Ned has never had a lot of luck making friends.
It’s not something he’s spent too long thinking about, not necessarily something he thinks reflects too much on who he is. Sometimes it even feels like a cool thing. Like there are only a certain type of people he gets and who get him, a rare breed, a unique little slice of humanity.
For a while, it’s mostly just Peter.
And that’s great. Peter is objectively a great friend, the ideal friend actually for Ned, from the first time they start talking about the new Star Trek movies and realize only after that their conversations lasted nearly two hours. They’re the same type of person somewhere deep down, or else complementary parts in some important way, a neat and reliable team of two. And Ned knows Peter has always been a little isolated, because after his parents and Ben, people tend to treat him like he’s a little radioactive, like bad luck is contagious or something.
But it’s fine because Ned knows better and learns, easily, exactly what it means to be Peter Parker’s best friend.
The issue comes with learning to be Spider-Man’s best friend. Which is so cool, just first of all. Maybe the coolest thing that’s ever happened to him or anyone he’s ever met, save for Peter who actually is Spider-Man and everything.
It just does unfortunately mean that while Spider-Man is out doing Spider-Man things, Peter isn’t around and Ned is stuck in classes or clubs or those very very rare parties alone, friendless. Which is fine, understandable. Spider-Man stuff trumps the high school social minefield in terms of priorities. So Ned gets used to bringing his 3DS places so he’ll have something to do.
It’s also from this that he starts to take more notice of Michelle, who is also usually alone and usually near him. Michelle has always been an intrigue, for both him and Peter, since she always seems to be looking for where they are, on the outskirts of situations, if only to deliberately put herself past them, even further into the corners. She’s the whole reason that Ned feels the need to specify that he likes having friends and would like to have more because she’s the first person he’s met who blatantly doesn’t.
Trying to get closer to her at lunch or in decathlon or any of the other times Peter goes running off, is a complete nonstarter so he turns his sights elsewhere and ultimately makes very little progress, choosing to simply be contented being alone sometimes when Peter isn’t there
And then suddenly things are different. Michelle is MJ to her friends and apparently, they’re her friends, and he’s not complaining because, as established, he likes having friends.
“What changed?” he asks her even, one lunch period a few weeks later because she fully sits with them at lunch now, with her books but also sometimes without them.
And she does the thing where she narrows her eyes and tilts her head and holds for a beat before replying. “Needed new members for my book club.”
That’s the most he’s able to get out of her on the topic, and he does find out a few days later that she was only half-joking because she does start shoving books off to both him and Peter with due dates for discussions. “If you guys can handle the fact that there aren’t any pictures.”
So there’s that. Friend number two. He can start purchasing the extra-large refillable popcorn option at the movies, and finally play Catan now that they have a better number of players.
And when Peter goes off and doesn’t directly need any Guy in Chair help, he’s not really alone anymore.
And also MJ’s a pretty good friend, willing to entertain long conversations about different science-fiction properties and offering her own unique insights, recommending pretty interesting books and articles and documentaries and memes. She’s killer at editing essays, if a little mean about it, and she’s pretty effortlessly cool in a way that feels transmissible.
It’s nice having friends.
There’s just this issue when Peter is around.
Which he didn’t see coming. He loves Peter, Peter is great, but…
Well, he could have seen this much coming. Peter and MJ are very similar people who only seem incredibly different, and Ned has a working theory that it’s among the reasons MJ slots so neatly in place with them. They both have this bend towards justice and bravery and knowledge, a deep care for the world and for people even if MJ likes to bury it deep beneath layers of disaffected sarcasm.
Ned likes things practically, likes lines and lines of code, the security of for loops and if/then statements, likes Legos and reading through Wookiepedia’s catalog of different alien races. MJ likes theoretical, likes stories and conspiracies and thinking about why things happen, how things can change, what it all means, likes questions about droid rights and the exact politics of the United Federation of Planets.
And so does Peter apparently. Which isn’t something he really knew about Peter before MJ.
But now he has a front-row seat to it at lunch sometimes, how MJ can actually talk a lot for a while about something while Peter watches her and nods intently and shoots off his own questions and ideas. They have this level they operate on that feels like its own little world.
So Ned’s not surprised at all when Peter turns to him one night during a sleepover and says, “So, uh… MJ…”
He’s been around them, he’s seen the looks, he’s not surprised.
But he’s also… not exactly thrilled about the whole development.
“What about her?” he asks in response, kinda almost hoping that this isn’t going the exact way he thinks this is going.
“I… I dunno,” Peter says, covering his face with his arm. “I think I like her, man.”
Ned pauses his game, even though he’s been on a roll for this level so far. “Well, she’s our friend.”
“Yeah, but, like… more than that,” Peter says. And he sounds really happy and excited about it, which only serves to make Ned feel even shitter for how his stomach is twisting. He wants Peter to be happy. He likes MJ.
But there’s this pit in his gut.
“Well, do you think she likes you?” he asks slowly, even though he’s seen them together and the looks are absolutely going both ways.
Peter’s arm flops out as he stares up blankly at the ceiling and sighs. “I don’t know. I… I think so, maybe… I hope so.”
So Ned figures he has a little time to sort himself out.
It gets worse.
MJ has a habit of walking into places and making herself at home. The first time she came over to Ned’s apartment, she spent the first half-hour taking a nap on his bed before heating up leftovers for lunch.
And she seems to do the same with Peter because once Peter starts thinking about MJ, he doesn’t seem to stop.
It was starting to get strange enough spending time with the two of them because of the way they so easily fall into their little rhythm, but now even just hanging out with Peter on his own is overwhelmed with “Did you know that MJ?”s and “MJ was telling me at lunch”s. Like Ned was not also there at lunch.
The only time he can get Peter to stop talking about MJ is when he steers the conversation or when they’re doing Spider-Man stuff. And it’s still great to be the Guy in the Chair, to hang out in Peter’s room looking over clues or being tech support over the coms.
And when he’s alone at the lunch table with MJ, everything is fine too once she stops interrogating him about Peter’s whereabouts with a smirk and an eye roll.
But Ned starts packing his 3DS again, though, just in case.
The problem, Ned thinks, is that it’s MJ.
Peter’s had crushes before. A lot of them, since Peter could seemingly fall in love with anyone in the span of a single class period. In practice, they mostly involved long stares and belabored sighs and usually faded quietly after a week or two.
Liz was the exception, lasting most of the first half of sophomore year, involving real conversations and actually going somewhere for once, before the whole homecoming fiasco.
But even before it all crashed and burned, Ned hadn’t felt the same weird foreboding he does now.
Because all those crushes had been very superfluous, very light and transient. Even with Liz, he could tell that Peter was significantly into her, that he wanted it to go places in a way that he wasn’t as invested in Henry from geometry or Sally from marching band. But with MJ, it seems less like something that Peter is interested in and more like an inevitability, a sure thing, a lasting thing, because of all the looks and the rhythm and the way they match deep down.
Watching Peter and MJ most days feels like watching a prologue in montage, like a plane before takeoff, like they’re getting ready to soar right into the sky together.
He’s not sure where that leaves him.
And then maybe the worst part of the whole thing is that suddenly he gets it.
Love is amazing and beautiful. The skies seem brighter and bluer, and his steps feel lighter. It’s dizzying and dazzling, and he feels more settled in his skin than he ever has in his life.
And the looks and the smiles and the long conversations all feel so momentous, ground shifting and head-spinning. He listens to Betty talk about the drama over InDesign formatting in the yearbook club and is completely captivated for forty-five full minutes because of the way she talks, the way her hands shift, and the light in her eyes as she lays out exactly why Cambria is a trash font that she’d rather die before using for title headings.
And she listens intently or at least feigns interest as he talks about Monsterslayers and his issues with how microtransactions are ruining gaming, and he feels seen and heard in new ways.
He always kinda thought that being in a relationship would be like having a friend but extra, like a step up. But it isn’t. It’s like a step in a different direction, in a different place entirely.
It’s a good place.
But it’s also a very distracting place, like he’s lost in Narnia. Time passes weirdly and the rest of the world is just a little hazy if he doesn’t remember to pay attention, which he doesn’t sometimes because Betty will smile or touch his arm and his heart will start beating too loud to hear anything else.
He knows he’s slacking on best friend duties, on Guy in Chair duties, but for better or worse Peter seems to be figuring it out without him and Ned…
Ned finds himself sitting on the floor of a hotel room in Prague, making out with Betty Brant. It’s a very life-affirming make-out session, interspersed with unexpectedly deep conversations and snacks from the minibar.
“I just… really miss Liz,” Betty confesses, staring at her outstretched legs, her socked feet bumping against his. “Like when she moved, it was hard but we still talked all the time, and I really thought we’d end up at Yale together or something.” Betty sighs and takes another chip from the bag between them. “And now she’s like… a college graduate who lives in the city with her boyfriend and all these adult problems.”
Ned feels so woefully underprepared for comforting her, but he squeezes her hand tighter and she leans her head into his shoulder so he assumes it’s a good move.
“I know we’re just in high school and everything,” she continues. “But I really thought we were going to be best friends for the rest of our lives and now it’s like we’re in two completely separate worlds.”
She falls quiet, tapping her toes together absently.
“Well… life is long, right?” he offers. “Just because you two are in different places right now, doesn’t mean you always will be. Plus, you’re amazing and there are like a million people who are going to want to be friends with you.”
“Babe,” Betty says softly, turning her face further into his shoulder, even though he can still make out the blush high on her cheeks. It makes him feel buzzy and bright, and he gets so caught up in that feeling and in Betty for a little while.
“What about you and Peter?” she asks. And the bubble pops.
Ned splutters. “W-What about me and Peter?”
“Like, what’s up with him? Where does he go all the time and why did he disappear tonight?” She’s off like a shot with all the questions and Ned is both immeasurably smitten with it and also deeply terrified of having to stand against an interrogation from the chair of the journalism club.
“Uh, I dunno.” He shrugs.
Berry frowns. “You don’t know,” she echoes. “He’s your best friend, why don’t you know?”
“You should go check on him,” Betty says, nodding incessantly the way she does when she has a big idea. “Yeah, yes, you should go check on him and really talk , you know?”
And then he’s being dragged to his feet and pushed out the door and encouraged down the hall, while Betty watches from the doorway with a smile and a thumbs up.
And see it’s almost like he’s showed up just in time, to help with Spider-Man stuff and be a good best friend, except… well, he hasn’t.
There’s stuff going on but it’s all already happened.
Apparently, Peter and MJ have been working the case, and now MJ knows and knows more than him about what’s going on and fills him in on everything she found out about Mysterio while she and Peter were working the case without him. And then she sends him back to Betty with a shrugging reassurance that she can wait up in case Peter gets back early, and that’s it.
Betty has more questions when he heads back to her room, that he does his best to brush off or lie through. She eventually seems satisfied and they go to sleep, side by side on the queen bed in her room, and he thinks he’d like to have a freak out about that, but he’s still a little caught up in the way that he’s completely shirked his Spider-Man and best friend duties and is now woefully behind in what’s going on.
It’s all been happening, just without him, and he doesn’t want it to happen again.
It doesn’t take long for him to find his footing, which feels a little counterintuitive since they’re on the run and everything.
But he’s back in a chair and typing away and working the case alongside Peter, and now MJ, and it’s familiar and working more or less the way it always has.
However… it does mean that he now spends most of his time completely alone with Peter and MJ, who are now officially a couple.
He’s happy for Peter, and MJ too, they’re his best friends, and they’re pretty great together. It’s nice to see Peter this glowy and excitable with everything else that’s been going on.
But it’s a lot, all the time, of the looks and the smiling and the fluttery glittery honeymoon bubble they seem to be in and that he is resolutely not in.
“Here, uh, I should show you how to use these,” Peter says, bounding up to MJ like an excitable puppy and holding up one of his web slingers.
“Can’t be that hard if you can do it,” MJ shoots back but lets Peter take her hand and guide her to the center of the room. And Peter does the whole thing where he stands behind her and fixes her stance, even as MJ rolls her eyes but also smiles to herself when he’s not looking.
“So you tap this part here,” he instructs. “But the important thing is aim and grip. As long as you-”
MJ tips her hand back and shoots a web out, hitting the top of the cabinet in the kitchen. “Like that?”
And Peter laughs, leaning into her space even more. “Yeah, like that.”
“Hey, remember that time at homecoming that I hit the Shocker with a web?” Ned offers from his place on the couch because he starts to feel halfway invisible.
“Yeah, that was amazing,” he agrees easily, spinning around to grin at him. MJ does the thing where she tips her head to the side and narrows her eyes like she’s trying to read his mind through sheer force of will, but Peter’s already turned back to her to recount the rest of that night, so the moment passes.
But there’s this light tension in the air that remains, this push and pull to the way they’re doing things.
It felt easier to do this when it was just him and Peter. He does the Guy in the Chair thing, looking things up, running point, playing backup from a safe distance, while Peter does the actual Spider-Man thing. But now there’s this extra role in MJ, who doesn’t seem to want to slot into any particular function, just do everything and nothing at the same time. She does her own research and finds her own breakthroughs, but also wants to go with Peter when he’s doing Spider-Man stuff, break into places to investigate, and get more hands-on than Ned ever has had any interest in.
She and Peter are like their own team sometimes, the way they build off each other with ideas and plans.
Not that he and Peter aren’t still on the same wavelength and working the way they always do. There’s just this extra stuff now with MJ, added components that make the whole thing shift to the side a little more. And Ned feels like he has to keep rebalancing everything like every time MJ has some great idea, he’ll have to remind Peter of some incident from the past few years that they worked on together just to even everything out.
It’s weird. MJ’s his friend, and he doesn’t know why her relationship with Peter changing should change anything between them, but it sort of does. Like when they’re alone now it’s always a little awkward and quiet, and Ned doesn’t really know what to talk about so he keeps offering FoS tips and MJ blinks back inscrutably until they fall quiet again.
It’s all very far from a priority, but still.
Ned has always been a bit of a heavy sleeper, even now, so the fact that he wakes up is really a testament to how loud Peter is when he gets back to the safehouse, knocking over the coffee table and bumping some pictures off the wall.
MJ is already there when Ned reaches the living room, in front of Peter with her hands on his shoulders, seemingly the only thing keeping him up as he tugs his cowl off and wheezes for air. She struggles a little under his weight and ends up half-guiding him down to flop on the couch. Peter waves his hand vaguely towards his side and… oh…
That’s a lot of blood.
Ned makes his way to the side of the couch to get a better look at the wound. It’s deep and still actively bleeding. From the way Peter is struggling to catch his breath, it could very well be something internal, which is always tricky even with accelerated healing.
“Is there anything still in there?” Ned asks, reaching for the side table to switch on the lamp. “Bullet, shrapnel?”
Peter shakes his head and then hisses, his whole body going rigid with tension for a moment before releasing. Ned winces in sympathy.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, that’s good. Just hang tight, man.” He moves to get closer and ends up bumping into MJ.
She’s kinda just standing there, one hand still against Peter’s shoulder and the other loose at her side. Her eyes are wide as she stares down at Peter, her gaze skating over him, bouncing between the gash in his side and his face still scrunched up as he breathes tightly through the pain.
“MJ?” Ned says, and her attention snaps to him. She tries to school her expression, but it’s really not enough to hide the fact that she looks scared. “The first aid kit?”
“Right,” she says, and it takes another moment for her to unstick and rush off to their bags.
Peter being injured isn’t anything new, for Ned at least. He’s gotten pretty used to the process of cleaning out cuts and stitching them up, even ones as scary and bloody and deep as this one. At this point, he can do it practically on autopilot, which is good because MJ is deeply unhelpful. Like she comes back with the first aid kit but struggles to open it, her hands shaking over the latches.
He takes it from her gently and then takes over, working his way through the familiar steps while she hovers by his shoulder and watches. It doesn’t take long, with the practice he’s had, and in a few minutes, he’s sealing a bandage over Peter’s side and leaning back. Peter pats his shoulder sloppily before slumping back into the couch and promptly passing out.
MJ continues to watch him while Ned cleans up. The couch is ruined but that’s a problem for the morning, he decides, and he goes to put away the first aid kit and get some water from the kitchen.
When he gets back, MJ is sitting on the floor, her head between her knees.
Out from under the haze of rote mechanical problem solving, he feels the exhaustion and anxiety seep back into his chest. He moves to sit next to her on the floor, glancing up at Peter on the couch as his chest rises and falls steadily.
“Hey,” he says, bumping his shoulder into hers. She groans in the back of her throat, her hands coming up to cover her head. “Are you good?”
She comes up, her chin resting on her knee as she stares at Peter’s face, lines smoothed out with sleep. “I shouldn’t be here.”
Ned blinks. “What?”
“I’m not… I thought I could handle this,” she says, words coming fast, in a way he didn’t know MJ could ramble, panicked and unsure. “I thought I could be smart or rational enough, to handle these things, to be helpful, to be… something, but… I can’t. You know, I’ve just been watching him for so long and putting together all these facts about him, thinking that it was like knowing him. Like if I noticed enough, it would be like I was close to him, and now that I am…”
“What are you talking about?” he asks, barely resisting the urge to wrap an arm around her, his friend, because she looks so distressed.
It feels all wrong and twisted. MJ is the most self-assured person he’s ever met, someone so above anything and everything, cool and level-headed and unshakeable. He didn’t know there was a way for her to be this vulnerable.
“I’m really bad at getting close to people,” she says, her jaw tightening. “And fitting in with people. It always feels like I’m on the outside of things like friendships, and I thought that I could get better at it, but… I’m not.” She blows out a large breath through her teeth. “You and Peter just have this way that you connect with each other and understand each other. And you’ve been doing this forever, the Spider-Man thing and the… the friends thing. I feel like I’m just getting in the way of all of it.”
He doesn’t restrain himself this time, just reaches his arm over her shoulders and pulls her in so their sides brush, even though it is still MJ and she is still mildly terrifying.
“You’re a really great friend,” he says. Because he gets it all at once and understands it completely. The way that the anxiety and insecurity eat deep at your insides. The way you can always feel like you’re falling behind. “I was genuinely shocked when you started sitting with us at lunch because you’re way too cool to be hanging out with us.”
MJ elbows his side lightly, rolling her eyes. “Okay.”
“Really,” he says. “And you and Peter are great together, even though you’re, like, categorically out of his league. You two are weirdly perfect for each other in a way that’s been genuinely freaking me out.”
She narrows her eyes at him but he nods for emphasis.
“For a long time, it’s just been me and Peter against kinda… everything else,” he says. “And I’ve always been really grateful that we found each other because high school would have been unbearable, I think, without having someone who gets you. And you’re, like, the only other person I’ve ever met who actually really gets Peter, too.”
MJ glances back to him, something soft and shiny in her eyes that makes Ned smile, chest tight and full of fondness for both of them somehow. “He’s such a stupid dork.”
“Yeah,” he says, sighing. “You know, you are too, right?”
She shrugs. “If you tell anyone else, I’ll kill you.” But she turns slightly to smile at him, something rare, something he knows MJ doesn’t give out freely, and he thinks there’s something incredible here, too. Being friends with someone like MJ is this special sort of privilege that has somehow been extended to him.
“You’re a really great friend, too, Leeds,” she says after another moment of settling air and calm silence. “Like way nicer than anyone deserves.”
“I know,” he says, and side by side, they take turns watching Peter as he sleeps, like a team until he wakes up in the morning.