When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
- Rudyard Kipling, "The Female of the Species"
The glass on the burner is cracked, its contents burned into a black crust along the inside of the bulb. He stops long enough to turn the burner off, curling his talons in and using his knuckles to handle the minuscule knob. He flicks his tongue against his teeth resignedly; they're going to have to fire somebody over that. They won't tolerate wasteful loss of equipment through negligence. What if they'd started an electrical fire?
There's no place at Oscorp for someone who won't think to contain his workspace before evacuating, he thinks.
Or we could eat them, supplies the lizard brain hopefully.
That won't be necessary, he thinks back, firm.
When he turns around, he immediately becomes aware of another presence in the lab, a dark scuttling up by the ceiling, trying to obscure itself amongst the rafters. The only sounds are the electrical buzz of the overhead lights and the faint, crystalline sounds the glass on the burner makes as it finally cools.
"Tell me, Spider-Man," he says. His voice scrapes out of him like it's being dragged backwards over gravel, because the tongue in his throat isn't adapted for human speech. "Have you ever seen a movie called the Million Dollar Baby?"
There's no reply, so he waits patiently until --
"Isn't that the one with Hilary Swank in it?" comes from the direction of the ceiling. "No, but there's coffee shop by the Met that names its drinks after Clint Eastwood movies. You should try it sometime, instead of being evil."
"In it," he continues, progressing slowly through the lab, aware of the figure above keeping pace. "A prizefighter woman at the height of her career suffers an accident, breaks her neck, and through steady decay, becomes a quadriplegic. Because she's no use if she can't fight, her trainer, who assumes she had no other reason to live, euthanizes her. And that's how the movie ends."
"Is it?" he replies, swift as the fall of a guillotine. "You see, people like me --" he flexes his claw, reveling in the pull of tendon and muscle, the pressure of his talons curling against his forearm, all sensations he only used to feel in the phantom and will never tire of, "-- are expected to take one of two courses of action."
He reaches the far end of the lab, keying himself into storage, again only using the rounded edge of his knuckle.
"The first is that we accept what's happened to us and make it a part of who we are now. We continue to make the best of our lives, same as anyone else, and refuse to let anyone pity us or treat us differently, because missing a limb -- or four -- shouldn't make us any less normal. The other option is to not accept what's happened to us and to always strive to -- oh, how I hate that word, 'fix' -- to regain what we'd lost, because if the technology doesn't exist, it's only because we haven't created it yet. Both are commendable choices. Neither are easy to make."
Spider-Man doesn't reply, but he doesn't really need Spider-Man's input on this: this is the fall after the precipice, so many angry words he's wanted to say, to explain to anyone, while knowing that nobody would listen because nobody wanted to listen. He couldn't stop even if he wanted to.
"So what if I removed the choice?" He taps the tip of one talon, then two, against the top of the Genali device. "Give people no choice as to whether or not they could be better."
"That's pretty cold-blooded, and I say that, of course, with full sensitivity your current state. People should always have a choice, Doc."
Spider-Man's voice has changed location, but the lizard isn't worried: spiders are just prey to the lizard brain.
"And you, Spider-Man?" he says pleasantly. "Were you given a choice?"
She's in third track European History when things start to get weird.
It's April Fool's Day, and nothing anybody does on April Fool's Day is ever funny -- it's just awful, up to and including Ms. Ngiwidi declaring a pop quiz at the start of class, because it's not an April Fool's Joke. She actually goes through with it. Furthermore, it's one of those quizzes a teacher can only pull once in their entire career, because afterwards, nobody ever trusts them again: the answer to every question is "C".
"You have to admit, your faces were priceless," she chuckles, neatly arranging their quiz sheets into a nice pile on her desk and ignoring their outrage. "I do wish my phone had a camera."
Ms. Ngiwidi is a plump, middle-aged woman with a squarish jaw like a picture frame, who trots around in sandals even in the dead of winter and wears her scarves neatly knotted over one shoulder. This is her twentieth year teaching history at Midtown Science; there'd been a bagel breakfast back in January to commemorate. To get her students to learn, she fills her classes with fake game shows and scavenger hunts, and wheels in the old TV with the VHS player from the gym to show them war-era propaganda ads, which at the end of the year usually makes her one of the clear favorites.
In the back of the room, Gwen Stacy drowses off, her arms folded across her desktop and brain nitpicking over the questions she changed, thinking if only she'd trusted her gut -- that yes, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States in the December of 1941, immediately following Pearl Harbor, not May like she eventually went with because it gave her a plausible mix of letters on the quiz sheet -- she'd've done better, and hoping that Ms. Nwigidi believed in the power of the bell curve.
It's too warm in the classroom and she doesn't feel well at all, and keeps alternating between too hot and too cold depending on which way the breeze goes across the back of her neck. She buries her face into the darkness at the crook of her elbow, willing the shipwrecked pitch of her stomach to stop churning. She feels trapped in the fabric of her sweater, like she's going to stew in her own cold sweat.
She wakes up fifteen minutes later when Ms. Nwigidi good-naturedly slaps a notebook down inches from her face like she's swatting a fly. It's what she always does to sleeping students, to get them to jump so that everybody can have a laugh at their expense.
Gwen jolts clear out of her seat, and the next thing she knows, she's got her back up against the wall. Except --
Except she's looking down on everyone, because she's half-way up the wall, clinging there like she'd velcroed herself up among the maps of eighteenth century slave trade routes and all the countries Russia controlled back when it was still called the USSR.
"Um?" she manages.
Ms. Nwigidi and the students in the back row blink up at her. Over by the window, Melissa Klaus half-rises out of her chair like she's going to come help, except she doesn't seem to know what to do any more than Gwen does. Everything looks different from this angle, she realizes, glancing out across the field of faces turned in her direction and the whiteboard with notes scrawled across it in dying green marker -- this must be what it's like to be a tall person. Albeit a really, really tall person because (she looks down) her feet are at least eight feet off the ground.
"Um," she decides, and lets go.
She lands neatly in a crouch, which surprises her, and she pops upright, ponytail bouncing against the back of her neck and making all the hairs along her arms to stand on end.
She tries to focus, but something buzzes up by the lights and then Icarus Wilde sniffles from two rows over, the airways in his nose and throat contracting all at once to suck down snot in a way Gwen can just sense, and both those things sound as loud as percussion in her ears; she resists the urge to whip her head around like a tweaker and instead sinks slowly back into her seat, feigning nonchalance, like whatever, she just wound up half-way up a wall and clung there like silly putty, no big deal.
Ms. Nwigidi is still standing in front of her, and Gwen blinks up at her until her face solidifies. "Sorry. What was the question?"
"Do you have a fever?" Ms. Ngiwidi asks, brows drawn low in concern.
Gwen had tried to take her temperature that morning, sitting on a stool at the breakfast bar with the thermometer popped under her tongue and timing herself to the strains of Good Morning America coming out of her parents' bedroom, but with her brothers crowded around, Simon chanting, "are you sick? Gwen, are you sick?" and Howie demanding to know if it's mono and if so, who did she have a rousing game of tonsil hockey with ("what does that mean?" Simon asked, and Gwen grabbed Howie's head under her armpit until he took it back and Philip hollered at them because they were in danger of upsetting his bowl of cereal,) she had to keep pulling it out to talk, so while it said she didn't have a fever, it also tried to tell her that her temperature was 94ª, so. Grain of salt.
Either way, she didn't have a good enough reason not to go to school.
It's taking too long to answer the question, because more lines appear between Ms. Ngiwidi's brows, so she says quickly, "I'm fine. Just. Tired."
"Mmhmm." Her teacher could sound a little more disbelieving, but she'd had to try pretty hard. She walks back to her desk and pulls a notepad towards her. "I'm sending you to the nurse anyway. Either you're sick or you're not, but I've a feeling you're going to be useless to my classroom today."
"Sorry," Gwen goes, chagrined, and gets up to accept the slip of paper Ms. Ngiwidi holds out.
She squints, eyes ticking between Gwen's own, and Gwen lets her, feeling hyperaware of everybody else's eyes on her, too. She'd covered up most of the grey pallor she'd woken up with with liberal amounts of foundation, and her eyes had looked fine in the mirror this morning, not bloodshot or dilated or anything, so there's no reason Ms. Nwigidi should report her for drug testing.
The hallways are quiet. She becomes overly conscious of the squeak of her sneakers against the linoleum and the way it echoes. Since there's no one around to see, she slips her hands up and presses her ears shut.
It doesn't help. She can still hear the minute vibrations of her feet make every time they make contact with the floor. If anything, it seems even louder in the dark, cupped space between her ears.
The nurse likes embroidery, and is constantly picking up new patterns from the hobby store to work on. The walls of the school infirmary are covered with her projects; embroidered squares of cats playing with yarn, flowers, encouraging motifs, and even one that says "science rules, religion drools" in a rosy, sweeping cursive, which Gwen figures the administration allows to remain up only by virtue of the fact they haven't looked too closely at it yet.
Like everywhere today, it's too hot in here, and Gwen sidles into the corner to sit down.
The nurse steps out of her office, takes one look at her, and says shrewdly, "Cramps?"
Gwen blinks, before remembering that the only other time she's been to the nurse's office was when she needed somewhere warm and dark to curl up until the Midol kicked in.
"No, I'm … falling asleep in class." She holds out the note, since 'and performing incredibly physical feats i wouldn't accomplish otherwise' seems too ridiculous a complaint to formally lodge.
"Ah, yes," says the nurse, wry but not unkind. "That rare and curious disease, exhaustion. I'm afraid there's no saving you, Ms. Stacy." She gestures towards her office door. "I have some stationary, if you'd like to make any official last requests."
Nevertheless, she lets Gwen sleep until the end of A track, giving her a blanket and turning off the lights before slipping back into her office. Gwen toes out of her shoes and curls into the back of the sofa -- it smells musty, like patchouli and old polyester, which seems like an odd thing for a school sofa to smell like -- and listens to the nurse go about her business, tapping away at her keyboard and then getting up to open boxes, muttering to herself. It seems a little strange that Gwen knows exactly where in her office the nurse has to be standing based on those sounds alone, but no stranger than what happened in third track, either. She pulls her hands out from under the blanket and peers at them in the dim light, but they don't look any different from normal.
Still. She had clung to the wall. With nothing but her fingertips!
The bell rings for fourth track, and again for lunch. The nurse microwaves something that smells really cheesy, and comes in before B track starts.
"How do you feel, Gwen?" she asks, and, "careful, I'm going to turn on the lights."
Gwen takes stock. Mostly she feels hungry, and nauseous, and neither of those are pleasant in combination. The weirdness is still there, too, but she doesn't know what to do about that, so she focuses on what she can handle. "I think I might go home," she ventures, and tries not to feel -- the way the 99th percentile always feel when they realize they're going to have to miss school -- like she's lost some kind of battle.
"And actually rest while you're there," the nurse suggests in return, with a knowing look, before she straightens up and starts digging in a drawer to find her thermometer, because school rules require her to take a temperature before sending a student home.
"Hearty soup and Beauty and the Beast," Gwen promises.
The nurse returns with one of those electronic in-the-ear thermometers, gesturing for Gwen to tilt her head up. She's wearing a sweater that's all pastels, held together at the top with a brooch haloed with tiny, white-star rhinestones, which gives her throat the appearance of being covered in dewdrops, or small bits of frost. A moment later, there's a beep, and the nurse immediately frowns.
"Huh," she says, pulling back, and then visibly dismisses her concern with a, "the battery must be going."
She turns away, but not before Gwen catches sight of the big block letters on the screen, which say 89.9.
The boys troop home right on time, bringing with them the heavy clatter of backpacks hitting the ground, shoes being kicked off, heated arguments started and won in the time it takes to say, “yeah, but you smell like turd.” Gwen sighs, rolls over, and pulls her covers up over her head.
Simon must notice that Gwen’s shoes and bag are already sitting by the door, because he suddenly exclaims, loud enough to make her cringe as it lances straight through the front of her skull, “Is she home? Is Gwen home?”
“She shouldn’t -- she doesn’t come home until after Mom and Dad do, usually.” There’s a frown in Howie’s voice.
Simon picks up on it. “Is she okay?”
“Don’t ask me, go see for yourself,” he answers impatiently. Philip’s rummaging in the kitchen distracts him. “Oi, are there any Fritos left?”
“Yeah, but I’m going to eat them all,” Philip taunts.
Gwen picks up the sound of little sock feet padding towards her door. Their owner doesn’t weigh more than seventy pounds, and Gwen doesn’t know how she knows that. They stop abruptly. If she rolled over and looked, she could probably make out his shadow stretching out underneath the crack between her door and the floor.
“Her door’s closed!” Simon shouts, with no appreciation for the fact that Gwen might, in fact, be sleeping behind said closed door.
And Howie, who at thirteen has discovered that if you expect your own closed door to be respected when you want privacy, then you must give the same respect, shouts back, “Well, then, don’t disturb her! You’ll see her later, Simon, God, cut the cord. What do you want for a snack?”
That works -- Simon pivots and pounds back down the hall, shouting, “Trail mix, trail mix!”
“Shock,” snorts Philip, garbled around the mouthful of Fritos he’s crunching. “He’s just going to eat all the M&Ms, that doesn’t even count.”
Gwen manages to doze off for another twenty minutes or so, too hot under the covers but unwilling to unwrap herself. She’s still in the clothes she wore to school; didn’t even bother peeling out of her socks before collapsing into bed, and her phone sits on the mattress by her head. She looks at it and debates who she could call to get the day’s assignments. Maybe Penelope won’t think it’s too weird.
When she next wakes, it’s because Philip is easing the door open, going very slowly so that the hinges don’t squeak. Gwen is instantly alert, so when he stealthily tiptoes the rest of the distance between her bed and the door and crouches down like he’s going to pounce on her, she reacts instinctively.
He leaps, and she explodes out of the covers, twisting out from under his trajectory and catching him midair, using his momentum to wrestle him into a headlock and subdue him. It surprises her -- she’s never performed that move quite so cleanly before. Usually she at least gets a knee to the kidney, or is completely caught off guard and only wakes when the full weight of a bony brother lands on her. Philip thrashes in her arms, bellowing in surprise and outrage, and she laughs triumphantly.
“I thought you were sleeping!” he protests, as soon as he wriggles free and settles at the foot of the bed, well out of her reach.
“Well, I was,” she retorts, folding her legs and giving him a pointed look.
He works his jaw mulishly. “How’d you know I was coming? I was trying to be quiet,” he says, accusing, like it’s her fault she didn’t let herself get pounced on.
“I’m your big sister, I’ll always know where you are. Now, what’s up, Thundercat?”
The unhappy look vanishes off his face. “Can you take me to the skate park?”
She frowns. “Is it warm enough for that?”
“There were a bunch of kids there when we walked by earlier,” Philip says, like it’s an answer. There are always kids at the skate park, even when the gates are locked in the dead of February because there’s two feet of snow on the ground. “Please, Gwen, please.”
“We’ll go when Mom or Dad get home, okay?” she compromises, and scoots to the edge of her mattress, retrieving her phone and checking for messages. “Did you get your homework done?”
“Gwen,” he complains.
Her mother gets home first, letting herself in with her big purse and reusable tote tucked under one arm. Celery stalks poke out of the back of the tote bag, and Gwen’s stomach rumbles in anticipation of a home-cooked dinner. Between them, her parents usually come home way too late and too exhausted to do much more than microwave a big platter of something from Costco, or pass a takeout menu over to them with an admonishment to “choose responsibly,” and to “at least choose something with a fruit or a vegetable, please, I don’t want to explain to the hospital why my children all have scurvy.” Classy dinners happen rarely in the Stacy household.
Her eyebrows tick up in surprise when she sees that Gwen’s home. “Hi, honey, I wasn’t expecting you,” she says, toeing out of her shoes, and then she smiles happily when Simon comes beelining right for her. She ruffles his hair in greeting, interspersing his excited chatter with appreciative noises.
Gwen follows her into the kitchen and helps her unload the groceries -- more trail mix, of course, because Simon’s going through a phase where he refuses to eat anything else, and fresh produce. Gwen sticks her nose in a clump of cilantro while her mother’s back is turned and breathes deeply, because fresh produce. “I got sent home after A track. I don’t have a fever!” she adds quickly, preempting her mother’s attempt to feel her forehead. “I just wasn’t feeling well.”
Helen nods, clearly swallowing down the part of her that’s still at work and wants to push for more details. “Can you get the assignments from somebody?”
“Yeah, sure,” Gwen lies. And, “hey, Philip wants to go to the skate park, so I’m going to take him.”
Her mother grants them an hour and a half, so Gwen goes and rouses Philip out of his room, where he has, of course, gotten engrossed in another project while waiting. “Get your board, bruddah, let’s go hang ten!” she tells him, faking an surfer accent just to see the horrified face he’ll make. Whatever, everything they know about surf culture comes from the Disney Channel anyway.
She’s surprised to find that he wasn’t lying: the sun came out while Gwen was sleeping, bright even as afternoon lengthens into evening around them. A mild breeze stirs the bare branches on the trees and lazily picks at the flags clustered along the facade of the international grocer’s on the corner. If you closed your eyes, you could almost pretend it was a spring day. Everybody apparently has the same hopeful idea, because the sidewalks are busy with foot traffic and noisy with conversation. People buffet up against her from every side.
She gets about two blocks before she has to swallow her pride and call, “Hey, can we slow down? I don’t feel so great.”
"I thought you said you weren't sick," Philip grumbles, circling back around to her.
It’s better at the skate park, but not by much. It’s crowded with people, heady on the promise of warmer weather, breaking out their bikes, rollerblades (Gwen didn’t know people still did that), and skateboards for the first time this season. As Gwen holds the gate open for Philip to slip through, a young family nearby shouts encouragement to a girl wobbling unsteadily on the back of a bicycle. Her training wheels lay discarded on the cement by the track.
Gwen even spots a familiar face: on the other side of the half-pipe, Peter Parker catches her eye and gives a quick, awkward wave, tucked close to his body like he isn’t sure of its welcome. He’s got on buffalo plaid and dark jeans that look like they came from the girl’s side of Anthropologie, with red Converses laced up over the hems.
She nods back in acknowledgement, and turns to inspect Philip strapping into his protective gear.
“Who’s that?” he wants to know, plunking the helmet down onto his head. In about four runs down the pipe, he’s going to peel right out of it, half because it’ll get too hot and half because he’s just now entering that age where he’s susceptible to peer approval and helmets are still, unfortunately, Not Cool™ with the fourth grade demographic. She’ll pretend not to notice, but for now, she tilts his chin up and checks the strap.
“He’s in my class,” she answers absently. Their freshman year, their Biology teacher had picked two of the Honors class’s final papers to present at a state-wide academic tournament that June. Peter had gone dressed much the same way he was now, and, at fourteen, Gwen had resented him for making her feel overdressed the entire time they were there. He’d written his paper on Francis Crick and James Watson, the two geneticists credited with discovering the existence and function of DNA, which Gwen only remembers because James Watson had actually been in attendance and Peter had promptly put his foot in his mouth by pointing out that Dr. Watson was a famously documented racist. That’s all Gwen really knows about him.
“All right, you’re good,” she thunks the top of Philip’s helmet. “Go knock yourself out. I’m going to go sit over there, with all of your adoring fans.”
She climbs up the bleachers, where it’s quieter and she doesn’t feel so accosted by other people’s proximity, assaulting her senses and making her skin feel too tight, like all the world is trying to fit inside it and there isn’t enough room. She’d hoped that going home to get a good nap would have gotten rid of that weirdness, but it hadn’t.
It takes a few runs down the shallow half-pipe for Philip to warm up and get into his groove, by which point Gwen’s mostly absorbed in the copy of Persepolis she found tucked into her purse.
The sun sinks to a low burning orange between the buildings, and finally, when it gets too chilly for her to just keep sitting there, she closes it and calls for Philip.
“Hang on, I want to try something!” he kicks up his board and races to the steeper half-pipe, now mostly clear except for a few of the high schoolers sitting around a cooler and doing lazy loops. He glances back over his shoulder, his hair sticking up in every direction from the wind. He’s the only one in the family with dark hair; the rest of them took after their mother.
“I’m watching,” she assures him. She picks up his helmet, looping the straps around the clip on her purse and snapping it shut so they don’t forget it. “Go on, show me how much of a badass you are.”
Quickly, he retorts, “Only if I get to tell Dad you said a bad word!”, before tipping over the edge and zooming down the pipe.
Gwen’s stomach immediately swoops with dread, like something horrible has already happened and she’s just now receiving the news, and if she pinches herself, she’s not going to wake up from it. She goes cold, all the way through, and finds herself on her feet without conscious direction from her brain.
She moves, even before Philip’s weight tips precariously in the middle of his rebound, his balance disturbed by the unexpected height and his center of gravity shifting way too far to compensate.
No, she thinks, but it’s done.
His arm flails out wildly, looking to break the inevitable fall, angled in such a way that she already knows it will break when his weight lands on it: sees it clearly like it’s already happened, and she reaches out to stop it.
She grabs his wrist --
And then her heels hit the concrete. She braces, hard, as that bit of contact takes the full brunt of Philip’s fall.
He skids a little against the side of the pipe, the soles of his shoes scrabbling for purchase and his board clattering, riderless, down into the well. He claws at her hand with both of his, like he doesn’t quite believe it’s there.
Gwen notices a lot of things at once:
One, that his hands are icy cold, and she realizes that even though there’s a promise of spring in the weight of the warm sunshine on the back of her neck, that it’s still winter in the shade, and he shouldn’t be out in just a windbreaker.
Two, that his heart is pounding, so loud in her ears that for a moment, she confuses it with her own. Their blood races in tandem, still caught in that moment before the plummet.
Three, that there are several loud voices clamoring somewhere beyond them -- someone exclaims, “holy hell, nice save!” and somebody else says, “woah, wasn’t she all the way over there?” -- and Gwen hears all of it as plainly as if they’re standing right next to her, though when she looks, there isn’t anybody else nearby. No one could have gotten to Philip in time --
Except she did. And she was farther away.
Finally registering what happened, Philip’s head snaps up, and he gapes at her in surprise.
“Gwen? What --“
“All right.” She hauls him up, and he goes a lot easier than he should, so easily that she overcorrects and almost lands on her own ass. “No more badass for you.”
Philip works his mouth fishily, standing on the lip of the pipe and looking from her to the bleachers and back again, and Gwen is suddenly furious with him.
“Do you realize what could have just happened?” her voice climbs. “You didn’t even have your helmet!”
It works. He puffs up, affronted. “I would have been fine!” he blusters, and then ruins it with the way his voice cracks, making him sound far, far too young to be here, on the steeper pipe with the high school kids. He’s ten, she remembers, and sets her jaw.
“You’ve got to get in a lot more practice before you’re ready for this pipe, I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says, grabbing his elbow and steering him towards the gate. “I should have been paying more attention. I shouldn’t have let you take your helmet off --”
“Nothing even happened!” Philip yells over her.
“Because I was there!”
But how did she do it? She doesn’t remember -- she just knew that Philip’s fall was going to be disastrous, just like she knew she needed to be there to stop it, and then she was.
“Hey!” calls a voice.
It's Peter, jogging to catch up with them, and he’s got Philip’s skateboard, which they'd completely forgotten about.
She turns back to him, flustered. “Oh, right, thanks."
“Yeah, no, of course,” he returns in the same vein, and hands it off to Philip with a, “That was a close call, man!”
“It was supposed to be awesome,” Philip grumbles, tucking the board lengthwise behind his head and assuming what she supposes he thinks must be a nonchalant pose.
“I bet it was!” Peter bobs his head earnestly, like he never doubted it. “What were you trying to --“
“We should go,” Gwen cuts in, because they do, and because Philip definitely doesn’t need the encouragement.
“Right, right!” He backs off immediately, and says, “see ya, Gwen,” with another one of those awkward little waves, which startles her into blinking at him, because she didn’t know that he knew her name.
A frosty silence lingers between her and Philip the entire way home, broken only when he grudgingly asks, as they round the corner by the international grocer's, “Are you going to tell Mom and Dad?”
“No,” Gwen admits. “Because nothing happened. Which doesn’t mean it couldn’t have, do you understand that?”
“Sure,” he lies brazenly, with the casual ignorance of a child who hasn’t really had anything bad happen to him before and therefore has no basis for comparison. He skips on ahead, cut free with the knowledge that there are going to be no repercussions from today, not even a skinned knee to show for himself. Gwen trails along behind him, still hypersensitive all over and not liking it one bit. She follows him with her eyes, wondering whether she could get to him with the same speed if something were to happen to him, right now, if a car came --
Stop that, she tells herself, horrified. She pulls her peacoat tighter around her and steps fast to catch up.
When they get home, there’s a pot of stew simmering away and a salad already prepared, sitting in a big bowl by the stove. Philip immediately goes to pick at it, rooting out the best bits of tomato and furtively popping them into his mouth. Their parents are both on the loveseat with the laptop, her mother with her feet tucked up under her, leaning against her husband’s side so she can see the screen, while behind them, Howie clicks around on the family desktop, surreptitiously stealing glances over his shoulder at them before tabbing over to YouTube.
It’s a rare sight to see them both here -- lately, her father hasn’t been home until well after dinner’s cooled and divided into Tupperware containers in the fridge, and now that she sees it, Gwen hadn’t realized just how long it’s been since the last time they were all home this early.
They’re Skyping with someone; Gwen catches the tinny sounds coming from the laptop speakers, and her father glances up just long enough to give her a crinkle-eyed smile of greeting. For a moment, she wants nothing more than to go over there and curl into his other side and let him hug her into him until she feels a little less awful in her own skin.
But she doesn’t want to disturb the scene, so she cuts straight through to her room without even bothering to take her shoes off first.
The door clicks shut behind her, and she puts her back up against it, dragging a deep breath into her lungs.
She slides to the carpet. Across from her, a rim of frost has already started to collect around the edges of her windowpane; the air twenty stories up is much colder than it was on the ground. She flits her eyes around the room, and then, very slowly, lifts her hand to touch the mark at the back of her neck.
Tuesday is much of the same. Because so many people actually fell for it, Ms. Ngiwidi winds up striking the April Fool’s quiz from her grade book, which makes everybody feel better about themselves and at least gives them a valuable life lesson to take home: trust no one. Gwen's nausea finally abates half-way through the morning, making her ravenous for lunch, and by the time B track starts, she's almost gotten used to the self-conscious hyperawareness that comes with suddenly knowing exactly where her own body is in space in relation to everybody and everything else.
She catches up to Penelope during her free track, finding her in the gym, working on a banner for the May Day concert that the school choir puts on every year.
"Hey, Gwen!" She sets her brush down. Penelope's most prominent features are her thick black frames. Her hair -- also jet black in that noticeably fake, dyed way -- sprouts out of her head in a cluster of ponytails, held in place with rainbow-hued elastics. It's the kind of look you can only get away with at the age of six and, apparently, sixteen. "Are you feeling better?"
Gwen hugs her books close to her chest, warmed by the thought that someone noticed. "Yes," she says. And, "Although, can I borrow your notes for Lit?"
"Um, sure. I mean, I can't promise they're any good, but," Penelope turns away, looking around for her backpack --
Which, naturally, is when a basketball comes hurtling from the direction of the court, aimed straight at the back of her head.
Effortlessly, Gwen reaches out and grabs Penelope by the back of her paint-splattered henley, yanking her just enough off-balance that the ball sails past them and rebounds off the bleachers.
Penelope whirls. "Flash!" she bellows. "You did that on purpose!"
Gwen blinks, and looks down at her hands with a faint sense of resignation.
Debate club doesn't meet on Tuesdays, so rather than track down the club leader and apologize for missing yesterday's lesson like she'd been planning, she skips right out after the last bell and heads uptown, towards the Oscorp Tower. By taking the most obscure subway line she can think of, she gets lucky and finds herself in a mostly-empty car, sharing it only with a trio of tourists who keep consulting their fold-out subway map while trying to make it look like that's not what they're doing. She closes her eyes, testing, and yes -- every time a bump in the tracks jars through the subway car, her senses align to pinpoint their exact location within it. She can feel their weight, their presence in this space, like she's sitting in the center of a web and they keep on tugging at the line.
Well, that’s not weird at all, she thinks, and starts rummaging around in her bag for her employee badge.
Because she's still in high school, she only works at Oscorp on the weekends. Part-time, unpaid internships suck balls, no matter how good everybody tells her they look on college applications or job resumes, but at least she gets to wear a cool lab coat and have her very own laminated badge. That goes a long way to making any seventeen-year-old feel good about themselves.
Also, Saturdays and Sundays are usually pretty laid-back -- in the lab, it's just Dr. Connors and his team, Gwen included, so it's weird, coming in on a weekday and seeing twice the number of suits she usually does. Trying to get across the lobby, it's suddenly very obvious to Gwen that Oscorp is, you know, a corporation: investors and accountants and marketing interns cross the stream in a hurry, like they always need to look like they're Doing Something, and she keeps catching snatches of talk about offshore accounts, Norman Osborne's deteriorating mental state, and sums of money that sound ridiculous to her. Visitors stay clustered together in tight, brightly-colored groups, carefully herded by a tour guide.
As she steps into the elevator, a disembodied voice helpfully reminds her that "responsibility, integrity, and resourcefulness" are the Oscorp way. She swipes her card to get into the lab, and just like that, the noise takes on a different caliber, this one more familiar: chattering technicians, the high whine of the centrifuges, and the soft, bell-like chiming of the holographic display in the center of the room as it plays on loop.
Ripley’s at her station, so Gwen beelines across the lab to her.
She glances up distractedly when Gwen stops next to her stool, and then double-takes.
“Woah, hey there, Gwen,” she says in surprise, blinking owlishly. “What day is it?”
“Tuesday,” Gwen supplies helpfully.
“Oh, thank god.” Ripley takes a moment to smooth down her hair and check her immediate surroundings, before compartmentalizing and giving Gwen her full attention. “You scared me. I thought I’d lost an entire week and it was Saturday again.”
“No, you’re good, don’t worry.”
Ripley is Gwen’s favorite coworker. She’s a college student, she thinks: undergrad or graduate, Gwen’s not really sure -- it all falls under the vaguely futuristic heading of “college” to her, and Ripley’s got the kind of face that makes it hard to determine how old she might be -- and she’s got more lists than hours in the day. She wears the permanently half-crazed look of someone who was told they were smart at a young age and has spent their whole life trying to live up to it. Being around her makes Gwen think more seriously about throwing up her hands and becoming a trucker.
“Did you forget something?”
Gwen pulls up a stool from a nearby station and perches upon it, trying to decide what she wants to ask first. She flicks her bangs out of her eyes.
“Ripley, are there any animals that can suspend themselves without claws or a prehensile?”
To her credit, Ripley gives no indication that she thinks this line of questioning is odd.
“Sure!” she says immediately, and bends down to fetch her tablet out of her bag. She thumbs it awake. “Geckoes can, and most insects spend their entire lives laughing in the face of gravity. Ants, especially, can walk upside down across glass and carry 200 times their own body weight at the same time.”
All employee-issued tablets come with the Oscorp encyclopedia preprogrammed into them, so Gwen isn’t surprised when Ripley tabs that open. She thinks she might know what's coming.
“Our spiders can too, obviously, since that’s what we engineered them to do. Super-spiders. Popeye spiders -- spiders on spinach,” she angles her tablet over, and Gwen leans in. Sure enough, blown up to pixelated proportions with the Oscorp watermark splashed across it, is the same spider she found under the collar of her lab coat Sunday night.
The back of her neck prickles with the phantom sensation of a bite, and she retreats, rubbing at it self-consciously.
“What about humans?” she asks, and Ripley tilts her head, regarding her curiously for a beat.
“… are you talking about carbon nanotube technology?” she asks. “The Italians promised they’d have a prototype suit by 2010, which, yeah, that’s worked real well for them, but it means that Oscorp can’t touch it until the intellectual property rights expire. That, and --“ she waves a hand around. “The scientists responsible for sorting out the spiders' patents and potential commercial products both died about ten years ago, so we’ve kind of just stuck them in a room and haven’t done much with them.”
“Carbon nanotubes?” Gwen prompts.
“Microscopic velcro, basically.”
She drags her fingers across the screen, taps at it, and turns it to show Gwen a diagram of what looks like the prototype of a glove. The cross-section highlights the miniature hooked barbs on the fingertips. It reminds Gwen of the way cat’s tongues look like under a microscope.
“Ideally,” says Ripley. “With these, you could find traction on any surface -- glass, steel, Styrofoam -- and suspend yourself indefinitely, vertically or even upside down. Like I said, the Italians are working on incorporating it into a suit. Supposedly.”
“But they don’t have our spiders.”
“Nah. I don’t know if they really need it, but having them helps.”
“And you said they can carry up to 200 times their own body weight?”
“Superstrength, yes. We got the idea from studying ants.”
“Huh.” She blinks rapidly. “Okay, thanks, Ripley.”
But Gwen has already pivoted on her heel, hurrying back across the lab. Through the glass, she spots Dr. Connors in his office with somebody she thinks might be Mr. Ratha, Norman Osborne’s CFO. She slips into the hall before they can spot her, because while Dr. Connors has been nothing but outstandingly kind to her since she got the internship, she isn’t sure how to explain I think I’m having a bizarre allergic reaction to one of your spiders in a way that would reflect well on anyone. Besides, they look preoccupied; Dr. Connors has his arms folded across his chest, frowning down at the carpet and absently holding the place where his coat is pinned around the stump of his missing arm, and he's keeping his desk between himself and Mr. Ratha.
Her feet take her down the hallway from there, retracing the path she took on Sunday. She hadn’t started feeling strange until she’d clocked out and was on her way home.
The spider room is tucked back behind a partition at the end of the hall, not unlike the way they do when they design janitor’s closets or restrooms into the layout, making it easy to overlook if you don’t know it’s there. She keys herself in.
Inside, the lights are dimmed down low, wreathing everything in an ethereal blue like antifreeze. She cranes her head backwards; the spiders themselves slide industrially up and down the contraption built for them in the middle of the room, both working in tandem to weave together heavy cables of metallic silver.
Gwen watches them for a long moment, slim little bodies winking in and out of view, before she stretches her hands out in front of her, studying the pads of her fingertips.
Cat’s tongues, she thinks, and then turns around. She slips out of her coat, leaving it and her bag puddled on the floor. Carefully, she places both hands on the wall, positions the rounded toe of her boot the way she’s seen rock climbers do, and then pushes off with her other heel.
When she reaches the ceiling, she just repositions herself and keeps going; hand, toe, hand, toe. No blood rushes to her head, no vertigo tells her she’s about to fall. She knows exactly where she is in space.
“Well, Gwen Stacy,” she tells herself, stretching her neck back to look at the room upside down, ponytail dangling and the blue lights all around and the symphony of spiders below. “You got bit by a spider and now you have super senses and the ability to climb walls. What are you going to do with yourself?”
"Wait, did you say every 85 minutes?"
She's already found her groove and doesn't slow down at the interruption. "Yes," she confirms. "Think of it like a secondary REM cycle, I guess. It's your body's way of using the downtime available while you sleep -- because hey, you're not doing anything productive -- to make sure that all your plumbing is working properly. Like weight training or conditioning or something, keeping it in shape so that it doesn't fail you when you need it."
"So when you wake up with morning wood, all it means is that you've woken up in the middle of one of those repetitions. It has nothing to do with what you were dreaming about, so the next time you wake up with a boner after dreaming about your vice principal being dragged to the bottom of the aquarium by an octopus, don't worry, it's not your subconscious trying to tell you something about your sexuality."
"I am uncomfortable," Miles decides. He's giving her some serious side-eye.
"Sorry," says Gwen, dropping her hands to her lap from where she'd been pinwheeling them in enthusiasm as she talked, and tries justify the direction the conversation just took. "I read a lot, is all. Sorry," she says again, and peels off a bit of her soft pretzel to stuff in her mouth. "I'm not very good at ..."
"Casual conversation among friends?" Miles supplies when she doesn't finish, sounding wry. He's still in junior high, a bird-thin boy with big hands and big feet and big brown eyes, and he jokes that his family took the "America is a melting pot" thing so seriously that when standardized tests ask him to identify his race and ethnicity, he has to check every single box. "I got no room to judge. I mean, hey, my Friendship is Magic circle contains Ganke and Kate Bishop, for crying out loud. I just … don't think I've ever talked to a teenage girl about morning wood before."
"Teenage girls are interested in boners, too!" she protests, which makes Miles choke and spray Coke out his nose.
She and Miles have an arrangement. For signed statements saying that one of them is tutoring the other and earnest, entirely false progress reports, they get credit that looks great on school applications and a free hour to sit on the steps of the Met and eat ice cream cones or hot dogs with all the trappings or whatever they're in the mood for.
Their parents never questioned it: her parents took one look at Miles, and his parents took one look at her, and they both nodded like that's all they needed to see.
"It was on my brain," she says. "I was talking to my brother about it this morning. He's your age, you know."
Somehow, this seems to surprise Miles even more. "You talk to your brother about boners?" he says, incredulously and a little too loud, but fortunately, this is the Met on a weekday afternoon and nobody even so much as looks at them funny.
She tilts her head, and points out in a droll tone, "Can you imagine my parents doing it?"
And he makes a face at her, because yeah, no, getting the sex talk from a police captain and/or the kind of attorney who looks good in bold Time Magazine quotes is the kind of thing that scars you for most of your pubescent years. Then his constipated look deepens even further, and he says, "Oh god, can you imagine my parents doing it?" and Gwen makes his face right back at him. The Moraleses are, respectively, an engineer at Oscorp and a obstetric surgeon at the Roosevelt, and that sex talk, when it happens, will probably be thorough enough to make one's gonads shrivel up in mortification.
She punches his arm in a "sucks to be you" gesture of solidarity, and then gets to her feet, licking the last remnants of salt from the pretzel off her fingers, because the grease is half the fun and why waste it on a napkin?
"Are you serious?" Miles protests, watching her. He wads up his wrapper and stands up, too. "You were touching the ground with those. You do realize you're probably licking bird shit, right?"
"… well, now I do." She finishes wiping her hands on her coat. "Come on, I want coffee before we head back."
"Really? The white girl wants Starbucks? It's like you're a walking stereotype."
"Excuse you," Gwen retorts, with no real offense. "Look at these feet. Do you see any Ugg boots on these feet? No. These are knee-high ass-stomping boots. From Target."
"You have two pairs of them. Who has two pairs of the exact same boot?"
"Because contrary to popular belief, sometimes black doesn't go with everything. But ass-kicking does." It's true that all winter long, Gwen wears the same boots pretty much every time she leaves the house, to the point where it's become a part of her identity ("which one's Gwen Stacy?" "The blonde with the boots," "oh right,") but sometimes in the course of one's life, they meet a pair of shoes they're perfectly willing to adapt their entire wardrobe around. Gwen just likes these boots, okay?
As they head away from the Met, weaving in and out of Midtown foot traffic and talking about white girls and Uggs and black guys and Nikes and how the hell shoes became a status symbol, Gwen's mind keeps circling back to the statement Miles made earlier. Casual conversations among friends.
Is that what they are, she wonders. Friends? Compulsively, she wraps her coat tighter around herself and squeezes, feeling warm and very pleased.
A shiny silver Lexus takes the corner on Fifth Ave way blindly and way too fast, and almost clips Gwen's knees as she steps out to cross (to be fair, she's going against the light, but so is everybody else, and New York is nothing but blind herd mentality when it comes to traffic laws.) Fortunately, Gwen sees it coming and manages to land, Karate Kid style, on the hood. These boots have a heel and she didn't even pinch herself. See? Boots can be kickass and flexible.
The driver lays on the horn, like it's her fault he almost pulled a Tanya Harding on her kneecaps, and Gwen flips him off, slides to the concrete, and continues on her way.
"I didn't know you were a ninja," Miles comments in surprise, jogging to catch up after the Lexus revs its engine and shoots off to go be a dick elsewhere.
"Well, if you knew I was a ninja, then I wouldn't be a very good ninja, now would I?" Gwen points out.
But the assholes must be out in full force today, because when they duck into the coffee shop (not Starbucks, thank you,) and Gwen manages to persuade Miles that no, no really, he likes their blended drinks with the shot of flavored syrup on top, don't front, they go and stand around the pick-up counter, where a dude with a neckbeard and a snug-fitting red jacket is leaning over to harass the barista.
There's really no other word for it, Gwen thinks, standing uncomfortably behind him while Miles picks at a loose thread on his sleeve, listening to the dude insist on telling the girl at the register how nice her hair smells, when does she get off work, that late? Does she have someone to walk her home? He can take care of her, of course, because she's really beautiful and he likes how she's styled her hair today, all with this kind of creepy, lecherous smile on his face while the poor girl -- who's Gwen's age, not much older -- tries to complete her orders and keep her tone polite.
He has an accent that Gwen can't place, but doesn't really need to, because when the barista politely informs him that she'll be fine, she doesn't need him to accompany her, she's going out with her boyfriend after work, he just grins at her like he doesn't believe it and says "come on," two, three, four times in a row, like insistence is going to change her mind, come on, Kessa, he knows how to show a girl a good time, it's just one date, and growing up, he heard all about American women, so she doesn't have to worry, come on.
"Small blended Feeling Lucky Punk, shot of caramel," Kessa calls out, and Miles jolts forward gratefully, taking it from her and snapping a lid on.
Neckbeard dips his finger into the whipped cream of his own mug, sucking it off with teeth showing. When Kessa comes within range again, this time to hand Gwen her drink ("one medium Million Dollar Baby, for the Khaleesi, Heir to the Iron Throne, Mother of Dragons," she reads off,) he reaches out with his wet fingertip, like he's going to -- she doesn't know, touch her cheek or something?
Gwen sees it happening, everything at once, like she had when Philip plummeted, like she had when that basketball shot at the back of Penelope's head: there's … something that flashes across Kessa's face as she registers him reaching for her, a weariness, a resignation, a kind of dejection that comes with knowing that there's this man who isn't going to be deflected and now she's going to have to tolerate being stroked without her consent, like this is something that happens to her a lot.
And Gwen snaps:
Coffee in hand, she lifts one foot and drives her heel into the back of Neckbeard's knee, collapsing it so that he falls obligingly backwards into her spare hand. She grabs him by the meat of his neck and pirouettes, bending at the waist so that he lifts effortlessly over her shoulder, sending him crashing down to the floor. Silverware rattles at the impact, and Miles makes a high, startled squeak between his teeth.
Neckbeard groans in shock and pain and rolls over, splayed spread-eagle, and Gwen plants a foot on his chest like she's going to stick a flag in him and claim him conquered.
She's vibrating with rage, and bares teeth when she leans over him. "Hi!" she goes, keeping her voice cheerful, and his eyes clear and focus on her.
He grabs at her ankle, shunting himself sideways to get out from under her, and Gwen springs out of the way like a hare, landing on the seat of an empty chair and balancing her weight there long enough to introduce his nose to her toe with a swinging kick as he lifts to his knees. He hits the ground again. Gwen has the attention of every single person in the shop; she's aware of their heartbeats, the tensing of their muscles, the way they suck their breath in, and senses no threat coming from them. Kessa's hands are clapped over her mouth.
"Sorry, what was that about American women?" Gwen continues, like there'd been no interruption. She doesn't know what she's going to say. She doesn't know if she has the vocabulary to express how furious she is with this man, who acted like because he was being … what, horrific and faux-suave, that it … it entitled him to Kessa's time? Like because he found her attractive and so graciously bestowed that information on her, he'd earned a date?
Neckbeard stares up at her, holding his nose. There's blood in his teeth and Gwen isn't even sorry.
"No means no. Nyet. Nien. Non. Whatever. No means no or this American woman will kick your face in. Again. Got it? Got it?" He nods, furiously, and she takes a sip of her coffee, licking the foam off her upper lip. "You're leaving now," she informs him pleasantly, and gestures towards the door.
He leaves a silence in his wake; a customer passing him on the way in catches a glimpse of his bloodied face and then looks around wildly, taking in the atmosphere.
"Excellent as ever, Kessa, thanks," Gwen says, toasting with her styrofoam container and trying to keep her voice casual because she totally just judo-flipped that dude. She didn't even know she could do that.
Outside, she stands by a fire hydrant and keeps sipping at her coffee, taking stock of every person as they go by. Could she do it again?
There, that guy: heavy-set, his button-down shirt puckered where it’s been stretched across his belly to make it meet his belt, talking on a hands-free headset and not paying her the slightest attention. She focuses on him, and it’s easy; she sees it in her mind’s eye as clearly as if it’s already happened. She’d slip in front of him, catching his ankle mid-stride to trip him and grabbing his arm as he toppled forward, using his downward momentum to swing him face-first into the lamppost.
And that woman, there, the earrings are a weak point, make a grab for them and tear her earlobes, then duck down and drive a shoulder into her solar plexus, and use your center of gravity to lift her over your shoulder.
It’d be easy, she thinks, and blinks. As long as the effects from the spider-bite don’t fade, the freaky premonition and hyperawareness of other people's positions and the ability to throw around men twice her size, she’s never going to have to fear assault.
She is never going to have to fear assault.
It’s the first time it occurs to her that there are advantages to being a woman with super-strength.
Miles hovers at her side, playing with his straw to make it whistle through the lid and shooting her apprehensive looks out of the corner of his eye, like he’s not sure if he should say anything. She contemplates and discards conversational openers: Don’t say you never learned something from me. If someone comes along and tries to tell you all American women are easy, kick them in the face.
Do you think I overreacted?
“I didn’t overreact,” she states, firm and not a question.
Miles looks up quickly. “No, I got it, it’s cool,” he says with relief, obviously having waited for her to bring it up first. He slurps at his blended drink and looks curious. “Do you do that a lot?”
“No,” Gwen answers quietly. “I never had the power to do it, before.”
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