Between her mother's job and her father's job and the kind of hours they work, not to mention Gwen and her brothers and the various extracurricular activities they're involved in, family dinners are usually regarded as highly mythical, highly elusive creatures. So when one finally does come around, they make a whole production out of it.
They dress up; skirt and nylons for Gwen and her mother, a suit for Howie, nice slacks and little ties for Philip and Simon. There are courses. Everyone's expected to say "please" and "thank you" and "pass the" and nobody's allowed to fart. At least, not loudly. Sometimes, there's even fish.
Tonight, Gwen's aunt from Staten Island is visiting, so there's branzino and the whole "we have guests" performance that they're putting on, reporting their individual academic and social progresses for Aunt Opal to cast comment upon. The debate team debacle is carefully avoided.
Gwen's already on edge from being expected to both help her parents in the kitchen and also to keep the boys out of their hair, and half-way through salad, a steady wail of a siren starts up outside, thin and distant. It's joined by two more that quickly fade as they race on by, and Gwen's father tries to be casual about the way he's checking his phone under the table. Gwen's wrists ache with the phantom weight of her webshooters, tucked in their shoebox in her bag.
Then, as they're poking at the complicated array of steamed vegetables and fish, it prompts Aunt Opal into asking what, if anything, Gwen's father is doing about the Spider-Man "problem," and Gwen's night gets progressively more trying from there.
"I was thinking," she cuts in smoothly, setting her fork down and addressing her father. "Of applying for early acceptance to NYU. Dr. Connors and Sergeant Butler have both agreed to write recommendation letters to their criminal justice department for me. Then maybe the police academy after that."
A ringing silence greets this announcement, the kind Gwen can hear somehow in the depths of her ears. Even her brothers stop eating to watch them the eager intensity of kids who are certain that violence is imminent.
Her father wipes his mouth with a napkin, chewing at the inside of his cheek before saying, "Okay."
"Okay?" Gwen echoes, startled.
"But only after you become a brain surgeon. A famous one," he adds, trying for stern and missing it by a mile; the corners of his mouth twitch.
"What about your boyfriend?" Howie drags the word out mockingly; Aunt Opal's eyebrows arch.
"Peter?" she blinks, and then scowls when he crows triumphantly, because no, obviously, but she can't think of who else he might be talking about. They gave up teasing about Flash ages ago, because Flash isn't the kind of person you tease unless you want to spend the rest of the day with a jock strap holding your nose into a semi-permanent pig position. And Miles would be statutory rape in half the states in the country, and the other half aren't states Gwen would want to live anyway. And that pretty much sums up the number of boys Gwen sees regularly. "Um," she continues. "His aunt and uncle want him to stay nearby -- but I think Parsons is out of his price range. He was looking at schools for fashion design in Ohio, last I checked."
Howie snickers, and with sudden clarity, Gwen can tell where this is going, so he only gets about half-way through a sneered, "are you sure he's not your girlfriend?" before she has his middle finger in her grip, yanking it back towards his wrist just to hear him yelp and twist up out of his chair to relieve the pressure.
Her mother barks, "Gwen!"
"The fact that you think making clothes is insulting says more about you as a man than it does him, don't you think?" she tells him, firmly and pleasantly, and then, when her mother gives her a deliberate look, she lets him go.
He eases back into his seat, ears a dull red and his eyes downcast. He rubs at his hand with the other and mumbles resentfully.
Gwen sticks around after dinner, partly because she's expected to and partly because her dad doesn't get any urgent phone calls, which hopefully means that those were just traffic cops they heard earlier and Spider-Man isn't really needed anywhere. She's sitting on her bed, listening with one ear as her father and Aunt Opal talk in the hallway about the rising property taxes on their grand-uncle's upstate home and how he's hinting that he wants to move down to the city and what excuses they're going to use to avoid having to house him. Little Mix plays softly from her desktop; she hears the occasional hook, but mostly it's just a beat, and then there's a knock on the door.
"Come in!" Gwen casts a quick look around for anything incriminating, like underwear left on the floor or a dinner plate that's grown sentient life, but the coast is clear.
Her mother eases the door open. She's taken off her pearls and pulled on one of her father's windbreakers, the one he nicked from the squints in the forensics department because there's a childish part of him that likes walking through the city with CSI in big letters on the back of his jacket. She's carrying a mug tucked between her hands, her wedding ring clinking softly against the ceramic as she shifts her grip.
She settles down at the foot of Gwen's bed, and after a beat, reaches out with one hand to find the shape of her ankle under the comforter. Quietly, she asks, "Are you serious about the police academy, Gwenny-bee?"
And Gwen, who would have been more surprised if somebody hadn't come and talked to her about her pronouncement over dinner, sighs and admits, "I don't know."
Her mother tilts her head, a softness around the corners of her mouth that encourages Gwen to continue.
"On one hand, yes, but on the other hand, I don't know if being a cop is the way to do it, you know? Could I strap a gun to my hip the way Dad does every day and leave, not knowing if I'd come back? Especially if I knew someone was waiting for me?" On her desktop, the cheerful girl-power of Little Mix transitions into the familiar opening of Get Ur Freak On, and Gwen hopes her mother isn't paying enough attention. Being the only girls in a family overrun with men, they share a lot of things, but a love of Missy Elliott isn't one of them.
"Honey," her mother gives her ankle a squeeze. Steam curls up off the top of her mug. "Trust me when I say there are a hundred thousand ways to make the world a better place, whatever your dad and I might have taught you."
Gwen smiles. When they were younger, and Gwen's mother had become an associate, disillusioned with everything she thought her career was going to be, and her father was just a grunt doing legwork, he used to bring her news about convicted criminals as presents to make her feel better about her own clientele, the way some men would romance with wine and candles.
She got that from them; if you love someone, you bend over backwards to make the streets safer for them. That's just how the Stacys do things.
"So, whether it's the police academy or law school --" her mother looks at her pointedly, and Gwen rolls her eyes. "Or teaching mountaineering to retirees, or raising bees in some field in Minnesota, I promise you'll find someway to do good work doing it. You're too remarkable a person not to make everything you touch remarkable too, just by default."
"But you'd be happiest if I went to Georgetown and became a brain surgeon," she checks, just to make sure.
"I think you'd be a great brain surgeon," her mother replies, innocent.
Gwen snorts, and then, because it seems like that kind of moment, she draws her legs up so she can lean over and give her mother a fierce hug, because yeah; police academy, law school, brain surgeon, or bees, and what Gwen decided to do was strap herself into a bunch of spandex and climb up the outside of tall buildings to fight crime. Won't everybody be so proud?
Two days later, Gwen takes a knife to the stomach.
There's a quick silver-dollar wink of sunlight off the edge of the blade, and she has only the space of half-a-heartbeat to recognize the serrated edge, the sharp, hooked point like the end of a hawk's beak, and think, I wonder what this will be like, before it sinks through the padding of her suit.
Luck, and the angle and speed at which their bodies are moving, catches the knife on the edge of the heavy vest material that Peter installed in this area for this exact purpose -- and it slides right into the narrow gap between the fabric and her own body.
It catches the bare skin directly beneath her ribs on the right side and drags through it. Metal bites deep inside of her; she can feel the knife in places she's pretty sure have never felt the light of day.
The pain of it is immediate and obliterates everything else.
"Oh fuck, oh holy shit," she hears the woman say, coming from directly beside her and also from a long way away at the same time. "Nicky, I think I just stabbed Spider-Man!"
"What the fuck did you do that for?!"
"I don't know, he came out of fucking nowhere, I just reacted!"
"Well, fuck, come on, we have to get out of here!"
The weight beside Gwen vanishes, and she staggers; the ground isn't where she thinks it is, and her knees hit the concrete at different times, jarring her. She throws one hand out to catch herself; the other's touching the blade, pressing around the wound like somehow that'll stop it from hurting.
"Did you get him?" the woman's voice continues, shrill. "Nicky, did you get my baby?"
"Yes, I did, he's in the car, come on!"
"Is he safe?"
"Yes! Fuck, Rosa, get the knife, you can't just --"
A hand on her back, and then the knife is wrenched from her in a manner that's somehow even more horrible than the entrance; the screaming, jagged path it takes leaving her body. She senses the vibrations of retreating feet bolting away from her at a dead run, and some instinct propels her upright: she has to give chase, those people just kidnapped a kid, and if they're allowed to reach a car without anybody catching the plates, the likelihood that anyone will intercept them halves.
Her vision blurs and telescopes down, focusing on impossibly tiny, impossibly useless things; the fabric of cracks in the sidewalk, the pattern of paint peeling off the side of a dumpster, the zig-zag path of a fly cutting through the air. A warm wetness slides against her skin, inside her suit.
She isn't going to be able to give chase like this.
She changes direction, trying to walk in a straight line and maybe succeeding at some vague approximation of it. She finds a payphone outside a Quik-E Mart and grabs onto it, balancing herself. There's blood between her toes now. The torn halves of her stomach rub together like mouths with every step.
She turns; three people are standing nearby. She can't see them, her vision's too swimmy for that, but she feels the shape they make in the air, the alertness of their bodies and the tense way their attention is focused on her. Two of them have lit cigarettes.
"Shit, man," one of them breathes out. "Shit, is that blood?"
"Do you have change?" she asks them.
Within fifteen seconds, three quarters are deposited into her shaking hand. She turns and slots them into the phone, tucks the receiver against the side of the mask. She dials.
"911," answers immediately; a man's voice, clipped and verging on the edge of impatience. "What's your location?"
"Payphone, Quik-E Mart, corner of 42nd and --"
"Lexington," he finishes for her. "What's your emergency."
"A kidnapping," she gets out. "I'm reporting a kidnapping. A man and a woman just kidnapped a boy --"
"Young boy, aged three and a half?" He says sharply. "We've gotten several reports of the same from your location. Thank you, we're --"
"The abductors' names are Rosa and Nicky," she continues loudly. "Rosa is five-foot-zero, 120 pounds, and has hair to her elbows. She's the birth mother. They have a knife."
A beat of silence is the only thing that betrays she's caught the 911 operator off-guard. Or maybe she didn't, and he's currently writing the information down, like he should be.
"Thank you," he says, still in that brusque, matter-of-fact way. "If we could get your name --"
"Spider-Man," she says, because that will have to do.
She starts to fall, finding the cradle with the phone and slotting it into place, just as her knees stop supporting her weight. Coins clatter into the return. No, she thinks miserably, because she doesn't want an ambulance called, she doesn't want Peter's beautiful suit cut from her body, doesn't want her white skin and blonde hair and damnable Stacy face betrayed to people who are bound to report her identity to the one person who'd be most hurt by it.
Hands catch her before she can hit the concrete for a second time.
"Woah there," says a voice by her ear, calm and very masculine. She catches a glimpse of brown skin, curly bits of a black beard, and the edges of an ivory turban before her vision swims into fractals again. "I got you, Spider-Man."
"A little boy was kidnapped," she says, gripping at him with her free hand; he takes her weight and levels her out. "The kidnappers have a knife, I have to --"
"I can tell you've met the knife," the man continues, again with something in his voice that's so slow, still, and deep, that Gwen finds herself wanting to slow her heartbeat down to match. "But you did good, Spider-Man. Can't you hear the sirens?"
She can, in fact: the heaviness of them makes the air ripple as if a great weight has been placed upon it, pressing hard into her skin. They're very close.
"They will take care of the boy, and now you must take care of yourself. Is there somewhere we can go, Spider-Man?"
For a moment, she focuses on breathing, dragging steadying amounts of air into her lungs and exhaling them out again. Pain wails across every nerve, makes her bones shake like something's been sucked straight from their marrow, but she's breathing without obstruction, so the knife did not catch her lung. She thinks about his question, flinging her mind around like strikes of lightning, but the only thing she can land on is the one person who knows who's under this mask.
"Queens," she gets out. "I need to go to Queens."
"That we can do easily."
He shifts her weight alongside his and starts walking her down the sidewalk. She focuses on the back and forth of their feet; her red-clad boots and his bare-toed sandals, the steady wink of dusk-colored nailbeds. His jeans have a rip in the knee.
Nobody stops them in the subway. Gwen doesn't like the idea of sitting, because she is still trying to keep her wound held together with her bare hands and she doesn't want to get blood all over the subway seats, which her rescuer is patient with up until her vision swims into bug-shaped spots and he says, very firmly, "You need to sit."
"Here, Spider-Man," says another voice, and Gwen hears the shift of a grocery bag, the rip of packaging: somebody in their car has a roll of Bounty paper towels, which are laid across the seat for her. Everything squelches unpleasantly when she sinks into it, but after a few minutes of sitting with her head between her knees, her vision stabilizes again. By the time her ears are popping as the 7 takes them underneath the East River, she feels stable enough to look up and say, "Thank you."
"Don't be silly," says the man with the beard. She's attracted a small crowd of people, but thank God for New Yorkers, because they're all gathered in their seats and around the car and pretending that they don't notice her at all, like a bleeding Spider-Man doesn't even faze them. "You'd do the same for us."
It's actually one of the nicest things anyone could have possibly said to her right then.
He accompanies her as far as the turnstiles at her exit, and catches on to her hesitation immediately. "Can you make it from here?" he asks her. She tests her weight on her own two feet; everything feels sticky and weak, and she can feel the catch of fabric inside the place where the knife tore her open. It's still bleeding; she'd tried on the subway, surreptitiously, to patch it up with a web. She isn't sure how well she succeeded.
"I think so," she says, and he nods, lets her join the flow of exiting commuters, and stays standing there until she reaches the stairs and walks upwards into the daylight. He lifts a hand in farewell when she looks back.
She's made the trek to Peter's window enough times by this point that it's instinct; a matter of a couple blocks that, if she were feeling better, she'd take by way of stately old trees and powerline poles, for lack of sufficiently tall buildings to swing from. She'd felt a lot more confident stepping out of the subway, she thinks, but by the time she hooks her toe around Peter's drainpipe and levers herself through the window, she feels like the instant she hits the floor, she isn't going to move again.
This, she realizes in hindsight, is where she went wrong.
She didn't even stop to consider that her senses were telling her that Peter wasn't alone.
"Oh my god," says Miles Morales.
"Gwen!" Peter's chair clatters to the floor as he launches himself out of it, catching her as she staggers the rest of the way through the window, sliding down by the foot of the bed. Bolts of cloth fall like chess pieces, and Peter knocks them out of the way, cushioning her awkwardly with his body.
"What?" comes tinnily from the desktop computer; that's Flash's voice. "What's going on? Somebody turn the fucking webcam, I can't see!"
"Hi," Gwen tells the swimming face of Peter Parker above her, lowly. "I got a little stabbed."
She can tell the instant he registers what's transferred from her suit to his hands and the way she's still pressing a hand into her side, because his eyes double in size and scatter a little bit; panic overtakes him and he checks out. He has very, very obviously never seen that kind of blood on a person before.
"What, Gwen?" Flash's voice, again. "What about her? Is she all right?"
Miles steps closer, and Peter's head whips around to face him. There are some subvocal murmurings about the hospital, but she shakes her head at both of them until they drop it. She waits patiently while they freak out some more. They're being very useless.
"Is she all right?!" Flash yells.
"I'm fine, Flash!" she calls back.
Peter comes to a decision.
"Get her out of this," he tells Miles, slipping out from underneath Gwen as fast as a flickering fish, lurching to his feet and disappearing around the corner out into the hallway ("-- hey!" Flash snaps as Peter crosses briefly in front of the webcam. "Oh my god, Parker, fuck you.") Gwen levers herself against the wall with her free hand and bends her neck forward so that Miles can fumble with the hooks at the back of her mask.
He makes a startled noise when it slips off her head, stray blonde hairs springing every which way, matted to their pins with sweat. She sits up so that they can peel the suit down to her waist, and then she's in nothing but her sports bra and a smeared coat of blood in front of Miles Morales.
"You're --" he gets out in a tiny, trod-upon squeak.
"Surprise," she tells him.
He chews on his nails, rocking back and forth a little bit in his crouch, eyes flicking from her face down to the wound in her side and back again. The edges of it have gone phlemy, ridged with white pus like an insect that's been stepped on. Almost all of the suture Gwen had applied on the subway has dissolved, leaving only the residue of strings connecting one edge of the wound to another. Looking at it now, it's smaller than it felt when it was tearing through her skin, but it still hurts like a sucker punch.
"You know, I think I'm the only one that's handling this calmly," she remarks to nobody in particular.
"I don't know if you noticed, but you are bleeding into Peter's carpet."
Flash's voice flies up an entire octave. "She's what!"
"I'm fine!" Gwen says again with a significant look at Miles, who seems to abruptly realize that explaining how Gwen Stacy got stabbed would be about twenty times more difficult than explaining how Spider-Man got stabbed. Then, "What are you guys even doing here?"
"Tutoring," Miles answers, and then jerks a thumb over his shoulder. "Well, him specifically. I just came over because he sent me here to beat Peter up and steal his chem homework. His words, not mine."
"I haven't been able to copy off of you for awhile," Flash's voice explains from the desktop computer. "And little dude is cool and all, but he can't explain like, you know, the itty-bitty shit we learn in class, you know, like, Mrs. Schultz's special formula for valence electrons, so I sent him on an errand. And what do you mean, bleeding? Why are you bleeding?"
"I thought you were learning it!" Gwen protests, indignant.
And Flash, weirdly, says, "Sorry."
Then Peter's back, carrying in one hand a wet, olive-green washcloth and, horrifying, a very large needle, threaded through to a spool cupped in the palm of his hand.
She takes one look at it and tenses up, all over. "What's that?"
"Trust me," says Peter, and only the barest shake along the edges of his voice gives him away. He edges around Miles to crouch down next to her. "I'm very good at sewing, you know this."
"On clothes, not on people! Also, you're letting him copy your chem homework?" she throws at him accusingly.
"Your priorities really have me worried," he replies, keeping his voice very mild. And, "That reminds me. Miles, can you exit out of Skype for me, please?"
"Don't even fucking --" Flash starts on a high-pitched howl, but Miles is quicker, darting over to reach the keyboard and saying, "we'll talk to you later, okay!" before Cntrl+Q-ing out of the program. He comes back around the end of the bed, crouching down onto his heels and watching, nervous, as Peter takes the washcloth and starts cleaning the wound. Gwen tries to help, but it's like her hands won't go where she needs them to go, so she winds up just leaning her head back against Peter's carpeting and checking out. She barely even notices when the needle dips into her flesh; it's just a vague pinprick of pain amongst a flooding wave of it, and an uncomfortable pulling sensation.
Her eyes find Miles.
"How are you doing, kid?" she checks.
To his credit, when Miles speaks, his voice doesn't come out as small as his eyes are making him look. "Does this happen to you a lot?"
"Nah," she says. "Usually I'm pretty invincible. Small knives are my only weakness, apparently. You should see me dodge bullets."
"I have," he says blankly. "There are, like, so many YouTube videos of you doing it. I've probably seen them all. Oh my god, I follow your hashtag on Twitter you're Spider-Man."
A glow settles in Gwen's chest, because if Miles Morales thinks she's cool, then she has to be doing something right.
"So you know that I usually kick a lot more ass than get my ass kicked," she says. Abruptly, she frowns at the top of Peter's head. "Did you sterilize that?" she asks.
He pauses. "Fuck," he says.
For a moment, nobody does anything. Black thread connects the crosshatch of Gwen's skin to the needle in Peter's hand.
"Fuck, that was dumb," he decides.
"I have, like, Purell in my backpack," Miles offers hesitantly. "We could douse her or something. Would that work?"
There's a reason this is usually done by professionals, Gwen thinks, and drops her head back with a thunk. Weirdly, she's still wearing her gloves, but she inches her hand over and traces over the edge of the wound with her fingertips, unable to reconcile it with the idea that this is her body. This is her body, torn open: she might not heal correctly. She will probably definitely have a scar. It will definitely be ugly. She will probably always have to hide it. And isn't that such a strange thing to think: that, in the space of a few heartbeats, the geography of her body was irrevocably changed? Just like that?
"Hey!" Peter calls to her sharply. "You're not going into shock, are you?"
She focuses on him. He's rubbing hand sanitizer over his hands, and then -- carefully -- on the needle. Miles hovers over his shoulder.
"No," she says, although she wouldn't know. "I'm thinking about how I'm going to hide my stomach from my parents for the rest of my life."
"Maybe you won't scar," he says hopefully. "Maybe you're like one of those spiders that will survive even after you've squashed them -- you know, the ones that can still crawl across the table even with half their guts hanging out."
"That's flies you're thinking of."
"I feel like I'm in the middle of a Goosebumps book," Miles mutters. When they just stare at him, he rounds his shoulders up by his ears and goes, "You know? That series from the 90's?"
"… were you even alive in the 90's?" Gwen asks.
"No, but," Miles sounds defensive.
Somewhere downstairs, the oven timer goes off with a shrill noise, startling them badly. Peter's uncle Ben's voice rumbles something, which Aunt May returns, her tone deeply sarcastic, and Gwen, Peter, and Miles all stare at each other. They'd forgotten.
Gwen tries to sit up, and a dozen different nerve endings start screaming at once. "I need to get home," she says blankly.
Peter's hand flattens against her sternum. "I need to finish this," he corrects, the needle a conspiratorial silver wink in his hand.
"I -- I don't have my phone. Or clothes," she realizes. Peter's hand looks surprisingly big, right there over her chest, and it smells overwhelmingly like a 99c bottle of hand sanitizer from Walgreens. Some of the blood on her skin has dried into brown flecks. She wants to scratch it off.
"You'll borrow mine." The hand moves, joining the other to resume the stitching work. "I need to keep the suit anyway, I need to -- to wash it --"
"I'll help!" Miles chimes in instantly.
"And -- I need to wash the carpet too -- and I need to sew up the rip --"
He's checking out again.
"Peter!" Gwen reaches out, misjudges the relationship between her hand and the space around her, which definitely feels weird -- she's accustomed to the spider-senses -- and winds up fumbling with the curve of his ear, which she folds, because he lets her. He refocuses.
"Why'd you come to me?"
There he goes again, throwing words at her that she can't predict and never sees coming. Surprisingly, she finds she already has the answer.
She takes his hand, the one that had more or less just second based her. "Look," she says. "You aren't shaking."
"Oh," he goes, surprised, looking at their hands like he'd never seen them before, and huffs out an uncomfortable laugh. "I don't feel that calm."
"I needed you to have steady hands, so you did." She smiles at him. She feels sick, and she hurts, and she desperately wants to stop hurting, and she wants to know if the cops caught the kidnappers, but despite all of that, Peter Parker is still sewing her up. "Thank you for being my steady hands."
She catches the clerk at the international grocer's on the corner just before they close, and buys a whole bunch of Ace bandages, because she isn't sure they have any in the apartment. The last thing she wants is to bleed through her clothes tomorrow while she's at school. For one thing, blood is horrible to try to get out of fabric once it's set (Miles texts her as such three times in one hour, and on the third time, includes a blurry picture of someone who must be Peter, keying himself into the dark, closed-up dry cleaner's where his aunt works. The text reads, where is spiderman to stop this rampant crime!!!! and yeah, no, Miles is taking this like a champ, good kid,) and for another, students bleeding from scary stab wounds in the stomach is the kind of thing that gets the parents called in, and Gwen loves her parents, but they aren't stupid.
She contemplates climbing the fire escape, but both her mom and dad would be home by now and they'd know that Gwen isn't, so it'd probably be less suspicious if she just walked in through the front door.
She meets her dad in the hall. He takes one look at her, eyes skipping over her baggy clothes (Peter's pants had to be rolled at the cuffs twice before they fit; the waistline, however, fit just fine, and Gwen doesn't want to talk about it,) her grey face, and the concave way she's guarding her stomach, and opens his mouth.
She panics and blurts out, "It's cramps!"
He blinks at her, and closes his mouth again.
"I'm really gross, Dad, for real, you don't want to know." She edges past him. He lets her go.
Five minutes later, he knocks on her bedroom door, carrying a heat pack and a steaming cup of chamomile tea, both of which he hands over without comment or question. And she loves him, she loves him as completely and helplessly as she did when she was five.
There's a brown paper bag sitting in her locker when she shows her face at school the next morning. Her suit is folded inside, and Gwen tests the new seam where the tear had been with a fond smile.
Flash, of course, corners her at the first available opportunity, so she shows him her stitches, pretends they totally weren't done by a sixteen-year-old in his bedroom, and doesn't quite explain what happened. A number of things cross his face, flickering there in the tight muscle at his jaw. She thinks about asking him what he'd've done if he'd actually been there in person instead of on Skype, but instead, she changes the subject and grills him on how he'd lied about his progress on Chem.
"No, I'm good," he says, when she suggests that they use their lunch break to work on it. "Parker gave me his assignment."
"He did?" Gwen blinks, thrown. "Did you drown him for it?"
Flash looks annoyed. "Voluntarily."
"… huh," she says, and when sixth track puts them in the same room together for the first time that day, she grabs the stool by Peter in the Chem lab and glares at his lab partner until the poor girl puts her headphones in with a slightly frightened look.
"I see you're feeling better," Peter comments, faintly alarmed by her hostility. "Are my stitches holding?"
"Yes, thank you, and I have your clothes, I'll bring them by later. You gave Flash your homework to copy?"
He looks away. She stares at the side of his face; the prominent bob of his Adam's apple, the fringe of hair that sweeps thickly to one side, the way he chews at the inside of his bottom lip before answering, his voice very low, addressing the blank notebook paper under his pencil, "He was the first to ask if you were okay. Miles and I -- but he was the first one to ask, 'Is Gwen okay?'"
Gwen turns that over in her head, not altogether sure she understands. "You're … just now learning that Flash Thompson is capable of expressing human compassion?"
"Well, he's never really expressed it in my general direction before, so excuse me if I wasn't ready to take it on faith," Peter says dryly, and then -- Peter, always Peter, throwing words at her feet too quickly for her to jump over them -- he adds, "I generally approve of people who are invested in your well-being. I'm willing to reward good behavior."
Feeling like she's been tripped, Gwen has no idea what to say to that.
The silence stretches between them, and for the first time, it borders on awkward. She feels she should say something to fill it, and Peter shifts uncomfortably on his stool, drumming his notebook paper with the butt of his eraser.
"Anyway," he says quickly, like he's ripping a band-aid off something that might fester otherwise. "That's why I'm going to tolerate him. Why do you?"
"Oh," she says. "That's easy. We scored the same on the SHSAT."
Peter reacts like she'd slapped him in the face with a dead fish. "He told you that?"
"His grandmother did."
The bell rings then, and Peter's lab partner starts to pull the earbuds from her ears, when Gwen abruptly realizes what she wants to say. She leans across the space and kisses the bones in his cheek. He looks at her in surprise.
Her lips feel dry where they transferred their moisture to his face; she's never been quite so aware of them before.
She smiles at him, says, "Thank you," and hops off the stool, heading to her own station.
Later, MJ tweets Spider-Man a reminder that opening night for The Whistler is that evening and she and the other girls still have a ticket for him. She's not going to lie, it's really nice to be seen and accounted for as Spider-Man and not have to do anything more strenuous than sit in a small, cushy folding chair for an hour or two, while her stomach tries to knit itself together. She's not up for any acrobatics today.
"Surely you could have found somebody else to gift a ticket to," she comments to MJ after the show, letting her thread their arms together and chorusing a good-bye over her shoulder to the rest of the crew. "Opening night and all."
"I thought about asking my friend Gwen," MJ admits readily, making Gwen startle. "But I don't know how … you know, into theater she is. She's always busy doing something, like, she's totally one of those people you fully expect to rule the world someday."
Gwen is having serious trouble wrapping her head around the idea that MJ Watson thinks she's going to rule the world.
Scratch that, she's having a hard time wrapping her mind around the idea that MJ Watson considers her a friend. Her! How cool is that?
"Maybe you should ask anyway," she suggests, scrambling to recover. "I mean, I think most people just like being thought of, you know?"
As they walk, MJ cheerfully catches her up on everything she'd missed since Rabin was taken care of, the little detritus of lives that continue living on after you've made your exit from them: Killigan's baby is now two months old and spends most of his time spitting up still, Crossondra just finished staking a tomato garden in her windowbox and hopes to sell salsas later in the summer, and she, MJ, is turning seventeen at the start of June. Gwen, in turn, tells her about some of the things she'd been involved with, some of which MJ already knew about -- she follows Spider-Man's Twitter, but Gwen figures that most people care about Spider-Man the same way they care about the Grumpy Cat: they think he's cool, but they wouldn't notice if he disappeared from their lives tomorrow.
It's the people who would notice -- MJ, the Young brothers -- that makes Gwen want to keep putting on the mask, even when she makes that mental tally of everything that's wrong with the world and it makes her so sick with the need to help. MJ nods along like she understands.
"What's the most dangerous thing you've ever done?" she asks, there towards the end of the walk. Her voice is this low, quiet thing, like she hadn't meant to speak at all.
Gwen pays attention -- people talk to the mask sometimes the way they can't talk to people, and when she looks, she sees MJ watching her from underneath her eyelashes, the way you'd watch a person wearing sunglasses, never sure if they're looking back.
She opens her mouth, having no idea what she actually intends to reply with, and finds that what comes out is, "I think I fell in love with a boy," and MJ's eyelashes flutter like she'd caught snow in them. Gwen's never had anyone like MJ, either. "Discovering him was like what Neil Armstrong must have felt like, discovering the moon, even though we all knew it was there already."
"Oh," says MJ.
"Hey, whatcha doing?"
"Hmm?" Gwen looks over the top of her phone. Her head's pillowed on her backpack, her glove pulled off so she can thumb at her phone in a way it will actually acknowledge, because seriously, touch screens were not invented with spandex in mind. Miles swings his legs out over open air and pulls a face at her, like he can tell just how little attention she was paying him. He'd been telling her about how the Flatiron building, built in 1922, was the world's first steel-frame skyscraper, did she know that?
And usually Gwen's all for new information, don't get her wrong, but.
"Oh," and she holds up her phone, because narcissism is trumping architectural history right now. "I'm reading a thing somebody did on the Internet."
Somehow, Miles is not impressed with this tidbit.
"I don't know if you knew this," she says, heavy on the irony. "But Spider-Man might, in fact, be a girl."
"That's shocking news," he deadpans back, and scoots across the ledge so recklessly that Gwen's stomach drops at the way his weight tips out over empty space, even as her spider-senses calmly tell her they'll have no trouble catching him if he fell. It's the only thing he's asked from her as Spider-Man, something Gwen was more than happy to indulge because hey, the Spider-Man mode of transportation is pretty fucking cool. They picked the Flatiron building because it was lower-profile than, say, the Chrysler Building, Oscorp Tower, or the Empire State Building, so they were less likely to get caught up here. "What's the argument?"
"Apparently, I apologize a lot. Furthermore, society is so focused on the act of performing masculinity that if I were truly male, then I would do everything in my power to accentuate and reaffirm that assumption. The fact that I wear a skintight red-and-blue suit --" They exchange an amused look. "-- and still manage to actively encourage androgyny is the indicative marker that I'm female. A woman would recognize there's more social capita available to her for being perceived as male and thus would be less likely to correct everybody and insist on being called, like, Spider-Gal instead --"
"Spider-Gwen," Miles chimes in.
She flashes him a grin, which he can't see through the mask but probably knows is there. Spider-Gwen. She likes that! "-- and after all, society rewards the masculine and simultaneously punishes the feminine. Oh, hey, that's a Jackson Katz citation, I thought that sounded familiar."
"Is this article taking the Internet by storm?" Miles asks, the dryness in his voice suggesting he already knows the answer. "Is the world's perception of Spider-Man drastically changed?"
Gwen thumbs down to the comments at the bottom and barks a laugh. "No, people are pretty mad."
"Oh, no, Spider-Man might be a girl. How threatening."
"You'd think so. Oh my god," she says with relish. "Is this dude high?"
"Does he mention being high?"
"No, but -- oh my god, this is great, I didn't realize people still thought this."
"Well, the one thing that's pretty reliable about stoners is that the only thing they love more than getting stoned is blogging about it. Well," he says again, quick to correct himself. "White stoners." He puts a hand to his chest. "My people know better."
"You are remarkably world-weary for a fourteen-year-old, you know that, right?"
He smirks. "So I've been told."
In some regards, it's like every other afternoon Gwen and Miles ever spent together, only today they're perched atop the distinct wedge shape of the Flatiron building instead of on the steps of the Met, and Gwen's wearing a skintight red-and-blue suit.
When she stops by the apartment building, landing along the rooftop ledge and jogging a little to kill her momentum, she's surprised to find there's somebody already up there. She's had a couple close calls with the tenets tending to their garden plots before, but this person's sitting in the lawn chair like he's enjoying the scenery, a skateboard tucked under his feet. He unfolds out of the chair when he sees her, pipecleaner limbs coming to land on the cement and straightening out, forcing the rest of him to follow.
She's even more surprised to find that it's Peter.
"Hey!" she goes, hopping down off the ledge. "What are you doing here?"
A more relevant question occurs to her.
"How did you get up here?" The elevator is locked unless you have a resident's key.
Peter shrugs, scuffing the ground a little bit with the toe of his sneaker. "I might have …" he falters some, and stuffs his hands in his pockets. "Climbed the fire escape."
"You …" she starts, shocked.
"Your doorman is really frightening!" he says defensively, startling a laugh out of her. "Also, I wanted to see if I could. You do it all the time, so, and you're always climbing into my window, so I figured it was time to return the favor."
She pulls her mask off, slinging her backpack around so that she can zip it into the front compartment. Her gloves follow. She zips that back up, then reaches into the main compartment of her bag for her clothes, which she starts pulling on over the suit; long-sleeved white turtleneck, paired with a dove-grey vest and dark-wash skinny jeans that never liked to slide on over spandex, but she makes them do it anyway. There are only so many combinations of things Gwen can wear to successfully cover the Spider-Man suit, but she's getting better at it.
"And?" she prompts, when he doesn't volunteer any more information. She starts unpinning her hair. "What's the verdict?"
Peter steps in close, reaching up to help her remove the bobby pins in back, absently combing his fingers through each strand as it's released. The sensation shivers through her; the brief touch of his nails to her scalp.
"I," he decides, depositing the pins into her palm. "Am not the biggest fan of heights."
Gwen laughs. Her hair, usually so reliably straight, coils up around her neck, having dried crooked underneath the mask. She gives it a shake, and then she picks him up -- takes all his long coltish limbs and throws him over her shoulder.
"Here," she tells him, turning around and striding for the ledge. "We're going to take a shortcut."
"Don't you dare!" his voice yelps from somewhere in the vicinity of her butt. And, "Gwen!" when she makes like she's going to shrug him over the edge.
She laughs again, then lifts him easily and sets him back on his feet.
"You know I wouldn't," she's quick to reassure at the look on his face. She still has a hand over his heart, and flattens her palm against the fabric of his hooded jacket; her spider-senses tell her about his bounding heart, the swiftness of his every inhaling breath, and the relaxing of his muscles even as they stand there, trusting her.
He swallows. "That was really cold-blooded," he says glibly. "You, Gwen Stacy, are positively cold-blooded."
"I am, you know," she agrees. She can see the flecks the reflections from the city lights make in his eyes, diamond-white pinpricks on their surface.
They're very close. "What?" he goes, tilting his head down like he can't hear her.
"My body temperature," Gwen explains. Has she taken her hand off his chest yet? "It runs ten degrees colder than yours. I can thank the spider for that. It actually works to my advantage --"
He is really close to her face. Should he be that close?
"-- running cooler than most humans means --"
She keeps losing her train of thought. The spider wants to bite his face.
"-- I'm more sensitive to temperature variations in the air, which helps me during a fight because sensitivity to air currents means --"
And then she has to stop talking, which is annoying, because she was talking about biology, and biology is really cool, and didn't somebody tell her once that not enough high school kids are interested in biology these days?
She supposes she could keep talking against his mouth, but she figures maybe kissing Peter Parker is something she might want to shut up for.
He puts a hand to her waist, leaning her into him like she's the one that needs support, which, what, no, thank you, stop that, Gwen's trying to concentrate on kissing except her senses are trying to tell her everything and it's so overwhelming, and then his mouth opens against hers and oh, okay, so maybe Gwen does need the support after all, because she is leaning into that touch so hard that she is definitely going to tip them both backwards.
His hands catch her face, holding them still, and Gwen closes her eyes against the sight of the city lit up beyond them.
They break apart.
"Oh," says Gwen, with a feeling like having just fallen flat on her face. "Okay."
She'd like to say that, afterwards, they had a mature, sensible discussion between two fairly intelligent individuals in which they agreed upon the parameters of their relationship not only as two teenagers, but also as Spider-Man and one of her only confidants.
It's mostly just "so, are we, I don't know, a thing?", "I don't know, do you want to be a thing?" "we could be a thing, if you wanted to be a thing," "then … we can be a thing?" "okay," and then it was more kissing, because Gwen kind of likes the inside of Peter's mouth. She likes the architecture of it.
"Hey, can I ask a favor?" he goes, after she's taken him back down to the ground (through the elevator this time.) They're standing in the lobby, one of the neighbors is flipping through a stack of mail nearby, and she wants to touch the place where his clavicle shows above the collar of his shirt. So she does.
He looks uncertain. "Can I kiss you tomorrow?" he blurts out. "In front of Flash? Just, like, to brag?"
Her laugh comes tearing out of her like it's got wings. "Oh my god," she snorts, and widens her eyes at him. "Really?"
He shrugs, embarrassed.
"Yes, Peter Parker," she says with great formality. "You have my permission to use me to one-up Flash Thompson. Thank you for asking before doing." His grin dimples through to his cheeks, and she snorts again. He leans in for a kiss, a touch against her mouth that thrills through her like it's somehow never happened before, and then he's gone, pushing through the revolving doors and kicking his skateboard down to the pavement.
Benny, the doorman, watches her watch him go.
Drolly, he asks, "Did I see that boy come in?"
"You saw nothing," Gwen informs him loftily, turning around on her tiptoes like she's lit all through with helium and heading back towards the elevator. "Nothing at all!"
The next morning, she only really half-heartedly double-checks Flash's Algebra answers with him before the bell for first track rings, because she knows the interruption's coming. Yet somehow, when it does, Gwen feels spotlit and caught off-guard at the touch of Peter's hand to the small of her back. She glances up at him and thinks, you are a person and you willingly want to rub facial orifices together with me, how weird is that, and she's already smiling when he ducks his head down to hers, because that is so cool.
It turns out she doesn't have to fake delight in the least.
"See you later?" he goes, like he's double-checking.
Gwen grins, nodding quickly and thrilling a little bit when he sways towards her, like he's thinking about kissing her again. "Yeah, okay."
He flashes her one more smile, switching his skateboard to the other arm and disappearing off down the hall, rounding the corner and vanishing from sight.
She turns back around to find Flash giving her a look that is one-third sympathetic and two-thirds condescending, like, really?
"Parker?" he goes, disbelieving. "That's the best you can do? Hate to break it to you, homeskillet, but he's probably a gold-digger."
Gwen goes from giddy to white-out furious without even passing Go or collecting $200, the way only Flash and occasionally her brothers seem to inspire in her. "He's never asked me for money!" she flashes back immediately, and then snaps her jaw shut because wow, way to just expose ten-plus years of friend-related neurosis to Flash Thompson in six words or less.
To his credit, Flash only snorts derisively once, and then catches sight of her expression and says, "Woah, okay," and takes hold of her elbow, dragging her out of the way of foot traffic. He tucks them both into the nook beside the case of basketball trophies, of which Midtown Science possesses exactly twelve in its long and oft-sordid history of competition with Stuyvesant. He rests a hand on her shoulder, a look of dawning realization on his face, like the one he gets when he successfully gets the correct answer out of the quadratic formula, or when valence electrons finally make sense: that expression is the reason Gwen puts up with so much of Flash's bullshit. "That's why you don't have any close friends."
Gwen flinches, hiking her books up higher. "Yeah, yeah, poor little rich girl," she says, and her voice sounds brittle even to her own ears. "You don't want to hear it."
"No, tell me," he insists.
She looks up at him. Flash's parents met in the summer of 1977, two looters with polyester headbands pulled up to their noses to mask their features, throwing bricks through windows during the infamous city-wide blackout that July. They fell in love to the sound of shattering glass and arson. She knows, because a photographer from the National Geographic caught a picture of them kissing in front of a burning storefront, and they became a little famous there for awhile. Twenty years later, having Flash was their last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. He lives with his grandmother in a one-bedroom walk-up and commutes forty-five minutes everyday to get to school. He's never invited Gwen over, and he's never missed a tutoring appointment, and absolutely none of this excuses his behavior, because bullies are bullies and everybody tolerates bullies because they always expect somebody else to come around and deal with them, but Gwen still has a habit of reminding herself that very little of his perpetual frustration is actually directed at her. Even now, she takes a second to study him in surprise, because this is the first time he's ever sounded like he'd actually listen to her if she told him something.
"In grade school, people would only be nice to me until they needed to borrow money, and then they always came to me," she finds herself saying. "Less like I was a person and more like I was a piggy bank they needed to compliment to get money to fall out. I finally told my mother to stop giving me an allowance, that way I would never have anything on me, but that didn't stop anybody."
A muscle moves in Flash's jaw. He's asked to borrow change before, mostly so he could raid the vending machine in the lobby of Gwen's apartment building. It hadn't been malicious, because Flash hadn't known he could wield that request like a weapon -- he'd just looked at her lifestyle and assumed that she'd have the spare change.
She wonders if he's remembering that, too.
The bell rings, startling both of them.
Suddenly wanting to head off whatever nasty comment he has to be concocting about spoiled rich girls, she shrugs quickly and says, "Whatever, high school is better, but shut up about Peter, okay? I can date whoever I want, socioeconomic differences be damned."
Flash shrugs at her. "Hey," he goes, faux-innocently, as she slips around him, back into the stream of traffic. "I'm just looking out for you. As one bro to another, Gwen, you could really do better."
"That's not really your judgment to make, Flash!" she calls back, tone light.
"Maybe not," he allows. "But you know, I've been in his gym class for three years and his dick just isn't that big. Think of how much satisfaction you're not getting!" he shouts after her retreating back, because he's Flash and he's contractually obligated to say something horrible in front of as many people as possible.
"Oh, god," Gwen mutters, and puts on a burst of speed, cutting the first right that the hallway allows. Peter, hovering awkwardly to the side, pushes himself away from the wall and matches her stride as the hallway rapidly empties around them.
"Well?" he wants to know, fidgeting closer to her like he's thinking of putting his arm around her, and then seemingly catches onto the I will break your finger if you try vibes she's giving off, because he tucks his hand into his pocket instead.
"Next time," she grumbles. "You get to be the one to hang around after and listen to Flash talk about how unsatisfactory your dick is."
And then, somehow, because that's just how these things happen, Gwen finds herself with a routine.
It looks something like this:
6:30am - Wake up. Shower. Apply deodorant to armpits, inner thighs, and the soles of her feet. Strap webshooters to wrists, velcro them in and stretch to test mobility. Dress over it, begin to sweat instantly, and seriously contemplate investing in industrial-strength antiperspirant like the kind WWE wrestlers wear. Apply make-up. Store bobby pins, mask, and gloves to the front compartment of her backpack. Eat breakfast, accept a sack lunch from Mom or Dad, whoever’s turn it is that day to see them off, kiss cheeks, head out.
7:30am - Take the boys to school. Determine that Howie understands it's his responsibility to round everybody up afterwards and bring them home: has soccer practice started for Philip yet? Does Simon need to stop by Walgreens for project materials?
7:55am - Be in seat in homeroom just as the bell for A track rings.
8:15am-11:15am - Classes.
11:20am - Meet with Flash before lunch for tutoring, since she doesn't do it after school anymore. Sigh when Flash inevitably starts blowing spitwads at Penelope or one of the freshman, or laughing mockingly behind their backs whenever they say something. Sigh when Peter steps in. Stop Flash from wrecking Peter's face, since she's personally invested in it. Do not tolerate Flash's continual remarks that she's "slumming it." Cease tolerating Flash, period. On good days, threatening Flash with his imminent academic failure if she pulls the plug on tutoring him isn't necessary. Flash has more bad days than good.
11:45am - Free track. Optimistically, use this time to finish all of tomorrow's assignments so she doesn't have to do them on the subway like she does most mornings these days. Realistically, catch a quick nap, or, if Peter skips gym, go to the computer lab and trawl through the Spider-Man videos on YouTube that Miles forwards to her, looking for the stupidest comments. Copy Peter's chem homework if the need is desperate. If the weather is nice, go and sit on the bleachers opposite the field where fifth track gym is supposed to be having class. Sit in Peter's space. Hold his hands, turn them over, run her thumbs along the ridges of whatever band-aid he's wearing that day, a casualty of his sewing machine and Exact-O knife. In return, let him push his thumbs up under the webshooters, where her blisters are turning into callouses. Feel ridiculous and fond and so many overwhelming things all at once, until it's all she can do to lean in and kiss Peter until her mouth is numb, until her tongue tastes like the roof of his mouth, until his personal space feels like her own, and when they arrive in sixth track chem, MJ Watson -- who's in Peter's gym class and knows exactly where he wasn't -- rolls her eyes at them and deliberately pushes their stools a solid foot apart before they sit down.
12:30-2:45pm - Classes.
2:50pm - Skirt the crush by the lockers. Apply liberal use of her spider-senses to avoid anyone who might waylay her to talk and walk fast until she's past the line of parents waiting to pick up their kids and upperclassmen sneaking a smoke, until she’s safely off-campus. Strip out of her clothes, pin up her hair, and pull on gloves. The mask goes on last.
2:55pm - Store backpack with clothes, textbooks, and cell phone (eurgh) on the rooftop of one of Midtown's off-branch financial buildings, one that doesn't office rooftop access to its employees. If it's supposed to rain, find a dumpster or cubbyhole and keep her fingers crossed.
3:00pm - Be in Brooklyn to walk the Young boys home. Wait casually in line with the staring parents, and greet the brothers when they come out, in full view of the street so that everybody knows those kids are under Spider-Man's protection. Share an after-school snack of salt-and-peppered mangoes in the chain-link-and-concrete park behind their apartment complex; after a few persistent tries to get her to take her mask off to eat, the boys just bring her a Ziploc bag. Sometimes, Ms. Young leaves her a note with the snack: she keeps them all. Talk to the red-eyed high schoolers with dime-store bags in the pockets. Talk to the harassed-looking girls who hunch their shoulders away when they pass men on the street. They can probably tell she's white as rice, simply from the way she talks, but they cluster around her and the Youngs and they talk to her anyway, and she doesn't know if it helps and it makes her feel miserably out of her depth sometimes at the things they say, but she's there. Listen. Listen, Gwen. Listen. This is New York City. Listen to it.
3:45pm - Patrol. Run a circuit through Chinatown and the Financial District, chase the birds all through Chelsea. Loop around the Empire State Building, sling low through Times Square just to see the tourists flutter with excitement. Shadow Howie, Philip, and Simon on their walk home from school to make sure they get there safely. Take a break on the roof of the precinct on West 54th to eat her mangoes and eavesdrop to get an idea of the evening’s forecast for crime. Head uptown: something’s always happening around Central Park, and a lot more things happen in the Upper West Side than Gwen thinks she could ever monitor. Spook the students at Columbia, loop back around through Harlem and chase the wailing squad cars down Lexington Ave.
4:45pm-7:30pm - Leave anybody with a rap sheet she's caught on the front step of the precinct in Hell's Kitchen, then head to Queens. Sleep off the busiest, noisiest, and most overwhelming part of the day for the spider in Peter’s room, slipping in and out of dreams to the sounds of the Parker household: Peter muttering and rolling his chair back and forth between his desktop and the storyboard he’s got set up for the yearbook staff, or pulling bolts of fabric across the foot of his mattress (or, inevitably, over Gwen) to measure them out; his uncle punching out Styrafoam models in the study, and, after his aunt comes home from work to start on dinner, the pop-sizzling and beeping of the microwave and her loudly and good-naturedly complaining that after seventeen years, you’d think somebody else in this house would know how to make an edible meal. The best days are the ones where Peter leaves his portfolio and curls into his blankets with her, letting her pillow her head on his arm and drowse to the sound of his heartbeat, his blood, the sun a dull corona of orange on the backs of her eyelids and Peter’s fingers in her hair.
7:50pm - Show face at home, help self to leftovers if anyone bothered to cook a meal, microwave herself a burrito and pour salsa on it if they didn’t. Check in with her brothers, help Simon with fractions because he’s too shy to ask their parents, like he thinks they won’t forgive him if, after Gwen and Howie and Philip, he’s the first in the family to start bringing home bad grades.
Somewhere from 8:30pm to 9:45pm - After Dad gets home, sneak out window.
10:00pm-4:00am - Fight crime.
4:10am - 6:30am - Crash for a nap. Get up and do it again.
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