Attention, Loyal Minions! This is the Master Planner, the Writer Formerly Known as the Trickster, speaking from her secret underwater lair! Your mission, if you choose to accept it: To read this new literary masterpiece, and then review! Start: now!

Quirk of Fate, Part 4: Menace of the Master Planner

Mary Jane Watson, the Amazing Spider-Woman, must win the fight of her career to preserve her already shaky reputation and stop the plans of the mysterious "Master Planner", as the life of her beloved Aunt Anna hangs in the balance...

The Standard Disclaimer: All characters involved belong to Marvel, unless I note otherwise. Any quotes I may use belong strictly to their authors!

Dramatis Personae: Mary Jane Watson, Ned Leeds, Anna Watson, Flash Thompson, Elizabeth Allan, J. Jonah Jameson, Dr. Carolyn Trainer, Angelina Brancale, Benjamin Reilly, Charlotte Witter, Jessica Drew

Previously: Shortly after her harrowing fight with the Green Goblin, Mary Jane Watson, the Amazing Spider-Woman, is presented with a living suit of armor by her new boyfriend, Johnny Storm. Mary Jane is thrilled with the new suit's abilities, but increasingly finds that the suit has a life of its own, and is slowly altering her personality. The Shadow Spider's superhero career is further complicated by the return of Doctor Octopus, who taught her the meaning of responsibility by murdering her beloved Peter Parker. While under the malevolent influence of the symbiote, Shadow Spider quickly beats Doc Ock into submission, concluding their battle by snapping his neck. Horrified at what she had done, Mary Jane enlists Johnny's help to rid herself of the symbiote. She succeeds...but not before the symbiote finds a new host in her classmate Gwendolyn Stacy, whose police captain father had been killed as a bystander in one of the Web Spinner's battles. Gwen's desire for revenge combines with the inherent evil of the symbiote to birth the villainous Venom, whom Spider-Woman could only defeat with the help of others...And now begin!

Chapter 1: Map of the Problematique

"Fear and panic in the air

I want to be free

From desolation and despair

And I feel like everything I saw

Has been swept away

Well I refuse to let you go!

I can't get it right, get it right

Since I met you..."

Muse, "Map of the Problematique"

early afternoon, baxter building

For her, things were finally starting to grind down to normal. It had been a thrilling summer to be sure; she had spent it not sunbathing on the beach like so many other girls her age, but on the spacecraft of her superhero team, the Fantastic Four, battling shape-shifting aliens and Annihilus, the monster king of a modern-day land of nightmares, and befriended the royal family of a forgotten offshoot of humanity, long exiled to their city on the moon. She had spent Spring Break not in Cancun but in Latveria, fighting their deadly monarch and his designs for world domination.

But her adventures carried forebodings as well as delights; the boyfriend who had advocated for her membership on the team seemed distant, almost like he was...tired of her. Moreover, the rulers of that unknown lunar kingdom, the silent King Black Bolt and his Queen Medusa, had decided that their race should begin to establish diplomatic relations with our world; and like so many other such arrangements from antiquity, this pact of friendship was to be sealed with a marriage—specifically, to her boyfriend, Johnny, to their daughter, the Princess Crystalia. And Johnny seemed a little too amenable to the idea. She had tried to plead her case to his sister, Sue, and her husband, team leader Reed...

"Jonathan Storm is my boyfriend!" she cried. "You can't just marry him off to this—this alien!"

"You don't understand, Mary Jane," Sue had told her. "Reed has sighted the Herald on the outskirts of the galaxy. We desperately need this alliance with the Inhumans. Our common interests demands that we take their offer."

"But why? Why does it have to be this way? What about my interests?"

"Mary Jane, our role is to protect the planet from cosmic threats. You have to be unselfish—"

"For once," Ben Grimm, sometimes called the Thing, chimed in.

"Ben, please," Sue said, turning back to her. "Turning this down could mean all-out war between Earth and the Inhumans. We can't risk it. Besides, kingdoms have always established alliances through marriage."

"Yeah," she shouted, "when people lived in castles! This is the twenty-first century! For God's sakes, they still have slavery up there!"

Sue's voice grew quiet. "No one has the right to disparage another's culture. Their culture isn't worse or better than ours, just—different. Inhuman."

Then she had thrown down the gauntlet. "If Johnny marries this Princess Crystalia, I'm quitting the team!"

She turned back to stalk off to her room in the Baxter Building, and stopped in the hallway, peering into a small room. Johnny, her boyfriend, goddamn it, was exchanging rings with this Crystalia while his brother-in-law, Reed Richards, shook hands with her parents. She heard the voice of the queen. "And the contracts for the betrothal of the Princess Royale Crystalia to Jonathan Storm—"

She looked at this interloper, this so-called princess, and hated her. The Princess Royale Crystalia was slender, pale of skin and fair of hair, and almost sparkled in the night like a star, an utter contrast to her, with her fiery red hair and the muscles and physique one could only expect from a girl with the proportionate strength of a spider. So there was nothing left to do but silently stalk to her room, and pack her bags. She angrily threw a suitcase on the bed, nearly ripped it in her haste to open it, and started pulling out clothes with slender strings of spiderweb. Her flurry of activity was paused at the sound of Johnny's voice behind her. "Aw, come on. You don't have to be like that."

"Well how else should I be, pray tell?" Mary Jane asked him through gritted teeth, continuing to fold a spider-suit.

"I'm only doing this because Reed and Sue told me that if I don't go through with it, the Inhumans will make war on us. I don't really love her, you know."

"You sure have a funny way of showing it." She refused to look up from the jeans she was folding. "For God's sakes, you could have stood up to them for once. You could have said You know what, have Ben marry the princess, I'm attached."

"Uh...Ben has a girlfriend. You know...Alicia? Short blind blonde? Comes around sometimes?"

"Oh, so getting a relationship broken for interplanetary politics is only for the newbie to endure."

"Look, if this is about the whole symbiote deal..." Johnny seemed nervous for even mentioning it. Truth was, the idea of Mary Jane Watson and Jonathan Storm as a couple had died along with the symbiote that night. He had stolen it, untested, from Reed's lab to give to her...

...he was the cause of all the destruction it had wreaked, that she had wreaked while possessed by it...

Not even her membership in the Fantastic had healed that wound. Sue and Ben had been against it from the start, regarding her as a low-class encroacher, a showboater who talked the talk but couldn't walk the walk, a vigilante only good for street-level brawls with mid-level supervillains.

Finally she sighed, finally pausing the folding. "You know, Peter Parker wouldn't betray me like this." Of course hewouldn't. Her angel, her inspiration, the one man who stuck by her side through the dangerous life of a superhero—at the cost of his life...

Johnny seemed irked by the mention of his girlfriend's ex. "Yeah. And he's dead. And I'm starting to believe the people who tell me that your neglect killed him."

Her eyes narrowed at the all-too-familiar accusation. "You know I didn't kill Peter, Johnny."

But she closed her eyes, trying to escape from the darkness surrounding her.

The nightmares. They were coming back. Uninvited to flood her mind with smoke, just as they did for the months following Peter's death. Uninvited, not giving any mind to whether she was awake or asleep, whether she was at home or in a car, at her room in the Baxter Building or in the Fantastic's shuttle.

But this time, the ghost that haunted her wasn't that of Peter Parker. It was that of Dr. Otto Octavius.

She saw the fallen nuclear physicist as he was in life, she saw every detail—from the wild shock of curly chestnut hair, the large sunglasses, the trenchcoat swirling about him, the four robotic arms that sprouted out of his back and were wielded as thoughtlessly as the fists he was born with...

And in all the nightmares, he would tell her the same thing.

"You were supposed to be the hero, Spider-Woman. You were supposed to defeat the mad scientist and save the day.

"But this time, the mad scientist defeated you. Even beyond the grave, the mad scientist defeated you."

"I didn't kill Peter, Octopus! You did! Admit you killed Peter!"

"Why? Why, when in the minds of the masses, perception is reality? The foolish

scribblings of tabloids are reality? In the minds of the masses, the perception is that you killed that meddling photographer, and so it becomes reality.

"Your boyfriend died because of your thirst for celebrity, Spider-Woman," Octavius would remind her. "And no matter what you do, no matter how many times you save them—"

"That perception will haunt you forever."

"MJ, are you there?" Johnny's voice seemed to come from the end of a very long tunnel. "Snap out of it!"

Mary Jane Watson, the Amazing Spider-Woman, arranged the last of the suits into the suitcase with a heavy sigh. "I'm leaving. I'm not going to be dumped so your sister and brother-in-law can play cosmic politics. Life's too short."

late afternoon, watson residence

Mary Jane threw the suitcase on the bed, and trudged downstairs to the kitchen. Her beloved Aunt Anna, herself the survivor of close scrapes with the Green Goblin and Venom, was baking cookies.

"Hi, Anna," MJ said.

Anna looked up from the bowl. She seemed more fatigued lately; dark circles ringed her eyes and her breathing seemed harder. "What's wrong, dear? Anything bothering you?"

For once today, MJ could smile. "I ought to be asking you."

"If I've told you once, I've told you..." Anna sighed. "Probably just the flu. I'm fine. Are you sure nothing's bothering you?"

"Nah, just getting dumped by my boyfriend for another chick, that's all. Nothing that a few of Anna Watson's chocolate chip cookies couldn't cure."

The ghost of Octavius whispered again in her mind—

"You will never be free..."

and MJ shook her head to clear it. She tried to focus on the matters at hand. "Can I lick the bowl?"

Anna took the mixer out, pushing the button to release the metal beaters. She handed one to her niece. "Knock yourself out—" she started—

—And then collapsed, Mary Jane's spidey-senses ringing in time to swiftly catch her before she hit the ground. She hurriedly checked for a pulse, finally finding one, as faint and unsteady as it was—

Thank God.

But still his ghost smiled in her mind—

"Get out of my head, Ock!"

"No matter! You cannot hurt me! You only manage to hurt your loved ones!"

She pawed for her cell phone with shaking hands, dialing 911.

"Think of the stress she suffers, Spider-Woman. Think of how she internalizes it, wondering and worrying, of not knowing the reason behind her niece's strange disappearances, behind the constant lies—"

And like in all nightmares, the dreamer does not think to question why—she only does, only believes that the nightmare is as real as the waking world.

"No! You can't say that! It can't be!"

"Oh? The pattern is unmistakable, my dear Spider-Woman. Your neglect killed Parker. Your irresponsibility killed Osborn. Your rashness killed Jameson and Stacy."

And as she was lost in the nightmare, the paramedics lifted Anna onto a stretcher and loaded her into the ambulance, leaving her lost in her own dark thoughts...