On Saturday morning, somebody from the HR department at Oscorp calls her to let her know that Dr. Connors is in an emergency meeting with the majority of the Financial Board and Mr. Ratha, Norman Osborne's CFO, and thus, she's been rescheduled for the evening shift, is that okay with her?
"Yeah, sure," says Gwen blearily. The call had come right in the middle of one of the few cat naps she gets in the early morning hours.
So for the first time since she put on the mask, Gwen sleeps in.
She finally gets up at eleven, combing her hair out with her fingers and padding into the kitchen to make up a bowl of cereal, wearing her briefs and a "Architects do it with models" shirt that she isn't entirely sure she remembers how she came to possess. Someone's opened all the windows in the apartment, creating a draft across her bare toes and the sleep-warm skin at the back of her neck. Everything smells like spring, like a lazy Saturday morning.
Jaw cracking around a yawn, she drifts into the living room to find that yes, that umbrella plant is definitely dead, someone should do something about that, and all three of her brothers are clustered in front of the television.
"What's up?" she goes, bemused by the sight.
Howie glances up at her distractedly, but it's Philip who answers her with relish.
"There's a mutant lizard monster terrorizing people on the Williamsburg Bridge!"
She drops the cereal bowl.
"Fuck!" she yells, deeply shocking all three of her brothers, and sprints for her bedroom, tossing out over her shoulder, "Howie watch your brothers for a minute I'll berightback!"
" … what," she hears back, faint and confused, as she throws herself across her bed to grab her bag, which has the suit in it. "Gwen?"
There's some little part of her that hopes, as she cuts across downtown Manhattan with the kind of speed that is definitely going to give her whiplash, that someone else will have taken care of it by the time she gets there, or that it isn't actually an emergency, like for some reason Michael Bay decided to go more batshit than he already was and do an improv scene in mid-morning traffic.
This isn't your responsibility, whispers a voice in the back of her head.
And then Gwen lands on the first support column that marks the start of the bridge's ascent above the East River, looking out among all the cars skewed out of their lanes like multicolored pillboxes, and the first thing her spider-senses telescope down to is the sight of a girl, about Howie's age, who's got a younger kid tucked into her stomach, shielding his head with her arms as she tries to crane around the front fender of an SUV, and she thinks with inevitability, Yes it is.
She swings across the columns, scanning the ground below in quick glances for emergencies: children or people caught under their vehicles or something that looks like it's going to catch fire (it might! That's what happens in movies, right?)
It's not hard to tell where the main commotion is; the people who have clambered up on either side of the road mostly all have their cameras out, and there's an NYPD chopper and at least two news helicopters pointed in the same direction. Gwen's mind had taken Philip's exclamation of "mutant lizard monster!" and … promptly had no idea what to do with it, but she swings down and sticks herself to the side of a Snapple delivery truck abandoned about half-way across the bridge. She peers around the sideview mirrors.
She says, "Well, shit."
It looks like a man, if someone had taken a clay figure of a man and tried to pull him apart, limb from limb, so that everything became misshapen and elongated. Enormous foreclaws drag at the ground with every step, tipped with black talons that it keeps using to claw at the sides of cars like a drunk man trying to find the door handle. It's covered in scales that ripple in the sunlight, green and grey, and its tail whips agitatedly behind it, moving counterpoint to its body like it's got a mind of its own. Its back is to her, so she can't see clearly, but she's guessing that its torso and head are the most humanoid parts of it.
She might work in a geneticist's lab, but she's pretty comfortable in saying that nothing like this has ever existed in nature before.
She scuttles around the front of the Snapple truck, bracing herself on the grill.
Then she yells, "Hey! Godzilla!"
Its head comes up. Slowly, in a manner that can only be described as incredulous, it turns to her. It lifts its shoulders, like, what?
And Gwen, who has still only really been awake for about twenty minutes at this point, cannot think of a single thing to say other than, "What the hell, bro?"
Then she launches herself forward.
Its lipless mouth peels up instantly, something that's half-laughter and half-snarl, and it abandons the car it was trying to claw inside of, rushing forward to meet her.
And it's different, it's different from fighting seven landscapers who had no trouble hitting a girl, it's different from fighting twelve thugs who had never faced anything more threatening than a big mouth on a ten-year-old boy, it's different from every fight Gwen has ever stopped before, it's different because this thing isn't driven by a man, it's driven by a lizard brain, which is all hot-cold instinct and fast reflexes and for the first time in a long time, fear drops like a chill into her stomach because this fight might be beyond her.
She catches the meat of its tail with a blast from her webshooters, spinning its cumbersome body in a circle and then tripping it, and it gives her an idea. Quickly, she creates a six-point star around it, hooking a filament to the ground each time she lands so that the cables form a web over its shoulders.
It writhes, chest scraping the pavement, and then --
Then breaks right through Oscorp's cables, ripping them straight out of the ground, and before she can react, yanks an open car door off its hinges and strikes her clean across the body with a golfer's swing.
She sails right over the Snapple truck, clips a ski rack on top of a Subaru, lands on the concrete, skids, tumbles, and comes to a halt at the feet of a dude in a DC Slutwalk 2011 t-shirt, who leaps back with a startled, "woah!" He has the biggest mass of curly black hair that she's ever seen, and he leans over her and checks, "Spider-Man?"
She groans up at him. The only thing she can really focus on is his hair.
"And you must be Ned Stark's bastard," she answers. "Help me up?"
Obligingly, he pulls her to her feet and says, "woah!" again. A fine shimmer of miniature scales coat the palm of his hand, where they had transferred there from her suit. They look at his hand and then they look at her; she's covered in it, almost like …
She sprints in between the crooked cars and clears the Snapple truck again in two quick bounds.
And she's right. The lizard monster is greyer than before, bare patches showing through on its head and shoulders and the concrete around its feet is littered with scales. It's shedding them.
No, not shedding. It's unraveling.
It seems to realize this in the same moment she does, because it backs up, baring its teeth at her. Then it turns and disappears over the side of the bridge.
Gwen gives chase, scuttling down the underside of the bridge and then leaping from freighter to freighter, following the ripple it makes in the water as it swims. She loses it, though, when it hits the Queenside bank and doesn't immediately surface. That could mean any number of things, but whatever, Gwen doesn't have the time or the patience to follow it into the sewers today.
Altogether, the altercation doesn't last longer than five minutes, but she spends most of the afternoon helping with clean-up. They already have crews on the scene, towing the totaled cars and trying to get the owners of the undamaged ones to get back in them and drive them off the bridge so that normal traffic can resume, but a lot of that goes much quicker with Gwen there, using her super-strength to lift and straighten and untangle things as she goes along. The first thing she insists on doing is checking on the two kids she saw when she first reached the bridge; they're both fine, they'd been on a Greyhound bus but now their aunt was on her way to come and get them. From there, the ripple goes through the crowd the way these things do, and soon, there are over a dozen children coming to tell Spider-Man not to worry, that they're okay, showing off minor cuts and bruises and letting her inspect them solemnly and tell them they were very brave.
Of the people who had to be life-flighted out of there, none of them were children and all of them had been injured before she arrived.
"Apparently," goes one of the road crew guys, who'd reassuringly shared a cigarette with someone whose vehicle had been torn apart and discarded by the lizard monster and still hadn't quite stopped shaking about it. "It just burst right out of the back of a taxi cab, like, fully formed and went berserk on everybody. Nobody had any warning."
People come to talk to her, too, many of them reporters, which makes Gwen's gut squirm with discomfort at the way they seem to be more interested in her and her involvement than the destruction on the bridge.
She answers everything to the best of her ability. No, she doesn't know what that thing was or where it came from. She is just as in the dark as everybody else is. Yes, it's weird that two animal-human hybrids -- herself and this creature -- should appear in New York City so close together, but if they were going to try to make it anywhere in the world, wouldn't it be here? Maybe all they want are the good bagels, who's to say.
"What about you, Spider-Man?"
"What about me?" she returns tiredly. "I'm more of a 'big pizza pie, that's amore' kind of person."
"Tell us about yourself," some joker tries. "What's on your online dating profile?"
"I'm a Pisces and I want Sansa Stark on the Iron Throne."
She turns to go, and then somebody says, "Why are you doing this?"
And that makes her stop. She turns, finding the speaker's face among the several clustered around; the shape of it and the way he nervously pushes his glasses further up his nose when she locks onto him makes her think of Peter.
He continues, "I mean, why get yourself involved with this at all? You don't have to. Nobody's making you. As far as anybody knows, there's no revenge story. Just you, trying to keep other people from getting hurt. Why?"
She squares her shoulders and tilts her head at him. "Do I need an excuse?" she asks, calm. "Does anybody?"
By the time the worst of the debris has been cleared off the bridge, Gwen is already two hours late for work. She goes home and climbs in through her bedroom window -- there's a note taped to the windowsill that says "we are going to TALK ABOUT THIS!!" which she assumes has to do with the fact that she left her brothers home alone and then apparently went out through the fire escape -- and finds her phone. There are about twelve messages in a row from Miles, most of them links to YouTube videos like he thought she'd somehow managed to miss the fight she was just in, two from Peter; one that's are you okay? and another that's holy shit did someone ELSE get bit and turned mutant?, and one from Ripley that says, Free macarons if you get your butt here in twenty minutes, I could use somebody sane, timestamped over thirty minutes ago.
The saving grace is that when she checks her voicemail, the HR department from Oscorp has called her back to tell her that Dr. Connors got caught in that mess on Williamsburg Bridge and won't be coming in, and Gwen wasn't allowed in the lab without her supervisor there, so they wouldn't be needing her that evening.
"Oh, thank god," Gwen mutters, thumbing out of that and stripping the rest of the way out of the suit, stuffing it in her bag before she heads out to face the music.
On the day Gwen's father calls for a press conference, it rains; a breathless gasping rush of a downpour that washes down the gutters and turns the world to monochrome. An aide holds an umbrella over Captain Stacy's head. It's black, as are the ones in the immediate vicinity, but further up the steps of the precinct, somebody has a red umbrella patterned with ladybug spots -- Gwen's eyes keep catching on it whenever it moves.
She settles into place on the sofa between Howie and Philip, drawing her knees up to her chest, and she looks right at her father's face when he leans into the microphones to say, loud above the thundering of rain, "-- and I am officially issuing a warrant for the arrest of the masked vigilante known as Spider-Man."
A chaos of questions erupt from the press, and the field of black umbrellas surrounding her father ripple as he answers them, but Gwen stops listening.
She rises from the sofa, steps over Simon and his trail mix snack on the rug, and then forgets where she was going. She winds up standing in the hall, holding her elbows close to her body and staring at her own eighth-grade graduation portrait, framed there on the wall; the achievement ribbons around her neck and the gap between her two front teeth that braces had fixed later.
Then she turns, walks into her room, and shuts the door.
It had started, as these things do, with a voice, raised to catch her like a flare shot out from the bow of a sinking ship. "Spider-Man," it had said, while she was sitting on the edge of a fountain with a flock of deeply unconcerned pigeons and the Daily Bugle's latest farce of an article on the mutant lizard monster, which hadn't been seen or heard from since Gwen chased it into the East River. "Can I talk to you?"
The man's name was Nicolas Rechards, called Nick the Slick by the other guys in his comedy routine, and he'd been pulled over no less than three times in the past month for suspected infractions -- reckless driving, failure to yield -- even though Nicolas swore he always drove like his grandmother was in the passenger seat.
"Let's be honest, Spider-Man," he says, tearing off a corner of her newspaper, rolling it into a little pill, and tossing it at the pigeons to see if they'd be dumb enough to peck at it. They are. "Brown man like me, driving an unmarked white van? That was my real infraction. Next time some gold-watch guy with his fat face in Forbes almost runs over some lil' old lady with his Cadillac SUV and there ain't a cop around to stop him, it'll be because they're all searching my van for contraband."
All the stops had been performed by the same patrol car, all the citations drawn up by the same officer: Karl Hamburg. Gwen nods. She'd seen him at a barbecue before, but he'd been more interested in the beer than he had been in the captain's teenage daughter, so she'd never spoken to him.
"Now, you know what they'll say if I go in there and accuse him of racial profiling," Nicolas continues. "And I don't want you to get in trouble neither, but … is there something you can do?"
"I'll try," Gwen promises. And, "Thanks for coming to me, man."
He goes a little shy, then, rubbing the back of his neck and going, "Yeah, well, my goal in life is to get to thirty without ever having had a full-cavity search, so we'll see."
Gwen looks into it. She loves her dad, she does, but she knows that the police are far from infallible. She knows they can be the bad guys, too. She's watched the previous police captain, and then her father in his turn, stand up in front of those microphones and confirm that yes, that officer had been taking bribes, or yes, that officer was responsible for destroying evidence in the al-Azira case. They've taken NYPD's cases in debate club, and she's played the other side: yes, that officer should have been penalized much more harshly for the discharge of his firearm that resulted in the death of nine-year-old Amalia Grave. She knows that when adults pat her on the head and tell her, "oh, but things are different these days!" what they really mean is, "Nothing has really changed, but I want you to stop complaining about it."
What she finds makes her furious.
"Did you know," she says, cornering her father while he's licking envelopes at the breakfast bar, his tie unknotted. She has her mother's laptop braced across her forearm. "That in 2011, more black men were pulled over, stopped, and frisked in Brooklyn than there are black men living in Brooklyn?"
Her father looks at her, seals the envelope he's on, and sets it aside.
"Gwenny-bee," he says tiredly, and she clenches her jaw at the condescending way her childhood nickname falls from his mouth. "I admire your dedication to obscure facts --"
They're not obscure! Gwen wants to shout. We're talking about the rights of over a hundred sixty thousand people!
"-- but when I come home, I want to leave work at work and spend my time with you. Okay? No cases, no calls from the chief, no phone ringing off the hook, just me and my family, which includes my seventeen-year-old daughter, who used to want to live in a chocolate house, if I recall."
"That's impractical," Gwen says waspishly, and he sighs.
When she goes to her mother, all she gets is a sympathetic smile and a, "Oh, honey, I know."
Howie, unconcerned about it the way thirteen-year-old white boys are allowed to be, just tells her, "So become the mayor. Fix it."
"You know, your brother makes a valid point," says Ms. Ngiwidi, when Gwen comes up to her after fourth track and says, there's got to be something I can do about this. What is it? She has a stack of ungraded quizzes at her elbow, gradebook laid open in front of her. Their pop quiz that morning had been over the Watergate scandal, with a bonus question at the bottom asking them to relate it to the present-day WikiLeaks case. "These people have to answer to publicly-appointed officials, therefore they can and should be held accountable for what they do in a public sphere. Theoretically," she allows, with a slightly astringent bite. "I know you're too young to vote, but it's never a bad idea to stay up-to-date on local politics so that you're informed when the time comes. And if you find that activism isn't a powerful enough agent of change, then maybe you should consider a future in politics. Enact the changes yourself. I, for one, would be very happy if you became the mayor of New York City."
"Okay," says Gwen. "But that'll take fifteen to thirty years. County elections are this week."
With that long game stewing in the back of her head, Gwen puts on the mask and spends the next four days tailing Officer Hamburg while he's out on patrol.
Hamburg, she finds, is the kind of man who's so convinced that he's fighting the good fight that, to him, everything's become a fight that he must win, or else "they" will win an inch and gain a mile. He never sees how much of his own power he uses carelessly until it's threatened. Off-duty, he drives a motorbike with a bumper sticker that says "religious liberty: our most cherished freedom" next to one in the shape of the Christian fish, except his has little legs growing from it and it says "Darwin" instead. He likes watching Dane Cook skits on his phone during his lunch break.
He's also unfailingly, indisputably racist.
Gwen's intent, in the beginning, was to follow him as inconspicuously as only a spider could, collect evidence of unfair racial bias, and turn him into his superiors. What actually happened was this:
A Khaleesi. A Khaleesi happened.
Khaleesi Shields, eight months old, wrapped in a blanket and tucked as secure as a football against her mother's chest. Gwen can hear her crying, even above the tumultuous noise. A riot, a riot in Brooklyn, a riot that started as a protest against a budget bill that had passed during the county elections the previous day, a protest for which over fifty thousand people showed up. A riot that Gwen became involved in by sheer virtue of having followed Officer Hamburg out there when police called for back-up.
Officer Hamburg, who saw a threat to his power and gleefully defended it, wielding a mace gun against a group of very threatening people, which included Tiffany Shields in her high school JV basketball jersey, carrying her infant daughter.
The choice, in the end, isn't much of a choice at all.
Khaleesi wails. Tiffany crouches behind a tourist information placard, eyes squeezed shut and her entire body curved around the blanket full of baby in her arms, as mace arcs over her head, catching two screaming protesters directly in the face. Her mouth parts, paralyzed and noiseless with fear.
She wants to go to Pratt for college, Gwen thinks.
Khaleesi chokes and coughs.
Gwen looks at her. Then she turns, drops to one knee, and neatly sweeps Officer Hamburg's legs out from underneath him.
She bloodies the faces of four cops and knocks out two more before the area clears enough for most of the protesters to escape. Then, her eyes streaming inside the mask and her throat burning, she scuttles over to Officer Hamburg, wraps him up in a web with no finesse, and then dumps him, cocooned, at the precinct on Cobble Hill with all of her evidence. It'd have to do.
She finds out later that, during the riot, NYPD declared Brooklyn a frozen zone, which meant that the constitutional rights of its inhabitants were temporarily suspended, and that, in turn, meant that none of the officers would ever face punishment or citation for discharging mace into a crowd of unarmed protestors, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. All attempts to file charges were stonewalled.
By that point, the warrant had already been issued for Spider-Man's arrest.
He had, after all, assaulted a police officer.
There's a very strict no-tolerance policy about stuff like that.
@TheAmazingSpiderMan and then, Sometimes, people.
"Spider-Man!" Ms. Young meets them in the stairwell, her hands skating over the top of Jamal and Rasheel's heads in greeting before she hugs Gwen quickly and with great relief, surprising them both because it's not something she's ever done before. She pushes her hair back with the flats of her hands, clearly frazzled, and then looks dead at Gwen and asks, "Do you need a place to hide?"
She turns to climb the stairs, her sons trailing after her and a startled Gwen bringing up the rear. She talks fast.
"I mean, it might not be the safest place for you, since you've kind of made no secret of your connection to my boys and they're bound to come searching for a," her mouth quirks. "A spidey-hole, if you please, but I just want you to know that we will, gladly. You can stay with us if you need someplace to go, okay?"
"Thank you, Ms. Young," Gwen gets out after a moment, feeling like her heart has been moved an inch off-center, strange and weighty. "I have a family, though."
Ms. Young almost trips. "Oh, no!" she says. "I was worried you might! That's even worse. Oh, those horrible, horrible people!"
Rasheel looks between them. "But who's going to protect you?" he wants to know.
Inside the apartment, Jamal shucks off his backpack and kicks his flip-flops to the side and beelines straight for his mother's bedroom. He returns with the gun that he used to carry to school with him, which he's kept in its safe since the day Gwen met him. "Next time, we'll walk you home from school," he tells Gwen with great dignity.
She goes down on one knee to squeeze his shoulders. "Thank you, Jamal," she tells him. "But that won't be necessary. They're never going to catch me. I promise."
Nicolas Rechards, standing in the plaza where he'd talked to Gwen and fed bits of newspaper to the pigeons, holding up a sign that said, NYPD: THINK ABOUT IT. Spider-Man shouldn't have to protect us from you.
People flow quietly around him, rushing blood in the arteries of the city's heart, until a woman stops, hangs up on the phone call she was in the middle of, and comes to stand next to him.
Within twenty minutes, thirteen people stop and stand in loose formation around Nicolas and his sign. Some tap away at their phones, some have a book or a Kindle or an iPod snaking up to the ears, one man knits. They stand together in silent vigil, not a single one of them saying a word, and saying everything.
Slowly, the gathering grows.
Penelope commandeers a table in the courtyard at lunch, plunks down a storage bin, and starts handing out little badges; they're each the size of a silver dollar, and she'd used the kind of small, decorative pebbles that they sell for fish tanks to make miniature red-and-blue Spider-Man masks.
Peter pulls Gwen over by the hand, saying, "hey, Penelope, these are super cool. Are you charging anything for them?"
"Nothing," she says stoutly. "They're for people to show their support for Spider-Man, and, in turn, for the people of Brooklyn following what happened to them last week, and what's going to happen to them now that the bill's passed. I figured it would be more meaningful if people had something to wear, rather than just, like, making a Facebook page for people to Like or something."
"… that's really nice of you," Gwen says dazedly, watching Peter wriggle the hook of the badge through the heavy strap of his camera.
Penelope's eyes crinkle at her behind the thick frames of her glasses. "Thanks, Gwen," she says, and she leans forward. "Do you think … what's going to happen to him, if they catch him? How long would that even take?"
Gwen feels a lot like one of those cheap 3D cards they used to give out as prizes at the doctor's offices after shots; the kind where you tilt them one way and see one image, then tilt them another and see something entirely different. Here is the Gwen who's wearing the Spider-Man suit underneath her school outfit, who chooses to defend the powerless against the powerful no matter who falls on either side of that coin, who has been electrocuted and stabbed and maced. And then here is the Gwen who gets good grades in school, works unpaid internships, and goes home to her lawyer mother and her police captain father and already has so many advantages lined up for her.
She is seventeen years old. She is not equipped to feel like this.
And people are being so kind. She has no idea what to do with all of this kindness.
Peter picks up another badge and gently tugs open the front of her jacket, tucking it into her inside pocket and murmuring, "Miles will want one."
"It depends," she says slowly, blinking and focusing on Penelope's question. "On how much of a priority they make him. The more resources they pour into finding him, the quicker it's going to go. Obviously, the more public the manhunt becomes, the more pressure there's going to be, and the more pressure there is, the more resources they're going to ration out."
"They're calling for information from anyone who might know his real identity," Penelope continues worriedly, and Gwen's stomach churns. "Is that likely?"
"I don't know," she responds. "It depends on how invasive people want to be, I guess."
Her spider-senses warn her of Flash's approach even before he looms up behind them, saying tersely, "They better not be. Spider-Man is one of us. Whoever betrays him is gonna answer for it. How can the cops not see that? The more they try to get us to hate him, the more we're going to love him."
He picks up one of Penelope's badges and, without the slightest bit of shame, pins it to the front of his shirt.
He pounds a fist at the center of his chest, and says, loud enough to attract attention, "If they want Spider-Man, they'll have to get through us!"
"Fuck yeah!" bursts out of Penelope, simultaneous with a whoop from Peter and several cheers from other students all throughout the courtyard, all of whom had never agreed with Flash Thompson before in their lives and probably never will again, and Gwen has to hide her face in the crook of her elbow or risk giving everything away, her shoulders and chest feeling as fragile as if they had been spun from sugar and spiderwebs.
After school, Miles meets up with them on the steps of the Met and the first thing out of his mouth is, "You will not believe what I just saw on my way to school this morning."
He fishes his phone out of his pocket, thumbing through it and holding it out.
"Is that --" Peter goes, leaning in and squinting.
"Yes," Miles says ecstatically. "Someone spray-painted a thirty-foot version of your spider sigil on the side of that brownstone. That is your spider symbol! Graffiti'd where thousands of people will see it every day! Isn't that the most epic thing you've ever seen?"
Gwen sits down, hard. Peter makes an equivocal gesture with his hand, dragging out, "Well, it's not perfect, but, ow!" he complains, when Miles immediately lashes out and smacks him across the shoulder. "But hey! I'm just Spider-Man's seamstress, what do I know about his costume?"
On the news, Killigan, who played the serial killer in the Village theater production of The Whistler, shakes her head fiercely in response to whatever the reporter just asked her.
"No! Never!" she declares. "He was always kind to us. Like, you know that Kurt Vonnegut quote? The one that's like, 'welcome to the world, babies. On the outside, you'll have a hundred years here, and babies, the one thing you gotta do, you gotta be kind'. You know that one? That's Spider-Man. How can you take that away from us? A kindness like that?"
Miles e-mails her video after video, dozens of YouTube clips of various qualities, full of people she's never seen before and some she has, kids and adults in big groups or sitting individually in their rooms, all saying roughly the same thing.
"We don't believe them, Spider-Man, they pull shit like this all the time."
"Cops after you? Hell, bitch, they's after us, too, welcome to the club!"
"We're behind you, Spider-Man!"
"I got your back!"
"We're the kids from Da Eastside, and we stand for Spider-Man! We stand for Brooklyn!"
I run your official Pinterest, it's all full of stuff like that, his e-mail says. And you don't even want to KNOW the status of your Facebook page. Did you see that the horse_ebooks Twitter tagged you?
Suspended from the end of a web, Gwen lowers herself to ground level, dips the roller in the fresh pan of paint, and climbs back up to add another coat on top of the one she already applied. It goes on smoothly. She estimates it will probably take a third coat to completely erase the racial slur splashed up against the side of the building, but that's okay. It's the least she can do.
How did they get it so high, though? How can anybody put that much effort into so much hate?
She slides back down her web, absent-mindedly humming along to the Azealia Banks she has stuck in her head and stretching the roller out towards the pan, when Fatima materializes out of nowhere, panic clearly visible in what Gwen can see of her face under her niiqab, and throws a paint tarp over her.
Startled, Gwen lets go of her web, which immediately drifts loose, caught on a breeze.
"Fatima -- what --"
"Shhh," Fatima's hands shove urgently at her shoulders, forcing her belly-down on the sidewalk. Another paint tarp billows over her, the sunlight fading to a hazy mote overhead. "Don't move!"
"Salaam allekyuum, officer!" calls Fatima's husband, his voice carrying, and Gwen curses and goes still, pressing her cheek against the ground and listening to the vibrations of approaching footsteps. "Good afternoon."
"Hello," comes the reply. Male, 6'0", 290lb, favors his left side when he takes a step, possibly because of a knee replacement? No, she corrects herself, hip. "What's this?"
"Ah. Vandals, unfortunately. As you can see. We were vandalized last night. Our sister Aisha found it like this when she came to open the preschool this morning."
"Did you file a report?"
"No, sir," says Fatima's husband, in a tone that clearly says, because we knew you weren't going to do anything about it if we did. "But we are blessed to have good men and women who will take time out of their day to come give our mosque a fresh coat of paint, so we don't have to look at the hate for long. As you can see, we've already made great progress! Ah, officer. This is my wife --"
"Ah!" says Fatima from above, clearly flustered.
"-- who we seem to have surprised."
"It's fine!" she says quickly, moving away from the pile that conceals Gwen. "You caught me unawares, I was not properly covered the way I should have been. I thought only my husband was here, I'm sorry."
"You don't have to cover your face for me," the cop says uncomfortably. "I'm not part of your religion."
"Muslim women don't cover themselves for the comfort of men, sir," Fatima's husband corrects him gently. "They cover themselves for their own comfort."
A beat of silence follows, in which the man comes back to himself and remembers his purpose.
"I was investigating -- we're hunting down a masked -- um," he catches himself at the last moment, because the party line on television these days has gone from calling Spider-Man a "masked vigilante" to a "masked terrorist," and this one seems to realize the faux pas of throwing the word "terrorist" around a Muslim mosque. "We're trying to find Spider-Man. And I noticed your building had one of his … um, webs, on it."
"Ah! Yes!" says Fatima's husband cheerily. "He often comes this way."
"We don't mind the webs," Fatima adds, her voice now coming from beside her husband. "They never last long, and dissolve even faster in water."
"He might be heading towards Columbia," Mr. Fatima says pointedly. "It's not far."
The officer leaves shortly after that, and Gwen's uncovered again. They clasp at each other's hands, her and Fatima and Fatima's husband, and squeeze tightly. Nobody says anything.
Later that night, Gwen, still dressed as Spider-Man, goes out with MJ Watson to get Ethiopian take-out since MJ's never had it and Gwen has always wanted to be that friend who enthusiastically recommends places to eat, and it's easier to be that friend when she's Spider-Man. This plan backfires when they're standing at the pick-up counter in Gwen's favorite restaurant and she turns around to find herself face-to-face with her father.
"Oh," she says.
Captain Stacy blinks back at her.
Then he moves.
"Spider-Man," he says, reaching for the cuffs at his belt even as she launches herself backwards over a display case of injera wraps, sticking to the wall underneath the menu. "You are under arrest for the assault and battery of --"
MJ drops her wallet. Coins scatter everywhere, but she doesn't notice, flinging herself between Gwen and her father. Captain Stacy puts a hand out like he's going to push her aside, but MJ shouts with a cold, clean kind of fury, "You can't have him!", and punches him in the jaw.
It's one of the most confusing moments of Gwen's life.
And it's the start of MJ's juvenile record.
Melissa Harris-Perry speaks out in Spider-Man's defense on MSNBC.
"Face it," she says, spreading her hands wide and staring down the studio camera. "NYPD are New York's finest for a reason, but the police as a whole are simply there to uphold the status quo of the rich, white upper class. Whatever they want, they get the police to enforce. How do the police enforce it? Racial profiling. Don't believe me? Go to Brooklyn and ask a black man if he keeps all his receipts. Chances are, he does, because you never know when you're going to need an alibi.
"But Spider-Man," she holds up a finger, her mouth curving at the corner. "In all of his red-and-blue glory. Spider-Man is a vehicle of justice that side-steps that. In their initial reports, the police called it vigilantism. Now they call it terrorism. Now they're pounding their chests demanding to know his real identity. Here's what I say."
She leans forward.
"It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what Spider-Man is: man, woman, neither, black, gay, pansexual, survivor, Buddhist monk. What matters is that one person stopped and looked at the way cops suspend the constitutional rights of minorities whenever it's convenient and said, 'I can do something about this.' Is that vigilantism? Everybody else would call that 'it's about time!'
"And yes," she adds, like this is a dialogue and she's preempting a question. "I've heard the theory that Spider-Man is, in fact, a teenage girl. I've also heard the theory that Spider-Man is secretly Cthulu. Or an alien making first contact with Earth. Yet, neither one of those theories seems to have inspired quite the same amount of angry backlash. And you know, you have to ask yourself: what's so threatening about the possibility that the most powerful person in New York City right now might be a teenage girl? Oh, wait," she snaps her fingers. "Never mind, I know exactly why. It starts with 'sex' and ends in 'ism'. Thank you, and good night."
@horse_ebooks Well said.
Gwen had told her mother, once, that she wasn't sure if she could do what her dad does, and strap a gun to her hip everyday.
What she didn't realize was that she already did.
Some kids, she thinks disparagingly, as pride and shame wrestle with each other inside of her gut. Get tattoos. I become a superhero.
They're all sitting down to dinner tonight, in nice dinner clothes with napkins folded across their laps. Her mother's wearing her best pearl earrings. Her father ladles out a hearty lamb stew for Howie and says, "So, son, have you looked at your SHSAT results yet?" MJ's right hook is purpling nicely on his jaw.
"I don't know," says Howie, in a belligerent way that clearly means no. "Have you caught Spider-Man yet?"
The chunk of lamb in Gwen's throat turns to rock. It scrapes at her insides going down.
"Watch your tone, young man," Captain Stacy says without heat. "Now, I never liked Spider-Man, but I was willing to tolerate him." His voice grew tight. "But then he came after one of my own. Do you understand what that means?"
Nods, all around. Simon's eyes are very large. Gwen nods, too, a beat late.
"And yet, for some absurd reason, people still like him. I don't get it. I just don't get it."
And then Gwen hears herself say, like it's coming from the end of a very long tunnel, with nothing in her head but a high whine like the sound of a tuning fork on glass, "Then maybe you're the problem."
Absolute silence falls. Everybody looks at her.
"Excuse me?" says her father.
She lifts her head. Minute vibrations transmit across the table to her; she can feel Howie tensing with fear, she can feel her mother reach out and put a warning hand on her father's leg.
"If you can't see why the people of New York City like Spider-Man, after all he's done to build a relationship with them, then maybe you're the problem."
He seems thunderstruck, blindsided.
"Why are you suddenly falling on the side of the criminal, Gwenny-bee?"
"Because!" she roars, surging to her feet. "Because by declaring an open season on Spider-Man, you are completely disregarding what your own city views valuable in a protector!"
"Value --" her dad begins, swelling up with rage in a way that used to terrify her speechless as a child; he looks faintly ridiculous to her now, full of bluster like a balloon about to deflate.
"You are alienating the people you are supposed to serve! They trust Spider-Man, Dad, what's so dangerous about that? Weren't you just complaining about how nobody thinks anything good about cops anymore, so why is it so bad that they've finally got someone they can trust?"
"Because he can't be held accountable for his actions. He works outside the law."
"When!" Gwen loses control of her voice for a moment, near shrieking the word, and immediately reaches inside of her for the spider, who is calm and in control and doesn't understand yelling, and the knot in her back releases so she can ease back onto her heels and say, "When has Spider-man ever flaunted police procedure, before the incident in Brooklyn? When has he been anything but considerate to your officers? He doesn't want to mock you or show you up or make you look inadequate --"
"Good, because --"
"He's not doing whatever it is you think he's doing! He's got this power and he's trying to be useful --"
Her dad holds up his hand, already looking to interrupt again, his mouth set into a thin white line of displeasure, but Gwen ignores the signal in a way she's never done before and launches forward to slam her hand down on the table, making the silverware jump. "You hold a captaincy! You are responsible for your officers! It's your job to defend the citizens of this city, and you do that by respecting them as your equals, not treating them like some kids you've got to be all 'Daddy knows best' for. Okay?" She turns. "Mother, may I be excused?"
"I think that would be best," her mom says quietly, and Gwen shoves her chair back, picking up her plate and disappearing into the kitchen with it.
Her hands shake too much to put it into the sink without rattling it, and as she rinses it off, she hears the low rumble of her dad speaking to her brothers, and her knuckles whiten.
Later, after they're supposed to be in bed, Simon comes creeping into her room, looking for reassurance that she isn't really angry.
"Of course not," she says immediately, swiveling her chair around and pushing off of it so she could bounce onto her bedspread. She opens her arms, and the fact that he comes over without hesitation, snuggling into her amid her down comforter, means he must have been really scared, because he's almost eight and is definitely trying to spearhead a campaign against displays of affection. "No, I'm sorry, that must have been scary for you, hearing me shout like that. I'm not angry at Daddy, Simon, and he's not angry at me. I won't let it, because we love each other."
"Because we're family?" Simon fills in.
"Because we're family," she agrees. "Some families aren't like that, but ours is. Sometimes shouting is the only way to get Daddy to listen, like when you've stolen my headphones --" he squirms away from her tickling fingers, protesting noisily, "-- and can't hear when we call you. Only for Daddy, he's got a lot of things to worry about, and it blocks up his ears sometimes and just doesn't listen. It doesn't mean I don't love him anymore."
Simon nods, wipes his runny nose on her sleeve (she sighs,) and then says, "Spider-Man will be okay, won't he?" in a tiny, timid voice.
"Of course he will," she answers. "He's not a bad guy, right? Daddy only hurts bad guys, so Spider-Man's going to be just fine."
Peter's room is dismantled. She sits on the windowsill for a second -- the window, of course, has been left open for her -- and looks about: his mattress has been shoved to the floor, lying crooked in front of the closet door with everything haphazardly thrown on top. The slats in his bedframe are bare; a couple of the boards have been levered up to reveal the dark space underneath. A bag of potting soil sits nearby, leaning up against a flat of small pots, from which spring several small purple flowers, long butterfly-shaped stalks, and a creeping heart-shaped vine the same color as a watermelon.
Her eyes track around this display a few times before she makes sense of it, and so when Peter comes back in with a drill, she asks, "Is this for your portfolio?"
"What isn't for my portfolio these days?" he answers distractedly. "Hmm, I'm probably going to need more potting soil, aren't I?"
Careful not to disturb the collection of items, Gwen stretches across them and steps over to crouch along the top on his headboard. "If you are going to literally turn your bed into a flowerbed, then yes."
"Hmm," says Peter again, winding the cord of the drill around his wrist in absent thought. He drops to his stomach and peers under his bed. "And I'm going to need to drill drainage holes … wonder if Aunt May's going to notice if I steal a couple of the pots from the kitchen."
"If you steal them from her, she can't beat you with them for stealing them," Gwen points out.
His head reappears. "I resent that implication!" he says, and then his face does something startled and complicated. "Gwen?" He scrambles up onto his knees. "Gwen, what's wrong?"
She has no idea how he could tell, since the reflective eyepieces give nothing away, but the next second, a small sound escapes through the cage of her teeth, and then it's really obvious. She slides to the messy floor, thumping gracelessly and immediately folding her limbs up. A sob wracks through her, and then another, and then it's like the harder she tries to stop, the harder she winds up crying. It's like it crawls out of her chest no matter how she swallows it down.
She wraps her arms around her knees and sobs with so much force it feels like her ribs are going to splinter, like she's going to crack clean through.
Peter's hands touch helplessly at the tops of her shoulders, the wings of her shoulder blades, and then he's unhooking her mask and peeling off her gloves. She scrapes at the wetness on her cheeks, and he asks her something, once, twice, three times, but she has no clear idea of what it is. Eventually, he just pulls the blanket over from his mattress and wraps it around her shoulders, then leaves the room. She senses his footsteps in his aunt and uncle's bedroom.
Not long later, Aunt May comes in with a mug of hot chocolate.
"Oh, sweetie," she says, kneeling down beside her. Gwen takes the mug from her. There are marshmallows floating on the top, shaped like stars. Somehow, like they'd rehearsed it -- or maybe it just came natural to them -- she and Peter settle on either side of her, each wrapping an arm around her, like somehow their hold on her becomes a support structure she could hold herself up against, becomes a web.
She expects Aunt May to ask questions, but she doesn't, and as Gwen cries and keens and makes the most embarrassing noises, she just hums in the back of her throat and rubs her hand along her back.
When Uncle Ben comes home and isn't greeted with a chorus from his wife and nephew like he usually is, he comes looking for them. Sensing his footsteps on the stairs, Gwen tries miserably to hide her face, the wet spots on the bedsheet pulled up to her neck, but it's no use.
He comes to a halt in the doorway, takes one look at Gwen, and says, gruffly, "All right, who do I need to beat up? Do I need to call anyone's father?"
Peter's chuckle vibrates through her, a one-two percussive beat, and the smile that steals across Gwen's mouth is watery, as weak and wet as tissue paper, but there. She holds the warmth of the mug in her hands, now not as hot, and takes a sip.
Uncle Ben picks his way over and crouches down in front of her, eyes flicking to and from her own like he wants to wrap them all up and hug them, too, but isn't sure of its welcome. She expects to feel smothered, cornered, the spider lit up under a spotlight and too obvious, and some part of her does -- because she's still wearing her suit and she is that close to being found out by Peter's aunt and uncle -- but it's outvoiced by the uncomplicated, unconditional way the Parkers are offering their affection. More than anything, she feels loved in a way that, being the oldest child, she never knew how to ask from her own family.
He clears his throat. "Son, I have to ask -- why are there a bunch of plants on your bed?"
"Flowerbed," Peter grumbles. "It seemed obvious to me at the time."
"Ah," says his uncle.
Later, while Peter's running a washcloth under the sink in the bathroom for her to wipe her face, Aunt May corners him. Gwen has no problem overhearing them.
"What happened to that poor girl? Did you break her heart?"
"No!" Peter says quickly. The sink shuts off. "I wouldn't dare!"
"Is it her family? It's pretty plain to me that her father works himself to the bone and doesn't get to see them near as much as he wants to -- nothing happened to him, did it? Or her brothers? How many of them does she have? Or --"
"I can't tell you! I don't know, I can't tell you. It's not my secret to tell, Aunt May."
She's quiet, and when she next speaks, Gwen does have to stretch her spider-senses to determine what's being said.
"Secrets have a cost, Peter. They aren't for free. You will always pay for them."
Peter says nothing. She kisses his cheek, and he scuffles embarrassedly and then blurts out when she turns to leave, "Aunt May, how did you know we were dating? We've never -- not in front of you, and haven't said anything --"
"Peter." The soft, wise tone in Aunt May's voice has vanished, replaced by her usual scratchy sarcasm. "That girl is over here almost every day of the week. I know for a fact that you aren't dealing drugs, so the only conclusion I can draw is that your …" She pauses, and then finishes, "Your booty must be very fly."
"Aunt May, stop."
"I'm just saying. She's free to come over whenever she feels like it, but perhaps you could let her know that she can use the front door, if she wants."
Peter comes back in, very, very red around the ears, and hands over the washcloth, which is cold against her face. She presses down against her eyes, hoping to stop the swelling. He remains crouched beside her, and when she lifts her head to offer him a smile, he leans forward to touch their foreheads together.
"You okay?" he goes, quiet.
"Yeah," she answers, closing her eyes and pressing into the touch. "I feel better. I mean, none of my problems are solved, but I feel better. Funny how that goes."
"Hey," he noses at her once, then pulls away. "I was going to ask you for a favor, actually. That has nothing to do with you being Spider-Man."
He stands, looking around the room, and she smirks at his backside, which is now quite conveniently at eye level. "Are you looking for confirmation that I don't just keep you around for your booty?"
"Is it fly?"
"Well, spiders eat --"
He finds what he's looking for, stepping over his mattress to hook his hands around the straps of a briefcase that had been sitting on his desk chair. It's old, a soft sandy brown leather that's cracked a little around the edges, and the letters "RIP" are stenciled on the front.
Gwen has just a second to be alarmed about this before Peter explains, "this was my dad's, I just found it," and she realizes that the letters are initials, not some morbid statement. "Do you --" he starts, gripping the briefcase tight. And then he asks, in the way people do when they already know the answer, "Do you know a Dr. Connors?"
"Yeah." She blinks. "I had to slit a few throats to secure a position on his semester-long youth internship program. Why?"
Peter hesitates. Then he unzips the briefcase and produces a squarish newspaper clipping, browned and fragile with age.
"Richard?" The doc straightens up, taking the clipping from her and holding it up so that he can squint at it through his bifocals. Something flicks across his face, too fast for her to determine, before everything softens again. "Yes," he says, with a fatherly fondness. "That's Richard. Dr. Richard Parker."
"You knew him?" Gwen says with surprise.
"Oh, yes," he chuckles, and hands the clipping back. "We were very close, once." He tilts his head at her curiously. "Why the sudden interest, Gwen?"
"I just --" she fumbles, still feeling wrong-footed. How had she not known that Peter's dad was a scientist? For some stupid reason, she hadn't give his real parents much thought, like somehow because they were dead, what they did for a living didn't matter so much. "I just realized I didn't know who he was. Did you guys do research together? Does he have any papers on JSTOR?"
Again, Dr. Connors chuckles, raspy, like he's enjoying a good joke.
"Oh, you won't find much on Richard Parker, I'm afraid. He was very smart, of course -- he wouldn't have gotten as far in our field as he did if he wasn't -- but the true mastermind you're looking for published under the name Dr. M. Parker." He circles back around to the other side of his desk, picking up a nondescript photograph of himself, younger and with more hair, the colors garishly bright and oversaturated the way most Polaroid pictures from the 90's were. With an ease that comes from being accustomed to doing most things single-handedly, he pops open the back.
He removes another photograph, hidden behind the first, and hands it over.
"Mary Parker," he says.
It's the same photograph that appeared in the news clipping, except this one hasn't been cropped just to show the two men. There's a woman on Peter's dad's other side. She has very dark, thick hair, and her hands are tucked into the pockets of her lab coat. She's smiling so wide it dimples her cheeks -- Peter's smile does exactly the same thing. Gwen ticks her eyes hungrily over her face.
"Perhaps her greatest contribution to our research was the decay rate algorithm, a breakthrough that, unfortunately, we lost the night she died -- it was a formula designed to calculate the necessary dosage of a particular serum that would reverse, or at least considerably slow, the effects of many of our most damaging degenerative diseases. The decay rate, of course, being how much the missing limb or," he corrects quickly, "the disease had entropied. Without her, our research has been floundering these past ten years."
"How come nobody knows about her?" Gwen asks, feeling immediately indignant on the behalf of this female scientist.
"She had a speech impediment," Dr. Connors says without hesitation, like it's something he's said before. "She had to … she had to concentrate on speaking very slowly and carefully in order to be understood. She and Richard seemed to communicate like they never needed words, and I --" he pauses, and she sees him physically restrain himself from editing himself into a better light. "I was perhaps not as patient with her as I should have been."
Gwen's temper rises, and it's been so long since she feared anybody that she forgets that she's talking to her boss. "That had nothing to do with her ability as a scientist, though! There are plenty of awkward scientists out there, and some downright horrible ones -- I mean, for Gods' sake, James Watson and Francis Crick are still allowed to speak in public, and every other word out of their mouths is about white supremacy!"
"You're absolutely right," he agrees readily. "It was shameful. The people in charge of our public image," he nods at the newspaper clipping in her hand. "Felt she was better suited to remain behind the scenes, so they began the careful process of removing her contributions from the story, until in the end, Richard and I were the ones taking credit for her discoveries. I even believe that the Oscorp encyclopedia doesn't even mention her name, even though she was one-half of a team that engineered the Oscorp super-spiders. Yes," he confirms, catching the way Gwen's whole body jerks with the shock. "That was them. I joined their research shortly after that point."
"That's -- that's --" Gwen's mouth works like a fish.
"Third-wave feminism hadn't been invented then, Gwen," he remarks, rueful at the shock and outrage that has to be warring with each other on Gwen's face. "So equal rights only applied to a woman if she was white, beautiful, and able-bodied."
"Have you ever tried to set the story straight?"
This time, Dr. Connors does flinch. "I should. I should have, I know that. There's so much I should have done differently. But I was so angry for so long -- I'd depended so much on their research, and then they died, and I …" His jaw works, and he looks away.
"They have a son," Gwen blurts out.
"Peter, yes, you said."
"He's as smart as they are. He's in my class, he's second -- after me, of course. He'd like to meet you, and maybe … maybe he remembers something from his parents' research."
"Gwen," and the fatherly tone is back in Dr. Connors's voice, kindly and a little patronizing. "The likelihood of a sixteen-year-old boy hitting upon a breakthrough in the field of cross-species genetics that I have not in the past ten years of tireless research is --"
Just like that, it clicks neatly into place in Gwen's head.
"Someone already had a breakthough," she breathes, feeling her eyes go wide. It's true, it has to be. She sees it so clearly in her head, that half-human, half-dinosaur thing that nearly took her out on the bridge. It had to have been created. "The lizard monster."
"The one the Daily Bugle is proclaiming will restore male virility if one merely acquires one powdered claw?" His voice is very controlled, politely dubious.
Gwen waves that off. Their family has a subscription to the Daily Bugle simply because her mother says that every article is twice as good as the Sunday comics, and if there's one thing being Spider-Man has taught her, it's that whatever possible threshold for wrong you think exists, the Daily Bugle will sprint right over it, buck naked and waving a foam finger. "Have a lot of people being asking you about it?" she asks. "They should, you're the biggest herpetologist in the city."
"Oh, yes, they have." His chuckle is humorless. "I do wish they'd bother somebody else with that nonsense. It's not like there's a shortage of geneticists in the world."
"Everybody wants to make Pokemon," Gwen says. It's one of his favorite jokes: it's something his son asks him on a daily basis.
"Yes. The science exists. Of course the science exists, this new species of lizard proves it -- it's just, most scientists are too absorbed in finding out if they can use jellyfish DNA to make monkeys glow in the dark, and do not absorb themselves in anything useful. Which means people like me need to do twice the work. Speaking of," he looks up, with a note in his voice that tells her this conversation is over. "Don't you have some to be doing, Gwen?"
Later, after she passes the story onto to Peter ("I don't know anything about a decay rate algorithm," he says thoughtfully, "but I do know that my parents had something that they wanted to go pharmaceutical with, except Norman Osborne wanted exclusive rights to it, but they died before that got nasty,") she sits on the bleachers and watches him show Philip how to skate the high schooler's half-pipe. She clenches her fingers around her knees and thinks, with a kind of bitterness she didn't know herself capable of, It's your parents' fault I'm a mutant with spider DNA. Be grateful they're dead, or they might have started experimenting on themselves. Or worse, you.
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