She stops by home to check in, really only intending to come in and make sure her brothers aren't dead or otherwise declaring totalitarian rule over the apartment floor and then head right back out again, but her mother -- still dressed in her work clothes -- calls for her, and she stops, one foot on the threshold to the landing.
She pokes her head around the corner, saying distractedly, "Oh, good, Gwen, you're back. Can you watch the boys for a minute?"
“Sure,” Gwen says automatically, even though it’s pretty obvious she was just about to leave. Her hands feel like they’re itching, her mind humming with possibilities, like she sometimes feels when things really get going in debate club, or how she gets when the university librarian shows her how to log into JSTOR -- think of how much she can do. Think of how much she doesn’t know she can do because she hasn’t tried yet.
But she lets her bag slip to the floor with a thunk.
Her mother smiles apologetically. “Sorry, Gwenny-bee,” she says, resuming her flurry of activity, disappearing into her bedroom and shouting over her shoulder, “I have to get this to the post office before they close.”
Her mother reappears with a sigh, hooking her purse over her arm. “Crime always spikes this time of year." She comes over, her hands automatically going to Gwen's coat to straighten the lapels and fix it so the buttons lie flat against her front. "And with the county elections coming up in May, everybody in public office is trying to do twice their usual amount of work for all the wrong reasons. So your father will probably be late. Can I trust you to be responsible while we’re gone?”
“Please,” scoffs Gwen, because when has she ever not been responsible?
“That’s my girl,” her mother says softly, and brushes Gwen’s bangs out of the way so she can kiss her on the forehead, before she sweeps out the door.
Gwen sighs, turning slowly on the spot and casting a critical eye over the apartment. The boys must all be in their rooms, because the living room's empty, the afternoon sun haloing through the curtains and casting an orange-ish tint over all their furniture. Every year, the partners at her mother's law firm buy her a two-day pass to that spa in Lincoln Heights that she doesn't really like but tolerates because they keep buying it for her, and a houseplant, only three of which are still living. Gwen crosses over to the umbrella plant by the entertainment console and touches one of its starburst-shaped cluster of leaves, and watches a couple of them immediately fall off. Maybe just two, then.
"Okay!" she yells, straightening up. "Show of hands, who's done with their homework?"
There's no reply.
Gwen switches tracks. "Okay, how's this for incentive? The first person to finish all their homework gets to hang out with me!"
"I'm good!" Howie calls back. All three boys used to share a room, but since Howie started middle school with full commendation from his teachers (and started puberty, but the official reasoning had to do with good academic progress, supposedly,) they converted the guest bedroom into one for Howie to use. Philip and Simon took this shift in sibling power dynamics with surprising good grace, possibly because they knew that by the time Philip would be starting middle school, Gwen would be eighteen and expected to move out: ergo, Philip would get her room and Simon would get to keep his all to himself. Gwen wouldn't put it past Philip to actively plot towards this end goal.
"I'm sorry, did I saw first? I meant the last person to finish all their homework has to hang out with me."
A long beat of silence greets this pronouncement, and then from further down the hall comes the furtive sound of three backpacks unzipping at once.
Smiling to herself, Gwen bends down to unzip herself out of her boots, leaving them in the pile with the others and crossing down to her own room at the end of the hall. Her window looks uptown, and opens out partially onto the fire escape ("you kept on telling us you were going to run away when you were a kid," her father told her once, and Gwen made a betrayed noise in her throat, because she had no recollection of that, "so we tried to make it easy for you. Apparently you weren't interested once there wasn't any challenge in it.")
She casts another considering look around, then shucks out of her coat and peels off her socks. Just because she has to stay and watch her brothers doesn't mean she still can't experiment.
She sinks into a crouch like a runner, looks straight up, and then leaps.
Her hand hits the ceiling, palm first, and the other one grabs the base of her overhead light fixture -- and she panics in the space of a heartbeat that it's going to rip right from the plaster, but it holds -- and then her feet, so she lands in a similar crouch to the one she started with. She pauses there for a second to take it in, and then leaps again, this time landing on the side of her bookshelf.
It rocks dangerously, and she scrambles to the top -- woah, dusty -- and lets it settle. Exhilaration sparks to the end of her fingertips, and she laughs.
It gives her an idea, though, and she spends the rest of her evening rearranging her room, marveling in how easy it is to pull her entire bedframe away from the wall, to move whole bookcases with their books still in them. When loose articles topple free, she catches them before they hit the floor without even breaking stride. She hears her mother come home shortly thereafter and summons Simon to come help her with dinner, but nobody comes to investigate the noises. Soon, she has everything arranged so that there isn't an inch of her room she can't get to in a single bound. She sucks in an inhale, proudly, and then, because she can, she crawls out onto the fire escape and climbs to the roof, using the brickwork as handholds. It's entirely possible someone in a neighboring building spots her by looking out their window at an opportune moment, but Gwen isn't thinking about that. She's thinking about how very far she has to fall if she were to lose her grip.
But she doesn't, and then she's sitting on the rooftop ledge, swinging her bare feet out over empty space and watching the sun set towards the river and … well, and whatever's west of the river. What exists outside NYC, besides, like, New Jersey? She's not sure.
"Well, now," she asks the skyline, breathless. "What can't I do?"
Then she crawls back down to her window and makes good on her promise, and since not one of her brothers is done with their homework yet, she wrestles all three of them into watching PBS with her, which is running a documentary on how host countries prepare for the Olympics, highlighting examples from Barcelona and London and the upcoming Rio Summer Games -- the trend that Olympic host cities seem to be sticking to is evicting minority groups out of their ancestral homes. So they all wind up learning something anyway. All in all, it's all Gwen can ask for out of her day.
The next morning, her dad comes in before breakfast to demand if Gwen can talk any sense into Philip about changing out of that ridiculous headband ("bandana, Dad," Gwen corrects, because Philip likes to think he's Rambo,) but he stops and blinks in astonishment.
"Did you do this all by yourself?"
"Yup!" Gwen replies, beaming, feeling swollen with pride.
"Huh," says her dad. "I'll be damned."
She makes a quick pact with Philip over breakfast that if he removes the bandana now, she'll turn a blind eye when he puts it back on on the way to school.
It's my responsibility, she thinks, herding her brothers out the door. I'm the older sister. I'm the oldest child. I do what I have to to help.
It's my responsibility, she thinks when, twenty minutes later, a scrawny kid maybe a year or so younger than she is twitches his way up alongside a parked Mercedes and she grabs his wrist and almost bends his arm right out of its socket.
"Don't do that," she says into his ear, keeping her tone mild.
"The hell," he responds, and tries to fight, which Gwen had kind of been hoping for, because it's fun, how easy it is to outmaneuver and incapacitate him.
He pants at her, winded from a blow to his solar plexus, and she hauls him up and brushes him down roughly. "Look," she says quietly, and nods down the sidewalk, where a man in a motorized wheelchair comes trundling towards them. He nods a bemused sort of hello at them, since they're both kind of standing there looking mussed, pops off the curb with the ease of practice, and unlocks the Mercedes.
Gwen leans in towards the kid's ear, "Whatever urge you have to satisfy isn't worth doing at the expense of somebody else, okay?"
"The hell," the kid says again, so Gwen pats him on the shoulder and says, "Good talk," and continues on her way.
At school, she positions her textbook during her classes to hide her Oscorp tablet, which she has propped on the edge of her desk with the light on its dimmest setting, even though she probably isn't fooling anyone. She reads years of research notes on the Osborne superspider -- no, really, that's what it's called, and ten points for narcissism goes to … Some of them transcribed and some still in their messily handwritten original form, and all signed by the same person: Dr. M. Parker.
Some of it is incomprehensible, even with the help of a dictionary app for medical and scientific shorthand she downloads for that express purpose. But what she does understand makes her tab over to Wikipedia and research the general characteristics of spiders. She starts formulating a plan.
At lunch, she intercepts Flash while he's busy grinding some freshman's face into his plate lunch and loudly reschedules that afternoon's tutoring session until he gets pissed and drops the kid. She helps the freshman to his feet and goes for her purse, digging around for her Tide-to-Go pen since he has a long smear of marinara along his collar. His pride injured, he tries to refuse, but Gwen just says, "No, seriously, Gordon, his balls are wimpier than yours, just kick 'em next time," and uses his period of distraction while he squawks to clean him up slightly.
She goes to see Ripley again after school, this time at her family's bakery in Soho.
Ripley's parents, by all accounts, grew up next door neighbors in a suburb in Washington state -- "the redneck half, not the hippie Seattle half," says Mrs. Ripley -- and eloped when they turned eighteen, using their saved-up lifeguarding money to move to Paris, where they lived for two months before they realized that they could not, in fact, subside solely on love and cheap wine and no applicable French. So they moved back to the States and lived on a commune in Maine until Ripley was five, at which point they moved to New York City and opened a Parisian sweet shop.
Ripley tells the whole story with the same wry bite to her voice every time, so her real name is probably Moonbeam or something.
(Seriously. One of Gwen's life goals is to someday get Ripley to tell her her first name.)
Gwen knows she has evening classes sometimes, but she gets lucky and spots Ripley sitting at a corner table when she walks in, chewing on a pen cap with two separate textbooks propped up against the napkin dispenser.
She buys a strawberry macaron at the counter while the overhead speakers pipe in something from a Yann Tiersen soundtrack and joins her at her table.
Ripley looks up distractedly, and then her expression turns amused when she sees who it is. At least, Gwen assumes so; Ripley has one eye that pulls to the left, pointing out towards the wall, so it's sometimes difficult to tell where she's looking.
"Test?" she asks, nodding towards her assortment of materials as she chews on her macaron.
"Yeah," but Ripley doesn't elaborate further, just hooks her pen into the wire of her spiral notebook and keeps watching Gwen expectantly.
Gwen says, "I know we're stalled on the rights to the super-velcro because of the Italians, but Oscorp did wind up using the superspiders to develop and patent an adhesive, right?"
"Right," says Ripley, looking intrigued. "It turns out that when you heat nanolayers of, like, Elmer's glue or some other basic adhesive between microscopic layers of copper and silica, it creates a super-strength adhesive. It's called nanoglue. They were originally developing it out at RPI --" and Gwen nods, because that's a name she recognizes: RPI is a science institute right outside Albany. "But Oscorp got there first and slammed a patent on it, claiming they got the inspiration for how their spiders suspend themselves and objects three times their body weight on web filaments."
"And they engineered a cable out of it," Gwen finishes, thinking of the contraption in Oscorp's spider room that pulled and wove the spiders' webs almost as soon as they created them.
"Mmhmm. Because of the nanoglue, it'll stick to whatever it's attached to without needing to bolt it down, and then the cables themselves can suspend a shit-ton of weight on their own. The downside is that they're not especially permanent -- the nanoglue comes undone with time, so really the only market for them is temporary construction."
She squints at Gwen, suddenly looking very suspicious.
"I don't like that look in your eyes. That look means you've got a project in mind, which only means more work for me."
Gwen wads up the wax paper her macaron had come in and grins. "And more things to put in your portfolio," she reminds her, and Ripley makes a wounded noise deep in her chest, drooping so that her forehead almost knocks over one of her textbooks.
"Low blow, Gwen," she complains, voice muffled. "That's a really low blow, and you know it."
One week later, they have the prototype of what Ripley proudly calls a personal motherfucking webshooter.
When she was much younger and her father wasn't Captain Stacy yet, or even really anybody of particular importance, he persuaded a friend of his who rented helicopters to the sightseeing-for-tourists companies to take them up for a ride over Manhattan for her birthday.
It'd just been her and her dad -- her mom was pregnant with Howard at the time, and turned green at the mention of heights -- and she remembers his arm securely around her middle, him pointing out landmarks that looked completely unrecognizable from this altitude ("and that -- see, that's where we live,") and it's this experience she draws on, crouched upon the landing of a twentieth story fire escape and trying to gain her bearings. Height might be her biggest advantage in this city, where skyscrapers provide an excellent mode of transportation, but it's not like they've bothered to put road signs up this high. She thinks she's in the Meatpacking District, judging by the color of the stone under her palms as she climbed and the quiet way the wind's blowing in off the river, but as for which direction's going to take her back uptown -- nope, she's lost.
She pulls herself up the outside of the fire escape, ignoring the stairs because she can. Cold, thin air stings her lungs.
A lifetime of habit makes her want to breathe harder to try to compensate for the altitude, but instinct -- the same instinct that tells her exactly where people are and where they're going to move next, which she's taken to calling it her spider-sense, for lack of anything better, because sometimes she can't help but be aware of it like it's an entire separate personality -- laughs in her face. She slows and deepens her breath, and then doesn't have to for awhile.
From above, New York City looks surprisingly like a grid. She stands on the lip of the roof, astonished at the way she can see the streets criss-cross between buildings and the way the sun touches the Manhattan skyline. It's the kind of view photographers win awards for, Gwen thinks, and then without any fuss whatsoever, she is suddenly aware of her own body's position in space, and she can determine north from south, east from west, as easily as she can determine up from down, light from dark.
"Oh," she says, and then glances down and then at the next building over, wondering if she can make that jump if she gets a running head start.
It's that aerial view that makes Gwen think of precincts, and after debate club lets out the next day, she heads down to Midtown North, the NYPD precinct on W. 54th Street where her dad has been stationed as long as Gwen's been alive. He's out on a run, but Sergeant Butler knows who she is and lets her sits in her dad's office to wait for him. Privately thanking him for the meticulousness with which he organizes his files, she pours over the police department's maps of the five boroughs, tracing patrol lines with her finger and committing them to memory with the kind of mental slam she usually reserves for midnight cram sessions before exams.
Her dad's surprised to see her when he gets back, but he does his paperwork on his tablet and she uses his computer to check her school e-mail and Buzzfeed like it's the most important thing she could be doing, and when he clocks out, they go get Ethiopian take-out and she pays more attention than she ever has to his good-natured grumblings about this year's batch of green recruits and the general competence of his department.
"Why the sudden interest, Gwen?" he asks, blinking at her and putting the remains of his wrap down on his plate.
She shrugs, and doesn't tell him that if she's going to use her super-strength and her other spider powers or whatever to deter people from behaving like dickholes because they think they aren't being watched or that nobody can do anything to them, then she's going to attract attention, and if she wants to avoid police aggression coming down on her for it, then she needs to know their procedures and habits. She already knows most of her dad's people.
"Maybe I'm thinking about a career in law enforcement," she says blithely.
"Don't even joke," her father deadpans back at her.
Gwen falls into a routine after that. After debate club, she goes home and changes into gym clothes, stealing a pair of her mother's yoga pants and layering shorts over them, and pulling on a hoodie with the NPR logo on the back. She queues up T.I. and Rye Rye and every playlist of trunk-rattling hip hop she could think to assemble onto her iPod, yells vaguely that she's going for a run, and steps out onto the landing. Then, with enough bass pumping in her ears to level a structurally unsound building, she heads out onto the roof to practice with Ripley's webshooter.
It takes a few tries to fashion a version that won't slip off her wrists no matter the angle or velocity at which she's swinging.
"What on earth do you need this for, girl?" Ripley demands incredulously when Gwen passes these concerns on, the both of them leaning against the counter waiting for the centrifuge to quit making those horrible noises it makes at high speeds. Gwen likes to pretend that working in a lab is an exceedingly glamorous lifestyle, but really it's just 90% waiting for things and 10% frantically and repetitively logging things.
"Rock climbing," Gwen lies.
Ripley's gaze turns inward, contemplative. "A safety harness, maybe. Or a rescue tool used to reach climbers stuck in crevasses."
"See? You're already thinking marketable uses, Ripley, I'm proud of you."
"Shut up, Gwen, I'm planning acceptance speeches."
The webshooters leave her with blisters that have her teachers squinting at her suspiciously, so Gwen takes to wearing long sleeves to school even as the other students optimistically start swapping their heavy winter coats for short sleeves and windbreakers, like they can make spring arrive by sheer force of sartorial will.
Sitting in Trig towards the end of A block, Gwen thumbs through the sheets of looseleaf carefully tucked into the pages of her textbook and realizes with a jolt that the rest of the class has caught up to her; she is no longer a couple assignments ahead. It's strange, and Gwen gets out a fresh sheet of looseleaf and starts working as the teacher calls for volunteers to work on the problem at the board. But her pencil dips eraser-first and her mind keeps inevitably straying to that morning; she'd taken the subway from her brothers' school because it had been raining, and she'd wound up stopping a fight on the train. She hadn't even needed to use her super-strength to do it: she'd seen a man and a woman yelling at each other from either side of the subway car and inserted herself between them, leaning against the support pole with her iPod out, like she hadn't seen them at all and had nothing more pressing to worry about than whether she actually wanted to wait for Shuffle to play what she wanted to listen to, or if she was going to have to find it herself before the next stop.
Two years of doing debate club and watching political news has taught Gwen a lot about confrontation. If you disrupt a direct line of eye contact between two arguing individuals, it's like breaking through hypnosis. You can diffuse a lot of tension without calling attention to yourself.
The thing is, fear is what keeps most people from even acknowledging that a conflict is happening. If they don't acknowledge it, they don't have to do something about it. If they don't see it, it's not happening.
But Gwen can sense a punch before it's thrown. She knows she can overpower somebody twice her size. And it makes her fearless in a way that makes her feel powerful. Powerful, and responsible, too. She's still the big sister. She still wants to fix every problem presented to her, and if conflict resolution by way of an unassuming judo flip is one way she can make the world a less frightening place for other people, then it's a tool she's going to use judiciously.
When the bell rings for lunch, she finds Flash waiting for her outside the Trig classroom.
And alternatively, she thinks, there's Flash, where it's not so much debate club-style rules of engagement so much as it is, like, Fight Club.
"Woah, what's the matter with you?" she goes, when Flash pushes himself off the wall and falls into step beside her, glowering. She thinks about it. "Wait, Gordon didn't actually try to kick you in the balls, did he?"
"… did Penelope try and kick you in the balls?" Gwen hazards.
Their freshman year, while most of the boys in their grade were covered with pimples and walked with their toes turned in, Flash had already hit his growth spurt, and it gave him a sense of power and entitlement he has yet to grow out of, even when his classmates finally started matching him in height. His and Gwen's agreement is implicit and largely unspoken, except for how it frequently gets aired in the middle of the courtyard when Gwen needs to stop Flash before he beats somebody's face in: Gwen makes sure that Flash performs well enough that his teachers don't expel him, and in return, Flash magnanimously doesn't grind her face into her plate lunch.
They're almost at Gwen's locker before Flash finally shoves his hands in his pockets and blurts out, "Where were you? When I came over, your old lady said you'd gone for a run, but that's dumb."
"Please don't call my mother that," Gwen says automatically, and then, "wait, what?"
"Tutoring," Flash gets out through gritted teeth. "Where were you?"
The light bulb goes on.
"Oh my god, Flash, I completely forgot. I've been -- I've been --" it turns out it's incredibly difficult to come up with a convincing lie on the spot, and she cringes even as it comes out of her mouth, "I've just been so busy --"
Flash shrugs with a sharp, jagged movement of his shoulders, not looking at her in that purposefully indifferent way that makes her stomach squirm. "Whatever," he goes. "It's fine. I met that other kid. Miles?" he elaborates, when she just looks at him blankly. "Pretty cool, for a little dude. He covered the materials with me."
Gwen unravels the week backwards in her head, and oh god, he's right, she rescheduled tutoring Flash onto one of Miles's days and then forgot about them both.
"Did he?" she goes faintly.
"Yeah. So, anyway, since you're so busy," he doesn't actually use air quotes, but Gwen can hear them anyway. "Little dude and I decided to tell you that we're meeting at your place next week, 4 PM, okay?"
"Okay," she agrees, thrown, and Flash gives her a kind of a bro-nod, like he's acknowledging a transaction well done. Flash's hobbies include humiliating underclassmen and lovingly reorganizing his shelf of Ragnar Benson books. His Skype username tastefully references two famous school shootings and his desktop background is Teddy Roosevelt riding a moose, but he's not fooling Gwen; you don't get yourself placed into your first-choice high school if you don't care about your academics.
He starts to walk away, but then turns back, digging deeper into his pocket and lobbing something small and round at her, probably hoping to catch her off guard. Gwen, of course, catches it. She turns it over to get a look at the label.
"Vaseline?" she says blankly. "What --"
"You've got windburn," he touches his cheeks to demonstrate, and then pivots and struts off, using his elbows to clear a path for himself through the hallway.
"… Huh," says Gwen, and screws the lid off so she can, in fact, dab some Vaseline on her red, tight-feeling face. The relief is instantaneous. "Huh," she says again.
Whatever her downstairs neighbor says about it (and he probably got it from Gossip Girl anyway, because it's an opinion he probably wouldn't have formed unless it had been given to him by popular television,) Brooklyn has larger residential patches, with a lot of gentrified, trendy rowhouse neighborhoods mixed with the super-rough, which makes Gwen's Tarzan-esque building-to-building mode of transportation a little more difficult.
She stays out late one night after work, testing the range on Ripley's latest incarnation, because there are limits on what Gwen's body can endure and it's going to suck if they got this far only for her to wind up breaking all her bones from whiplash, of all things.
She doesn't recover her arc in time and glances off a three-story brownstone. She manages to land on the side of the neighboring building, muttering, "ow, fucker," and inspecting the scraped heels of her hands. Her back throbs painfully.
Yeah, whiplash is a problem.
Raised voices from below distract her, and she slips along the underside of the fire escape, craning her neck back to take a peek.
In the alleyway below, a man and a woman are arguing -- or, more specifically, a man is yelling and the woman has to yell louder to interject anything. Gwen can't see their faces from this angle, but the man's wearing a sun-faded ball cap and a t-shirt with the logo for a landscaping company on the back, and the woman has her purse clutched close to her chest to put a barrier between them, her back pressed up against the brick like she's hoping to sink right through the stones.
"-- did you say?" he shouts. "What did you tell him?"
"Didn't tell him nothin'!" the woman shouts back, furious.
"You lie --"
"He assumed, I dunno, like everybody just assumes --"
"-- what did you say?"
"Nothin', he's sexist, just like all the fucking judges are sexist! Always sayin' kids should go with the mommas like the mommas got nothing better to do than drop everything to take care of them!"
"So how come I gotta pay child support when we agreed --"
"Judge don't listen! Just like nobody never listens when I tell 'em! I told 'em, he don't respect what we decided and then declare you gotta pay me money because it's the law or some shit. They already decided! What I say don't matter, don't you get that? I don't matter!"
"I ain't paying shit --"
"Yes, you are, you will, because they made this whole culture and then punish us for livin' it!" The woman stands up straight, so straight that Gwen's surprised to see she's taller than her baby's father. She makes direct eye contact for the first time. "They say babies always gotta go with their mommas regardless of who's actually a better parent, and then they punish the single momma in the society by keeping her broke and saying it's her fault and calling her names, so a whole generations of little boys grow up believin' it and knowing they don't have to take responsibility when they get a girl in trouble because babies always go to their mommas."
"Ah, here you go with your 'oh look at me I'm so smart' bullshit --"
"Don't fuck with me, Nate --"
"Oh, I'll fuck with you," his voice drops, low and threatening, and Gwen positions her feet, "I'ma fuck with you until you fix this shit --"
Her feet catch him directly in the ribs, sending him sailing ten feet into the air before an unfortunate meeting with a dumpster kills his momentum. Gwen lands nimbly and positions herself in a protective crouch in front of the woman, because the man's already hurtling to his feet, his rage and adrenaline making him blind to pain.
"The hell?" he spits when he sees Gwen. "Fuck off, white girl, and get out of our business."
"I'll leave you alone when you leave her alone," Gwen responds smartly. "Because you know what won't look good on your rap sheet next to that fine Hitler stash you got going on? Failing to make child support payments. The police don't take kindly to that."
"The police also don't like it when you walk while brown, but you ain't seeing that stopping me. Now for the last time, you cunt, get out of my way."
He launches himself forward, and Gwen has just enough time to sigh, "you just had to throw that misogynistic slur in there, didn't you?" before she throws herself backwards into a handstand to deliver a rounding kick to his face. She catches a glimpse of the woman's startled, upside-down expression before he hits the pavement hard and she somersaults to her feet. He rolls over, hawks up blood and spits it, baring rosy-pink teeth at her.
"Shouldn't'a done that," he taunts, and Gwen takes a second to be incredulous, because really?
It's almost embarrassing, how quickly he surrenders after that, backing up with his hands raised until he disappears around the lip of the alleyway. She takes a second to reflect that she probably didn't solve the problem at all -- maybe she headed off the situation before it got violent, but that's just the symptom, not the disease.
Then, from behind her --
She blinks and turns around. The woman's staring at her, purse held more loosely now and her eyes bright. Her hair's done up in an updo, held in place with a bandana knotted cutely over on the right. "It is you!" she says delightedly. "Oh my god!"
Finally, recognition sparks in Gwen. "Oh my god!" she echoes. "Tiffany? Tiffany Shields?"
They squeal and hug tight, even though Gwen is gritty with road dirt and Tiffany's damp under the arms from nervous sweat. They'd been zoned into the same middle school when they were preteens, and since their last names were so close together in the alphabet, they were always seated next to each other in class and at assemblies and they made friends the way that preteens in desperate situations like middle school sometimes do. Gwen shared her markers; Tiffany taught her twenty-seven different jumprope rhymes. It'd seemed like a solemn, important transaction at the time.
"Where are you going for high school?" Tiffany asks, pulling back and giving Gwen a once-over. She touches Gwen's bangs curiously.
"Midtown Science. You?"
"I tested into Bedford my first try."
"No shit! Do you still live in Midtown, or --"
She shakes her head. "Nah, we moved last year. I want to get into Pratt for college and Mom likes the daycares better here, so …"
"Oh my god, that's right," the rest of the conversation catches up to her. From above, while she was fighting for her right to be listened to, Tiffany had looked and sounded so much older than seventeen. "You have a baby?"
"Yeah!" Tiffany goes digging in her purse, surfacing with a phone the way Gwen's seen numerous parents with newborns do. Dr. Connors in particular had been ridiculous after the birth of his second boy; Gwen has seen the same wrinkled baby picture three times. "She's six months old. I called her Khaleesi, you know, after --"
"Game of Thrones!" Gwen grabs at her hands excitedly. "Wait, do you read the books or watch the show --"
Tiffany squeezes her hands tight and briefly looks insulted. "Books, hello, what is wrong with you, don't even get me started on what HBO has done to my girls."
"Hey, bitch!" comes from the mouth of the alleyway, and they both look over, annoyed at the interruption.
Baby Daddy's back, and this time, he's got six other dudes with him, all of them built like a brick shithouse and wearing the same landscaping company shirts. One guy in the back cracks his knuckles like he's seen too many movies, but a couple of the others look perplexed to find nothing more threatening than a couple of squealing teenage girls.
"Hmm," says Gwen thoughtfully. Then, "Tiffany, hold tight to your stuff, kay?"
"What, Gwen --"
Gwen bends at the knees, sweeps Tiffany into a bridal carry, and springs like a jackrabbit. She clears ten feet effortlessly, manages to hook her ankle around a metal support pole, swings upside-down like a pendulum -- Tiffany screams but doesn't fall, arms turning vice-like around Gwen's shoulders -- and takes aim with her webshooter.
Oh, please, work, she has time to think, and thwip!
Gwen loops the web twice around her hand and lets go of the pole, swinging out into space and already aiming to do it again. She gets six blocks like this before she runs out of height and has to land, setting Tiffany down onto her feet. There's a subway entrance right around the corner.
"What was that? What just happened?" Tiffany demands, voice perilously high. She hugs her purse to her chest and gestures at Gwen's webshooters with her phone. "What are those?"
"Science experiment for Oscorp," Gwen answers distractedly. "Tiffany, do you have somewhere safe to go for the night? Someplace for you and Khaleesi to stay?"
"What?" She watches as Tiffany physically makes herself reboot and focus on the situation. "Yes. Yes, I do."
"Good, go there. I'm going to go deal with them."
Tiffany looks alarmed. "You're not going to fight them?"
"Please. Seven against one? Throw in a charging elephant and then I might be concerned."
"Gwen, you don't have to fight them at all!"
"Yes, I do. They need to be beaten, they've been humiliated and they need to know what the consequence is going to be if they try to get even about it." Tiffany looks dubious, and Gwen spreads her hands. "I need to hit them because I can take it -- if they come after you and your baby, you can't. See? Hit them before they hit you."
"That's what the US said before they bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki," Tiffany says, still sounding a little blank.
Gwen's hands drop to her sides. Her stomach leaps a little, like it's trying to turn its contents inside of her. "Are you afraid I'm going to completely decimate them? Like, nuclear wipe-out?"
"No. I'm afraid you're going to like it."
At the start of second track Junior Art on Monday, Gwen's teacher sends her to the auditorium to deliver a tub of rubber cement to the choir, who are in there putting up decorations for the spring concert.
She finds Penelope by the half-court line, and Penelope takes one look at her and drops the roll of purple streamer she has in her hand. It bounces and streaks off towards the bleachers, unraveling a purple trail behind it. "Holy shit, Gwen, what happened to you?"
"I got pounced by seven guys in an alley in Brooklyn," Gwen deadpans, handing the rubber cement over. It leaves sticky little crusts of dried adhesive to her the heels of her hands.
Penelope's eyes go enormous behind her frames. "What, really?"
"No," Gwen lies, picking at her palms. She grins, ignoring the twinge of pain that flinches through her face at the movement. "I tried on a pair of stilettos at Macy's and tripped, Penelope. It happens."
She told her brothers that she'd run out into the street after a runaway baby carriage and got clipped by a cab, which Simon ate up with a spoon and asked, wide-eyed with respect, if he could take her to school next week for Show and Tell, to which Gwen replied that her bruises probably would have all faded by then and it wouldn't look as impressive. Her parents had gotten the stiletto story.
That's a lot of damage for one clothing rack, Gwenny-bee, her father said concernedly, letting her spread out on the loveseat and handing her a pack of frozen vegetables.
It was really impressive, you should have been there, Gwen deflected, letting her mother hover like she wanted to tell Gwen to elevate something to relieve the swelling, except how do you elevate something when everything's bruised?
Telling her parents a not-truth still leaves a sour taste in her mouth, but that's something that gets easier with puberty, she's found.
Two days after the fact, and her bruises have turned that excellent, yellow-tinged shade of eggplant that not even the best foundation artwork could cover. People in her classes stare a little bit, but Gwen doesn't have any friends, really, so nobody approaches her about it directly. Worse than the pain, though, are the nerves: while she trusts that Tiffany wouldn't give her name to her dickcanoe of a baby daddy, there's no guarantee that she hasn't, and Gwen half expects to round every corner and find him leering at her from underneath his awful Hitler stash. Or worse: the police. She did do sizable damage to him and his friends. That's seven counts of aggravated assault.
It's not enough to just try to avoid police attention by knowing their habits, she thinks as she walks back to art class. She's going to have to avoid all attention. This is the age of the Internet, Gwen, and you're being naive if you think people aren't going to try to snap a dozen pictures of you the next time you throw yourself in a fight.
She needs a mask.
She needs gloves.
She needs to cover her skin color, her hair, anything that could be used to identify her or her family --
Somebody chooses that exact moment that she rounds the corner to step out of the darkroom and almost bowl her right over. Gwen sidesteps easily, ducking under the folder he's carrying so that she doesn't knock it to the floor, but her almost-assailant isn't so lucky: he jolts sideways with a "woah!", banging his elbow against the door frame and yelping with pain.
"Are you all right?" Gwen goes, startled.
"Oww, funny bone," Peter Parker winces, holding his elbow close to his body like he can make the pain subside quicker that way. He's acquired a pair of glasses since the last time Gwen got a really good look at him that day at the half-pipes with Philip; they're exactly like Penelope's, squarish and black-framed.
"Yeah, that sucks," Gwen agrees. "Sorry about that," she offers contritely, slipping away.
"Wait!" says Peter quickly.
She turns again.
Peter doesn't seem to know what to say after that; he hesitates, his throat bobbing with a swallow. She wonders if he's going to ask what happened to her face. The bruises spread to the rest of her body, but she's wearing a cream-colored turtleneck over a tartan skirt and leggings (and her faithful boots, of course,) so she's covered everything else.
"Hi," he starts, and Gwen blinks at him. "Do you … know who I am?" he asks after a beat, with the kind of care that seriously makes her wonder how rough she looks.
"Peter Parker," she answers instantly, and with thirteen years of being an older sister to back her up, it comes out sounding a lot like duh!
He jolts again, this time without injury, and bobs his head at her in a grand affirmative, like that was all he wanted to hear. "Okay, good!" he says brightly. "I just wanted to make sure you're okay and not, like, having a head injury -- er, I mean, not injured in the head --"
She lifts an eyebrow, and he stutters to a halt, absently gesturing with the folder in his hand.
"What I meant to say is, you're, like, okay, right?"
"Yes?" Gwen says slowly.
"I mean, like, okay, I'm top of the class in Chemistry now."
And this time, the other eyebrow joins the first. She stares, and keeps staring, and when the silence stretches on without any input from either of them, Peter seems to realize how that sounded and flushes red all the way up to his ears.
"No, that's not --! I mean, you've always been first. And I've always been second. Like, it's been that way since, I don't know, the dawn of time or whatever, you don't know how much time I've logged in the library, studying so that the next quiz, I could maybe -- anyway! You're not the top of the class in Chemistry anymore, as of last week. You missed a couple assignments, apparently?"
"I did?" Gwen says vaguely.
"I just -- I mean, I'm excited and happy, but mostly I'm just worried. I wanted to check -- are you okay? For real?"
She stares at him for another long beat. She can hear the red lightbulbs in the dark room buzzing. She can sense Peter's heartbeat, the uneasy back-and-forth pull of his muscles, so she watches him fidget with the spider's eyes: he pulls at the loose threads from where he cut off the fingers of his cheap, 5-pairs-for-$1 black gloves and catches quick glances against her, like he keeps touching something that's too hot.
"I'm fine," she hears herself say.
Peter doesn't look that convinced, but he accepts it, tucking his folder under his arm and giving her one of those deep bro-nods that Flash had, like something meaningful had just occurred and he's acknowledging it. Then he pivots on his heel and starts down the hall towards the journalism classroom.
She traces his retreat with her eyes; his walk is meandering, detached, like his limbs have recently grown away from him too quickly for him to keep track of. Something stirs in her memory.
"Peter!" she calls, and he pivots again. "You …" she starts. "You sew, don't you?"
His eyes dart left and right, like maybe she'd been talking to somebody else and he was checking to make sure they were the only ones in the hallway, and for a beat, she thinks she shouldn't have said that, not at school where people might hear. But then he looks back at her and she realizes that it's not shame, it's surprise written all over his face.
"You know that?" he goes, and the wonder in his voice makes her uncomfortable. The expression on his face is too similar to the way she'd felt when Penelope had noticed that she'd been missing from class.
"Of course," she replies, feeling offended for no good reason. "You did the costumes for Charlotte's Web last year, your name was in the program. It was the only reason I didn't fall asleep half-way through. They were really good."
"Oh." Peter looks like he has absolutely no idea what to do with this, and then beams at her in an absurdly happy way. Both his cheeks dimple. "Yeah, that was me. I mean, yes, yes, I can sew," he scratches at the back of his head. He tries to look serious, but the pleased crinkle to his eyes gives him away.
"Good, good, because I sure as hell can't," Gwen laughs uncomfortably. "Sewing and knitting don't come naturally preprogrammed into female chromosomes, interestingly enough, and I -- I might have a project. That," she fumbles. "That you could help me with, maybe?"
Peter's eyes light up.
Peter Parker lives in Queens, and getting there from school takes two more transfers than she's used to and what should only be about three blocks of walking, except three blocks becomes four because there's a middle-aged pot-bellied man who lives in the house directly across the street from the station, and he likes to sit on his front porch around the time school lets out with a shotgun balanced across his lap. His property is the quickest short-cut to and from the station.
"He takes his lawn very seriously," Peter informs her in an undertone.
"There are laws about that," Gwen mutters back, frowning. "That can't be legal."
"Oho, but you're in the boondocks now," he says, even though they are actually so far from the boondocks that the statement baffles Gwen for a moment. This is firmly middle-class suburbia. She stares at him. He shifts his eyes away from her.
They go around.
Gwen has never had many close friends, it's true -- at least not the kind where she'd go over to their house and them to hers on any regular basis, the way it always seems to happen on television -- but what she does have is a lot of practice with after-school club meetings and extra credit projects, which means she can do the awkward "first time in a stranger's house" dance with the best of them.
Peter lives with his aunt and uncle in a house with red brick and white siding and the number 42 printed on the glass of the front door. Gwen takes her shoes off even though he assures her it isn't necessary, and he makes introductions with the short, squarish couple perched in the living room like roosting owls, who look more closely related to each other than either of them individually do to Peter -- or maybe that's just the way couples get after so many years.
"Aunt May, Uncle Ben, this is Gwen Stacy," Peter gestures, and flattens his mouth out when they don't say anything, just stare.
May Parker's face is a map of kind creases, and Ben Parker's eyes, which are round and wide and mottled like marbles, are magnified behind the smudged, wire-frame glasses perched on his nose. She doesn't have enough experience to gauge exactly, but she'd guess they're several years older than her own parents.
"… okay," says Peter after an awkward beat. "I know those faces. You're going to do something horrible and embarrassing and very rude, so I need to go prepare myself please don't scare Gwen off her dad's a cop, come on," he gets out all in a rush.
She follows Peter up the stairs, and, sensing movement, she glances back quickly to find both his aunt and uncle have rushed over and are craning their heads around the banister, watching her the way one might watch royalty.
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Peter mutters out of the corner of his mouth.
They're teasing him, Gwen realizes all at once, and the grin overtakes her face.
The first thing that greets her when Peter brandishes his arm around his room like a circus presenter is the poster of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out at her. She smirks back, swings her bag onto the chair in front of the desktop computer, follows it down, and casually ignores the way Peter kicks a crumpled pair of boxers out of the way. His eyes dart around, looking for anything else incriminating, and Gwen, who has a lot of experience with the messy rooms of boys, looks away, studying his walls: in addition to Einstein, there are several amateurish flyers for shows she's never heard of, admission prices and cast lists printed right on, and a couple pages from their sophomore yearbook hang above his desk; they're framed, Peter's name prominent as the photographer.
On this side of the door, she sees that instead of a lock, there's --
She's on her feet. "Is that a Rube Goldberg machine?" she goes, fascinated.
Peter jolts like she'd touched him with a live electrical wire. He does that, she's noticed; he reacts to her with his whole body, like a kite shuddering on the end of a string.
"Yes!" he says brightly. Rube Goldberg machines are highly complicated contraptions designed to independently perform simple tasks: the alarm clock shakes loose the ball that runs down a track, spins down a spiral, and unloads a spring, which tips over the weight, which turns on the coffee pot. Gwen assumes that Peter's was designed to lock and unlock the door; it's mostly been dismantled now, but she can see the skeletal remains of it stretched across his room.
He follows the progression of her turning head and admits, "Or, it used to be. Now I just --" he picks up what she'd assumed was an iPlayer remote off the desk and hits the main button; the lock clicks shut with the heavy thud of a bolt. "It's easier."
Gwen looks at it, then looks at him.
She debates the merit of bringing it to his attention, and, just as quickly, remembers that a few weeks ago, she might not have on the basis that it would make things uncomfortable and awkward because they simply didn't know each other, but now, Peter Parker poses absolutely no threat to her.
She pulls her mouth to the side and points out, "Now I'm locked in your room."
He flares red everywhere, fumbles, and quickly unlocks the door again. She laughs at him, pushing the chair around with her toes, and pulls her notebook out of her bag. What she has, at best, is a list of what she needs, and some very crude sketches to at least illustrate the general idea -- Gwen would never call herself much of an artist, but working in a lab has at least given her a basis for drawing an effective diagram.
"Here," she turns her body toward him, and he steps into her immediately, still red around the ears but focusing even as she watches, his attention telescoping down.
He tucks his hands into his armpits and studies her design for a long moment, his eyes ticking back and forth, and when he does move, it's to tap at the page with a blunt fingernail. "What are these?" he asks, tracing the block shape of the webshooters and the way they hook up along her wrists and arms.
"They're --" she fumbles, because the one thing she hadn't managed to come up with between second track Junior Art and meeting Peter Parker by her locker after school was a cover story for why she needed a full-body suit. Costume. Whatever. She's hoping she can just kind of shrug and go Oscorp and hope that Peter isn't especially the type to fact check. He probably is, she thinks morosely. Well, if he's got a big mouth, she could always beat him up. She won't, but she could. "Necessary," she decides on. "They need to stay intact --"
"Okay, padding," he jolts into action, reaching above her head to yank down a sheet of printer paper and grabbing a pencil. "You need padding in order to support the structure, and structure to support the padding. Built-in padding here across your shoulders and back and …"
He pauses, and looks at her sidelong. She looks back, not following the train of thought.
"Um," he says, and chews the words around in the inside of his cheek. "Is it … is it really important that you. That you, well, look like a woman?"
Gwen has absolutely no idea what to say.
"I … I don't know," she answers. "I don't need it to give me cleavage, if that's what you're asking. I just need a lot of mobility. Like, gymnast levels of mobility, and I need these --" she drums her fingers against the webshooters on the page. "Intact. Like, they're the most important part of the whole ensemble."
"Okay," he answers promptly, gathering up her notebook and his pencil and folding down onto the end of the bed, rubbing the eraser against his bottom lip. He's surprisingly tall -- she's willing to bet he's in the middle of a growth spurt, and it's pulling him too long and thin for his muscles to have yet caught up, and the movement makes him look like a crane coming to roost, limbs bending themselves down like pipecleaners.
Gwen, she thinks right then. Rube Goldberg machines. You're an idiot.
"I have them with me," she blurts, and goes rummaging through her bag for the shoebox she keeps the webshooters in.
Peter's eyes widen when she lifts one of them out, and he abandons the sketches on his bedspread and lurches over to take it from her, curiosity vibrating through to the ends of his fingers. His eyebrows lift when he feels how heavy it is, turning it over to take a closer look at the straps, the curvature, and the intricacies of the machinery.
"These are wicked," he tells her, sounding deeply impressed.
"Thanks, we made them at work."
"What do they do?"
Gwen gestures, and he relinquishes it, watching unblinkingly as she slips it on over her wrist, adjusting the straps and curling her fingers into place. Carefully, she aims.
Granted, smacking Peter in the face with a pillow isn't quite what she meant to do, but she hasn't completely mastered this latest incarnation and it's meant to respond to the slightest changes in pressure -- that's her excuse and she's sticking to it.
He splutters, flails, looks at her incredulously (she looks at him like, what?), then stoops and bends to pick the pillow up off the floor. Fascinated, he plucks at the sticky filament of thread connecting the fabric to the device on Gwen's wrist, and a curious, almost constipated expression steals across his face.
"What?" she goes, suspicious.
"Nothing!" he says, and addresses the ceiling, closing his eyes and chanting, "Politely refraining from all mentions of bukkake, politely refraining from --"
"Shut up!" Gwen yelps, and then bursts into laughter. "It's an adhesive," she gasps out, and looking at Peter's face cracks her up all over again. "It -- it dissolves in any -- anywhere from five to fifteen minutes, depending -- depending on exposure to the elements."
"Well, it's kind of a crap adhesive in that case, then, isn't it?"
"Maybe, but a single cable can support the weight of a 3-ton SUV."
"Really?" He plucks at the thread again, vibrating it like a violin string. "You know this from experience?"
"I do," says Gwen, and doesn't elaborate, because the less said about that particular encounter, the better. She'd been absolutely certain someone had photographed her that time, but when she'd trawled through the local articles on Google News, all it came up on was a blogsite: a grainy, horrible picture of Gwen in a ski mask and yoga pants, holding a Range Rover in place over the Hudson like someone might go fishing for bass. Fortunately, nobody else seemed interested.
"So," she says slowly, when he doesn't add anything more. She snaps the thread loose and begins unbuckling the webshooter. "Do you think you can do it?"
He startles a little bit. "Oh!" he goes. And then, "Yeah, I -- it's been awhile since I've had a project like this. I -- I don't get to do it as often as I'd like."
"As long as you're sure," she fiddles with the strap on her bag, suddenly nervous and feeling a little out of depth. She wouldn't even know where to begin, and here's this kid she doesn't know that well at all, volunteering like it costs him nothing at all to just hand that part of himself over.
He drops to his belly on the floor, skittering under the bed for a moment, before he braces himself and drags out a covered sewing machine with great difficulty.
"No Playboys," he admits, catching the expression on her face. "The only secret I have is this."
"Oh, that's a shame," she replies. "You should see the centerfold spread they had in the last issue, it's my favorite."
His laughter bursts out of him like a bark, and the sound of it detonates something inside Gwen's chest, making her feel flustered and a little proud, like she'd accomplished something spectacular.
She stays for most of the afternoon, the two of them bent over the sheets of paper Peter keeps outlining patterns on. She offers input and he adjusts, excitedly, like lying on the floor with a girl and a sewing machine and the designs for a unitard ("oh my god," Gwen groans, "don't call it that, I'm losing my street cred as we speak,") are something he considers to be genuine fun. He tells her a lot about the costumes he did for Charlotte's Web the previous year -- she hadn't guessed they'd been so complicated, and tells him as such. He beams at her and says that that's the point: if it's done right, the work should be invisible.
Downstairs, Peter's aunt and uncle remain fairly quiet and unobtrusive, but when she senses the vibrations of his aunt starting to move around in the kitchen with purpose, the clatter of a pan sacrificing itself across the stove, it startles her back into the here and now, where her parents will be expecting her home shortly, and she pushes herself up and says she should be going.
Uncle Ben contemplates her thoughtfully as she zips up her boots in the entryway, not needing to lean on anything for balance.
He tugs a handkerchief out of his pocket and rubs at his glasses, and then points them at her. "I knew you looked familiar. I've been trying to place your face. You're on his computer." Gwen raises her eyebrows, and Uncle Ben's attention shifts to Peter, who materializes behind her, visibly alert like some kind of homing beacon has gone off in his brain. "You have her on your computer, don't you? She's your -- whattyacallit -- your background image."
"Oh my god," splutters Peter, with a complete, dawning horror. "She is not."
"Aw, man, I'm not?" Gwen rolls her eyes at him, and Uncle Ben looks delighted.
"Yeah, she is." He snaps his fingers, warming up to it. "I'm sure of it. You fall asleep looking at her every night, don't you?"
Peter looms at him, like he's going to try to smother him out of existence before he can say anything more horrifying, looking desperately like he wants to turn back the last couple million years of evolution and bury himself in primordial swamp, where maybe they hadn't gotten the hang of that leg thing yet, but at least they didn't have to deal with relatives who humiliated them without fail in front of their guests.
"Boys!" warns Peter's aunt, but it's too late.
Giggling, Gwen lets herself out, closing the door on the sight of Peter and his uncle, who's dodging and ducking under Peter's attempts to claps his hands over his mouth, fervently muttering all the while, "no, shut up, stop talking, don't ever speak, Uncle Ben, ever again, you're fired -- you're fired --"
Next door, there's a red-headed girl sitting out on her porch swing, legs drawn up to her so that she can reach her toes with a bottle of nail polish, glinting and obsidian black in the afternoon sun.
Her head jerks up at the sound of the Parkers' door closing, sunlight glinting at the flecks of gold and orange in her hair, and she lights up beautifully with recognition.
"Gwen!" she calls, screwing the lid back on the bottle.
"Hey, Mary Jane," Gwen returns with some surprise.
Mary Jane Watson makes a face. "Call me MJ, please," she corrects. "As I am neither a shoe nor an illegal substance."
Gwen files this fact away. She doesn't know her very well, just what she's absorbed from random encounters in the hallway and the occasional start-of-semester icebreaker in the classes they share -- and that one time when they were fourteen, but everybody knows about that. She's been doing theater since sophomore year, so they don't really run in the same circles -- and Gwen suddenly knows whose shows those flyers on Peter's wall were advertising for. "Instead you are … two letters of the alphabet?"
"Or a postal abbreviation." She spreads her hands. "For all you know, I'm a state that hasn't been added to the union yet."
Inside Number 42, the sound of something colliding with a loud crash makes Aunt May yell, angry and indistinguishable, and MJ cranes her head around curiously.
Gwen points over her shoulder. "Do they stare at you too, like they've never seen a member of the female sex before?"
MJ laughs, bright and clean and open. "Embarrassing him is one of their favorite past times," she acknowledges, and then adds, "They're good people," in a quietly fond way.
The suit Peter Parker makes for her is, frankly, fantastic. Whatever her expectations were, he exceeds them.
It covers her head-to-toe, a little baggy around her fingers and crotch, where he'd gotten imperfect measurements -- it isn't, to her great surprise, as unflattering as she'd been expecting from a skintight unitard. It folds easily, but when she puts it on, it holds its shape around her body: it triangulates her shoulders, makes her arms look more muscular than they are, and flattens her chest into a single, straight vertical line. Between that and the tight sports bra she wears to keep her boobs from moving too much when she's in midair, she doesn't look like a woman at all. But neither does she look like a man: her hips and noticeable lack of a nut-bulge give that away.
The fabric is a stretchy, lightweight kind of cotton -- she tests it for give, biting her lip when the seams creak ominously. That might be a problem.
But the design …
She hadn't mentioned a single thing about color, about pattern, too busy focusing on the functionality of the webshooters and, "like, concealing my identity. That's my number one priority. Think total ninja, dude."
It's not ninja.
It's not ninja at all.
The suit is a deep, vivid, shocking kind of blue, starting around her knees and covering her entire torso and head, and it contrasts sharply with the deep red color that covers her arms and legs to their wrists and toes. The whole thing is shot through with lines of silver, forming a web that stretches across her head and back to meet in the center of her chest.
She touches the spider, pressing in and feeling the give of the padding underneath, feeling deeply awed.
"You did this?" she breathes.
"Is it too gimmicky?" he cuts in, looking worried. "Like, I didn't know how costume-y it needed to be, but if you're going to do something incredibly awesome like lift SUVs, then I thought maybe you'd want to be recognizable for that." He's talking very quickly, like he needs to justify his thought process. "Like, not you-you, but you-in-costume-you. So, like, the spider thing felt pretty obvious, and man, that was a challenge -- do you know how much math went into that web thing?"
"Peter," she cuts in, gathering the suit to her chest. The fabric is cool under her hands. "You are gifted."
"Oh, no, it's just sewing, anyone can --" She pins him in place with a look, and he rubs at the back of his head awkwardly, forcibly swallowing his words back. Then he smiles at her, dimples cutting deep into his cheeks, and says, "Thank you."
And then the Young brothers happen.
continue on to next part --->