She wakes up, and immediately gasps, shocked airless from the pain that explodes into her awareness, radiating in every corner of her body.
She sucks uselessly, mouth swallowing at the air like a fish underwater, and her hands starfish out, hunting for something -- anything! -- to grab onto, to locate herself in space -- to -- where is she? What happened? There's a weight in her chest that feels like someone carved out a space behind her ribs and dropped a bowling ball in it. She feels bruised and raw, and her muscles are crawling like they're trying to come out of her skin and she can't stand it cannot cannot.
She grits her teeth and starts to scream, except there's no air --
"Spider-Man," says a voice. "Mashallah, mashallah, she's alive, Spider-Man, can you hear me?"
Something meets her flailing hand, closing around it.
Oh, really? What great advice! What do you think she's trying to --
A hand on her back -- small, a woman's hand, a woman on her knees beside her, 5'3", a little under 200lb -- turning her just a little bit onto her side, and Gwen feels tile under her cheek and she coughs, gasps, and then all at once, air goes screaming into her lungs, almost painful in how powerful it is. She coughs again and again, and shudders on each inhale.
"Alluhu akbar," says the woman fervently, giving Gwen's hand a tight squeeze. "Oh, bless. You're all right. Keep breathing, you're okay."
That sounds like pretty good advice, actually, so Gwen focuses on that; steadily pulling air into her lungs and trying to determine where she is. The tile under her body is wet, and smells like chlorine. Nearby, a body of water pulls at the air, distorts sound and casts them up to meet the high, domed ceiling. A pool, she's guessing. One of those rooftop pools they have in certain hotels and expensive apartment buildings. Gwen was in one once, for a party her mothers' associates put on. She'd been dressed in a smock and very firmly told not to go in the pool, which seemed like an incredibly stupid thing to ask a six-year-old girl.
The chlorine had completely ruined the dress, if she recalls correctly.
She lifts her head, feeling the pins shift along her skull and stray strands of hair trail across her cheek, and --
She's not wearing her mask.
She's in her gloves, and the suit, but she's not wearing her mask.
She explodes to her feet, knocking the woman's hands off of her, skittering across the tile and landing in a protective crouch. She touches her face, just to make sure, then throws her eyes around, trying to find it: her vision wavers, blurry, but she catches a glimpse of white towels stacked high on shelves and a woman, also in white, kneeling on the tiles with one hand outstretched towards her, caught mid-plea. Gwen has to cut three separate looks at her before she makes sense of her outfit; head-to-toe, wrist-to-ankle white, a beautiful skirt puddled around her and showing the damp spots, the scarf wrapped around her head, lacy fringe covering all but the shadow of her eyes.
"Spider-Man," says the woman, holding both her hands out. "Tell me, do you remember what happened?"
"I was --"
No. No, she doesn't. She glances back, around, trying to make sense of how she could have gotten here. It's raining outside; the sound of it on the glass is like the murmuring of low voices in another room. She twists back around, looking at the Muslim woman helplessly.
"You were hit by lightning," she says carefully. "I had come up here for privacy to do my prayers and I saw -- you swung by -- I knew immediately who you had to be, except there was this flash and you just lit up and then you dropped. You landed on the deck --" she points helpfully. "So I pulled you in here because it felt safer."
Well, Gwen certainly feels like she'd been struck by lightning. That was incredibly stupid, she should have known better than to try to websling through a spring storm. She might as well have put a bulls-eye on her back and said, hit me!
"My mask," she gets out, half a question.
And there it is, torn cleanly in half, and she lifts it from her lap.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know -- you weren't breathing, your pulse was erratic, I had to try to stop you from going into cardiac arrest, I didn't know how else to get it off."
"Oh," says Gwen. She forgets about her bare face, pressing her hand down over her heart. Is that why she feels like she'd been clubbed in the chest with a bowling ball? She blinks rapidly, an awareness of how close she just got to death shivers underneath her skin. "Thank you."
There's a smile in the woman's voice. "Wa iyaakum," she says, with a tone that's pretty universal for "you're welcome."
Gwen bites her lip. "And …" she starts.
"I won't tell." She gets to her feet, the wet hem of her skirt slopping heavily around her ankles, and adjusts her veil. She comes over, just in time to catch Gwen's weight when her knees shake and give out. "But oh Allah have mercy," she breathes. "You are just a child."
"My name's Gwen," she offers. She doesn't know why.
"Fatima," the bride answers, and settles them down in the empty nook with all the spare towels. "Have you lived in the city your whole life?"
"Yes. My family has an apartment on West 110th, up in Morningside. We see you swing by sometimes around dinnertime, and I could tell. Just from the way you talked when you were angry. I watched the videos and I said, 'Spider-Man is one of us. How cool is that, that Spider-Man can be one of us.'"
"I shouldn't have been rushing," Gwen says quietly. "I knew better than to try to take a shortcut while it was raining, but I was so late. Even later, now -- oh no."
She stops, horrified. The fabric over her wrists is blackened, and when she scrapes it back with her fingernails, she finds both of her webshooters completely fried. Of course they'd been fried, she got hit by lightning. Only the rubber stopper along the bottom, where it attached to the straps, kept her from acquiring some terrific new burn scars.
"How do I get home?" she asks blankly. "I can't. Just."
Fatima looks at her for a long moment. Then she straightens, her spine lengthening and her shoulders falling into place. "Then," she tells her, with great dignity. "You shall walk out the front door."
"I can't," Gwen blinks at her. "I don't have a mask. Or another change of clothes. I can't --"
She stops, because Fatima's fingers are on the brooch that holds her hijab in place, pinned with great artistry underneath her earlobe. She unclips it, and starts unraveling the cloth from her head. Beautiful lace and white fabric fall into her lap.
Flustered, Gwen starts pinwheeling her hands at her, trying to get her to stop. "You can't!" she gets out. "Your religion -- your wedding --"
"Trust me," Fatima says assuredly, catching her hand and holding it between both of hers. Her hair is as black as her eyes, and she has very stern eyebrows. She looks about the same age as Dr. Connors. "In this, Allah has already forgiven me. And if my wedding guests do not understand why I am not covered, then they do not deserve my forgiveness, either."
"I … I don't deserve that," Gwen says, hushed.
"Don't be silly. It was you who stopped and held an umbrella over Abdullah ibn Sayed al-Aziz when he was forced to pray in the alleyway behind the DMV, with no mat to kneel on and rain dripping from the gutters. Was it not?"
"I --" Gwen tries, but it was, and she can tell by the triumphant twitch in Fatima's mouth that she's been caught.
"Now see, he wouldn't tell you, but he was scared that someone would throw things at him, or yell at him, or spit -- all of which have happened to Muslims who try to pray anywhere except out of sight in this city. But no one did, because you were there, and no one dared. Why would I not want to repay that?"
She tucks Gwen's hair back, and then pulls a close-fitting cap over her head, tugging it up so that it covers her hairline, clinging tight like a sock. They stuff her bangs out of sight. Then, with quick, economical movements, she drapes the looser cloth around it.
"I," she says, quite happily. "Just saved Spider-Man's life. On my wedding day. I'm very content with this omen, Gwen, I'll be honest." She drapes the ends over Gwen's shoulders, tucking them underneath and into the collar of her suit, smiling. "You know," she says, slowly and teasingly. "We could always just switch outfits entirely. Islam would be proud of the way you dress. Although, perhaps a few conservative scholars might have a comment or two about your legs."
Gwen coughs out a burnt-sounding laugh.
"Oh my god," she says, widening her eyes. "Don't turn it into a fashion statement. You don't want to know what kind of wedgies I get," and Fatima's bright bark of laughter echoes around the empty pool. They grin at each other, and Fatima pulls the lace down over her eyes.
"Come on, Spider-Man," she says. "You have quite an exit to make."
After that, Gwen takes a more active role in responding to the public. She creates a Twitter for the sole purpose of coming to Fatima's defense: She lent me her wedding hijab after my mask got ruined. How is that not the most heroic thing u've ever heard?
@fatimabobatimah Thank you, and congratulations.
@horse_ebooks I don't lay eggs, no. Perhaps you should call Poison Control?
HEY! Signal boost: @TheAmazingSpiderMan Can u boost this pls? Amber Alert. Rachel Chen, 6yo, black eyes, black hair, last seen Monday @ Morningside Park.
@mmzkap234534 The way I dress doesn't make me a queen. I am a Khaleesi.
"No, no, no," comes loudly from the direction of another table, and Gwen sets her phone down and glances over. The speaker is an underclassman with a stud in her nose, and she's using another student's lap as seating, slamming her palm flat against the table-top for emphasis. "You're looking at this wrong! The representation is problematic -- why do we assume that it's Spider-Man? Look at the footage again, that is clearly an androgynous figure. It possesses both male and female attributes. It's a statement, I'm telling you. Patrolling the streets, making people feel safe in a world where there are threats everywhere for everybody -- that's not a man's job as the protector, nor is it a woman's job as the carer figure. It's a job for all sexes, regardless of how one expresses their gender. That's what the mask is about," and Gwen smiles to herself in delight, ducking her head behind her milk carton to hide it.
Well. Okay, sometimes being Spider-Man is pretty cool.
Here's a little something you need to know about fighting crime:
Crime is really fucking hard to fight.
It had seemed such a simple thing to commit to at first, when she was first starting to get the hang of all the ways her body had changed on her and what she could do with it now: she would use her powers for good. She would defend the powerless and stop the strong from preying on the weak. They needed more people doing that, right?
Here's the thing, though:
So little of it happens on the streets.
It's not that overt. You think dark alleys, you think old men who haven't shaved since the Magna Carta was signed holding someone up at gunpoint. You have an idea of what crime looks like, and so little of it fits. Crime is committed behind closed doors, where Gwen can't reach the person who takes a fist to a significant other or to a child. Crime is committed on the Internet, it's committed in the way frat boys will laugh at a joke and then because it's just a joke, assume it's acceptable to perpetuate the act later, and Gwen can't get there to stop the joke before the joke becomes an act. Crime depends on people putting their heads down and saying, "not my problem." It's committed by the white collar, blue collar, pink collar -- and sometimes, Gwen wants to scream because it seems like the best she can do is stop petty pickpocketing.
By the time a person is willing to commit a crime on the streets, in front of everybody and Spider-Man, then it's usually too late for Gwen to do anything but treat a symptom of a cancerous problem.
So much of what is illegal is something Gwen can't fight with webshooters, can't overpower with brute strength.
"Manhattan's becoming more gentrified, Gwenny-bee," her father tells her, slathering the second side of a PB&J and slapping it together to stick in Simon's lunch. "It's becoming harder for the people who live here to keep on affording to live here. And so, the manner in which people commit crimes is changing, and we've got to change with it."
She listens to police scanners. She walks the Young brothers home from school. Once, she manages to stop a crane from tipping over at a construction site, although that really has nothing to do with crime and more to do with being in the right place at the right time and also being kind of badass. For awhile, when she's out at night, she stops as many skeevy-looking johns as she can, a feat she's pretty proud of until one of the hookers stops her and tells her in no uncertain terms to back off, or they ain't gonna pay rent.
(After, she just takes a leaf from Peter's book and lurks, keeping high up out of sight and taking pictures of the men with her cell phone. She sends the headshots to the hotline at her dad's work in the hope that they might pick up the johns at a later date -- and not the girls (or boys) they were sleazing on.)
She keeps an eye on girls walking alone at night and she tries to tail suspicious people, hoping to get to them before they act, but what's "suspicious," really?
This is New York. Everyone looks suspicious.
She spends half a night following a dude she thinks is a car thief (her clue that he isn't one should have been the fact that he dressed like one) but when she lands on top of the Lexus he sidles up beside and scares the shit out of him, she realizes she knows exactly who he is.
He lurches away from her with a "what the --", his tough guy voice breaking a little bit as it soars across, "Who are you?"
"Oh, sorry," she goes, backpedaling. "I thought -- my bad."
Yates, who used to be a grunt in her father's department before he got promoted -- apparently to undercover car thief, wow, bro, sorry about your everything -- and transferred out, stares at her from underneath his greasy fringe of dirty blonde hair. He must not get out very often, because he says, "What are you wearing?"
"Hey!" she protests. She quite likes the suit, thank you. Okay, sure, sometimes she feels ridiculous, like a little girl dressing up in a leotard for ballet, but it's an improvement over yoga pants. Also, she likes the way people stare sometimes. It makes her think of how passionate Peter's gestures became when he told her that fashion was architecture. She feels like she's wearing artwork; Peter Parker's version of the Brooklyn Bridge. She better turn heads. "Right back at you!"
He draws a knife.
"Oh my god," Gwen grumbles, and lifts out of her crouch, turning to walk down the Lexus's back windshield. "I'm done, this isn't even worth it."
"Hey!" he shouts after her, sounding a little put out. "You can't just walk away!"
Ripley is not impressed with the charred, useless ruin that Gwen sheepishly brings to her family's bakery, the day after the lightning incident.
"Where the hell do you do your rock climbing, girl, that you come to me later, all, 'oh, by the way, Ripley, honey, I need it to be lightning-proof'?" she demands incredulously, picking up one of the webshooters and wrinkling her nose at the smell of burnt fabric that wafts up from it.
"I genuinely have no idea how to fix it," Gwen confesses. She's gotten pretty adept at the minor repairs, the smaller damages that come from very active wear, but she took one look at this and immediately called Ripley.
"Well, lucky for you, I'm pretty good at tinkering."
"And someday you're going to have to explain to me how that is. How did two hippies raise an inventor who works in a geneticist's lab funded by the most bureaucratic corporation in the entire city?" She means it jokingly, but Ripley, oddly, just goes quiet. When Gwen glances over, she looks uncomfortable and a little guilty. "Hey --" she tries, but Ripley cuts her off.
"I'm going to get to work on these." Her tone turns acerbic, "I swear, Gwen, if I ever need to get anything test run for bizarre circumstances in the future, you're my go-to girl. Lightning, I swear to God …"
That week, Midtown Science decorates an entire hallway by hanging up a banner that lists every graduating senior, their academic standing, and all the colleges they got accepted to. Once the message had well and truly sunk in, they followed it up by rounding up all the juniors before B track to assign them a seminar on choosing a good college, because it was almost May and didn't they know that most college applications were due by January?
So Gwen came out of that feeling about ten times more anxious about her future than she already did.
She isn't really surprised, either, when she climbs in through Peter's window later that week with her chemistry textbook and a hook coming loose from the back of her mask and finds him with a college catalog open on top of his keyboard. The two of them are the most academically-minded out of MidSci's entire junior class; he's probably as anxious as she is.
"I fixed your gloves," he says without looking over, and points with the end of his pen. "Try not to get hit by lightning again, okay?"
"I'm never going to live that down, am I?" Gwen comments to nobody in particular. She walks along his wall, careful not to step on the posters or knock any of his photographs askew, until she's suspended above his desk, trying to catch a glimpse of a name on the catalog. "What's that for?"
He doesn't hesitate. "Fashion school in Columbus."
"Columbus?" she blinks. "Like, Columbus, Ohio?"
"The tuition is more in my aunt and uncle's range than anything in-state," he says without shame.
Gwen nods, but just to make sure, "Ohio, though?"
This time, he does look up, craning his head all the way back, pen cap poking out of the corner of his mouth.
"Hey, now," he goes, mock-defensive, watching her settle in a crouch with her back against his ceiling and her chem book held against her chest. "Don't be an elitist. Ohio's a powerhouse. Four of America's top twenty design schools are in Ohio, compared to just three in New York. And also, did you know that a third of all the astronauts in NASA's history have come from Ohio?" She lifts her eyebrows, and he shrugs easily, "You know, in case I want to keep my options open. Maybe fashion isn't my thing."
"Do you think it'd be hard?" she asks. "Being a dude in a predominantly female-oriented field?"
He snorts. "If you think the majority of today's top fashion designers are female, you are grossly underestimating how much society wants to keep women from earning any money or prestige."
She tips a shoulder, because point.
She doesn't follow it up with any more questions, and only then does he start to look a little self-conscious. He flips the catalog shut, pushing it aside and saying with a studied air of dismissiveness, "Maybe it's too early to think that hard about the future."
It startles her into laughing. "Peter, we tested into one of the most competitive high schools in Manhattan. It rejects 70% of its first-time applicants," and he rolls his eyes back at her, because that's something Midtown Science likes to remind them at every opportunity, like pointing out how privileged they are to even scuff the hallway floors is going to make them any less reluctant to go to pep rallies. "Our futures are the only thing we've been taught to think about."
"Ugh," he shoves his chair back, scratching at his collarbone. His shirt has the album cover for Led Zeppelin III on it, faded to look like he inherited it from a cool uncle, except Gwen knows for a fact that shirt came from the men's side of Target. "You're a bundle of cheer. Why do I keep you around, exactly?"
"Because I eat your aunt's meatloaf," she deadpans.
"And thank you for that. Speaking of, I'm going to microwave something. Do you want a burrito or anything?"
"Hey," she scowls at him over the top of her chem textbook, politely ignoring the way he dimples at her. "Do you know how adept humans are at energy conservation? You may not have to eat every hour of every day, but I'm not as human as I used to be, so I need more fuel."
He holds up his hands in acquiescence, backing from the room. She listens to his feet go pounding down the stairs and stretches out her senses out further, trying to locate his aunt and uncle in this space, if they're home. Then she refocuses on her textbook. She's read the same paragraph three times.
The busiest part of the day is the hardest part of the day for the spider, which is why, more and more often, Gwen finds herself spending late afternoon in Peter's house in Astoria: it's quieter in the suburbs; fewer noises, fewer people, less of the bright lights and fast movements that bombard Gwen's hypersensitive spider senses at home. She's sure someday she'll be able to sort it all out and it won't be such a problem, but in the meantime, it's just nice to be able to swing across the bridge. (If it's raining, she'll take the subway. She has learned her lesson, Ripley, thank you, and besides, it's hilarious when she's in costume.)
Peter leaves his window open for her, and they'll talk about how much they enjoy the way Ms. Ngiwidi does European History and how confusing Mrs. Schultz's formula for valence electrons is. She watches him reorganize the debate team photos for the yearbook, letting him tell her about the bolt of chiffon the color of spring lilacs that just went on sale, and although they're always telling you that you shouldn't plan a whole outfit around the incorporation of just one part, he wanted to.
He comes back with a plate that he keeps shuffling from hand to hand, clearing having underestimated how hot it'd be.
"Hey," he goes, when she descends upon him from the ceiling with the ravenousness of … well, a spider. "You live in one of those high-rises in Midtown, don't you?"
She stills, burrito in hand. It's soggy in the middle and cardboardy at the ends, and she eyeballs him warily.
"Would it be all right if I came over sometime to take pictures from your roof?" He picks up his camera by the strap to demonstrate. "I haven't practiced taking landscapes in awhile, and I kind of want to see what kind of skyline view you get from your building. It must be pretty great."
"Oh," she relaxes, and bites on the end of her burrito. She gets nothing but tortilla, of course, and stodgily chews through it. "Sure!"
She realizes, kind of too late, that Peter's never actually been inside her building before -- a status quo that Benny, the doorman, seems pretty intent on preserving.
"Well, that shaved about three years off my life," Peter remarks in the elevator. "He's scary."
"Yeah, I think he used to be a linebacker for some university in Hawaii, back in the day. I would reassure you and tell you that he's perfectly nice, otherwise, but I'd be lying." He'd always been nice to her, at least. On the few serious attempts Gwen made at running away before her parents let her have the room with the fire escape and she lost interest, Benny let her hide behind his desk and watch Sesame Street on the monitor and lied when her parents came by to ask if he'd seen her. Looking back, it had probably all been quite elaborately staged, but at the time, it had gone a long way to earning Gwen Stacy's lifelong trust.
She keys them out onto the roof and shows Peter the community plot where tenants are allowed to plant gardens in allotted squares. "There's ours," she points it out. "We always do that in the spring."
"It is spring," he feels the need to point out.
"The end of my nose begs to differ," she mutters back, because it's cold up here. Granted, she's pretty used to the high-altitude chill by now, and with the suit on underneath, she's wearing enough layers that everything's warm except for her face.
Peter reaches the railing and leans out, whistling in admiration. She squirms, pleased and a little self-conscious, trying to ignore the part of her that whispers that she's done nothing to deserve this million-dollar view.
"I didn't realize a commission with the NYPD was worth this," he pulls back to say, hunching his shoulders against the wind. "Maybe I'm considering the wrong career field."
Gwen smirks, because that's a mistake she never gets tired of people making.
"Oh, no," she corrects. "My mom's the breadwinner. She's a lawyer. She makes twice as much as my dad does. Without her, we wouldn't be able to afford this neighborhood and we definitely wouldn't be able to afford our apartment."
"Oh," says Peter, in the tone universal to all those who had just put their food in their mouth in a spectacular way. "Sorry, that was --"
"Ingrained sexism, I know. We get it a lot."
They lean against the railing together, and the silence stretches for a beat before he jolts, swinging his camera bag around to the front of his body. He unzips it, and it takes a moment for Gwen to realize why it doesn't look right.
"Is that a different camera?" she asks. "What happened to the one you bring to school?"
"Oh, umm …" He ducks his head sheepishly, searching the ground at their feet like he's going to find the answer down there. "Oh, god, you're going to judge me pretty severely in three … two … I don't actually do a lot of real work with that camera. It's not really practical. But whatever, it's literally the only cool points I have with the student body, and even then, it's mostly from the stoner crowd who think it's like, super down to earth that I have a camera with developing film, but hey, I'll take my cred where I can get it. Ah, crap," he mutters, checking the display. "Card memory full. Here, can you hold this for a second?"
"Fashion designer or fashion photographer?" Gwen asks, holding the camera for him as he goes digging for another SD card.
"Which would you be more interested in doing? Like, studying in college or whatever?"
He doesn't answer for a beat, setting the case down on top of his shoes and reaching out for the camera, which she passes over carefully; it's heavy, and if there's anything Gwen learned from Jurassic Park besides don't be a lawyer, it's that if it's heavy, it's probably expensive. "I don't know," he says finally, clicking the new SD card into place. "I haven't really … looked," and he sounds so serious about it that Gwen stops and regards him for a long moment; the bent angle of his head, the flutter of his bottom lip as he chews at the inside of it.
She steps in close, saying, "Well, can't you be both?" It earns her a startled smile. "I mean, who says you have to be fantastic at just one thing? Be mediocre at a dozen things!"
"Are you calling me mediocre?"
"Shut up, you know what I mean."
"Yes, well," he slings the strap over his neck, and snaps a picture of her before she notices. "The same goes for you, too."
Gwen checks the corners of her mouth, for -- what, she doesn't know, but part of her is convinced that whatever Peter just took had to be horrible, though she isn't sure what she would have done if she'd been given a moment to prepare. She thinks about deflecting the comment, turning it glib ("my parents want me to be a brain surgeon, Ms. Ngiwidi wants me to go into politics, and I want to be Spider-Man, I don't have time to be mediocre,") but let's be honest, Gwen's been an overachiever since the day her mother let her hold her baby brother for the first time and told her that she had to be very careful, she was responsible now.
"Thanks," she says instead, with an honesty that burns at her mouth on its way out. Peter smiles back.
There are a couple lawn chairs that some other tenet had dragged up here, so Gwen brushes one of those off and settles into it, drawing her knees up to her chest and watching Peter play with the display, peer through the viewfinder once or twice, and then go back to the display again before ever actually taking a picture.
He seems pretty engrossed, but she finds herself asking anyway, "Did you always know this was what you wanted to do?"
He thinks about it.
"I guess," he admits. "When I was little, I probably wanted to be the whole usual spectrum of things, but yes, I guess I did. I mean, I wasn't very vocal about it until," he waves a hand at her. "Until you really made me realize how important it could be. Although I guess if it doesn't work out, I can always go into science. I like science."
"You like science," she echoes, amused by the completely blasé way he'd said it, like he'd announced a preference on a flavor of ice cream. Then again, Gwen's social circle consists of people like Ripley and Dr. Connors, who have never been anything except Bill Nye batshit about science their entire lives, so perhaps her perception is a little skewed.
He nods, shooting her a grin. "Science is cool." He opens his mouth like he's going to say something else, then changes his mind, shaking his head and diverting his eyes.
"What?" she goes, suspiciously.
"Nothing," he says too quickly. He bends his head to the viewfinder.
She waits him out, and he eventually surfaces again, half-turning in her direction but still aiming his voice at some point half-way between him and her chair.
"Just. I was going to ask your opinion on dresses, but that seemed silly." She lifts her eyebrows at him. "Just!" he says again, and this time he really is addressing the concrete between them like he can't look directly at her, like she's the setting sun at his back and she'll blind him. "Like, I was thinking of what I'd make for you that wouldn't incorporate, like, seven yards of spandex. As, like, a scientific thought!"
"Oh, really?" she goes, wry.
His ears are very red, and the color of it spreads as fast as blood down the collar of his shirt. "I'd go for a dark blue, or a violet," he presses on. "Modern, because you've got that Daft Punk hair --"
Gwen flattens her bangs self-consciously.
"No, don't, it works for you! And then I'd add something of the city to it," he nods out at the view. "Twilight on 42nd street, maybe. If I could make that work, it'd look really cool, don't you think?"
He smiles at her, forgetting to be shy about it, all teeth and dimples on display, and for the first time, Gwen thinks about kissing Peter Parker.
The thought blindsides her, and she finds herself considering his mouth the same way she'd consider a fifty-foot drop off the belltower of a church. Quite academically, she thinks, it'd be nice, and then pillows her head on her arms, blocking out the light and drowsing off to the buzzing drone of the building beneath them and the steady click of Peter photographing the way the sun sinks past the Manhattan skyline with a carmine-colored sigh.
After he's done, she takes him back down the elevator to her floor so that he can meet her family. While they don't make quite the scene that the Parkers did, her mother is clearly thrilled to see a boy who is not Flash Thompson following her only daughter through the doorway. This dampens somewhat when Philip immediately recognizes him from the skatepark, but Gwen visibly sees her mother shore herself up and tell herself that anything is better than Flash Thompson. It's pretty great.
Then Howie slides into position next to her and says, too low for Peter or their mother to hear, "How did I know you'd make a great fag hag someday? Ah!"
"Gwen," her mother protests in a long-suffering way.
Gwen, too busy shoving Howie's face into her armpit, doesn't answer.
She shows Peter the fire escape that leads straight up to her window -- "you know, just in case you don't feel like dealing with Benny next time," and he says, "ha ha," without humor, craning his neck to peer down the twenty story drop to the ground. While he's doing that, she wakes her desktop out of sleep in order to check what kind of batshittery has been Tweeted to her today.
She glances back over her shoulder, and finds herself looking into the fisheye lens of Peter's camera just as the shutter clicks.
"Peter Parker," she objects. "I'm starting to think your uncle might not have been lying to me. Do you have my picture on your computer?"
He just bites his lip at her, unabashed, and then says, far too innocently, "You know, the Daily Bugle is offering a substantial reward to the first person who sends in a hi-res close-up of Spider-Man."
"Oh! Well, in that case," she turns and tosses herself onto her bedspread, bouncing a little bit like a kid before striking a come-hither post. She laughs at the look on his face. "Go on, Jack," she goads. "Photograph me like one of your French girls."
"That's not --" he starts helplessly, but doesn't seem to have any better idea where that sentence was going than she does, because he just disappears behind the camera again, adjusting the zoom.
Gwen is enjoying this far too much. "Wait!" she goes, on sudden inspiration. She sits up and starts to unbutton her cardigan, as over-the-top provocative as she thinks she can do with a straight face, before dramatically throwing it open to reveal --
The shirt on underneath, because fuck you, it was cold up there.
"How many layers are you wearing?" Peter asks, amused, peeking at her over the top of his camera. "Because I know you've got the suit on underneath --"
He stops, because that's the moment her mother appears in the doorway.
She looks at them.
They look at her.
Her eyebrows lift. "Honey," she says, in her best, I'm not judging you, sweetheart, but I might be judging you a little voice. "Can I talk to you?"
Chagrined, and cursing herself for having not sensed her approach, Gwen slides off her bed, fumbling to get the buttons of her cardigan done up again.
"Oh, come on," she whispers to Peter as she slips past him, because he seems to be trying to achieve mortified symbiosis with the wall; sometimes, she thinks, he really does act more like a spider than she does, and he's not even the one with spider DNA. "That's worth at least fifty bucks."
The next night, after dinner, Gwen goes into the kitchen to put the kettle on, standing in the half-dark and stretching her arms above her head to try and relieve the ache across the wings of her shoulders. She'd startled a little old lady in the Bronx, who, in turn, struck her clean across the back with a tire iron. It hurt. Gwen is not used to 70-year-old women hitting her with tire irons.
She's filling the hot water bottle when she hears her father say from the next room over, "I think we have a rogue in our department."
It's meant for her mother's ears only, but Gwen caps the hot water bottle and tucks it into its pouch (shaped like a snuggly lamb, because they all devolve into small children seeking comfort when they're sick or injured) and lingers by the breakfast bar.
Her mother rips an envelope open. "Honey?" she prompts, worriedly.
"It's not as uncommon as I'd like to think," her dad says with great reluctance. "Once the shine of the badge wears off, the men get restless -- ow, I know we have women on the force, too, quit jabbing me, that thing is sharp, I meant 'men' in the general sense. They get restless because they've put in all this work and there isn't a noticeable change. Things move too slow. I'm worried one of them's gone vigilante."
"You think one of your rookies is Spider-Man?" her mother returns, and Gwen doesn't have to see them to hear the raised eyebrows in her tone. The sofa creaks, and another envelope rips to a distracted mutter of, "Oh, God, what do these people want?"
Her father heaves a sigh. "I think one of my rookies is Spider-Man," he echoes.
"Okay, but can you imagine one of your rookies in a spandex suit?"
"I don't know what else to think! He leaves people with very long rap sheets cocooned outside our precinct, no other, and there's been more sightings of him in this area than any other precinct in the five boroughs." Oops, Gwen thinks with a grimace. She hadn't given it much thought, just brought criminals to the W 54th St building like a little kid bringing home artwork for the fridge. "It would account for how he's so knowledgable about our movements, and how we operate."
"George," her mother says patiently, in what Gwen likes to think of as her lawyer's voice. "Spider-Man, though?"
"There's no pattern," he bites out with frustration. "To the type of people he brings in. I'd almost feel better if we could say for certain that he was profiling a particular kind of person. That way I could write him off as someone with a vendetta, but he's unpredictable, and that's even worse. I just have a bad feeling about him," and Gwen's teeth scissor into her bottom lip. She wouldn't have gone so far to say that she felt she had her dad's approval -- she knew she wouldn't, hence the mask and the secrecy, but that had always been because she was his seventeen-year-old daughter and he didn't want her out on the streets, and not anything specifically to do with how she did things. "But I can't do anything about it."
"He's an acrobat in a funny suit. He's an Internet meme. Surely he's not a threat?"
"He is if he's one of my cops gone rogue," her dad says grimly. "The law is there for a reason. If one person starts operating outside police jurisdiction, then what's stopping everybody from doing the same? The law is this country's justice system -- we can't have alternative justice systems operating simultaneously. Everything falls apart. The more popular he gets, the more Spider-Man becomes a problem."
Swallowing hard, Gwen tucks the snuggly lamb against her chest and doubles back towards her bedroom before she can overhear any more.
A warrant is issued for the arrest of Todd Rabin on a Tuesday, after a third victim lands in the downtown hospital with the same pattern bruises as the two that came before her. She gives the responding officers a similar profile; white male, 5'8", likes to flatter and sweet-talk until the second he doesn't have to anymore, and then it's all name-calling. After all, one rape is unfortunate, two is a coincidence, but three -- three means that no matter how much the police want to dismiss it and blame the woman for what happened to her, three means they've got to pay attention.
Gwen hears about it at school. MJ tells her in the lunch line.
"My dad doesn't want me to go to practice tonight," she says, picking up a tray and grimacing at the not-quite-dried condensation from the dishwasher that runs down her wrists. There's a distinct curl to her lip that tells Gwen what she thinks of her dad telling her not to do anything.
"… because he woke up this morning deciding he hated all liberal arts?" Gwen hazards.
"Oh, well, that too. But no, apparently there's a rapist that's been targeting showgirls from our theaters while they're walking home at night. They sent out a warning yesterday."
"Jesus. What are you going to do?"
MJ shrugs and makes a face. "I don't know. Carry mace? Travel everywhere in groups? The usual stuff we already do, I guess. I mean, nothing's really changed -- it's just gone from likely threat to definite threat, that's all."
In addition to being in the cast for the school play, MJ works stage crew for a production called The Whistler, which is going to show at one of the low-end theaters in Greenwich Village, the kind that seems to operate purely on vitamin water, matchsticks, and the hope that someday it'll see the light of Theatre Row. The shows in Greenwich are the ones mostly produced and frequented by college undergrads with no discernible taste but the occasional startling vision. MJ, of course, is in love.
That night, Gwen makes a point of visiting Greenwich as Spider-Man around the time she thinks MJ's practice will get out.
She does it again the next night, and the night after, and then the night after that, MJ comes out onto the street and stands under the gargoyle that Gwen has made her perch and calls up, "Hey, Spider-Man! Why don't you come inside? It's raining."
Gwen glances up and down the wet, iridescent street and thinks, This is probably a bad idea.
Then she drops soundlessly to the pavement and MJ takes one look at the rain-soaked patches on her suit and says, "You big goof," with an immeasurable kind of fondness in her voice, and it's not a bad idea, it's just MJ.
As far as Gwen can tell, The Whistler seems to be about a lot of sad saxophones and a mysterious serial killer who whistles after he commits a murder. Over the next several nights, all of which are long practices, Gwen sees it develop; sees the 1940's noir costumes come together cohesively, and genuinely gets involved in the lives of its actresses -- The Whistler has an all-female ensemble, despite having male characters in script -- and the rest of the crew.
"Everybody, this is Spider-Man!" MJ introduces her on the first night. "He has elected himself our security guard until the cops catch this rapist dude. And no," she preempts a question from a skinny Latina woman sitting in the front row, who has a peacock feather tucked into the hatband of her fedora and her hand half-raised. "You may not take a picture of his butt. The Daily Bugle says they don't need any more of those."
"Damn," says the woman.
So Gwen spends those evenings helping the cast and crew rearrange sets, complete riggings, position lights -- basically all the heavy lifting they think they can get away with asking her to do. She weaves together a trampoline-sized web for the kids (and several of the older women) to climb on when they get bored, and the two youngest actresses she sticks to the wall and then pretends she forgot where she put them, looking all over the set while they giggle helplessly from their cocoons above her.
In exchange, they promise her a ticket to opening night.
"You have to come!" MJ protests, when she tries to politely decline, thinking that's something she'd much rather do as Gwen Stacy than as Spider-Man. "It's the least we can do, Spider-Man, honestly."
And then, two nights before dress rehearsal, somebody else finds Todd Rabin first.
"Hey!" Gwen yells. She cuts the web she swung in on and lands on the closed lid of the nearby dumpster. "What are you doing?"
The man stops and looks at her. Then, deliberately, he looks from the socket wrench in his hand to the man on the pavement, who is 5'8", 215lb, with a swollen, broken excuse for a face and hands yanked together and pinned into place with zip-ties. He's not upright anymore. There's a lot of blood.
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"You can't do that!" Gwen cries, horrified.
The man gives her a deeply unimpressed look. Without even bothering to reply, he turns, lifting the wrench and easily bringing it down across Rabin's head in a clean, vicious blow. The wet noise of it flinches across Gwen's senses.
"Stop!" She aims and fires a strand of web at his hand, yanking the wrench out of his grip.
He sighs at his empty hand and finally faces her directly. He's bigger than Rabin, his stomach a solid mass of muscle pushing out through his t-shirt, and he's got big hands that look like they were made for bringing wrenches down against people's heads. Nappy hair divides his scalp neatly into two.
"Do I gotta spell it out for you, Spider-Man?" he says impatiently. He gestures at the crumpled, tied-up heap of a man that's Rabin. "My big sister was his third victim. Or, at least, the third one to report him. Lucky numba three," sarcasm pulls itself out of him like it's tearing itself out by the roots. "Violence had to happen to her 'fore the fucking cops finally took it seriously. And then whatta'they do? Hand out flyers, tell women what actions they gotta take to make sure that he rapes somebody else instead of them? They can't find him? Hell, I found 'im!"
"So take him in to the precinct!" Gwen begs. "Beating him to death -- that just gets you in trouble, not him! You can't solve violence with violence!"
"Oh, yeah?" His eyebrows jump up. "Then please, God, tell me what else I can do. Because nothin' else seems to be working. You want us quiet, we been quiet. You want us fooled, we been fooled. You want us to follow the rules, we did that too. And white men still rapin' our sisters."
"You --" Gwen tries, but he holds up his hand to forestall her.
That's all. She can take him, she can take seven of him, she knows she can, but he holds up his hand and she stops.
"That's better," he says. He lifts his chin. "I don't know why a white guy like you thinks he can come down here and tell us poor colored folks how we can and cannot keep our streets safe -- no, that's a lie, I know exactly why."
She doesn't ask how he can tell her racial demographic through the mask; she probably couldn't sound whiter if she tried.
"Now let's try something new. How about you start listening? That's half the problem -- ain't nobody listening, so ain't nobody that helps a brother the way he needs to be helped. There's a responsibility on both sides. I appreciate what you do, don't get me wrong, but maybe you could come down sometime and talk to us, eat with us, learn our problems, instead'a just swingin' in thinking you got everything figured out already."
Feeling eight-legged and very small, Gwen looks at the trussed-up man on the cement.
"I'm not going to find him in a body bag, am I?" she checks, and her voice comes out of her frightfully young and sounding a little lost, even to herself.
His face softens.
"No, Spider-Man," he tells her. "But you need to trust us to keep our own safe, too."
After that, Todd Rabin is never seen or heard from again. The police keep his headshot on display in the bullpen for a month, before an office aide bumps into the pin holding his flyer up and he slips underneath the copy machine; the aide picks the pin up, takes one look at the hair and dirt caught in the machine's wheel tract, and hopes that whatever that was, it wasn't important.
Gwen keeps visiting the theaters all the next week, nervous and unsure what to tell them, but the girls make it hard to stay keyed up for long, always laughing and calling her down to hang out with them between takes. She answers a lot of weird, biological questions (no, Crossondra, she has no idea how she's going to breed, yes, she's pretty sure all her human reproductive organs are still in their correct places, no, she isn't interested in finding out, oh, god, stop flirting, Gwen is flattered and uncomfortable and she's going to say something stupid in about three seconds -- oops, too late,) and once, when rehearsal gets cut early due to a kerfuffle between the director, one of the lead actresses, and her understudy, MJ and a couple of the other crew invite her out with them.
"Come on!" goes Melody, a very short girl with freckles the same burnt autumn color as her pixie-cut hair, looping their arms together. "We'll be your posse!"
They cut through Washington Square Park, heading uptown and eventually winding up cruising Chelsea Market, which is something Gwen figured groups of girls would do when going out with each other but had never actually personally experienced for herself. She supposes it isn't quite the same, either, since they call her "Spider-Man" and never quite forget she's there and act delighted when tourists stop to ask for her picture. A couple even try to give Gwen money, thinking she's a street performer, which MJ gladly snatches from her and then, when they come across a vendor selling a bouquet of blue-and-red carnations arranged in the shape of a Spider-Man mask, they all chip in to buy and hand over to Gwen with great ceremony.
Gwen holds the bouquet in one arm and wraps the other around MJ's shoulder while Melody lines them up on MJ's phone and snaps a picture, and she studies MJ's face out of the corner of her eyepieces and thinks, You are just human. A human with human strength and human senses and there's a rapist stalking theater girls and you're out anyway, laughing and taking cheesy pictures. How are you not afraid?
Or are you? she thinks, when MJ darts out to pull her phone from Melody's hand and checks to make sure the picture's acceptable.
Are you afraid? All the time? It's hard enough being a teenage girl even with superstrength and hypersenses. I can't imagine how brave you must be, every day of your life, without them.
"Thanks, Spider-Man," MJ says, hugging her quickly around the shoulders.
And I don't think you even realize it.
Twenty minutes later, she has to break up a fight between an unsuccessful pickpocket and his potential victim, and hands over the carnations with a sigh.
"You kick his ass, babe, we got your flower," MJ says solemnly, and Gwen laughs and throws herself into the fight.
And the next time she finds herself standing at the bottom of the Youngs' apartment steps and Rasheel tugs on her hand and says, "Do you want to come up for a snack?" Gwen thinks, this is your city, and answers, "Yeah, Rasheel, I'd like that a lot." They have a mango that their mother sliced up, salt-and-peppered, and left in the fridge for them, and slices of bread that they break apart, pill up into little rolls, and dip in sugar, and Gwen takes great pleasure in squirreling the food away without actually letting them see her eat it, which makes Jamal laugh and frustrates Rasheel to the point that he pounces on her, hitting her shoulders with his fists and demanding, "How are you doing that! How are you doing that!"
That Wednesday, she catches Ms. Ngiwidi in her classroom during the lunch break because she needs a teacher to sign off on her drop slip. It's just a formality, and Gwen isn't expecting it to take long at all, so she's a little put out when Ms. Ngiwidi sets her wrap down and says, "Have a seat, Gwen."
Gwen has a seat.
Ms. Ngiwidi plucks up a napkin, wiping her mouth with it and frowning down at the drop slip. Her mouth purses as she contemplates and dismisses several conversational openers. Gwen glances at the clock, trying not to feel resentful.
"I thought you liked the debate club," she decides on, looking up at Gwen with a concerned furrow between her brows. "In fact, I was under the impression that you're one of its star members. But you want to drop it?"
"But --" this seems to baffle her. "But why?"
"I've been consistently late to every club meeting for the past two and a half weeks," Gwen points out. "And while I'm grateful for all the time I've spent with the team, I don't have the time or the energy to commit to it anymore, so rather than continue to be an unreliable participant, I've elected to drop."
Ms. Ngiwidi listens to this speech. Then she says, still in that same bewildered tone, like she can't possibly imagine what's going on in Gwen's life that could possibly take priority, "But there are only a few weeks left in the semester." And less time than that until regionals, yes, Gwen's aware. "Are you sure this is what you want to do?"
Is Gwen sure that she'd rather spend time making the Young brothers feel safe in their own neighborhood than she would passive-aggressively competing with Kevin the "make me a sandwich" guy?
Ms. Ngiwidi sighs, and signs the drop sheet.
Her parents don't really take the news well, either, and aren't satisfied with the pale justifications that Gwen hands over when they demand them; whatever excuse she can think of that isn't, because I'm Spider-Man! Sorry!
The worst part about being an overachiever, Gwen has found, is that people always assume you'll be willing to do more. When really, you're already working at 110% to get done all the things you've already got on your plate, and no, Dad, you don't have "just a minute," and, no, Mr. Ramirez, you don't want to volunteer for this competition although yes, it looks like fun, and somewhere along the lines, someone throws "I thought you'd be more dependable than this" and it breaks you like someone had dropped you to the floor like a glass ornament.
At work, Ripley reaches across and rubs a hand along her back, saying, "Yeah, but you know how it is for girls like us, Gwen. Someone once told us that we could do anything, so we took that to mean we had to do everything."
Dr. Connors comes around behind them right then, peering at his clipboard through his bifocals and already speaking. "-- is this the station that reported twice the usual aggression markers in the serum simulation for Fred --"
He stops, finally spotting the look on Gwen's face.
"Gwen?" All the impatience falls away from his voice, leaving just the fatherly note that endears him to her a little bit, even when she mostly just wants him to go away. It's getting harder and harder to keep all the lies straight when everybody gets so concerned all the time. "What's wrong?"
She opens her mouth to deliver the easy lie, but Ripley beats her to it. "She's got too much on her plate, so instead of going postal and shooting everybody the way most people do at this stage, she dropped out of debate club, only now everybody's trying to guilt-trip her for it, so it's having the opposite effect on her stress levels than she'd hoped. Also, her school's now shit out of luck if they hoped to win a trophy against Stuyvesant."
"Thanks, Ripley," Gwen says, muffled from the desk.
Dr. Connors doesn't say anything for a long moment, not even to reprimand Ripley on her language, and it's the kind of silence that prompts Gwen into looking up. He meets her eyes steadily and tells her, "For what it's worth, Gwen, you should never feel guilty about doing what is necessary to protect yourself. Your mental health is the priority here."
"Thanks, Doc," she says with some surprise. When she'd imagined the corners she'd get support from, she hadn't really been imagining Dr. Connors would be one of them.
He smiles, and as he turns away, she catches a glimpse of something that looks like road rash on his neck.
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