MJ was asleep by the time Peter crawled in through the window, using the sticky base of his foot to quietly slide it closed behind him. Retracting his suit, he sank into the fuzzy Ikea rug on the floor beside the bed. He practiced his breathing exercises, one arm gripping the mattress sheet as he took in the room—the doorway dark, the empty closet she left open at his insistence, the emptier corners. Ducking his head, he peered under the bed. As always, there was no one. The room was empty except for him and MJ. Slowly, his breathing evened out.
The chaotic noise of his thoughts and the street muffled; Peter could hear the lo-fi hip-hop drifting out of the cheap-o scent diffuser/bluetooth speaker on the dresser. It had been a gift from MJ for following through on therapy. Now, it lit the dark corners of their bedroom in a soft, blue glow.
Resting his chin on the mattress, Peter studied MJ. She looked pretty in the blue glow, one arm thrown over head head, the other resting gently on her belly. Her face, usually fixed into something hard and indifferent had softened in sleep, revealing a small glimpse of the woman Peter had found so easy to fall in love with. Most of the bedsheet had been kicked away and beat into a messy ball at the bottom of the bed, revealing she’d worn socks to bed like an absolute maniac. He smiled, watching her breath in and out, in and out, trying to force himself not to check the closet or under the bed again.
Silently, Peter set the suit’s housing unit on the nightstand next to MJ’s phone and the battered copy of The Feminine Mystique he’d accidentally dropped in the tub last week, and crawled into bed beside her.
“Hey. Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s okay.” She yawned, sitting up on her elbows to check her phone. “I was waiting up for my boyfriend. You seen him? Skinny, kinda nerdy, smiles too much.”
Peter pretended to mull over the description, shaking his head. “He sounds lame. How ‘bout a bad boy vigilante?”
Her face hardened. She twisted away, snatching hold of the bedsheet and turning her back to him. He could see the way she hunched her shoulders, rebuilding the barrier she kept up during the way; he could imagine her indifferent mask setting into place. The motion sparked a sharp pain beneath his sternum—a tiny knot of anxiety that tightened inside his chest. “You’re mad?”
“Do you know what time it is?”
Peter looked around. He felt that this was maybe a trick question. There was no clock in the room and outside it was still dark, the streets illuminated in a hazy yellow blur of artificial light. “No?”
MJ sighed. “Go to sleep, Peter. We’ll talk in the morning.”
Stumbling into the apartment kitchen in his underwear, Peter dropped down into the battered chair they’d yanked from a dumpster and accepted the mug of hot, black coffee MJ slid in front of him. On the counter, Ned’s old clock-radio was tuned into NPR. Peter listened quietly as he sipped his coffee, taking in the news about upcoming elections, the issues of homelessness for the reappeared citizens of the world, and the continued lack of peace in the Middle East. He ignored the feeling of MJ and Ned’s eyes on him, focusing instead on the cheap copy of Sister Corita’s “X” print hanging over the microwave. The little speech bubble demanding he “give a damn” glared down at him. His hands shook as he clutched his coffee tighter.
Slowly, MJ sat down opposite him. She looked over her shoulder briefly at Ned—who nodded but didn’t leave his place at the cooktop where he was reducing tomatoes in a saucepan—before turning back to Peter. “This is an intervention.”
“Aw, c’mon, another one?”
“Do you know what time it is, Peter?” MJ asked.
Again, he got the sense that this was a trick question. He shifted, trying to catch a glimpse of the clock-radio. She moved with him, blocking his view. “Um, ten?” he replied.
“It’s two in the afternoon,” MJ replied. “You got back at 4:22am.” Peter squirmed, staring down at his coffee. “This is the fourth night in a row. You missed date night. You’ve missed therapy. And Bucky says you’ve been doubling up on sparring.”
“You’re killing yourself!” she snapped.
They both froze, looking away from each other, blinking away tears. The kitchen was silent except for the sizzle and pop of the eggs Ned cracked into the tomatoes and the gentle murmur of Terry Gross on the clock-radio. The moment held. Peter felt the tension harden, becoming a solid mass that hung heavily in the air. The old feeling of anxiety tightened like a fist in his lungs as he looked back at MJ, watching her struggle, her face open in a way only he and Ned had the privilege of seeing most days.
Finally, she took a huge lungful of air. “You promised to keep up with therapy. You can’t keep punishing yourself like this.”
“I know about the injuries. You think I don’t notice, but I do.”
He nodded, swallowing a fat lump of tears. Setting the mug down, he pressed his trembling hands into the tabletop. He’d saved a woman from a drunk man last night—yanking him away as he pushed her against a wall, one hand wrapped around her throat, the other up her dress. He’d stopped himself after knocking the guy’s front teeth out, webbing him up and turning back to the trembling woman. She stared at his bloody knuckles as he told her it was all okay. His hands shook the whole time, twisted into fists, eager to beat the guy, to beat anything, to make the guy bleed, to make himself bleed.
Give a damn! shouted the art print over the microwave.
I can’t! Peter wanted to shout back. I can’t feel anything. It’s nothing and anger. Nothing and dusty red.
“You have to promise to go back to therapy,” MJ said.
“You gotta stop this.”
“I can’t.” He licked his lips, looked away. Away from the art print, away from MJ and Ned. “He didn’t have to die.”
“It wasn’t your fault. We talked about this.”
“I had the gauntlet. I’m strong. I could have done it.”
MJ leaned forward, grabbing hold of his hands and squeezing tightly. “You would have died.”
Slowly, he nodded, looking back at her. “The world needs Tony Stark more than Peter Parker.”
“You don’t get to decide that,” MJ replied. “Now, we’re gonna eat, and afterwards you’re gonna call your therapist, and then your Aunt, and you’re gonna talk to them.”
She stood up, pulling plates from the dishrack and lining them up for Ned. Peter watched them work—Ned frying sourdough with one hand, dishing up a fat slice of the tomato and eggs with the other, while MJ made a second pot of coffee and sliced an avocado. He studied the hunch of MJ’s shoulders, the looseness of Ned’s limbs. He saw him nudge her with his shoulder, as if propping her up, encouraging her to stand taller, braver, as they danced around each other on dirty, bare feet. They were a two-person army with the daunting mission of keeping him alive and sane. He didn’t envy the job.