The car pulls up in front of Mary Jane’s house at half past midnight and starts honking, three short staccato blasts followed by two long ones. Mary Jane yanks her earbuds out and goes to window to look, hoping against hope that her mom hasn’t woken up.
She shoves the window open and leans out, a shout on the tip of her tongue, when she catches sight of the car.
May Parker’s beaten up old station wagon is parked half on the curb. Mary Jane can see a familiar head of blonde hair through the window.
She grabs her hoodie and a pair of flip-flops and runs out the door and towards the car.
“What are you doing here?” she hisses when she’s at the rolled down window, hugging her arms to herself. It’s early spring and the air is cold; her knees knock together against the chill.
Gwen grins at her.
“Get in the car, loser,” she says. “We’re going superheroing.”
Getting in the car was a mistake. Mary Jane isn’t sure why she does it.
(That’s a lie; she gets in the car because Gwen, better maybe than anyone else, knows how she’s felt for the past couple of months. It’s just that Mary Jane has never gotten up the nerve to go to her -- it’s too painful, swallowing her pride like that. Her pride feels like all she has left.)
Gwen is wearing a black headband with spikes and she’s drawn a mask on in black eyeliner. She’s dressed like a sexy cat burglar. She absolutely, positively cannot drive.
“Red light!” Mary Jane squawks, clutching the dashboard. “Where are you even going?!”
“To find some cowardly scum!” Gwen yells over the thump ba-thump thump of the radio. It’s so loud Mary Jane can feel it through the soles of her feet. Gwen has all the windows rolled down and the wind tosses her hair around until it looks like a big fluffy halo.
They are going to get so arrested.
Gwen looks over at Mary Jane and grins. She’s got lipstick on her teeth. She’s a mess.
“You like my outfit?” she says, smoothing one hand down her shiny faux leather bustier. “I got it on eBay. You need a costume, if you want to be a superhero. Unless you want to be like, Plaid Girl.”
Mary Jane feels herself turn pink. She tugs the hood of her sweatshirt up over her disheveled ponytail. “Gwen, can you -- car car car -- Gwen, you need to pull over!”
Gwen does, turning sharply into a nearly deserted Dunkin Donuts parking lot. There’s an employee smoking by the backdoor; he gives their car a deeply unimpressed look.
“What’s wrong?” she asks. Mary Jane opens her mouth and struggles to find the right words.
“It’s one in the morning,” she says. “My mom doesn’t know I left the house. I was in the middle of writing a blog post.”
“You can blog about this,” Gwen says. “It’s way more interesting than like, the glimmering darkness of your soul.”
“That’s not what I blog about,” Mary Jane snaps, then inhales sharply through her nose. “Look. This is crazy. You can’t just like – decide to fight crime!”
“Why not?” Gwen says, rounding on her. She sticks one pointy glitter polish fingernail in the center of Mary Jane’s chest. “He did it, didn’t he?”
Maybe he shouldn’t have, sticks in Mary Jane’s throat, makes her eyes go blurry. She swallows it down. “He was different. Special.”
“And now he’s gone,” Gwen says fiercely. “And there’s a big gaping hero-shaped hole in the world, and maybe it’d take two or twelve or two hundred of us to fill it. But I’m not going to sit around and not try.”
Mary Jane doesn’t want to start crying, not alone in a car with Gwen Stacy. She squares her jaw and says, “I want to go home.”
“MJ,” Gwen starts, pleadingly.
“I want to go home,” Mary Jane repeats, more forcefully. “I’ve got school tomorrow. I’m in my pajamas.”
Gwen deflates. She sags against the seat and puts her hands up to her face, rubbing at her eyes. When she pulls them away she’s got eyeliner streaked across her cheeks.
“Okay,” she says, very quietly. “Want to get donuts first?”
Mary Jane thinks about it. “Yeah, okay.”
Being superheroes with Gwen Stacy is an incredibly stupid idea. It’s the worst idea Gwen Stacy’s ever had, maybe, and Mary Jane has watched her do a lot of stupid things.
Which doesn’t explain why she spends three whole classes doodling superhero costumes in her notebook, or why she skips fourth period to hide in the girl’s bathroom and call Gwen.
“Hey,” Gwen says, sounding like hell. Last Mary Jane saw of her she was peeling away from the sidewalk with one hand on the wheel and a jelly donut in the other. “About the other night – I’m really sorry. It was dumb. I’m dumb.” A pause. “And I’m not just saying that because May made me.”
“No, it’s okay,” Mary Jane says. “I was just thinking – we should meet up. After school.”
“Yeah?” Gwen says. She sounds suspicious. Mary Jane can’t blame her.
“I mean,” Mary Jane says, waving one hand in the air to illustrate her point even though Gwen can’t see it. “Costumes.”
“Costumes,” Gwen repeats. Another pause. “Cool.”
Gwen is standing on Mary Jane’s doorstep when Mary Jane gets home from school. She gives her a tiny wave.
“Hey,” she says.
“Hi,” says Mary Jane. It’s awkward. She wishes it wasn’t so awkward. “I have those same gloves.”
“Huh?” Gwen looks down at her hands. “Oh. Cool.”
They both stand there for a long moment before Gwen says, “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
“Oh,” Mary Jane fumbles for her keys, “yeah, of course.”
The house is dark inside. Mary Jane slips off her shoes by the doorway and gestures for Gwen to do the same. She hunkers down, unzipping her boots. She straightens up and shakes out her hair and stands there, looking lost in Mary Jane’s dark hallway.
“Where’s your mom?” she asks at last, looking around.
“Working,” Mary Jane replies. “She won’t be back until later.”
“Cool,” Gwen says. She scuffs her heel against the ground. She’s wearing socks with tiny skulls on them.
“Do you want something to drink?” Mary Jane asks, trying to walk herself mentally through all the steps her mom went through for guests. Gwen shrugs.
“Sure,” she says, and a whole thirty seconds later all that had accomplished was moving the awkward party to the kitchen. Halfway through making tea, Gwen says, “oh yeah,” and pulls a bag of corn chips out of her giant purse.
“May said to bring a gift, so,” she shakes them with a waggle of her eyebrows. “Don’t tell her, okay? We’re supposed to be a “gluten free household” right now.” She rolls her eyes perfectly in time with her air quotes.
Mary Jane is going to stress eat the entire bag of chips.
“So,” Gwen says.
“So,” repeats Mary Jane. “Costumes.”
Which is how they end up holed up in Mary Jane’s room for three hours with a bag of corn chips, a whole stack of printer paper and a box of markers Mary Jane hasn’t used since an art project in eighth grade.
It’s the most fun she can remember having in a while.
“We’re going to need names,” Gwen says when she corners Mary Jane outside of school the next day. Mary Jane squints at her from behind her glasses.
“Don’t you have school?” she says.
“May homeschools me now,” Gwen says, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “I’m learning French.”
“Ooh la la,” Mary Jane grumbles under her breath. They start to walk together, swaying close and then far apart with Mary Jane’s arms crossed and Gwen’s hands tucked into her pockets. They don’t really look at each other.
“I was thinking I could be Black Cat,” Gwen says. “You know like – don’t cross my path, criminal scum!”
“I think there’s already one of those,” Mary Jane says. Gwen frowns.
“I was thinking – Jackpot?” Mary Jane says. Gwen wrinkles her nose.
“Can you imagine the creepy comments? Ooh, I just hit the jackpot!” Gwen rolls her eyes. “No way. What would you even wear with it?”
“The green jumpsuit?” Mary says.
“No,” Gwen says instantly.
“It’s cool! It’s disco!” Mary Jane insists. Gwen fixes her with a look.
“No,” she says.
Gwen says she knows a cool fabric store, and ends up dragging Mary Jane halfway across New York. They grab way too much fabric – spandex and sequins and fake leather – and split the cost between the two of them, paying for what seems like half of it entirely in quarters dug out from the bottoms of their purses.
They’re on the subway in a half-empty car with the bags on the seat between them when Gwen asks, “Hey. Do you know how to sew?”
“Nope,” Mary Jane says. She eyes Gwen. “Do you?”
Gwen shrugs. “Un-uh.”
Mary Jane looks down at the plastic bags full of fabric, considering.
“Peter did it. How hard can it be?”
Sewing, it turns out, is really, really hard.
Mary Jane flops backward onto her bed. “Why don’t you just stab me with the needle and save us some serious time?”
“I can’t feel my thumbs,” Gwen says, glowering at something Mary Jane is pretty sure was supposed to be a sleeve. It looks more like a squid. “Sewing sucks ass.”
Mary Jane groans her agreement. The green spangles mock her out of the corner of her eye. On second thought, maybe Gwen was right – with the hair and all, they kind of make her look like a Christmas elf.
She still likes the name, though.
She thinks Peter might have liked it too, once he stopped freaking out at her.
“Screw this,” Gwen huffs, climbing to her feet. She shoves Mary Jane’s feet over, grabs her laptop off the bed. “I’m eBaying us some cool duds.”
They foil a convenience store robbery dressed like rejected Hot Topic models. Mary Jane feels ridiculous, and the contacts she puts back in after ages and ages without are kind of itchy. The shoes Gwen ordered for her were not made for running down concrete at two in the morning.
It’s the best, brightest feeling Mary Jane’s felt in months.
“We’re superheroes!” Gwen whoops, throwing their joined hands up in the air.
“We took out a guy with a water pistol!” Mary Jane corrects through her laughter. “We have no powers!”
“Who the hell cares!” Gwen shouts up into the night sky.
Mary Jane buys a better mask and plays around with her costume – she’s got to be able to move in it, but it’s also got to keep her warm at night. She puts her hair up, and then she takes it down, and wonders how all these other superheroes manage to run around without ever getting their hair in their mouths. She buys more comfortable shoes. Then she buys a pair of squishy insoles for them, just in case.
She’s stuck on names. She still likes Jackpot, but she also kind of likes Tiger, too. Gwen doesn’t like either, but Gwen’s caught between calling herself the Blonde Phantom or Zombie Girl, on account of how she used to be "like dead, maybe kind of.”
One convenience store robbery foiled turns into two, then somehow becomes five. Mary Jane trips a mugger; Gwen jumps a cat burglar with half the contents of somebody’s safe stuffed down his shirt.
Together they foil a car thief, highfiving as they shove him, hogtied and ducttaped into the trunk with a note pinned to his shirt reading I STEAL CARS, then purposefully set off half the car alarms on the street so somebody will find him soon.
A month in a guy tries to rob a bodega. They’re trying to figure out the best way to tie him up when a web blast hits him square in the chest, securing him to a lamp post.
Mary Jane’s heart leaps into her throat.
Then Spider-Woman swings onto the scene.
“Oh my God!!” she says when she sees them. She raises her hands over her head, lowers them in a strangling motion, then throws them back up again. “Oh my God!!! What the hell do you two think you’re doing?!”
“Fighting crime?” Gwen says. She sounds a little bit sheepish.
Mary Jane can’t say anything at all. She’s seen Peter gesture just like that. Jessica’s got a low voice, for a girl – she even kind of sounds like him.
“Uhn-uh, nope, nyet,” Jessica says. “No way, Jose. Do I need to say it in some other language?”
“Say it in French,” Gwen says, hands on her hips. “I speak French.”
“Non,” Jessica says flatly. Gwen’s eyes narrow. “You two are not fighting crime!”
“Uh, lady, I hate to break it to you, but they kind of are,” the robber says. Jessica webs his mouth shut.
“Come on,” she says. “I’m taking you two home, pronto.”
Gwen and Mary Jane exchange a look.
“Yeah, right,” Gwen says, crossing her arms. “You can try. Not like you can cart us both back there at the same time, right?”
Turns out Jessica totally can do that.
“Do. Not. Test. The. Spider-Woman,” she says as she swings them both across town. They both have their arms wrapped around her neck, and every three minutes or so the wind changes direction and Mary Jane gets a faceful of her long brown hair.
It even smells like the same shampoo Peter always used. It’s so dumb, how Mary Jane remembers how Peter’s shampoo smelled. She squeezes Jessica a little tighter, pretends it’s just because it’s chilly up so high.
She sets them both down gently in front of Mary Jane’s house. Gwen lets go first, stepping back with her arms wrapped around herself.
Mary Jane holds on for maybe a second longer than necessary.
“Okay,” Jessica says, in the same tone Peter used to call his deep breaths, calm time tone. “Okay. You guys are going to stop this. Tonight.”
“Or you’re going to stop it for us?” Gwen says bitterly.
Jessica takes a deep breath and doesn’t say anything for a very long moment. She’s angry; Mary Jane can feel it rolling off her in waves. She doesn’t know Jessica, not really. But it strikes her that Jessica has known her for years and years, that Jessica remembers every movie night and study session and date, remembers the time in seventh grade Mary Jane decided that bobbing her hair would be dramatic, that Jessica remembers being the kid who threw up at Flash Thompson’s tenth birthday party after the clown pulled like twenty scarves out of his mouth. Jessica remembers Harry.
Jessica isn't just angry; she's scared.
Maybe Jessica gets that Mary Jane gets it, because she doesn’t look at her at all. She just shoots a string of webbing across the street, points straight at Gwen and says, “You’re going to break May’s heart.”
She swings away, leaving them both standing there in the driveway.
There’s really nothing to say after that.
Mary Jane doesn’t see Gwen for two days, and then she turns up outside Mary Jane’s school again. She’s dressed lowkey, for Gwen, in a sweatshirt and boots. They end up sitting in a Starbucks.
“I told May,” Gwen says, tracing patterns on the tabletop with her fingernails. Mary Jane doesn’t say anything. It feels like her heart is going to hammer its way out of her ribs. “You can probably guess how it went.”
“Bad, huh?” Mary Jane says. It’s an understatement, obviously, but Gwen just nods.
“Yeah, uh,” she says. “She cried, a little. I know it’s – I know she just wants what’s best for me. And that everyone is – everyone’s right, Spider-Woman’s right. May’s right. You were right from the start. We’ve got no powers and no training and what we’re doing is stupid dangerous.”
“Yeah,” Mary Jane says. Everything Gwen’s saying is true. It’s what Mary Jane’s been saying from the beginning. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t hate it. “So we should probably stop, huh?”
“Probably,” Gwen says. She looks up at Mary Jane and attempts a smile. “But it was fun, right?”
Mary Jane’s own smile feels watery. “It was fun. I liked it.”
“Yeah,” Gwen says, starting to get up. She grabs her purse, then hesitates, and leans down to give Mary Jane an awkward hug. Mary Jane doesn’t know what to do with her hands – should she hug back? – and a second later Gwen pulls away. “I liked being your friend, too. So. See you, MJ.”
Then she’s gone out the door, leaving Mary Jane alone at a corner table with a lukewarm latte.
Mary Jane goes to school, she goes home. She makes dinner and eats it alone in her room, sitting crosslegged in front of her laptop. She tries to think of blog posts and comes up empty. She’s been seriously neglecting it lately. She just needs to get back into the swing of it.
She doesn’t see Gwen, or hear from her, and she doesn’t call her either. Her costume stays stashed in the back of her closet, crumpled into a ball and hidden beneath a bunch of old sports equipment from her extremely brief soccer phase.
Her mother says she looks sad. She asks about boys. She asks about school. Mary Jane just shrugs and says she’s fine, there’s no boys, school is fine.
She sees Spider-Woman on the news, weeks later. She’s fighting against something too big for her. Mary Jane’s scared for her, too.
Mary Jane sits down in front of her computer and types up a blog post. It's vague, but she thinks it gets the message across, if you read between the lines. She posts it and crosses her fingers and hopes it reaches her intended audience.
Gwen calls first. “I’m in if she’s in,” she says.
“Really?” Mary Jane says. She can hear Gwen’s grin.
“Really,” she says. “May says it’s – well, it’s not okay. But she said she wouldn’t stop me. That he was a hero and it’s not a bad thing, following in his footsteps. I think maybe she kind of wants to see her.”
“She hasn’t contacted me,” Mary Jane says. “She probably won’t.”
“Bet you twenty bucks she will,” Gwen says.
Jessica turns up at Mary Jane’s house a full week later, hanging upside down in front of her window. Mary Jane forces her window open and Jessica slides her way into the room. It’s weird, to say the least. Weird, but not bad.
Then they both just kind of stand there and it gets awkward fast. Nobody who’s Peter Parker’s genetic match should be that quiet for that long. And the mask is sort of freaking her out. She gestures to it.
“Can you – you know?”
Jessica hesitates for a long moment, then pulls it down. She’s got Peter’s nose and his mouth and the shape of his eyes. She’s got his face, minus the fuzz on his upper lip and some of the squareness of his jaw.
“I read your blog post,” she says. “I mean, I read your blog anyway, but.”
“So you do read my blog,” Mary Jane says. Jessica offers her up a tiny smile.
“I mean, I – yeah, I read your blog,” she says. “You’re a good writer. You always make me laugh.”
“So?” Mary Jane prompts. Jessica opens her mouth, then shuts it, gives Mary Jane a funny look.
“So,” she says, then drops her face into her hands and groans. She drags her fingers back through her hair and sucks in a deep breath through her nose. “Ugh, why do you have to be so –”
“Stubborn?” Mary Jane asks. Jessica fixes her with a look.
“So you,” she says. She huffs. “Look, I – it’s such a dumb idea, why am I even doing this? What are you guys getting me into?”
Mary Jane’s heart leaps into her throat. There are about a million butterflies in her stomach. “So you’ll do it?”
“This is so crazy,” Jessica says. “I have conditions! Like, so many conditions. I have a laundry list of them.”
Mary Jane doesn’t even care. She throws her arms up and then around Jessica. Jessica makes a strangled noise and kind of pats at Mary Jane’s back. She’s a pretty bad hugger. She closes her hands around Mary Jane’s shoulders and holds her at arms length.
“You and Gwen, you guys are going to follow my directions?” she asks. “And you’re going to actually listen to me? And if I say run, you’re going to do it? And if I say something is over your heads, you’re going to believe me?”
“Scout’s honor,” Mary Jane promises. Jessica’s eyes narrow.
“You were a girl scout for like, three days,” she says. She drops her head forward and says, “You guys are going to get so much training. Seriously, drill sergeants would weep at what you’re going to go through.”
Mary Jane grins. “I can’t wait,” she says, and means it.
“Ugh,” Jessica says. “I can’t believe this. My life is a girl band.”
“Are you sure we have to do this blindfolded?” Gwen asks. Mary Jane is blindfolded too so she can’t be sure but she thinks Gwen is probably trying to sneak a peek. Her suspicions are confirmed when she hears Jessica smack Gwen’s hand.
“No looking!” she says. “You guys agreed to let me train you, and I promise, when I am done, you are going to be able to fight weirdo supercrime upside down, underwater and in space.”
Mary Jane believes her. This is only their third training session, but she feels she’s sweated more in the past week than she has in her entire life put together. Jessica is brutal -- but she’s also a good teacher.
“Ready?” she asks, marching up and down in front of her. Mary Jane can hear her footsteps against the mat.
“Aye aye, Beyonce,” Gwen says. Jessica groans.
“For the last time,” she says, “we are not calling ourselves Destiny’s Child!”
“That’d be stupid,” Gwen says. “We’d get sued.”
“And we don’t have matching outfits,” Mary Jane adds.
“Yet,” Gwen says. She’s grinning. Mary Jane can tell.
“No matching outfits!” Jessica says. “No girl bands! Only sparring now!”
Halfway through the sparring match, when Mary Jane manages to block Gwen’s kick, catching her by the ankle, Gwen whispers, “She’s just worried her backup dancers will be better than her,” and somehow they end up in a pile on the mat, laughing. Mary Jane slides her blindfold up out of the way and finds Jessica staring down at them with her unimpressed face on.
“What have I gotten myself into?” she asks.
Mary Jane isn’t totally sure of that, either, but so far? It’s pretty great.