Gwen won't get the full story until several weeks later, when Ms. Young comes home from work, stripping off her fast-food cap and trying to shake the smell of grease from her hair, and then says, "wait, Spider-Man," when Gwen tries unobtrusively to go out the window, leaving Jamal and Rasheel on the rug in front of Netflix. "Can you help me in the kitchen for a moment? I could use a man of your flexibility."
She doesn't, but as she pulls fruit from the fridge to start making up a snack for her boys, she says, quiet, "Did anyone ever tell you how Jamal became a target for those boys?"
"No," answers Gwen, who's crouched on top of the fridge, out of the way.
The story is this:
In the September of the previous year, the fourth grade class at Malltown Memorial in Brooklyn were visited by an officer from the department her dad had been stationed at before his promotion, who wanted to talk to them about the DARE program. He passed around his badge for the kids to hold and even showed them his gun -- Malltown was his twenty-third stop in as many days, and he'd gotten pretty good at this kind of song and dance. He knew how to appear as least frightening as possible, and which types of questions to anticipate. Most of the kids here, despite only being nine and ten years old, had seen NYPD before, so he knew it was one of his only chances to try to dispel their negativity.
Afterwards, when he was talking to the kids, nine-year-old Jamal Young made a passing comment about the chainlink park by his apartment building, which he didn't think twice about, but the cop heard him and filed the information away.
Over the next couple weeks, the number of stop-and-frisks performed in the Young's neighborhood doubled.
Then they tripled.
They saw results: fourteen convictions followed, and the social geography of the neighborhood changed, staggering to cover for the loss.
When asked about this dramatic increase by a reporter, the officer responsible had laughed kindly and then -- the stupid, stupid, stupid man -- thanked Jamal Young by name, and encouraged other kids to be like him.
Jamal's life became a living hell from that moment on.
"I couldn't keep him inside all the time," Ms. Young tells her. "He had to go to school. He should be allowed to play ball games with his friends. We should be able to go to the store without hiding our faces, without having to go early in the morning before anyone is awake. But those seemed like luxuries. First we had to survive. I work all the time. I have no way of keeping them safe."
Jamal's harassment by the neighborhood gang continued all through the winter and into the start of spring. When terrorizing a now ten-year-old boy wasn't good enough, they started threatening Rasheel Young, Jamal's seven-year-old brother. Ms. Young was half-hysterical with fear: they didn't have enough money to move, and nowhere to go, besides.
But Gwen won't know this for awhile yet. At this point, nobody even knew who Spider-Man was.
She enters the scene like this:
Midtown Science lets out early that Friday; classes are shortened and everybody's allowed to go home at 1 -- except for the teachers, who have to stay for an organizational meeting, and look on, disgruntled, as the students take off into the early afternoon with whoops and catcalls. It's a beautiful spring day, and Gwen takes advantage of the extra time by zipping herself up into the suit and taking it out for another series of tests.
Strangely, even though she's never been more conspicuous in her life, Gwen likes the freedom of wearing it. The mask takes some getting used to, because it's hot and traps her breath close to her mouth, and the eyepieces don't allow her much in the way of peripheral vision, although her spider-senses will usually have those angles covered for her. The really nice thing about it is that it's aerodynamic -- she moves through the air better, she can feel it, and as a result, has less windburn at the end of the day.
She has webshooters and a clever suit, and that afternoon, she follows a car chase all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge without ever once touching the ground, simply because she can.
It happens behind a school.
Walltown Memorial, in fact, although Gwen won't register the name for a couple visits yet. From her aerial viewpoint, she sees what those on the ground do not: two boys with identical backpacks banging against the backs of their knees, walking fast and not stopping to mingle and complain to parents and pick up dandelions coming up between the cracks in the sidewalk. They're followed from a distance by a gang of no less than twelve persons, all male, all high school age or above, all walking with the weight of concealed weapons. Their movements are purposeful, easily parting through the waist-high sea of elementary school students.
The hair rises along the back of her neck.
Ah, thinks the spider part of her, utterly unconcerned. Look, prey.
"That can't be good," Gwen mutters. She drops to the rooftop of the school and keeps pace above them, scuttling along gutters and sticking to telephone poles as she goes.
And then --
"Yo, kid!" yells the neighborhood thug in the lead. Immediately, the older of the two kids hikes his shoulders up around his ears and grabs onto the hand of the younger. They walk faster.
"Oho, man, look at that, they's gonna shit their little pants," says one of the other thugs in delight. Then he, too, lifts his voice. "Where's you goin' in such a hurry, huh?"
"Gotta date with all your little rat friends?" calls a third, and the whole group laughs. It's a collective, menacing sound, and it seems to suck the spring sunshine right out of the air. The kids are almost running by this point; the younger one's pants are starting to slip off his hips, but his brother won't let him stop to hike them up.
Up ahead, around the corner of a Walgreens sitting right up against the corner, Gwen can see what they cannot: a road crew has the sidewalk and part of the street blocked off, filling potholes with a steaming asphalt mixture. They're running straight into a dead end.
The gang starts to close the distance.
The boys round the corner and stop dead at the sight of the obstruction. The older boy glances right immediately, casting a considering look out into traffic, but when his brother drags in an out-of-breath wheeze (he might have asthma, Gwen thinks, sensing the way his lungs and throat constrict tightly, even from her position above) he dismisses it, and turns around, shoving him behind him.
Then, shaking hard, he yanks his backpack off and dives into it, surfacing with --
"Leave us alone!" he shouts with all of his might, and he has a gun in his hand. It's too big for him, too heavy, but he sets his legs like he's done this before and holds it steady. His brother buries his face into the back of his jacket, eyes squeezed tightly shut.
The twelve perusers, who'd ambled to a stop at the sight of a ten-year-old boy cornered and pointing a gun at them, burst into laughter. They fall all over each other, gripping each other to hold the others up.
"I'm serious!" The boy's voice cracks. "I didn't do anything. Now leave us alone! Or I'll shoot!"
"That's funny," says the thug in the lead. The road crew have stopped what they're doing and are watching, wide-eyed. People start to cluster at the streetside window of the Walgreens, craning their heads curiously. The thug reaches into the inside of his jacket. "I've got one too."
Gwen loses all sense of the next five minutes.
All she remembers is the sight of a near full-grown man, pulling a gun on a ten-year-old child, and she doesn't see Jamal and Rasheel Young standing there. She sees, in that instant, Philip and Simon Stacy. Her brain shuts off, and she acts.
Fortunately, there's a pretty good record of what happened after that.
She lands in the middle of the sidewalk, rising out of her crouch like a ghost coming from the concrete so that she blocks Jamal Young from view, and she says, very clearly and very calmly, "You are never going to do that again."
There are twelve of them and one of her. That's five more than the last time she picked a fight in Brooklyn, but Gwen has the advantage of being more comfortable in her body and also thrumming with pure, unadulterated rage. Everything falls neatly into focus. There isn't a single detail she doesn't see, that the spider doesn't sense; the curls of steam in the air from the pothole mix, the weave of the thread embroidered into the front of one of the thug's jackets, the single, baffled twitch of the leader's mouth as he takes in her costume.
"Wow," he goes flatly. "You so don't want to --"
Between them, the neighborhood gang has five guns, two knives, and six pairs of brass knuckles. Dodging bullets isn't as hard as she thought it might be. She sees them coming, and it's fairly easy to just step out of the way.
She ducks, she weaves, she delivers kicks to noses and punches to sternums and she leaps, rebounding off of the side of parked cars and swinging under the stop light, catching each man up in a web whenever she gets a clear shot. She pins them to the glass of the Walgreens window, to the wheelchair ramp, to the side of the tar truck. She hangs them from the streetlight. She cocoons them and rolls them into the gutter. She immobilizes them methodically, and all the while, she is yelling.
Reports vary on what, exactly, she said. Some of it, however, is clear.
"I don't care -- what you think -- he did -- a child. You do not draw your gun on a child. You -- you -- you protect what is yours and there is nothing, nothing, nothing noble or manly or excusable about threatening children because you think it's funny when they cry."
She emerges, chest heaving, and quickly takes stock: all twelve are disarmed and down for the count. There's a small crowd gathered, but she ignores them because they aren't important. Her suit's torn in a few places, mainly across her knuckles and knees where they'd done the most amount of colliding with hard surfaces; she'll have to talk to Peter about that, this stretchy cotton probably isn't going to work. The kids are gone, of course, having took off the instant punches started flying.
She locates the leader, the one who'd first drawn his gun like it didn't at all occur to him that he was a man threatening to blow a hole in a child. He's stuck to the window.
She lands next to his head with a rattling thud, startling the people inside, and looms over him. He struggles, wriggling his shoulders against the glass, but those webs are Oscorp-made. He bares his teeth at her hatefully. He lost his cap at some point in the fight, and his nappy hair sticks out in tufts. She doesn't know how she can tell, but she looks at him and knows that he's the kind of man nobody wants as a leader, but became one because the other alternatives are in jail, and he stepped up because he likes violence for the sake of violence. This is what jail does to the neighborhood landscape.
"You," she says, lowly and pleasantly, "never, ever use power against the powerless. Do you understand me?"
He spits. He misses.
"If you so much as breathe in those boys' direction again, then you will definitely find out what a spider does to whatever's caught in its web."
She pats his cheek (hard, because the aim is to bruise,) and then scrambles up the side of the building, disappearing around the awning and across the rooftops.
She finds the boys three blocks down; they've stopped, crouched down on their heels in the shadow of a mailbox, so that the younger of them can suck on his inhaler. The older stands guard over him, and they both startle when Gwen lands without noise on the pavement beside them.
"It's okay!" she says quickly, holding up her hands to show she's unarmed. "I just wanted to make sure you were all right! You guys okay?" They don't answer, watching her with suspicion. "Hey, what are your names?"
The two of them look a little like Miles, in that way where they'd probably need to check every available box when asked to identify their race on standardized tests. Ms. Young, she later finds out, was born to Sri Lankan immigrants in the Bronx.
The older one sets his jaw and lifts his chin, clearly coming to a decision. "I'm Jamal," he goes belligerently. "This is Rasheel."
"Nice to meet you," says Gwen, stepping closer.
Rasheel shies away from her, staring her right in the mask and looking like he's going to start crying, and Gwen, thinking of Simon, immediately crouches down to his level, softening her voice to say, "Hey, it's okay! It's okay. I'm just a person, see? Just a person. It's just a funny suit."
"Why are you wearing a mask?"
"Because I'm very ugly," Gwen says solemnly, and feels an immense kind of relief when Rasheel pokes his head out from behind his brother's back, clearly interested in this piece of news. "Are you okay?" she asks them again.
"Yes," says Rasheel.
"Yes," says Jamal. "But we're not safe. They're just going to come back and do it again on Monday."
"Then so will I," Gwen promises, and Jamal snorts, like he doesn't believe her. Gwen doesn't think about debate club, doesn't think about how little time she'll have after eighth track gets out to get down here to Brooklyn. She thinks about the expression on Jamal's face when he found himself backed into a corner with no way out except violence. "I will. I will wait outside with all the parents, okay? Look for the ugly person in the cool mask."
He squints at her, uncertain.
"Jamal," she says. "You have been so brave. I hope you know how brave you are, standing up to these adults who are punishing you for something that isn't your fault. You shouldn't have to carry a gun to school just to protect yourself and your brother on the walk home. That's not your responsibility. That's mine."
She goes home, after, and manages to wipe the blood off her knuckles and face before anybody else arrives. She considers that day a victory.
But this time, she doesn't wind up in some blog post about three pages in Google News Local.
This time, she lands right on the front cover of the Daily Bugle.
Gwen pauses on the threshold of the apartment, and Simon waits expectantly, still one-arm-in, one-arm-out of his raincoat. She lets go of him, stooping and picking up the newspaper. "Excuse me?" she says to nobody in particular.
"Who's that?" Simon wants to know, grabbing her elbow and trying to drag it down to his level so he can see what's got her attention.
She works her mouth fishily, too indignant to respond. Her blood roars in her ears.
"Yo, Gwen, are you charging a toll?" Howie shoulders past her into the hall, and bumps into her deliberately when she doesn't shoulder-check him like she usually does. "What's your problem?" he glances at the newspaper, catching sight of the large, blaring headline: WHO IS SPIDER-MAN? and underneath it and is he a problem?
"Oh, him," he goes with a dismissive flick of his wrist. "You know how it is. Young dude does something cool, old people gotta act like it's a big problem. Old people hate when young dudes do something cool."
I'm not a dude! Gwen wants to shout.
"Are we talking about Spider-Man?" Philip finally joins them in the hall, always the last one ready, per usual. His bandana's fastened tight over his weedy growth of brown hair, and he is not carrying an umbrella. Like Jamal Young, he is ten years old. He has never had to carry a gun to school to keep a bunch of older kids from killing him on the way home. "Are old people already freaking out about him? Really? C'mon, Gwen, we're going to be late."
She opens her mouth, but Howie beats her to it, kicking at the back of Philip's legs and tripping him right into the wall. "And whose fault is that?"
The rest of the morning commute descends into the usual yelling chaos.
At school, the first thing she sees that actually registers in her mind is Peter Parker, who's taping up a flyer to the girls' bathroom door, reminding everyone that submissions to the literary magazine are due this Friday. The shoulders of his T-shirt are damp from the rain, skateboard tucked horizontally through the straps of his backpack.
"Fuck," she says under her breath, startling the freshman ducking around her on the right. He sniggers at her, because freshmen, and she sneers back before pivoting on her heel and ducking through to take a different hallway.
I so did not think that one through, she thinks with a groan.
She manages to postpone that particular confrontation until lunch, when she rounds the corner by the Assistant Principal's office (not her usual route), and spots Peter lounging against her locker with a forced kind of casualness that isn't fooling anyone. Peter Parker is on the yearbook staff. Peter Parker regularly gets his lunch stolen by Flash Thompson, and never actually seems to learn his fucking lesson, which perversely in the hivemind of the high school social hierarchy means he starts deserving the beat-downs he gets. Peter Parker does not lounge against girls' lockers, everyone knows this.
He straightens up at her approach, except his limbs seem to go somewhere else without permission from his brain, because he bangs his elbow against the latch of her locker and hisses in pain.
"Well done," she says dryly, stopping in front of him.
"Yeah, I know," he grumbles, and then actually looks at her -- the way she's holding herself, her notebooks and the tome for European History held protectively in front of her chest, the tense hunch of her shoulders. He doesn't have a spider-sense, but he eases back anyway, until he isn't looming over her anymore and Gwen's spider stops wanting to bite him on the face.
And then he ruins it by saying, "How's it going, Spider-Man?"
A half-beat later:
"OW!" he yelps, when Gwen grabs his middle finger and wrenches it all the way back to meet his wrist. His whole body bends into her to relieve the pressure. "Ow, motherhugger, ow, Gwen!"
"Say that a little louder, would you?" she growls, and lets him go.
"Sorry," he goes contritely, clutching his hand to his chest. "I wasn't thinking. It's not like anyone listens to me, though, I could tell the entire cafeteria that you're Spider-Man and I'd probably just get sat on by an underclassmen."
Peter has a way of throwing words at her feet that land in just the right way to trip her: if he punched her, she'd see that coming, but there's nothing that prepares her for what comes out of his mouth.
"You're not Anne Hathaway in the Princess Diaries, Peter," she says, bemused.
He retorts, "That's what you think," and tosses his hair, "I am a princess of Genovia, and my place is with my people."
"All right, Your Majesty, have it your way. Now move," and she elbows him out of the way so she can tuck her books into her locker. She senses him sneaking a look over her shoulder, and doesn't know what he's looking for; girls' lockers aren't mysterious. Most of them aren't even that organized, Gwen just likes being able to get her hands on things in a hurry. The suit is in her bag.
She shuts the locker and twirls the combination lock. "Did you bring a lunch?" she asks, eyeballing him. The backpack's gone; the only thing he's carrying is the skateboard, now awkwardly pinned in his armpit as he examines the finger she wrenched (you need more siblings, she thinks at him, unsympathetic,) and his camera, hanging around his neck. It's the hipster kind, a silver-trimmed Canon with actual developing film. She doesn't see anything edible, but he could have something tucked away somewhere.
He blinks at her. "Yes, but Flash --" and breaks off, already following her initial thought through to its conclusion. He rearranges the skateboard and follows her, jogging a little to catch up. "You want me to sit with you?"
"Am I intruding on your time with your adoring subjects, my king?"
Airily, he brushes it off. "They'll live."
At the cafeteria doors, she steps into him, elbowing him in the ribs to direct him in the direction she wants them to go. "I'm hot lunch today."
He pushes his glasses further up onto his nose. "Don't you usually bring a lunch in?"
"Yes." Gwen picks up a tray. "But I slept in this morning on account of having been beat up and shot at last night. Sleep trumped leftover risotto and the dregs of a bag of trail mix. Hmm, which one of these do you hate the least?" She gestures; today's lunch options are a vegetarian linguine with suspicious bits of broccoli dotted in it like mold, and salisbury steak that looks like the kind of tar those road workers had been using to fill potholes yesterday. Neither of them really appeals, but she picks the pasta when he shrugs at it and loads up with twice the usual amount.
Peter cottons on to what she's doing when she grabs two sets of utensils, and palms a second milk carton when the cafeteria aide isn't looking.
"You don't have to," he goes quietly, holding up a hand when she tries to pass him the fork and the knife. She cuts him a look, and his eyes crinkle kindly. He continues in the same undertone, "I'm not going to tell. I mean, that's the point of the mask, right? So that nobody can put a name to you and get your family in trouble." He follows her to her customary spot at one of the benches out on the veranda. Their only company is Icarus Wilde, who has a pair of white Beats on over his ears. He suckles back some snot without seeming to be aware of their proximity. "Sorry. If I realized you were actually going to become a ninja, I wouldn't have …" Peter trails off.
"Yeah, well, I didn't think it through, either, because now I'm famous. Sort of," she punches her straw through the pouch of her Capri Sun with more force than is strictly necessary. "Spider-Man. Honestly, what the fuck."
He ticks his eyebrows at her. She tries to remember if she's cursed in front of him before. If her father could hear her, he would probably blame hip hop.
"It's a freaking skintight suit, like how do you come to the conclusion -- even if I were androgynous, which I'm not --"
She stops, because the idea of people seriously considering the contents of her clothes makes her deeply uncomfortable.
"Was sticking the 'Man' on there really necessary? Spider-Man," she says again, curling her lip over the name.
"Well, it's like with angels, right?" Peter interjects. "I mean, like, angels from the Bible -- Gabriel and Raphael and Michael and whoever else -- they're all supposed to be sexless, genderless, whatever, except it's really rude to say 'it' when referring to a person, so boom, male pronouns were given to the angels because in ye olden times, everybody sucked and thought the male pronoun deserved more respect." Quickly, he stuffs his face full of linguine, like he needs to shut himself up before he could put his foot in his mouth. "Habits die hard and all that?" he tries.
Gwen tilts him a droll look.
He swallows and asks, "Are you going to correct them? In costume?"
"No!" She shudders at the thought. "I'm not going to acknowledge any of it. I … I just want to do my thing, and the Daily Bugle can … go elsewhere."
"Speaking of which," Peter puts the fork down. "What do you do? I thought I was making you a costume for some kind of competition at Oscorp, but if you're getting shot at in Brooklyn, then … then I think it's a little bit more serious than that."
Gwen slowly lowers her fork as well. She stops car thieves and men who don't value consent, she stops men who would punish women and men who would punish children. She catches cars before they can back off the edge of a pier and kill all its passengers. She's still the big sister, still the overachieving 99th percentile, and the more she does, the more she feels she needs to do.
She looks down at their tray.
She picks up the fork again and folds it into a bow shape like she's making paper origami. She sets it on the bench between them. Peter touches the tines the way someone would reach for the antennae of a butterfly.
She tells him the story, starting with the Osborne super-spiders, locked in their antifreeze-blue room because nobody knew what to do with them, the one that bit her, and everything that happened afterwards: the changes her body went through, the fights she found herself stepping into because she no longer had to fear the retribution, the situation with Tiffany's ex and his friends in Brooklyn that led her to realize she needed a mask if she was going to make enemies by defending the powerless against the powerful.
It takes the rest of lunch; they take the tray to the return window, and on the way back to her locker, she folds her arms and addresses the floor. "Don't tell."
There's no reply, but when she looks up at him, he mimes locking his lips with an invisible key, which he then bundles up into his fist and lobs like he's shooting from the half-court line. Apparently it's nothing but net, because he shakes his fist in victory and does the subvocal sound of a cheering crowd.
She shakes her head at him, and walks on.
"Don't you have class?" she wants to know; fifth track is her free track, but the bell's going to ring in about two minutes and she's pretty sure Peter should be going somewhere. Gym? Maybe? She shuts her locker door and thinks she remembers Penelope saying something about how Flash just moves straight from harassing Peter over lunch to pitching basketballs at the back of his head during fifth track, but to be honest, that's been true since they were freshmen and could apply to any year.
"Well, yeah," he admits. "But I'm in no hurry."
She lifts her eyebrows at him, but he just scratches at his hairline, gesturing vaguely.
She turns, spots the problem, and says "ah" with a great wealth of understanding; one of the varsity cheerleaders has her tongue down her boyfriend's throat, and they're using the 50-60 block of lockers to prop themselves up and play a rousing game of tonsil hockey before lunch ends. She assumes Peter's locker is one of the ones currently in use.
Gwen cracks her neck. "I got this," she says confidently. "Bitch, hold my flower," she holds her books out for Peter to take, which he does with the politely baffled expression of one who doesn't get the reference.
She crosses the hall, slamming a shoulder up against the locker next to them hard enough to make them rattle and saying brightly, "Hey, Chaz!" She has no idea if that's really his name, but she's pretty sure he's on the football team, so his name has to be Chaz or Todd or Brad or something. Anyway, it works, because he peels away from his girlfriend with the difficulty of an old window cling and blinks at Gwen dazedly.
"Hey!" she goes, with pep. "Just wanted to check up with you, how's your treatment for the clap coming?"
"Gwen!" the girlfriend yelps. It's Melissa Klaus. She used to be in Gwen's Girl Scout troop in the third grade. She has a little brother with Down's Syndrome and the last time Gwen and Melissa shared this much personal space, they were taking shelter from the rain in the back of her father's squad car, the flashing reds, whites, and blues catching like sparklers in the colors of the raindrops on the windows, while on the porch, Melissa's drunken mother hurled shoes and books at Gwen's father and his partner. Afterwards, neither spoke of it; Melissa's older brother has custody of them now, last she heard.
"Oh, no, didn't he tell you?" Gwen tsks between her teeth, shaking her head at Chaz in admonishment. "Come on, brother, if you want a loving and trusting relationship, you need to man up to these things."
Chaz finally succeeds in putting his two functioning brain cells together. "But I … don't have the clap."
She regards him with her most earnest, wide-eyed look. "No, I know. But now that I have your attention, I need you to move." She makes a shooing motion.
A few moments later, Peter sidles up beside her, and she gestures at the now-empty span of lockers grandly. "You are a true hero," he goes, and there's something about the shape of his mouth when he says it that makes Gwen flush and feel ridiculous, so she just bobs into a half-bow and laughs more than is necessary.
Now that he knows what it's for, Peter devotes his attention to helping upgrade the suit.
"More padding," he decides with a forceful nod, pushing his glasses further up his nose and spinning his chair around to rummage in the drawers underneath his sewing machine, which she notices he hasn't put back under his bed since the last time she was here. Indeed, spools of thread have built up around it, and she spots no less than three seam-rippers tossed across his desk. Bolts of fabric lean up against the wall by the closet door, propped up by the trash can, their loose ends modestly pinned in place. She recognizes the colors.
She's standing in the middle of the room with all of her bruises on display, feeling incredibly self-conscious in nothing but her bra and briefs so that he can redo her measurements. "Good," she agrees, as he spins back around with the tape measurer.
The downside of swinging from steel-strength web filaments from building to building like a decorously-dressed Tarzan is that her joints tend to absorb impacts with the sides of buildings in ways human limbs don't really tolerate that well. The little bit of spider physiology she inherited from the bite helps, but that only goes so far, and if Gwen keeps it up the way she is, she's going to have all the physical problems of a retired professional athlete before she's twenty.
"What do you think about gel inserts?" Peter asks, only half-joking.
"Glamorous," she replies, and rolls her eyes when she sees that he has a tab open on orthopedic shoes.
Gwen's knees and elbows are mottled a deep plum color, and the heels of her hands are scraped raw from where she had to hike herself up the trusses of the Queensboro Bridge in a hurry, so he adjusts for more padding in those places. He changes the fabric, too, because this isn't a costume anymore, it's the real deal:
"It's spandex," he tells her. They've got their heads bent together over his sketchbook at her station in the chem lab. The bell hasn't rung yet and the room is still filling. "I'm thinking, like, those people who do the luge? I watched a lot of videos of you on YouTube --"
"There are a lot of videos of me on YouTube?" Gwen says blankly. It hadn't even occurred to her to Google herself; she's still annoyed by the whole gender confusion thing.
He blinks, derailed. "Uh, yeah," his mouth quirks up into a smile. "It's my life's goal to see you trending on Twitter."
"Ugh, don't joke," Gwen complains, and pokes him in the side with the butt of her pencil to get him to continue.
"Right, no, spandex. YouTube. Aerodynamics," he waves his hands around expansively, like he's waiting for her to make the connections between the nebulous things he's throwing out. "The fabric that provides the least amount of air resistance, so you can get where you're going faster and expend less energy doing it. Apparently it's all the rage with Olympian athletes these days."
Gwen thinks about the PBS special she watched with her brothers about how Olympic host cities have to destroy whole remnants of culture in order to put on a show to celebrate athletes. Oblivious, Peter flips the page of his sketchbook, showing her a spread of small-scale sketches of her mask from several different angles.
He taps with a fingernail. "These eyepieces."
"I like them," she says immediately, because she does. They've changed; elongated to give her a wider peripheral range, yes, but they also dominate the mask's facial features. The Spider-Man on the page looks intimidating. "I don't suppose you could design them to repel bugs?"
"I'm not the one with superpowers here, that'd be you."
"What, really? No little windshield wipers for when I inevitably smash into some poor lightning bug at high velocity and smear its guts everywhere?"
"You say the most appealing things," he informs her, mock-serious. "Every word out of your mouth is poetry, how do you do it?"
She picks up her lab packet off the counter and smacks him with it. He holds up his hands to fend her off; the sides of them are smudged grey with graphite, which makes her imagine him drawing so intently that he didn't even take the time to wash his hands before coming to class. She smiles.
"How did you even get into this stuff?" she asks.
He shunts his jaw to one side thoughtfully. "Actually, I guess it was my uncle who got me into it. He builds bridges, you know -- well, not so much building these days as repairing the ones we already have. But he used to bring home all of these, like, connector kits, and we'd assemble, you know, miniature models of the Brooklyn Bridge and Carnegie Hall and stuff. We built a lot when I was little. He kept me pretty busy." After my parents died, Gwen hears loud and clear. "Not so much anymore. My uncle's arthritis," he scrunches his fingers by way of explanation. "But then, for one of MJ's shows -- I don't know if you -- MJ Watson, she's --"
"I know MJ," Gwen cuts in.
"Oh, good!" says Peter delightedly, like everyone should know MJ. "She was talking about how their costumer couldn't get the panniers on -- you've seen, like, paintings of old European women with these big, enormous skirts? Panniers hold those in place, and the costumer was totally messing it up, and I thought, I can do that. That's just a type of construction. That's just a connector kit."
She props her chin up on her fist. "So you're saying making clothes is like … construction work?"
"Absolutely!" Peter declares, passionately. "It's -- it's -- it's art in architecture. It's exactly like construction, and it's just as difficult sometimes. Like, you know the webbing design on your mask?" he flips the page of his sketchbook. "I had to use the same kind of algorithm they use to build a cantilever truss -- you know that crosshatch look some bridges have -- to know how many I'd need. There's so much math involved in designing clothes, Gwen, it's not just … frills and colors, although those are fun, too."
When the bell rings, he hops off the stool so he can go sit with his actual lab partner, but then pauses and tilts his head thoughtfully.
"You know what I should do?" He gestures with the sketchbook. "Include these in my applications to design school."
She nods back solemnly. "I'll be sure to plug your name, the next time me and the criminal element of New York get around to talking fashion."
"Oh shut up," he laughs.
The mask, it turns out, becomes something of a problem, because it isn't really designed with room in mind for Gwen's hair; she'd been making do so far by high-centering a ponytail and then tucking the ends under the fabric around her neck, which was both itchy and would inevitably get caught in the hooks and rip out. When Peter redesigned it with stretchy spandex, they sacrificed that space for more androgyny and also to better streamline it, to make Spider-Man's head less of a target.
"It's okay," Gwen assures him. "I can pin it up. Actresses do it all the time when they wear wigs or something, don't they? It'll be fine."
"You know what," she decides about three days later, and forcefully rips two bobby pins from her head. "Fuck this shit. How the fuck do people do this?"
"Gwen?" somebody asks from behind her, surprised and a little concerned. Gwen sighs and turns around, expecting to have to apologize to her debate team leader or one of the underclassmen who've never heard her cuss. They're in the auditorium, setting up for a practice run on stage. They have their first state competition that weekend.
But it isn't one of the debate team members, it's MJ Watson -- the cast for Midsummer's Night Dream had conceded the stage to the debate team for today, and Gwen doesn't know where they relocated to for practice. MJ's in casual clothes, but has stage make-up on and flecks of silver glitter in her hair.
"Are you okay?" she asks.
"Fine," says Gwen automatically, and then memory twinges at her. "Hey!" she goes, as MJ starts to turn away. "You used to be on the swim team, right?"
"Right," MJ agrees, looking back at her curiously. That had been back in their freshman year -- MJ long and coltish and excellently styled for swimming even in her prepubescence, and Gwen's pretty sure she remembers hearing about how the swim team rarely ever accepted freshmen. Then her dad yanked her out when she hit puberty, because he didn't want anyone "ogling her at meets." He'd made a scene right in the middle of the girls' locker room, yelling at the coach about MJ's breasts with everybody there to witness.
(Seriously, the dude's the biggest fuckcanoe Gwen's ever met, and at fourteen, only MJ's quiet insistence of "please, don't," made her refrain from marching right home afterwards and telling her own dad about him.)
"Do you think you could show me how you pinned your hair up underneath your swim cap?"
"Oh!" MJ blinks. "Sure! … Now?"
Gwen glances back towards the stage. She'd thought about volunteering to help move tables and podiums, but she'd probably wind up single-handedly lifting an entire table by accident and giving herself away, so she's letting the boys do their thing.
"I think they'll be at that for awhile. Do yours need you?"
"Not for two more scenes," MJ says, and when Gwen extends her palette of bobby pins towards her hopefully, grabs them and Gwen's wrist by extension and adds, "Come on, we need a mirror."
In the girls' bathroom by the costume room, MJ sets the pins down by the sink and pulls out the messy bun Gwen had been trying to work with. She shows her how to take smaller sections of her hair, twist them close to her skull, and pin them in place instead.
"That sounds time-consuming," Gwen reluctantly points out. She'd kind of been hoping that spider-senses would make her slightly less blind when jabbing herself in the back of her head, but that would be too easy.
"It goes quicker with practice," MJ assures her, giving her a sympathetic grimace in the mirror. "It's hard when your hair's that middling length -- long enough to be annoying but still short enough that it doesn't clip easily and won't stay in a ponytail for long. Or," she adds, when a coil of Gwen's hair springs out of its pin and flops down next to her ear, and Gwen's vision flares murderously red. "You could just cut it all off."
"Don't tempt me," Gwen growls.
By the time the debate team's finished setting up, they more or less have it figured out, and Gwen's in the process of pulling the pins out again as they cross through the auditorium when MJ asks, "Who's your opponent for state?" And jerks her chin at the stage.
Gwen sticks her tongue out. "Stuyvesant."
"Ah," says MJ with a great wealth of understanding. "Yeah, good luck with that."
"Thanks," she answers, dry.
"You guys went to regionals last semester, didn't you?" MJ shows teeth. "Thanks to you?"
"Oh," Gwen scratches the back of her head. "I wouldn't say -- I wouldn't say that, it's a team effort."
"Bullshit," MJ grins. "That's just what the guys on the team say when they're trying to piece their egos back together."
"Well." She gestures helplessly, and seizes on another topic. "What about you? Didn't you win us a trophy on swim team? Your freshman year? Against Stuyvesant, even? Doesn't that pretty much earn you a knighthood around here?"
"Oh, please," MJ snorts, and sheds some glitter when she tosses her hair over her shoulder. "The only interesting thing I've ever done is that one time I rewrote the lyrics of Thrift Shop so that they fit into iambic pentameter and wound up in a Cracked article because of it."
"That was you?" Gwen all but shrieks, and immediately lowers her voice, grabbing on to MJ's arm and giving it an emphatic shake. "I read that article! Oh my god, that is so cool!"
She looks pleased, and continues, a little more shyly, "Well, that and I also met the person who runs the horse_ebooks Twitter in a bathroom downtown once."
Gwen boggles. "Horse_ebooks is a girl?"
"Oh. No, I was in the men's bathroom," and then she absolutely does not volunteer any more information, pressing her lips together and giggling between her teeth, no matter how much Gwen shakes her and makes greedy, demanding noises.
She gives up after a minute or two, and instead starts pointing out the debate team members who are mingling around, waiting for their leader to assign them spots.
"That's Kevin, there, with that god-awful 'make me a sandwich' shirt that makes me want to set him on fire," she goes in an undertone. "He's our best bet for a trophy this semester."
"Well," Gwen's need for modesty wars with how much she simply does not like Kevin and cares more about winning against him than she does against Stuyvesant. "I suppose."
"I hope you kick Stuyvesant's ass. Did you hear about them suspending one of their girls for the way she dressed? She wore scalloped shorts that were apparently 'too short' and now the administration wants to kick her out."
"I did hear about that. But I took it with a grain of salt -- you can't believe everything you hear about Stuyvesant in these halls."
"This, unfortunately, is true. It's on Google News. She was a 'distraction' -- because obviously it's much more important that the boys' comfort levels are catered to, not the girls." Gwen makes a noise of disgust deep in her throat that MJ echoes, and they're quiet for a beat before MJ confesses, low, "I hear about stuff like that and there's so much I want to do, like nothing I do is enough, because there are still assholes like the school board at Stuyvesant. Do you know what I mean?"
"I know exactly what you mean," Gwen agrees, soft.
If Gwen expects her New York minute to be exactly that, she's sorely disappointed.
"Ugh," she declares, throwing down another horrible front-page article from the Daily Bugle on her way to work. "It's like they've never heard of anybody trying to fight crime before."
Howie, who has followed her out onto the landing to take a bag of trash out to the trash chute, takes one look at the paper on their welcome mat and points out, "Well, maybe not somebody who looks like they just escaped from Cirque du Soleil."
It's hard enough, she thinks when she clocks herself in, slinging her lab coat on over her sweater and stopping by the Purell station to scrub down her hands, feeling distracted and disconnected, like she exists in her own body only by remote control: sending it signals from a hundred miles away. It's hard enough trying to get through my own life without giving everything away. I've never had to keep a secret like this before. I have no practice. I don't need everybody else trying to find the person under Spider-Man's mask. I don't need that pressure. I perform enough already.
"Hey, wake up." Ripley snaps her fingers in front of Gwen's face, then promptly hands her a clipboard. "We got the summer interns coming in today, and you drew the short straw for giving them the tour."
"I did no such thing," Gwen protests.
"Well, we were going to draw on it, but then we all agreed to just skip the actual drawing part and just tell you that you got the short straw."
"Thanks, guys," Gwen says acidly. She studies the clipboard for a second, then draws herself up to her full height, straightening her shoulders, and prepares to face down a group of kids all likely to be older than her, and half as mature. She's not going to let them get to her. Not today.
This lasts until she's got them engrossed in a hologram presentation explaining Oscorp research into cross-species genetics, then she ducks over to Ripley and asks, "Ripley, is my voice manly?"
Ripley gives her some serious side-eye. Maybe. It's hard to tell, with eyes like Ripley's. "Are you asking me this from my vast life experience as a man?"
"No." Gwen stops herself from rolling her eyes, abruptly taking in Ripley's facial features and the stocky way she holds her weight, and realizing, perhaps a little bit too late, that being mistaken for a man might be a legitimate problem for Ripley. Having never had to face that herself up until recently, it hadn't occurred to Gwen to think it. "It's just …" she gestures over her shoulder. "One of them said something and thought I wouldn't hear --"
"Oh, man," goes Ripley. "Are they getting to you already? I mean, your voice -- maybe a little --"
"Hey, now," Gwen scowls. "I didn't ask so that you'd agree with them."
Ripley looks sympathetic.
She bites her lip, and then sighs. "I'm being over-sensitive, aren't I?"
"No such thing," Ripley says stoutly. "You are allowed to feel whatever you feel, and as your girl friend, I am allowed to be honest with you, within reason. Want me to call in Dr. Connors so that he can wave his stump around and shame them into awed silence?"
"Ripley!" she yelps, and the grin that Ripley gives her is nothing short of catty. "Are you allowed to say that?"
And it's true, it's true that being hypersensitive to every little thing means that Gwen senses and overhears a lot of things she probably didn't before. There's a spider inside of her now.
It's a part of her that she's overwhelmingly aware of, all the time, that makes her feel lit up under a spotlight when she's in the school halls, that craves the lights down dim when she's studying at night, that only relaxes when she's got the back corner seat in class, chair tipped back to meet the sturdy pressure of the wall. Spider instincts, she thinks, and it's hard, because Gwen's never been a back corner person. She's not Peter or Penelope, and she doesn't know how to handle being a wallflower.
She hasn't stopped thinking of the bite and her powers like a sickness, some bug (ha ha) that she's going to get over and then her life will return to normal; normal Gwen whose biggest worry is whether Dr. Connors will remember to write her college recommendations and whether or not she's still four assignments ahead in Trig, normal Gwen whose temperature doesn't make a thermometer freak out, who can't hang upside down from the ceiling and who can't protect two boys on their way home from school.
Gwen doesn't know what she'll do if all these changes are permanent.
What is she going to do with the rest of her life?
Never do anything out of the ordinary, as long as she lives?
Give up Gwen Stacy entirely and be Spider-Man?
She doesn't know. She just doesn't know.
In the break room, while she's in front of the vending machine, shoring herself up with Lady's Yankin playing from one earbud and trying to decide if she wants to pay 85c for a bag of air -- er, chips -- or go with a candy bar and a sugar headache, a voice says from around the corner, "Psst."
Male, her spider-senses tell her, sensing the shift of his feet on the linoleum floor. Adolescent, unpredictable weight, and not adept at using his own body --
"Peter," she says in surprise, turning. "This is my work. What are you doing here?"
"It's Oscorp. Maybe I just really love science," he deadpans, coming in and setting his backpack on one of the tables. They're alone. She wondered what kind of excuse he gave the receptionist downstairs. "No, I finished your gloves. Hopefully they won't get caught in your webshooters anymore, but short of building you a tank to ride around the city in --"
"Is my voice manly?" she cuts in.
He lifts his head, and promptly bites his lip. "Yes?" he goes, like he's not sure what she wants to hear. "I mean, there's a definite, like, rasp to it, but I don't think you're going to kick Morgan Freeman or Ian McKellan out of the business anytime soon. Besides, isn't it a good thing? Didn't you say that being mistaken for a dude was actually becoming an advantage?"
And that's true. After all, there's more than one way to wear a mask, and Gwen's found herself becoming grateful that everyone seems to have adopted Spider-Man as her moniker, especially after she … kind of casually brought up Spider-Man's existence with Miles Morales because she wanted his opinion and he promptly yanked out his phone to show her how just how many Facebook groups there were dedicated to sleuthing out her real identity. Fortunately, they all seemed to be caught up on that Y chromosome thing.
No. Gwen's not going to lie: there are definite advantages to wearing a mask of masculinity as well as one of spandex. Like, some men create entire blockbuster action movies trying to capture the feeling she gets when she's in the middle of a fistfight and she knows she's going to win. She's not going to deny she likes the respect she gets sometimes -- nothing overt, not really, and maybe not something she'd noticed if she'd been raised a boy, but it's definitely something she notices now.
People have no trouble asking Gwen Stacy for her time: "Gwen, can you do me a favor?"; "Gwen, I can borrow your --"; "Gwenny-bee, can you … oh, you already did? Thanks!"
Sometimes she feels like, as a girl, her time belongs to everybody who could think to utilize it, but when she's Spider-Man, when she's shaped differently and her voice registers differently and people refer to her by the male pronoun in the excited Tweets they post, she can't help but feel like they think her time is a reward. There was even a young woman who apologized for needing to be rescued the other day -- I'm sorry, she said, I'm sure you have better things to do, and Gwen had boggled at her, because what.
And that's the way things go -- people say things about Spider-Man, Gwen ignores it -- until the day she gets hit by lightning.
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