the Lego factory?” she guesses wryly, nodding at the empty seat where his best friend’s normally stationed.

Be cool if the sarcasm would morph from a psychological crutch into a physical one because she is feeling a little weak in the knee region. Not weak in the knees, because, ugh. Just their general vicinity.

Peter snorts.

“Ned’s doing some homework with Betty.”

“Huh,” she says, sliding into the spot across from Peter. “He’s finally moving on that.”

“What? Do you think she likes him back?”

“For ages,” MJ drones, then flicks her eyes up to see his gaze fixed on her. “What? I see things.”

“I know you do,” he agrees with a very Ned-like chuckle. It’s definitely a compliment and it warms her face, so she tries to focus on eating her lunch.

“How was your weekend?” she asks cautiously when it seems like Peter’s decided not to bug her, which is honestly the most thoughtful treatment she’s ever received from anybody in this place. The desire to return his consideration prompts her like a shove in the back.

“Other than the bookstore, you mean?”

At the reminder, they catch each other’s eye, then look away fast.

“Yeah, other than that.”

“Good,” says Peter. “I… met some new people. Um, took a walk.” He shrugs and she can’t understand how taking a walk would put that smile on his face, but the dork’s smiling.

“Sounds boring,” she comments, but she gives him a small smile in return.

“Nah, it wasn’t bad. Oh,” he says, suddenly, excitedly, “speaking of you noticing things...” The abrupt animation and the look on Peter’s face make her own heart speed up. “One sec.” He digs through his backpack while she watches, smiling more while his attention isn’t on her. Abruptly, Peter tosses a folded newspaper onto the table. “I wondered if you’d seen this.”

MJ reaches to spread it out and sees it’s an article, an interview with Spider-Man. Her eyes go to the date in the corner. It’s today’s paper. She forgot to check more legitimate news sources this morning after falling down the gossipy rabbit hole that could only be the dwelling place of that fucked up bunny from Donnie Darko.

“Oh,” she says. It feels like her happiness is draining away down a funnel with steep, slick slides, but Peter’s still talking enthusiastically.

“Have you read it? He said some really nice stuff about you.” Peter’s looking down, pointing out different parts of the article. MJ’s just looking at him. “They mention the picture of you, so they must have rushed out to get the interview the same day, or yesterday maybe. Probably bumped another article.”

“Probably,” she echoes.

She feels crappy and confused all over again―grateful to Spider-Man for putting something positive about her into the media, but pissed that her fake boyfriend has stolen the conversation she was trying to have with her potential real boyfriend. Then, remorseful over resenting the hero because it feels like disloyalty. Followed by aggravated that she is tied to him when she wants to be with Peter.

And yet, Spider-Man’s been there for her a lot lately (fixing problems he created, but whatever), in a way Peter’s never been. Except that’s not his doing, it’s MJ’s for not letting anyone too close to her.

Peter must realize she isn’t really reading what he brought; at the end of a lunch that’s full of silent stewing on her part, he pushes the paper towards her again.

“Keep it,” he insists with an undemanding smile.

MJ’s sluggish as she packs up her things and he sees it, today of all days, when he’s usually so scatterbrained―talking without getting to the point, lost in a maze of a thousand thoughts, walking against the stream in the hall.

“It’s not so bad,” Peter tells her.

Because he’s already impressed upon her the glowing positivity of Spider-Man’s words, he can’t be talking about the article. It’s just a very human moment, him being kind to her.

He reaches out like he might touch her shoulder before exiting the cafeteria, but he doesn’t. She opens her mouth like she might call him back, but she doesn’t either.

Chapter Text

Oh, I like everything about her. For one thing, MJ’s so, so smart. […] Smarter than me? No question.’

You’ve seen the photo? Then you obviously know she’s way better looking than me. You don’t need to look under the mask to know that!

I’m still 100% dedicated to the suit. The safety of our neighbourhood is more important to me than ever. Everybody’s got somebody they want protected the way I want to protect her. […] Yeah, that’s a good word for it; it’s a privilege to get to do that for people.’

Yep. Just MJ. Definitely. I’m a one-woman Spider-Man.

MJ’s always been really helpful, totally on my side. I already don’t know what I’d do without her.’

Of all the things Spider-Man said about her in the article, the final mention is the one really tripping MJ up―like her shoes are untied and her fake boyfriend’s walking an inch behind her, stepping on the laces. He doesn’t know what he’d do without her? If she was reading it objectively, she would’ve rolled her eyes, but from the inside of their little operation, it strikes her as not only mushy but a serious mistake. It’s too earnest, too intimate. According to their previously agreed upon timeline, they’re supposed to be breaking up today and Spider-Man’s spinning some kind of love-at-first-sight fairy tale to the press. Not the plan, asshole! Not. The. Plan.

It should obviously be MJ handing the PR, but the character of ‘Spider-Man’s Girlfriend’ in their city’s little Avengers soap opera has not yet gained a sufficient following to warrant a formal interview. Especially not when they can go to Spider-Man for the same information, because, based on what he’s said in the article, it sounds like they’re pretty in sync. Which is news to MJ.

Her dad tried to playfully give her shit regarding her ‘boyfriend’s’ statements about her in the interview and MJ felt her face go red―probably what he was hoping for. On her end, the reaction was confusing. It’s all a lie, of course, and yet Spider-Man manages to come across so… genuine. The temptation is to blame him for making the bullshitting so credible. However, MJ is a responsible, engaged, alert media consumer, so she knows that believing his words is all on her. What she should do is ask herself why she wants to believe them.

What she actually did this morning was stuff the newspaper into the bottom of their recycling bin.

The day gets chopped up weird because of an assembly, creating a brief break between the end of the school day and the start of decathlon practice. MJ could just show up early, seeing as she’s team captain, but that would undermine the leadership style she’s established, which in turn refers back to the type of student she established herself as before that, which is someone who gives the academic institution the amount of time the government demands and no more (outside of self-determined extracurriculars and, like, homecoming).

MJ’s sitting outside, enjoying her people-free grace period, when Spider-Man’s suddenly standing at the end of her bench. It’s really fucking annoying that she instantly feels like talking to him, like she’s been waiting for him, thinking about him―only because he referred to her in the article. That’s it.

“Lab leak?” she asks, hand braced against her forehead, blocking the afternoon sun.

Spider-Man laughs and MJ feels like they’re friends. They are friends though, aren’t they? At the bare minimum, they are in cahoots; she ranks this above friendship due to it being both more desirable and more intriguing. At least one chapter of her life needs to be hard-boiled.

“This time I’m here for you.”

“Ominous.”

“No, I just thought I should check in!”

Her joke has flapped him. If they were actually dating, sarcasm would be something she contributed to the relationship, something he could adapt and use to grow into a snider, more sardonic person. Yeah, not very on-brand for Spider-Man though.

“What do you mean?”

“Well―can I sit?” He sits, jumpy, as she waves a hand at the other end of her bench. He twists towards her. “I read some of the stuff people were saying.”

“My fan-mail? My love letter from the people of New York?” Still on the sarcasm kick.

“It was horrible. I’m so sorry, MJ.”

“It’s not your fault,” she says with a shrug, then crosses her arms because her hand seems in danger of being spontaneously held. “This is more complicated than we thought it would be.”

“It is my fault though,” Spider-Man insists. “I should’ve done something―”

“You did.” MJ snorts. “I read your interview. What you said. About me.”

Her sentences are broken and she’s hoping he can piece them back together, like tile shards into a mosaic. She just feels a little frazzled, having to refer to something she doesn’t want to accidentally admit to rereading dozens of times since Peter showed it to her yesterday.

“Oh. Was everything alright? It was really easy to talk about you, easier than talking about myself.”

“Well, I don’t really have any secrets. I bet that’s a nice change.”

“Yeah,” Spider-Man agrees on a big, honest sigh.

For a minute, MJ wonders how the hell this happened to him. How he landed this weight so squarely on top of himself when he needs so much guidance, when the strain of concealing his identity is so obvious behind that sigh. A real girlfriend would be good for him, she decides. Right away, she’s uncomfortable with the thought.

“It feels like damage control though, you know?” he asks her, tense on the bench, leaning towards her. “Like what we’re doing is maybe keeping pace when we should be a step ahead. Or is that wrong?”

He’s looking at her―MJ’s gotten used to the mask at this point, reading expressions in a manufactured face with only one expressive feature―like he has when he’s shown up at her window needing advice. Still ready to treat her as the expert. It makes her feel good; it isn’t pressure so much as a reminder that she has autonomy over her part in this.

“It doesn’t sound like we’re about to break up,” MJ says thoughtfully.

She forgot about that when he appeared, even though fake-dumping her would’ve been the most likely reason he was here.

“I think we should give the relationship more time. Sort of smooth out our story,” Spider-Man proposes, tilting his head in a way that says she’s welcome to suggest something totally different. He sounds right though.

“Are you trying to give me a chance to be redeemed?”

MJ laughs although that really is her best guess at his motive, but she catches his teeny tiny pause.

“Yeah, why not?” he says, full of almost blustering confidence. She’s smirking, amused. “Plus, you’re good for my popularity. There were plenty of sites saying positive things too.”

“The world loves a superhero romance,” she agrees.

Spider-Man slouches back, relaxed.

“I think our relationship is really good for me. My image.”

MJ’s lips part. Speech comes after a few extra seconds.

“Right, for your image.”

When he looks over at her, she looks down. Her gaze lands on her watch and she remembers decathlon.

“I have practice.” She stands and swings her backpack over her shoulders. “Um, bye.”

“Bye,” Spider-Man says, sitting forward again, adding a wave that has her grinning as she marches back into the school.

She should’ve said something about being glad he came by, because who knows how far he had to swing to sit a few minutes on a bench with her? Starting to take a superhero for granted would be truly insane. It might not top pretending to date one, but there’d be a definite wacky rivalry between the two occurrences.

MJ mentally prepares herself for decathlon and walks into their practice space to see she’s almost the last one there.

“Where’s Peter?” she asks, frowning and glancing around.

Wow, what an amateur she is all of a sudden. This is probably the most obvious she’s ever been about her crush, and now she’s actually dating someone else (as far as anyone knows). Thankfully, MJ at her most obvious is still below her teammate’s radar because there’s no teasing, no raised eyebrows. Ned just has enough time to go, “Uhhhh…,” before Peter bangs through the door behind her with one sleeve of his button-up rolled up, the other down, and the t-shirt underneath on backwards.

“Hi,” he says, because everyone’s staring at him.

Drawing any more attention to Peter feels way too close to drawing attention to herself, so MJ just has them begin practice.

Once they’ve fallen into a rhythm of answering questions on subjects she asked them to study up on a couple weeks ago, MJ’s able to sit quietly and look like she’s doing some kind of important captain scheming. Instead, she’s wondering why Peter came in late and dishevelled. What makes this tough to get to the bottom of is the constant distraction of imagining herself fixing his clothes. Carefully cuffing his sleeves over the solid-looking musculature of his forearms. Flipping the wayward strands of hair back from his face. Lifting his t-shirt and, honestly, probably not getting it back on him the right way around because the thought of Peter Parker even having an abdomen under that stupid science pun shirt is completely sidetracking MJ.

She has no idea what her team learns during today’s practice.

Regardless, as they all head out, Betty tells her it was a good one and Flash complains loudly that she gave them too much material to review, so MJ figures she’s doing fine.

Peter ends up next to her as she’s pulling her hair back into an elastic, nearly jabbing him in the temple with her elbow. He dodges with a smile and they compulsively say ‘hi’ to each other, though they’ve been together for the last hour. It’s different when it’s just them. Just him and her.

MJ will not think about his abdomen.

“Ned wanted me to―” Peter says quickly, then corrects himself. “I wanted to see if you wanted to maybe study with us? Or do homework? Tomorrow at Ned’s.”

She narrows her eyes.

“Are you attempting to monopolize me because I’m the captain? That’s pretty pointless. Nobody else has tried to suck up.”

He laughs, maybe a little nervously.

“No, I’m just asking for you. Not the captain.”

“That’s, like, textbook sucking up, Peter,” she warns.

“Will you say yes anyway?”

It’s surreal how thrilled he seems to be when she goes, “Ok.”

Chapter Text

Wednesday afternoon is overcast but bright as they leave school together. MJ accidentally bumps into Peter, squinting her watering eyes, and he briefly touches her back. So there goes her train of thought.

They’re heading directly to Ned’s, which is great because it means more time with Peter (shut up) and no stopping off at home to hear her mom refer to the boys as her ‘study buddies’―something she’s done half a dozen times since MJ told her she’d be doing homework with the nerds today. MJ’s tended to have a close friend or two over the years, rather than anything big enough to coalesce into a study group, but it’s definitely her mom who seems like she was under-socialized as a child when she uses a term like ‘study buddies.’ Embarrassing.

Ned’s home is very… Ned. Though MJ normally wouldn’t care, right now she’s glad his family lives in a house rather than an apartment, because every time Peter looks at her and smiles, her legs feel unprepared for flights of stairs or a jarring elevator ride. Everything seems deliberately colourful, like the Leeds got the memo about neutrals looking modern or chic and tore that sucker up. Only the ceilings are white, she sees as her gaze travels up, and even that is somehow an aggressively confident tone.

“So…” begins Ned, letting his backpack straps slide down his arms. “We can study in my room?”

He looks at MJ since she’s the only one he really needs to check with. She assumes Peter’s here all the time and past the polite guest stage where your preferences are asked for and adapted to at every turn.

She gives him and nod and a shrug and they’re heading in that direction until a woman steps into the room and says, “Ned, a girl in your bedroom?!”

“Hi,” MJ says as Ned’s mom (probably) looks at her.

“Hello, sweetheart,” the woman says warmly.

MJ almost laughs in relief that Ned’s mom seems to have been concerned with her son’s propriety, not the possibility of her being a corrupting influence.

“Unless,” his mom falters, glancing around at their trio, “she’s with Peter?”

Immediate awkwardness stiffens their postures and loosens their vocal chords so they all try to respond at once and do a really shitty job of it.

“She’s with both of us,” Ned blurts out.

MJ could honestly murder this boy in his own home. She shoots him a glare, jaw tight.

“We’re all friends,” Peter quickly clarifies.

“I’m the captain of the decathlon team,” she adds. It’s only the second time she’s ever verbally acknowledged her appointment. The first time was to her own parents and met with a frightening amount of enthusiasm.

“OH!” his mom says brightly. MJ feels like she’s been identified as someone much more important than she actually is and it seems like a mistake, though she is the team captain. “Well, don’t let me keep you from studying. Door open, Edward,” she reminds Ned.

MJ watches Peter and Ned exchange a look as she trails them into the bedroom. They’d probably laugh over Ned’s mom embarrassing him if MJ weren’t here. She gets it, understands that her presence makes things a little awkward. Skewing the dynamic was predictable, but having Ned’s mom guess that she’s dating Peter is enough to keep her a little flustered until they’re deep in the studying trenches. At least she didn’t recognize MJ as Spider-Man’s girlfriend. She doesn’t want to think about that right now.

It’s kinda like practice, except nicer than that, hanging out with this pair of nerds. They’re funny and quick, more relaxed than she sees them at school, and it makes her heart beat hard every time Peter smiles. His bursts of laughter light her up like the high striker game at a fair―all the way up and dinging the bell every time.

When Ned apparently decides MJ isn’t going to make fun of the Lego sets scattered around his large bedroom, he draws more out (probably hid them because she was coming over) with rapidly decreasing shyness. He’s sure to tell her that Peter’s helped with almost all of them (Peter blushes) and MJ examines one of the less dorky ones carefully. She can appreciate the intricacy, the time devoted to this painstaking task. The fact that Peter must have very careful, dexterous fingers rolls slowly around her mind like a gumball coming down a shoot. It’s an interesting detail, to say the least.

They order pizza to congratulate themselves on the moderate amount of homework and revision that happened (or maybe they just always order pizza without needing a motive, she doesn’t know). Ned’s super decisive about his topping preferences, so they get two pizzas in order to accommodate his tastes and theirs, which are more generic; MJ suspects she and Peter were both trying not to push their pizza agendas too hard. The easy tenderness of negotiating on something so simple makes her feel transparent. He smiles and she forgets.

But then the pizzas come, the three of them camp out on Ned’s floor, and she and Peter both reach for the same slice of the ‘generic’ pie. In unison, their hands jump back and go for the other, Ned-controlled pizza. It’s so fucking stupid. MJ nips the inside of her cheek, deciding she can’t wimp out this time and just takes a piece. Peter does too. As she holds it over her plate, she realizes it has pineapple on it. Disgusting. Yes, they’re sitting on the floor, but she still hesitates to flick the unwanted toppings off with her finger because that’d be bad manners and pretty gross, right?

Yeah, she’s gonna do it anyway.

MJ darts her eyes to the side and Peter looks up at her.

“Here,” he offers, holding his slice out to her, “I’ll take your pineapple.”

The feeling of nudging every little golden abomination from her pizza onto his with the end of her finger is freakishly intimate. She wants to both hide in Ned’s closet (if there’s room with all that fucking Lego) and shuffle over next to Peter and lean into his side. Lick tomato sauce off his fingers.

Ned startles out of whatever pizza-induced fantasyland he fell into after his first bite and gasps. Peter and MJ freeze.

“Peter, stop! You’re allergic to pineapple! Do you have your allergy medication? Do you want me to call May?”

She looks at Peter, internally panicked and externally barely concerned. His face is bright red, but it doesn’t strike her as an allergic reaction.

“I was allergic before,” he assures Ned.

Oh. Right, right, right,” his best friend says quickly.

They go back to eating, Peter withdrawing his pineapple-laden slice. MJ’s nearly scowling in confusion. She’s pissed because there’s obviously something she’s missing here, something that hinges on the emphasis Peter put on the word ‘before.’ How would he just get over an allergy, especially one serious enough to make Ned spiral like that? Why would he risk literally poisoning himself by taking her pineapple? Why the hell is she eating this fucking slice of pizza? There’s ham on it! MJ fucking hates ham!

Somehow, they make it through the awkwardness of their meal and then she leaves first, texting her mom that she’s on her way as she heads towards the closest bus stop. After standing there for a minute as the sky becomes a dark, after-dinner sapphire, MJ reasons that she can shorten her trip home by walking just a few extra blocks. Different bus stop, more direct route, fewer minutes between now and the moment she can brush her teeth to eliminate the lingering taste of ham.

Easy choice.

She hikes up her backpack and walks with a brisk vigilance as she leaves Ned’s residential block and approaches businesses. MJ’s always cautious in the evenings, never out alone by the time it’s actually night. It’s second nature right now to be aware of the numbers on buildings, note which restaurants are still open and friendly-looking, keep to the busier side of the street where possible.

The next landmark she sets for herself is a bakery van parked near an intersection with no stop light. She’s focusing on listening for traffic―because she’ll have to take care crossing up ahead―when a sudden noise draws her attention backwards instead. Don’t look afraid, MJ tells herself, it’s probably nothing. Instead of glancing back, she pulls her phone out of her pocket and uses it as a mirror to peek over her shoulder. She doesn’t see anybody walking behind her, but she picks up her pace anyway, less than 20 feet from the corner. That’s when they grab her.

MJ’s feet leave the ground, then reconnect with it as somebody tall works out how to pick up a human with a backpack on. She wriggles, trying to scream with a large hand suddenly over her mouth. The other hand is on her stomach, hot through her sweater. The taillights of the van glow an immediate and highly threatening red. Fuck, not a bakery van, just a van parked outside a bakery. Fighting her arms free of the straps, MJ drops her backpack on the foot of the guy behind her as he tries to keep her mouth covered and hustle her over to the van. He jerks his foot back when it’s struck, stance widened. That was a couple dozen pounds of textbooks plus a hardcover anthology of Brontё novels, motherfucker, she thinks, but the thought is pure hysteria, not enjoyment.

She hunches down, pushes her weight back into the man and he does stagger, but his arms grab for her again and she isn’t ready yet, doesn’t have the air in her lungs because she used it for that backwards shove. Would anyone hear her if she managed to yell? The last restaurant was a block back and she doesn’t know if any sound she made would penetrate the glass and the noise of the interior. Traffic has dwindled to nonexistence on this street. These are wild thoughts. The only fortunate thing is that there’s obviously somebody waiting in the driver’s seat of the van, and that person hasn’t gotten out to help.

Shit, the door swings open.

MJ stomps on the feet of the guy holding her, tries to get the edge of his hand between her teeth to bite down. Her whole body is thrashing violently, elbows hitting his stomach, but not hard enough.

The driver’s door bangs shut.

Spider-Man. Spider-Man has webbed it shut. And it only takes him another minute to get the guy off of her and pin him to the nearest wall under such a mountain of webs that his body could be the stick in the middle of a roasting marshmallow.

“I think I’m gonna pass out,” MJ warns her boyfriend.

“You just need to breathe,” he insists, grabbing her arm much more gently than that other guy did, and guiding her around the corner away from the would-be abductors. He sits her down on the sidewalk and says, “Karen, could you maybe call the cops? Great, thanks.”

Trying to figure out who he’s talking to is less puzzling than realizing she thought of him as her boyfriend. Shit, this is confusing. When Spider-Man softly touches the back of her neck, MJ remembers about needing to catch her breath and stop the world from tilting. She lets him push her head between her knees. There’s a lot of old fucking gum on this sidewalk.

After a few minutes, Spider-Man lets go of her and jogs away, but he’s back before she has time to feel afraid. He paces in front of her as MJ settles her chin on her knee, less dizzy.

“Oh my god,” he keeps muttering. “Oh my god.”

“What?”

She’s shaky and mad and feels damn sure she could work up a good scream now.

“They wanted to take you,” Spider-Man says in a pained voice.

He’s still talking to himself, but the words hit MJ hard. The sudden terror is almost unreal. They wanted to take her. Those people. They had a van, a plan, a man… to take her.

Peter,” MJ says, then makes good on her warning and successfully passes out.

Chapter Text

The first thing she feels is confused. She’s slept really well―heavy, heavy, satisfying sleep―but her bedroom is dark. MJ rolls from her back onto her side and notices the tightness of denim on her legs. Touching her hips, she finds the pockets of her jeans. Pressing her face deeper in the pillow, she encounters the ropey tie of her sweater. This is… not right.

She sits up and as the blood drains from her head, the memories rise. A struggle. A white van. An attempted kidnapping. MJ panics and backs herself into the corner of her room, toes curled tight into the mattress.

But she’s home. She’s ok. Although everything feels and smells like her room, her eyes scan the space in the dark. Her pulse is still too fast, so MJ reaches over and turns on her bedside lamp. The light’s disorienting because some part of her knows this is an hour for sleeping, even when she feels rested.

While she’s gripping the edge of her bed, she notices a scrap of paper in the lamp’s beam. All of her scraps are filling their roles as makeshift bookmarks; this one’s a stray. She can see that there’s writing on the other side because it’s been done in marker and bled through. This detail―a little sloppy―is the first, and really the only, clue MJ needs to know who left it for her.

‘Open your window - SM,’ it reads.

First, she tugs her sweater off over her head because the waves of dread made her sweaty. In her t-shirt and jeans, MJ gets up and walks around the side of her bed to haul the window up in its frame.

“I’m gonna come in now, ok?” asks a familiar voice from outside.

She steps back to leave him room and Spider-Man enters in a move so smooth that her brain just sets it to one side, not trying to map the motion in the dark.

“Hi―” he starts to say when MJ lurches forward and hugs him. With a soft, “Oh,” he holds her, gathering her close but not tight.

Not especially touchy-feely, she’s surprised herself. Apparently, her reserved nature welled up at the same moment as her instincts and for once, they weren’t on the same side. Everything else can be put on hold for a few seconds because he saved her and in her head, a lame ‘thanks’ isn’t going to cut it. MJ exhales and steps back.

“Are you ok?” Spider-Man asks. He looks tense and sad, head craning worriedly towards her. She nods.

“You saved my life tonight.” Ok, evidently she’s still going to say that. Just had to get it out of her system.

“Actually, that was yesterday. It’s almost five o’clock.”

So, if she passed out around 7:30 or 8:00 last night… yeah, that’s a good nine hours of sleep. Who knew it’d take a near-abduction to get her shitty sleep schedule back on track?

“Were you waiting long?” MJ glances at the window and back to his masked face.

“Well, I had to go back to give the police details, so… only a few hours.”

“A few hours?!”

“Shhh,” he says quickly, stepping forward to touch the outside of her arm. “I heard your parents finally go to bed an hour ago.”

“Shit, my parents. Do they―”

Spider-Man’s nodding.

“Yeah, I told them what happened when I carried you in. I mean, brought you home.” He shifts nervously like she seriously might be irritated that he carried her after rescuing her from criminals.

“Did they think this was your fault?” Abruptly, MJ’s outraged. “Is that why you were hiding outside?”

Bizarrely, he gives a quiet laugh.

“Would it have been better if I’d been waiting at your kitchen table?”

“Depends. In that scenario, are you waiting with a mug of hot chocolate for me?”

“If you want me to be,” he says tiredly, but the tiredness isn’t enough to lessen the bare longing in his voice. Her heart flops around in her ribcage like a puppy. “I just thought we should talk and I wanted to be close enough to hear when… to hear you…”

“To hear me what?”

“To hear when you woke up. They don’t think it’s my fault,” Spider-Man says after a pause. “At first, maybe, yeah, when they opened the door and I was standing there holding you, but no. Once I explained, no.”

MJ rubs a hand across her forehead, dragging hair away from her face.

“Thanks for doing that. I bet they were pretty freaked out.”

He shrugs because of course they were. They don’t speak for a minute and she concentrates on how safe she feels with Spider-Man standing here in her bedroom at four-whatever in the morning, her parents asleep down the hall. He’s been up all night and MJ would like to invite him to lie down and rest. Except, it would be too simple to slip in next to him and press her forehead into that spider symbol on his chest, assurance that he’s there while she falls asleep again.

Maybe she should say something because she’s experiencing a lot, emotionally (last night’s terror feels small with him here). Things she could say: ‘thank you’ (again), ‘at least sit down,’ ‘there’s this other guy and you’re only my pretend boyfriend, but lately, you feel like the real thing.’

“We have to call it off. MJ, it’s time.”

His words are completely startling. They also make her feel like an idiot for the things she might have confessed. Obviously, all that dumb shit would’ve gone over really badly since he wants to break up. Or whatever ending this would be.

Now?” she wonders. It’s a good, sturdy word that sounds like the start of a conversation based on reason, instead of one where she tries to talk until their relationship becomes real.

“They had a picture of you in the van,” he whispers, shoulders sagging. “Being associated with me is too dangerous for you.”

“I was stupid,” MJ argues, because it’s hurting her to hear his hurt. “I took a risk by walking alone, and that sounds like me being a bad feminist and blaming myself, but it’s not safe for women―”

“They didn’t want to take you because you’re a woman, they wanted to take you because of me!”

She stumbles back a step, nose tingling to signal her proximity to tears.

“I don’t tie myself to anyone, anyone,” Spider-Man insists. He grabs at his forearm like he’s trying to shove up the sleeve of a shirt that isn’t there. MJ frowns as her disoriented mind attempts to connect the action to something familiar, but falls short. A snipped string. “Not publicly. I can’t believe I did this to you.”

“What you did was save me. Asshole,” she tacks on.

“You’re mad at me? You’re really mad at me for pointing out that this was a bad idea. You always thought that!”

Even frustrated with her, even distraught, he’s keeping his voice down because her parents are asleep. MJ doesn’t need to confirm it with him; she knows it’s true.

“I thought what they said about you online was awful,” he says in a calmer tone.

“Not that bad compared with this,” she says.

“That’s what I mean,” Spider-Man agrees.

MJ groans in irritation.

“I don’t mean last night! I mean right now. This is… this is the wrong time to end it. No,” she says when he shakes his head. “We do it now and whoever else is out there gunning for you―”

“I feel safer already,” he jokes bleakly.

“―is going to see you lose this and they’re going to feel good and they’re going to feel powerful and I am not ok with that.”

She’s panting and sits back on her mattress, glaring up at her city’s hero. Fine, her hero. He sighs and joins her.

“I’ve only ever been connected to the Avengers,” Spider-Man admits. “Besides that, I’m on my own.”

“It must be lonely.”

“Don’t tell me you weren’t lonely too,” he dares. She doesn’t. She doesn’t say a damn thing. “It makes a difference, I think,” he says tentatively, “to have one person know you well.”

It could just be the shift of springs in her mattress, but their shoulders are touching. She’d like to lean in. This seems to be a recurring urge.

“We could try it a little longer,” Spider-Man offers. He’s still looking to her for advice, the final say.

“You do need me. The number of seniors crossing streets unassisted is endemic.”

He snorts and she smiles to herself. Because they’re both looking straight ahead, MJ does lean against his side. Just a little bit. He’s warm.

“Not to disappoint you, but there’s this other thing I’m supposed to go to. Tonight. If you came with me… I would like it.”

“To send a message to the bad guys.”

“Oh, um, right.” Spider-Man gets up from her bed. “I’ll write down the details for you and leave you a note. Go back to sleep,” he suggests. “You’re not going to school today.”

“Cool. I’ve never gotten out of class for residual kidnapping trauma before,” she says wryly.

It’s not hard to pick up on his exasperation through the suit.

“We’re only going if you’re ok when I come to pick you up,” he warns, striding to her window and slinging a leg out.

“Pick me up?” MJ twists to watch him. “This sounds like a date.”

“Rest,” is all he says, then climbs out of her sight.

Because no man tells Michelle Jones what to do, she throws her pillow to the floor and sits on it in front of the window. She can’t help reliving the attack as time passes. The shaking in her upper body rises and subsides. Another thing she remembers is calling out Peter’s name. It was an impulse, didn’t make sense. At the time.

It isn’t only the street below her that’s significantly clearer by dawn.


Prompt arrival at her door. A polite exchange with her parents. Profuse compliments on her dress. The promise that he’ll have her back by ten. So far, MJ’s evening on Spider-Man’s arm is awfully goddamn date-like.

What’s weirder―like, a hell of a lot weirder―than busting out her dress for Midtown Tech’s semi-formal several months early is the fact that they’re at a party with Iron Man himself: Tony Stark. She hasn’t seen him, personally, but she knows he’s here in the fancy hotel event room because he’s the host.

MJ’s date, or emotional support superhero as she’s jokingly called him once or twice tonight (he didn’t have to warn her not to say that to the press, but he did), has remained steadfastly at her side. It’s noisy and busy and when a large man in a dark suit brushes past behind her, making her go rigid, Spider-Man grabs her hand. It’s kind of a revelation; she keeps sneaking looks down at where their palms are clasped together, sorta mesmerized by the idea of using her hand to hold another hand. Mostly, it’s for drawing and shit.

He only lets go after he’s settled her in a quiet spot, shoulder leaning against the wall, sparkling something-or-other in her hand.

“Something’s wrong?” she assumes, glancing at his face and past it, around it, studying the room.

“Yeah, I just… got a feeling.”

Spider-Man looks a little antsy and MJ would offer him a sip of her drink, but she doesn’t think he’s sufficiently idiotic to take his mask off in a room full of people. She jerks her chin towards the exit to let him know he’s alright to leave her.

Thanks to her early-morning pondering, she isn’t massively surprised to spot Peter Parker coming out of the hallway that leads to the bathrooms less than ten minutes later. MJ pushes away from the wall and weaves towards him. She feels more confident in this crowd of people now that she has a target to reach.

“Here.” She thrusts her drink into Peter’s hand. “You must be thirsty.”

His expression is baffled and, predictably, he starts scrambling.

“I was Tony Stark’s intern!”

It’s obvious that this is a line he’s been practicing, only to deliver it purely on reflex when she found him before he could find her. The thrill of unravelling a mystery is propelling MJ through the halting behaviour previously enforced by her crush on Peter.

“Do you want to tell me more about how all of Stark’s ex-interns get invited to swanky, exclusive events or should we rewind to you tailing me from Ned’s place last night?”

Peter attempts to speak while she squints at him, waiting for any two syllables to join up and form a word, but it’s not happening.

“Ok, then listen,” MJ instructs, looking around quickly and walking back to the hallway Peter entered from. Her gutsiness stops short of allowing her to grab his arm or hold his hand―she just trusts that he’ll follow her because apparently that’s his thing. Or, at least, that’s his thing when he’s in a different suit, not this one with the navy blue jacket (he looks really nice) and the tie that’s not done up quite right but probably was before he yanked the pre-knotted circle over his head a few minutes ago. That’s the story her observational skills have spun.

“We have to break up tonight,” she hisses once they’re alone. “This is perfect.”

“MJ, we-we’re not… together.”

She actually has to squeeze her eyes closed for several seconds to keep from rolling them. As she rallies her courage, she opens her eyes.

“Don’t you want to be?” MJ asks. Her gaze moves over Peter’s face, the way she’s looked at him lots of times, just never when he was looking back at her.

“Yeah,” he chokes out.

“Then it’s time for Spider-Man to dump me.”

Chapter Text

MJ doesn’t have to go to the paper this time; the whole thing was caught on camera and the footage is making the rounds through various entertainment shows.

Her sleep schedule is probably destined to be fucked after all because she stays up in sweats and a Charlie’s Angels t-shirt, watching the clip over and over as it’s dissected by different voices in very similar ways. Around 3am, Spider-Man taps on her window after seeing the glow of her laptop. She lets him in, so very aware as he climbs inside that this is not like every other time. He looks bigger and smaller to her since she figured him out.

They wander sleepily into the living room together and watch the segment some more, the sound turned low.

“You gonna take that off?” MJ asks, side-eyeing her… whatever the hell he is. Friend? Fake boyfriend? Erstwhile advice recipient?

Spider-Man shrugs, but keeps the mask on.

“This thing just makes me a little nervous,” he explains, gesturing at the TV screen. He doesn’t say that the mask makes him feel safe; MJ understands this to be true all the same.

“Hurry up and get over that,” she suggests, “so you can enjoy it with me. This shit is hilarious.”

On the screen, the pair of them are being filmed at Tony Stark’s event, a cluster of photographers between the couple and the cameraperson shooting the video. The tension MJ sees in her body language was genuine―it was really uncomfortable having all of those cameras turned on her. Invisibility was kind of her thing before the circus that is dating a superhero.

Her one regret is wearing a nice dress instead of her Women’s March t-shirt. Stupid dress code and its misalignment with her sociopolitical agenda.

One of the photographers directs them to get cozier and MJ sees the reluctance in her face, the look exchanged between her and Spider-Man that they tried to hold long enough to be obvious about it without seeming like they were trying to be obvious about it.

Kiss the mask,’ Spider-Man says on TV.

I’m not kissing the mask,’ she replies, quiet, but not that quiet. The camera catches it easily.

Just kiss the mask,’ he insists, pushy now.

MJ turns her head and pecks the side of the hero’s face swiftly before continuing right past him, slipping through the semicircle of press.

Now, she mutes the TV and turns to Spider-Man with a tired yet smug smile.

“Never thought I’d be the storming-off type, but I think it did the trick.”

“You were very convincing,” he agrees.

MJ takes a deep breath and scoots over until their thighs touch.

“Thanks,” she says sincerely, and slouches into his side.

Last night, he caught up with her seconds after she left because his new personal campaign is making sure she never has to go anywhere alone between the hours of 5pm and 7am. When they separated at her apartment door, they each tied off their own loose ends. MJ told her parents it was over with Spider-Man, and it didn’t take too long for the TV to corroborate her story; all other news can wait when there’s a superhero breakup to be covered, apparently. Oh, the predictability of mainstream media.

Spider-Man went back to the event and acted upset enough that it would be believable for him to admit details of their disintegrating relationship to any member of the press who offered a shoulder to cry on. Not literally, though it was only chance that bursting into tears wasn’t the tactic he’d thought of to handle the situation. Same old Spider-Man.

What he told them was that he and MJ split for good just after the photo op. He claimed that he did it so that people would leave her alone. Basically, Spider-Man wrapped everything up just right by taking responsibility for ending the relationship (as they’d always planned for him to). The simple and highly credible account made him look compassionate and her look guiltless. A stroke of PR genius―which MJ was, of course, behind. Who knew what Spider-Man would’ve said otherwise? Probably that she’d been kidnapped by aliens and then she would’ve had to hide for the rest of her life, or at least until he came up with a reasonable explanation for her reappearance on Earth. And in Queens.

“If we were to…” Spider-Man says, trailing off while people on screen continue to show less dramatic highlights of Stark’s event. “If we actually…”

She knows the word he’s looking for is ‘date,’ but she’s feeling a freefall sensation between her throat and stomach and can’t respond. MJ’s overjoyed heart has gone for a celebratory bungee jump. He shifts to face her, leg pressing into hers, and yanks his mask off.

“MJ, I really want to go out with you,” Peter tells her. His hair’s messed up and the shadows on his face from the bright light of the TV in an otherwise dark room are a little spooky, but his eyes are sweet and warm like butter tarts. “How do we do this?”

The Avenger sharing her couch might still be the opposite of Captain America―this guy right here is a man without a plan―but his determination is something special.

“Ok,” MJ says, tucking her hair behind her ear and turning to sit sideways on the couch, legs folded between her and Peter.

The TV light scattering over the planes of his face warms and cools as muted recaps play on, unheeded. Together, they sit and plan. Doing this with him is electric and she has to wonder, even if she doesn’t let herself get bothered by it, whether his whole heart was ever really in the effort of engineering a bitter end to the phony relationship they had before. Because now, as they figure out a new timeline, Peter’s alive. Her smart dork isn’t distracted or shy. It’s like the commercials for cat treats where somebody shakes a bag and the felines flock to it, except the bag is a temptation tailored to Peter Parker―something new, something unusual, something he’s driven to pursue. Possibly he acts the same way whenever Ned dangles the prospect of assembling a Lego set in front of him. MJ doesn’t know.

The focus of this timeline? Determining how long they have to wait until they can show interest in each other in front of other people. Calculating the dating statute of limitations on being an Avenger’s ex-girlfriend. MJ decides in her head that whatever length of time that is, it’s definitely less than however long their classmates would expect it to take for her to date Peter. Because not everyone will have recognized her solemn stares and sarcastic comebacks as pining and flirting. Plebeians.

No paper can help them this time around. There’s no Pepper Potts precedent. Now, they’re studying each other as eagerly, as thoroughly and hungrily, as they studied those articles a week ago. He’s learning her schedule, she’s asking about meeting his aunt. They’re tracing and tugging and widening the loopholes in their everyday routines to increase the odds of being in the same place long enough to exchange more than a perfunctory wave. They’re loading the dice on chance encounters.

When can they be seen to glance away and blush? When can they hold each other’s gaze? Each other’s hand? When can they go on their first date?

There’s no science to the timeline. It isn’t cut and dried like two people lacking attraction, trying to build a romance from the outside in. Peter and MJ are in the gooey center of it now. They’re speaking the same language until they get tired again and her head tips sideways to rest on the back of the couch and she watches him watch the TV, heart flourishing and unfolding inside her, petal after petal after petal. Puncturing the skin of an orange and unraveling an infinite peel.

MJ watches, too, as Peter’s hand creeps over to her knee while he continues to face forward. He touches the back of her hand the way she flips the page of a book, like he’s trying to find that fine grip so he can get to the next part. She breathes faster and rotates her wrist to give him her palm. When their hands press together, he looks at her and he’s already smiling. MJ rolls her eyes and thumps her head forward onto his strong shoulder, muttering, “Nerd.”

It’s either some supernatural sense or a glimpse at the clock that tells Peter it’s nearly five in the morning, and he passes that on to her. He lets go of her hand and picks up his mask.

“Ugh,” she groans, then yawns, lifting her head. “I’m going to be dead at school today.”

“It’s Friday. Everyone’s exhausted on Friday. Plus,” he reminds her with a sneaky little grin, “you’ve just had your heart broken.”

“Are being sullen and self-isolating symptoms of heartbreak?”

“Hmm. I don’t know.” He kisses her forehead faster than she can react as he stands up. “Don’t make me find out.”

She sits, stunned for a moment, then smiles hard in silent contentment before unfolding her legs and following him to her room. There’s something she has to do, and she has to do it right now, tonight, and hope it’s still true when she wakes up.

Peter’s hesitating at the window, slick in his suit, bleary in his eyes. Mask in hand. He hops onto the sill and turns in the beginnings of a crouch. MJ crosses the room and basically walks right into him so she can’t wimp out and pretend she was ever going to do anything but kiss him. Her mouth finds his with incredible ease, considering the significant amount of time stacked between her first impulse to do this and right now.

She’s never experienced his mouth with her eyes closed before, and she likes it. Turns out that his lips feel as much like him as they look like part of him; he uses them in such a Peter-ish way. Sweet and earnest. Calm and dependable. Ready. And there’s that focus she saw as they felt their way blindly towards the new timeline. It’s the focus that makes MJ’s face hot and has her hands leaping to grab his shoulders.

Peter’s hand starts off on her jaw, then slides up, almost tickling as his fingertips graze her ear. Where it ends up is deep in her hair, fingers flexing as their tongues meet in cautious first contact.

“I’m kind of going to miss seeing Spider-Man on Saturdays,” MJ says, lips still touching his (she can’t seem to put any space between them), recalling so many glasses of orange juice.

“You know I’m going to keep climbing up here.”

“You better,” she threatens. “Just don’t be a moron and let anyone see you.”

“Can’t keep away,” Peter murmurs, which completely melts her brain for a minute so all she can do is kiss him and enjoy his warm hand on the back of her head.

“Spider-Man did say though that he didn’t know what he’d do without me,” MJ remembers.

“Might’ve been me saying that.”

“Oh,” she smiles and rubs her lips against his when he mhmms.

“Actually, everything Spider-Man told the paper about you was me,” he confesses. She opens her eyes at the tone of his voice. “I don’t think I was very good at the fake dating thing. Liking you was always real.”

Trying to contain her smile, MJ strokes her hands to his neck, then back to his shoulders.

“It was real for me too, it’s just that I didn’t know you were him. Or, that you were you.”

She frowns, but she’s too tired to determine the perfect sense of it, so she goes back to kissing Peter. He sighs softly and tilts his head to make her dizzy with a deeper kiss.

There’s a shuffling behind her that doesn’t mean much until her mom’s voice says, “Well, this makes a lot of sense.”

MJ spins around and Peter’s balance is too perfect to fall backwards out of the window, so she assumes he’s still perched there. With his mask. His mask in his fucking hand, not on his face, because they were making out.

“Thought I heard something,” her mom explains, as though this couldn’t be more normal―her daughter kissing a boy with the wardrobe of a superhero and the face of her dorky decathlon teammate. Right, MJ might’ve mentioned her crush to her mother, under duress. “I wondered how you got over that infatuation with Peter Parker so fast. You never were a fickle girl, Michelle.”

“Nope,” she agrees stiffly when her mom keeps standing there. “Is there anything else?”

“Yep.” Her mom looks over MJ’s head, presumably at Peter. “If you climb into my daughter’s bedroom in the middle of the night again, I’m putting anti-pigeon spikes on that window. Goodnight, you two.”

Once she’s left, MJ turns around to face Peter, who’s really collected himself pretty well after his first parental encounter out of the mask. He’s shy now, after the pause in their kissing, and so is she. That’s alright, they have time to build this thing back up, over and over again. A relationship without a deadline.

“I’ll see you at school tomorrow, Spider-Man,” MJ tells him as he pulls his mask back on.

Peter gives her a thumbs up and instead of creeping away along the wall like he usually does, he flips straight out into midair, way above the street, and plummets before he catches himself with an effortlessly aimed strand of web. MJ, leaning out her window, sees the whole thing.

He probably did it just to impress her.

Loser.


Saturday last, this paper reported on the sudden split of Spider-Man from girlfriend, Michelle Jones. We have since reached out to both parties for a follow-up.

Said the hero of Queens, ‘You guys need to get over it. We went out for just over a week. Seriously, what can happen in a week?’

Miss Jones declined to comment.