hey gurl come to the window and give me ur opinion on this outfit.
I can't, Gwen texts back. There are people out there and I have no clothes on.
A second later, she hears a very faint, "Oh my god, I can't know that!" float up through the open window, coming from the general direction of the neighbor's front porch. She muffles her laughter against the back of her wrist, and Peter's eyebrows tick up curiously. "Well, fine!" MJ's voice sounds off again, this time louder, like it's coming from directly beneath them. "But I'll have you know that I look drop-dead gorgeous, and you're missing it!"
Gwen thumbs her phone awake. Then you didn't really need my opinion, now did you?
ur bitch, she gets back.
Then, several seconds later, while she still has the reply form open, ride him like a rodeo k good talk.
She bursts out laughing, dislodging the measuring tape Peter has hooked around her abdomen, snug up against the band of her bra. "Gwen!" he protests, but without heat. Correctly interpreting the look on her face, he adds swiftly, "She's known me since we were five years old, whatever she's telling you is a gross lie."
"Actually, she's letting me know you'd be sexually satisfying."
"Oh," he goes, blinking up at her. "Well, in that case, please continue --" and then his face does something scrunched-up and funny. "Wait, why does everyone have an opinion on that? Seriously, she and Flash should start a club."
"The 'loudly comment on Peter Parker's sexual prowess at every opportunity' club? Can I be president?"
"You can be the investigative journalist," Peter allows. "But only if everything you say gets thrown out on account of your unforgivable bias. Okay, seriously, Gwen, you need to hold still or we're never going to get this done."
"Sorry," says Gwen, who is definitely not sorry, but she obediently forces herself to stop quivering with laughter and hold still. He loops the tape back around her abs, cinching it tight and pinning it to her with one hand while the other scribbles quickly in the corner of his sketchbook. In the beginning, she'd thought once or twice about accusing him of taking all these measurements just for the excuse of getting his hands on her bare skin, but now she knows he actually does factor in the exact dimensions of her abdomen when he's sewing up her suit. Besides, she likes the pressure of his hands, there over the band of her briefs, when he needs to hold her still for something. Whatever, she's allowed.
After a few minutes of easy silence, she asks, "So? Are any alterations required?"
"Not many," he says cheerily, from somewhere around her thighs. "You've put on some muscle, though, have you noticed?"
"I have, yes. Daily feats of acrobatics will do that."
"You actually kind of remind me of snake eggs," he says, apropos of nothing.
Gwen lifts her eyebrows at him, completely not following this train of thought. "Flattering, thank you."
He immediately flushes and trips over, "no, shut up," mumbling like his mouth has been stung by bees, and they laugh at each other for no good reason, really, until Peter puts a hand on her waist, thumb sliding just north of her smallest rib and the still-settling knife wound there, and he says, "I mean, there are some species of snake that lay iridescent eggs, right, and the way you're colored right now …"
He trails off, and she makes the connection.
She's gotten used to the sight of herself in the mirror, so she doesn't really notice anymore, and nobody else notices because it's been a long time since Gwen exposed any skin to anybody who wasn't Peter. She has a lot fewer bruises than she did in the beginning, when everything was new and a little unpredictable, but she still wears a map of New York City on her skin: swollen, earthen-colored knuckles, because webslinging isn't easy on the hands; road rash on her palms from where she hit the asphalt, stopping a car accident in Harlem; the brickwork of Soho faded into a lime green pattern all across her back, a blow that not even the suit's padding could protect her from; the sharp purple dent of a table corner from third track European History in her upper thigh.
She is quite distinctly mottled. Iridescent eggshells, indeed.
"Are you going to collect me, then?" she asks, wry, and then, quicker and more delighted, "Oh my god, are you nesting, Peter Parker? Is that what you're doing?"
"Gwen," he says, and puts his mouth to the strip of flesh just below her bellybutton.
The curl of his tongue against her skin is absurd, hot and wet, and she wants to laugh at him but somehow it makes everything swamp out from underneath her like having just missed a stair in the dark.
She catches herself against him, hands landing on him, and that does absolutely nothing to stop the falling sensation, the breathlessness like she'd just been flung off the side of a building with nothing below her but New York street lights and the oblivious motes of pedestrians. She has one hand on his head, fingers in his hair, the frames of his glasses, the edge of her pinky just barely there at the tip of his ear. She folds it down, affectionate.
He looks up at her, nudging her with his chin.
They watch each other for a long beat, absent-mindedly touching each other with their fingertips like they're reading braille.
"Is this okay?" he asks her. "Can I -- ?"
Gwen wants to kiss him.
The spider wants to eat him. The spider wants to chew him up and give the best bits of him to her young.
She nods once, and then again with meaning, and he nods back. Then his fingers hook into the waistband of her briefs, sinking downward, and his mouth is quick to follow.
On the stairs, after, Aunt May calls, "Peter, sweetheart, is that you? Can you get the mail, please, and bring it in here?"
Gwen finishes checking her lipstick with the camera function of her phone, and jumps the last seven steps in a single bound, landing without noise on the carpet. "Sure thing, Mrs. Parker!"
"Oh," is Aunt May's startled reply. "Thank you, Gwen!"
Gwen bumps open the outer door with its giant black house number stenciled across the glass, fishing in the mailbox and surfacing with a stack that's still sun-warmed from having sat in a hot delivery truck all day. She brings it inside, and the largest item -- a catalog -- slips from her grip.
She catches it, instinctive, and then looks at it in surprise. It's a brochure for FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology right off of 7th Ave. The stamp on the front declares it to be "Ranked #2 in the US by Fashionista.com!"
Curious, she sets the rest of the mail down on the side table and flips it open; an application immediately slides out.
College catalogs have been appearing with alarming and annoying frequency in Gwen's mailbox, too, even though she's fairly certain she's never actually given her address out to any one of them yet, but this feels different. When her spider-senses alert her to Peter's approach behind her, she looks up, and holds up the brochure questioningly.
"I thought," she starts, and then can't find a way to finish, because Peter wanted to go to Ohio, didn't he? Wasn't Ohio where all the good arts and sciences were?
He looks from the FIT catalog to her face and back again, and shrugs. Just around the corner from where they're standing, Gwen feels the tread of Uncle Ben's feet against the floorboards, the pressure of his weight coming to stand beside his wife, the indrawn breath as he opens his mouth to ask her what she's doing, and the quick vibration of her hitting him to shut up him before he gives them away. "Maybe I kind of want to stick around."
"Why?" she presses, staring up at him.
Peter fumbles, making several aborted gestures with his hands, and for a second she thinks he's going to say something that will crack her irrevocably, shatter her into clear glassine pieces, and leave her as fundamentally changed as her twisted, arachnid DNA strands.
Then he chickens out completely, blurting, "I can't leave my aunt and uncle. They'd be lost without me."
And, simultaneously from around the corner:
"Oh, bad form, Peter!"
"Hey, Gwen?" Ripley's voice lifts up over the top of the centrifuge shelf, warbling a little confusedly in its uncertainty. "Did you label these samples before you put them in?"
"Yes!" she calls back. She wipes her running nose with the back of her sleeve. Her nailbeds have gone purple with cold. Like most corporate buildings, Oscorp's thermostat is permanently set to accommodate the men in suits and leaves everybody else to freeze to death, but Dr. Connors has always been good at making sure the lab remains a sensible room temperature due to the delicate nature of the live tissues they handle. This is not sensible. "Ripley, why is it so cold?"
"I don't know. The Doc set it earlier, saying something about how the heat was making him agitated. I didn't argue, he sounded pretty aggressive about it."
They haven't seen Doc Connors all day.
"Ugh," Gwen says. "If it goes any lower, we're all going to go into hibernation."
"Yeah. Hey, why are these samples cycling slower than the others?"
Gwen pushes back from her station, circling around the tables to check the centrifuge Ripley's pointing at. "Oh," she says. "That centrifuge was making a funny noise at higher speeds, so I got nervous and slowed it. I marked it, though, see," she taps the clipboard hooked under the machine.
Ripley squints at it, turning her head so that it comes into the focus of her good eye. "That doesn't make any sense," she mutters, lifting it up. "What are these samples doing out here? Shouldn't these be in Wilma and Fred's lab?"
Helplessly, Gwen sort of just gestures back at her, universal for, I don't know, man, I just do the grunt work when they tell me to and don't ask questions.
"Maybe Spider-Man's been messing with it," a dry voice offers from behind them. Dr. Morales, Miles's dad, stands at the end of the centrifuge shelf, a taped-up box in one hand and a Staten Island mug in the other. A hand-knit scarf has somehow worked its way around his shoulders, the tails flipped out behind him and trailing. He holds out the box. "When you have a moment, can you girls run these for me?"
"Yes, sir," they say in unison, and after he leaves, they exchange a look.
"What did Spider-Man ever do to him?" Gwen wants to know, feeling slightly indignant on behalf of … well, herself.
Ripley muffles a giggle with the back of her hand. "I just don't think he likes the idea of mutants," she explains. "Especially if everybody likes it. He's been around Dr. Connors too long -- he sees somebody like that and just sees something that needs fixing."
Gwen takes the clipboard from her so that she can thumb open the tape that's holding the box closed. The vials inside rattle slightly.
"Besides," she continues. "I don't think he understands why anybody would be interested in dressing like a Vegas showgirl and galavanting about when they could be getting themselves tested to better further humanity. I mean, why be Spider-Man when you could be one of us?" She's warming up to it now. "Scientists! Study the effects of deceleration on the human body to create safer equipment for fighter pilots! Study the molecular structure of lizards so as to better mimic their ability to drop limbs that are trapped or have otherwise become a liability! Genetically engineer the perfect coffee bean that doesn't brew into something that tastes like foot when it gets cold --"
And just like that, it snaps into place in Gwen's head.
Lizards, she thinks, and out loud, she says, "Ripley, you're a genius!"
"I know," says Ripley modestly, and then, "Wait, what, why am I a genius? Gwen, where are you going?"
This last is called after her, because Gwen's already set the clipboard down on the shelf and is half-way across the lab, her mind buzzing like someone had shook it up like a pop bottle.
She curses her own short-sightedness: she'd said it herself, hadn't she? Where else in New York are you going to find the kind of ambitious herpetologist that isn't just a closeted dinosaur fan cooped up in the Natural History Museum, but instead someone dedicated and with access to a whole functioning, advanced laboratory?
Rounding the corner by Dr. Connors's office at full tilt, she almost runs smack into Mr. Ratha, only a last-second awareness of his body's position in space warning her that he's there.
She catches the tail end of his conversation as she steps around him, a "-- yes, Mr. Osborne has read the Ripleys' report, but he doesn't feel --" and then his dark eyes snap upwards, finding Gwen's even as they step around each other in the narrow hallway with the strange grace of wild cranes.
He says into his phone, "I'll call you back."
"Sorry!" Gwen gets out breathlessly, already turning to Dr. Connors's office door. "I just need to --"
Something in his voice, something about the way he says her name, leaning towards her as he does, sends all of her spider-senses into overdrive, because that's the way a predator looks before it strikes.
"It's good to see you," he says softly. He's wearing a trim black suit, his shoes shiny and polished. He's probably perfectly comfortable in these temperatures. Gwen looks at him and thinks about how, when asked who they wanted to grow up to be, Rasheel Young had listed comic book characters and the Saturday morning superheroes, but Jamal had tilted his head and said, with astonishing awareness for a ten-year-old boy, I want to be like Rajit Ratha. He looks like me and he's the most powerful man in New York. Who do you think runs Oscorp while Mr. Osborne waves at TV cameras?
Gwen shifts her weight. "I'm --"
She has no idea what to make of this conversation, and she's sure it shows.
A smile tugs on the corner of his mouth like it's caught on a fishhook. "I've been following your work very closely since our last meeting."
"I'm a great fan."
And everything comes to a screeching halt.
The sudden knowing expands inside of her with a clap like the universe beginning, widening her eyes and lifting her straight up through the shoulders so that she all but doubles in size. "You --" she gets out, vibrating with the intensity of how it comes careening out of her, because, because --
Because Mr. Ratha had been the one to ask her to go to the spider observatory that Sunday, the last day of March.
She hadn't even remembered that, afterwards. She hadn't thought it was worth remembering.
It hadn't been an accident.
It hadn't been an accident at all.
"We are so deeply grateful to you," Mr. Ratha holds his palms out to her like he's presenting her; a parody of thankfulness. "Our research has progressed in tremendous leaps and bounds in the light of your … success."
She looks at him and she thinks, I could take your skull between my hands and crush it into a pulp. Right now. You couldn't stop me.
Her hands ball into fists.
Seemingly unaware of the danger, he continues, "I am, of course, sorry about the inconvenience, but Dr. Connors was moving too slowly for Norman Osborne's taste. A dying man, after all, doesn't have a lot of time to waste. So our good friend the doctor required a little, shall we say, incentive."
Gwen grits her teeth. "Why me?" seems like a fair question to ask.
He chuckles, and oh, how she hates him. She hates him with the force of a nuclear bomb, a devastating explosion in her chest, leaving nothing but the sensation of hot, cracked earth inside of her. "What else are unpaid interns for?" he asks, with casual arrogance. "We get an endless supply of free labor, and you won't say a word because you're too desperate. You've been taught to fear failure, that all you work for will be naught. We could do anything to you. Really," he sounds delighted. "It's our economy's most ingenious trap, wouldn't you say?"
She snaps, stretching forward to do -- what, she doesn't know, because she doesn't get the chance.
From behind them, an explosion: an immense shattering of glass. Mr. Ratha jumps and Gwen's senses fling themselves outwards, picking up the scurrying bodies of rats, falling bookshelves, the chiming of falling glass, and in the center of it all, a great, heavy, reptilian weight.
Their eyes meet.
"Excuse me," she says, very tightly. "I have to go to work now."
Dr. Connors escapes into the sewers with what seems to be half the contents of his lab, and Gwen is all set to descend through the manhole cover and chase after him, but then flashing red-and-blue lights in her peripheral catch her attention. Two squad cars are parked in front of the Oscorp building -- and Gwen suddenly realizes that she has something much more important to attend to first.
To his credit, Captain Stacy only looks a little nonplussed to step out of the dispatcher's office of the Midtown North Precinct and find Spider-Man hanging upside-down in front of him.
He pauses, and then finishes buckling himself into his utility belt, hiking it around so that his hip holster falls over his thigh: a movement Gwen has seen a hundred times before. He shrugs into his jacket next, tugging it so that it falls neatly over the secondary service weapons strapped in his armpits. He straightens his collar. His eyes never leave her the entire time.
Finally, after making her wait through this, he drops his arms down to his sides and says, "Spider-Man," in a casual voice.
"Captain," Gwen returns.
"Are you here to turn yourself in? Or are you just going to leave me more of your little presents?" Ah, there's the bite she was expecting.
"I am," she says. "The giant mutant lizard --" her father straightens. "Is Dr. Curt Connors, of Oscorp. He's been injecting himself with a regenerative serum created with the DNA of a lizard -- only he needs to keep injecting himself, otherwise the effects wear off. But he's super-strong and hyperaggressive when he's in that state -- I believe I can run him down, but I need you to issue the warrant for Dr. Connors' arrest, so he knows he's got no ground to run to."
"I don't need to do anything, especially not on intel from the likes of you," he fires back without hesitation.
It's strange, being on the receiving end of that much scorn and vitriol from a face that has tried, every morning, to be there to give her a scratchy kiss on the forehead on the way out the door. Gwen tries to ignore the way it crumples inside her chest.
"Please, sir," she says with effort.
"And anyway," he steamrolls right over her, warming up to this. Disbelief radiates off of every inch of him. "Dr. Curt Connors? The same Dr. Curt Connors that has worked at Oscorp without incident for ten years, my daughter's boss, who has promised to write her a very glowing recommendation to the criminal justice department at NYU? Is that the Dr. Connors you're talking about?"
"So what?" Gwen snaps. "If I said he was an African-American male, mid-twenties, last seen wearing a hoodie, then would you believe me?"
Her father gets right in her face, pointing his finger at her warningly. "You watch yourself."
"And you need to think clearly!" she cries. "Please! I know he's an upstanding citizen, all-around nice guy, so on and so forth. White," she adds, because she can't help herself. "But he's also an ambitious, disabled person with easy access to a lot of expensive, mad science. I don't think he can write than recommendation if he's too busy throwing people off bridges."
"We're done here."
"Wait!" Gwen swings after him, scuttling across the wall to block the doorway, meeting her father's furious, upside-down gaze. She softens her voice. "Listen, I get it, you've got your daughter's best interests at heart, but he is unpredictable, angry, and backed into a corner. He's already done a world of destruction, and every sign in the world points to him doing more with no thought for casualties."
And there it is, that flick in her father's jaw that she knows so well. As fast as a spider descending down a web, she strikes.
She looks right at him and says, "What do you think your daughter would want you to do?"
The next two days are perhaps the most exhausting of Gwen's life.
You don't even want to know how badly this suit smells by now, she texts Peter on Monday afternoon, after the Young brothers insisted that she stop by their apartment to get food and fuel up. Rasheel even has a card for her; folded-up construction paper that says "KICK HIS ASS SPIDERMAN!!!!" and is accompanied by an illustration of a red-and-blue stickman throwing a lizard-green blob up against the side of a Walgreens. Absurdly touched, Gwen tucks it into the front pouch of her backpack and thanks him and promises that she will.
Peter texts her back with several sad faces in a row.
Then, Flash says he hopes you feel better and also that if you're not back by tomorrow, he'll grind my face into a plate lunch in your honor.
She snorts, stepping out onto the window -- careful not to put her weight on the Youngs' air conditioning unit, she learned her lesson with that one. She starts to text back, and then her phone blows up with Tweets and things get a little busy there for awhile.
If there's one thing Gwen has learned to be incredibly grateful for in the last forty-eight hours, it's the speed of social networking and the willingness of people to wield it like a weapon.
She asked New York to alert her immediately if Dr. Connors surfaced anywhere, and New York responded admirably. Dr. Connors hasn't been able to poke his scaly head out of the sewers for longer than five minutes without Gwen descending on him, armed with her phone and a sudden spike in activity in the #GetEmSpiderMan hashtag. Miles Morales, actually, has proved himself invaluable when it comes to sorting out the real sightings from the false: how, she doesn't know, since she's pretty sure he's in school, but apparently he and his best friend are taking the "Doc Watch" (their words, not hers) in shifts.
As for Dr. Connors, his surfacing has been sporadic and piecemeal at best -- he smashed up and robbed three separate hardware stories, passive-aggressively broke into NYPD's offsite crime lab to steal their equipment after they locked him out of the Oscorp building, and even walked into a Verizon store in human form, completely buck naked and carrying a taser, in order to steal a phone charger and a fire blanket.
So however Gwen's day has been going, she's at least fairly certain that the Doc's has been about twenty times worse.
She's standing above the latest one -- a ruptured sewer line that opens out onto the street just above the Ripleys' Parisian bakery -- with her hands on her hips, glancing up and down the street and trying to figure out why he needed to hit this location of all places, when a surprised voice says from behind her, "Oh! Spider-Man!"
"Hi, Mrs. Ripley," Gwen says absently, sensing the weight of the woman on the sidewalk and knowing who she had to be.
Mrs. Ripley is a small, top-heavy gnome of a woman with very bright, big eyes that become magnified behind her glasses in a way that reminds her a lot of Uncle Ben. She hefts a bag into the dumpster behind her building with a rattling thump, then waddles on over to her, brushing her hands off on her apron. There are almost always flowers tucked into her crown of braids. Today's are pansies, already wilting with the progression of the afternoon.
"I'm afraid Ripley isn't here right now," she offers contritely. "With all of the Oscorp stuff, she had to go make some appearances with her father."
"That's okay," Gwen starts to say -- seriously, what's so important about this street that Dr. Connors felt the need to Hulk out and come bursting out of the sewers to come get it? -- and then stops dead as the words finally register in her tired brain.
She glances up sharply, not sure which part of the statement to address first. She supposes that it'd been too much to hope for that Ripley and her parents would just conveniently overlook the fact that Spider-Man used these strange contraptions that, oh, hey, just happened to be eerily similar to the webshooters Ripley had programmed together with Gwen Stacy. Ripley probably definitely knows who she is. But she'd kind of hoped that Spider-Man would be beneath her parents' notice.
And then Mr. Ripley appears behind his wife, also lugging a giant trash bag and wrinkling his nose up at the smell coming from the sewer, and Gwen blinks at him and then knows exactly what she cares about more.
"Her …" she begins, and trails off helplessly.
"Oh." Mrs. Ripley looks wrong-footed. Her eyes blink out owlishly. "I'm sorry, I thought you knew. We aren't," she makes a helpless gesture between herself and her husband, who spots them at that moment and grunts in surprise. Mr. Ripley is as tall as Mrs. Ripley is squat, and has a heavy, wet mouth that pokes out of the salt-and-pepper mess of his beard. "We aren't Ripley's biological parents." Her face scrunches up. "I always hate saying that. It doesn't make us mean any less."
"Did you adopt her?" Gwen asks curiously. That would account for a lot, actually, now that she thinks about it. Ripley had no trouble joking about her hippie parents, but there'd always been a note to it that Gwen couldn't place, something that pinged at her spider-senses wrong.
The Ripleys exchange a look.
"Of a sort," Mr. Ripley admits. "We'd more or less been her nannies while she was growing up, so when she started adolescence and needed a safe haven, it wasn't any trouble to provide that for her."
"After that, she started calling herself Ripley and referring to us as her parents," his wife adds with a hint of pride.
"And her real -- sorry, her biological parents didn't care?" Gwen presses.
"Her biological parents didn't want him around with the way he was expressing himself --" Mr. Ripley's voice cuts off when Mrs. Ripley's elbow finds his side and digs right into it. He fumbles to a halt, eyes bugging out underneath his bushy brows in a mortified way. "They let us keep her around," he finishes, putting the correct pronouns back in place. "It's our privilege."
Oh, Gwen thinks. She rearranges the entire way she'd been looking at things, and carries on.
It's not hard to put the rest of the puzzle together. Ripley's biological parents want her to appear as her assigned gender whenever they're out together, because that's easier for them than admitting they have a daughter, not the son they'd told everyone they had.
Gwen's indignation flares, and she hears her father's voice: Manhattan's becoming more gentrified, Gwenny-bee, and so the way people commit crimes is changing, too.
She never does figure out what Dr. Connors wanted on the Ripleys' street, because twenty minutes later, he attacks the Williamsburg Bridge again.
"You again, Jon Snow?"
Sitting on the back bumper of an ambulance with an ice pack pressed against his head and a pressure cuff around his arm, the curly-haired boy who'd picked her up off the pavement during her first encounter with the lizard monster offers her a shrug, seemingly unperturbed to find himself here again. His shirt today advertises the Salt Lake City Pride Parade, 2012. "Hey, Spider-Man. I guess that's just my luck. He's over there, by the way -- you know, where all the screaming and running is."
"Okay, cool," Gwen acknowledges, because she's pretty sure she knows what brought Dr. Connors to this bridge, both times.
She catches a Toyota Corolla before it can smash up against the side of a stopped bus, killing its momentum by swinging it around like a shotput and lobbing it back the way it came, where she hastily flings a net down to catch it.
All ten feet, hulking muscle, and green scaly body of Dr. Connors bellows at the sight of her, an animalistic sound that comes from deep inside his chest, and charges. He knocks aside an old woman, who stumbles and drops the red-and-white striped cane she'd been using to feel her way in between the cars.
"Oh, how rude!" the woman exclaims. Her white hair is tucked up underneath a gossamer scarf, printed with a purple hydrangea pattern, to protect it from the wind.
She starts tapping her toes against the pavement, hunting for her cane, which Gwen spots just as it skids underneath an abandoned taxi cab, out of immediate reach.
She ducks under Dr. Connors's lunge, and sprints for her.
"Goodness!" the woman yelps when Gwen sweeps her up into a bridal carry, retreating in a sharp bound as Dr. Connors pivots with more ease than he ever had before, raking his claws over the spot where they'd just been. His snarling makes the woman in her arms look around frantically, rheumy eyes flicking sightlessly back and forth. She bumps Gwen's chin hard enough to make her bite her tongue, and Gwen hastily looks for a safe place to put her down.
After a beat, her grip on Gwen's forearms turns appreciative.
"Goodness," she says again, in an entirely different tone. "I rarely ever have the pleasure. What on earth do you do for a living, young man?"
And Gwen rolls her eyes, because even blind women think she's a man.
"Web design," she says dryly, and sets her down on her feet next to a paramedic.
When she turns back, she finds the Doc waiting for her, claws crossed possessively over the top of a sleek black sedan, leaning forward like he's thinking about crushing it with his weight. She doesn't have to glance at the terrified face visible through the back windshield to know who the passenger is.
She edges closer.
"Killing him isn't going to solve any your problems, Doc!" she calls, and his tail whips agitatedly against the pavement. He watches her approach with unblinking eyes. Mr. Ratha twists around at the sound of her voice, his mouth a paralyzed rictus. His hand keeps tugging uselessly at his door handle. "He isn't the enemy, and you know it. He's the puppet."
"Maybe," he allows, and Gwen startles, because she hadn't realized he could speak in that form, that he retained any of himself at all, beyond the urge to hunt and take. Does more of the Doc stay intact with every transformation? His words rumble out of him with a sound like an engine backfiring. "But it would make me feel better. He's been so … smug."
She thinks, abruptly, of that time near the Village theaters, with Todd Rabin the rapist and the man whose name she never caught, how she'd said, You can't solve violence with violence! and he replied, Then tell me, God, what else am I supposed to do.
She eases another step forward.
"And if he's dead, then you're cheating him out of a very long life of always looking over his shoulder for us wherever he goes. Let him go, Doc."
Slowly, slowly, Doctor Connors lifts himself off the sedan. He studies Gwen where she remains crouched low on the concrete amid a nest of skewed cars, lit by the glow from the floodlights of the circling helicopters.
Then he gets out, "us?" in a hiss that sounds like murder.
She sees the moment he loses control: his nostrils flare and his eyes zero in on her, focusing with the intensity of a predator, and Gwen throws herself sideways off the bridge. Bellowing, he follows. He hunts her all the way back across the docks, and twelve blocks inland. She's hoping he'll run out of energy and start to change back before he loses her scent, so she stays low to the ground where he'll have an easier time of chasing her.
She loses him eventually, though, and can't pick up his trail. She doesn't know if he's entered the sewers again or not.
"God damn," she mutters, because it's back to square one again.
She stops in a Quik-E Mart and buys, like, three bottles of water and a 99c stick of deodorant. The clerk politely does not pass comment; in fact, she doesn't even seem fazed by the mask and the eau-du-sewer that's clinging to her. Gwen really loves New York sometimes.
She finds a dark corner of the parking lot and when she thinks she's alone, she pulls her mask off and drinks a bottle and a half in what feels like as many gulps. She slows down, taking the third one in slower sips, finally capping it and storing what's left in her backpack.
She considers digging around for her phone, but first she needs to address the next order of business:
She digs her fingers into her scalp, scratching hard and releasing an ecstatic noise. She doesn't even care about the bobby pins coming loose from her skull, because scratching one's scalp after it has been under a spandex mask for almost two whole days is probably one of those levels of heaven they only reserve for, like, the really pious saints or something.
That voice -- burnt and rough, like it had been dragged backwards across coals, and Gwen flings herself straight upwards without a second thought, desperate to escape it.
Dr. Connors curls his tail around his legs, settling onto his haunches in a self-satisfied way, grinning up at her with all his razor-thin teeth on display. They look as sharp as the ends of candy canes after they've been sucked on, and his eyes are so flat they look icy enough to skate across.
"Well," he grates out, in a way that sounds absolutely nothing like the man who once gently told her to never feel guilty for protecting herself. "This is quite the surprise. You know, I was under the impression that our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man was male."
"Makes you wonder, doesn't it?" says Gwen from atop the lightpole. "Just how many of history's most lauded masked vigilantes were actually women."
"Is that what you think you are? A vigilante?" He chuckles rockily. "I don't think so. You were always the overachiever, weren't you, Gwen? I don't think you'd just settle for vigilante. No, I think you want to be a hero."
Gwen tugs the mask back on, pulling it down over her throat and hooking it in, for all the good it's going to do her now.
She's shaking all over, she realizes; fear. Fear goes hot and cold all through her, sending signals to her hands and feet and twisting, knotting gut that make no sense. What's going to happen, now that the reptile in the Doc's head has her identity between its teeth?
He has an answer for her.
He tilts his head at her, considering. "Isn't it true that no hero truly becomes a hero without the drive of loss? Isn't that how these stories go?"
"No," tries Gwen, in this horrible bullfrog croak of a voice.
But he hisses with delight. "Who should I take?" he presses. "Who must die for you to truly be born, hmm? Who must die for you to become Spider-Man? I'm not exactly spoiled for options, am I -- a mother, a father, three delectable younger brothers. You don't get families like that too often. There's too much love in your life. That was your first mistake."
Miles's texts fly in fast and furious, a long stream of chat bubbles coming up one after the other on her screen.
I don't know what's happening h/o h/o
okay i'm gonna disable your notifications this is getting ridicu
jesus fuck what the fuck
Two minutes later, she gets:
Hi this is Ganke. We have no less than seven separate sightings of Dr. Connors, all of them legit. Dude has tots done a Shadow Clone Jutsu.
"Shit," Gwen mutters, resolving not to think about the hows and just deal with what she has in front of her.
Perched on top of a trash can by the side of the street (because this is the glamorous life of Spider-Man,) she texts back: Have there been any casualties has anyone been injured?
Someone, Ganke or Miles, answers immediately.
Not yet. that doesn't mean there aren't any b/c we don't see everything. Some things don't get broadcast on the Internet. weird. Don't ppl know we need to know?
Ok. I'm on 7th and Broadway. Where's the closest sighting?
Oh man, you aren't going to like this. He just tipped over an armored car on 54th st. Right by the police dptmnt.
Gwen thinks, who must die for you to truly be born, and panic burns electric-hot down to the ends of her fingers. She has to thumb her phone into sleep mode and press the corner of it, hard, against the line of her mouth while her heart skitters out of control in her chest. It lasts only a second, and then her phone vibrates in her hand.
Incoming call. Peter.
"It's an aerial toxin!" his voice crackles out as soon as she picks up. He sounds breathless, excited, the way she's only heard him get about the first drafts of the suit and Rube Goldberg machines and kissing her. "He's created a version of the serum that transmits as an airborne pathogen: it starts the transfiguration process as soon as it makes contact with a living specimen. That's what he's doing! That's what he's been creating in his evil underground lair. He's blasting other people and creating dopplegangers of himself!"
Then, "Stop! Why are you laughing?"
"Because that is some serious mad science!" He has the decency to stop laughing, though. It had sounded a little hysterical, anyway. "Weren't you working on an antidote?"
"Yeah, but I've got it cooking at Oscorp. I can't -- if he's turning civilians into lizard monsters, then I have to --" she stands, spinning in place and raking her free hand over the top of her head. The trash can cover creaks alarmingly under her weight. "I can barely manage a fight with one Dr. Connors, how am I supposed to subdue more than one and get the antidote?"
"Antidote first, how about. Then you can give it to your father and they can work on curing the dopplegangers while you take out Dr. Connors."
It's as good a plan as any. "Okay," she says. Then, "Thanks," and hangs up.
Nodding to herself, she leaps down, taking two large bounds and bending down to spring, webshooter already cocked, when --
When something closes around her ankle with teeth like a steel trap and yanks, reeling her backwards like a wriggling red-and-blue fish on a hook.
She hits the cement and skids across the sidewalk, bumping off the curb and into the gutter and then she gets her fingers into the edge of a manhole cover and manages to kick herself free. She flips over, scrambling backwards on her heels and elbows, and there's a lizard monster looming over her, tongue dangling from in between its teeth, its eyes enormous and amber-colored. It's not Dr. Connors. Peter was right; this is somebody else, mutated beyond all knowing.
Cars squeal around them.
She tries to fling herself away, out of its reach, but it catches her, pinning her to the ground by her leg and forming a loose cage around her with its talons.
"I know you," comes rumbling out of its chest.
Gwen cants her weight over to one side and kicks out at its muzzle, hard, in an attempt to free herself, but it dodges -- fast! Dr. Connors had never been this fast, freshly transformed; did he do something to the formula when he changed it to become airborne, or do some people's bodies just adapt to the change faster? -- and bares its teeth at her in defiance. Its weight tilts forward again, all of it coming down onto Gwen's leg.
Pain explodes; Gwen shouts out before she can swallow it, and the lizard looms in closer, eyes brightening and nostrils flaring, sensing her fear. She is no use to anyone if she gets her leg broken.
"I know you," it says again.
And Gwen realizes with a cold drop of horror that she knows him, too, recognizes him there in the shifting color of his eyes.
"Officer Hamburg," she breathes.
The racist dickhead, the cop who used his power to pursue the powerless and told himself that he was the one fighting the good fight. The cop she assaulted in Brooklyn, and got a warrant issued for her arrest.
He growls, low and threatening, and confirms, "You got me suspended."
Gwen feels a rush of betrayal, because to be here, to be somebody who got close enough to Dr. Connors to get the serum blasted into his face, he would have had to still be on the force, still be on the payroll, even though NYPD claimed they had a no tolerance policy for people like him. He got suspended. He should have been fired.
"I'm under investigation. They've got me at a desk," he spits it out between sharp teeth, tongue flicking over the word like it's trying to expel it with disgust, like that's the worst possible thing he can imagine, like somehow he's the offended party, like it doesn't even occur to him that a desk job is the least, the absolute fucking infuriating least he deserves, after the way he treated Nicolas Rechard, after the way he almost maced Tiffany Shields and her newborn baby.
"And you --"
Gwen scrabbles for purchase, twisting and trying to find some kind of leverage so that she can get free, or get enough distance between herself and his face to use her webshooters, but he just pushes her further into the concrete, his words slithering out of him, aggressive.
"-- it's your fault."
He lifts a claw, flexing it a little in order to call attention to it, and then he looks at her in a way that can only be described as appraising. Gwen needs no translation: lizards are a spider's greatest predator.
He strikes, and she cannot, cannot, cannot do a thing to stop him: he grabs her by the leg, the one he isn't using to pin her to the concrete, the way a collector might pin a butterfly to a board. He grabs her leg and rips.
She screams and she screams.
Then she has no breath for screaming left, but she tries anyway, mouth gaping and sucking at the fabric of the mask and how can a human body hurt this much? How does the human body have the capacity to hurt this much?
The creature that had been Officer Hamburg gouges her leg open, all down her thigh straight to her knee, and his jaw unhinges as he hisses at her with obvious delight.
Saliva drips off the edges of his teeth, and Gwen doesn't need spider-senses to know that his next blow will be the pulse point at her neck.
She has just enough time to think, this is a really shitty way to die, simultaneous with the thought, who's going to remember to pick up Simon's medication from Walgreens?
And then a gunshot splits the air.
Blood splatters across the mask.
Gwen flinches, shocked.
Officer Hamburg straightens up, tongue flicking out to probe at the chunk of flesh now missing from his muzzle. He looks baffled.
His weight lifts off of her, and he swings around. A figure emerges from between the shadows of two buildings, gun held steady and trained right on him and firing: one, two, three, four, five, click and reload, six, seven, and then the lizard loses interest. He wails, the sound garbled around the mess of flesh and bone fragments that is now all that's left of his jaw, and flees, dripping bright droplets of blood with every hobbling step.
Run, the spider tells her. Run, hide, go.
She cannot move.
Her rescuer steps into the light; Gwen registers a pencil skirt and nylons, the glint of a diamond pendant at the open collar of her blouse that her father had given her for their twentieth anniversary.
The word almost escapes her, but she chokes it down, and all that comes out of her is a noise, terribly young and so fucking lost and seeking.
Her mother looks right at her.
And she says, "Hi, Gwenny-bee. The news said you could use some help."
"Mom," Gwen sobs. "Mommy."
She seems to focus, really focus, on Gwen, and Gwen's forced to watch as her face does something horrified and complicated, something hard and soft and angry and scared all at once, and then she approaches at a brisk clip, gun falling to her side. She drops to her knees next to Gwen; her eyes dart to Gwen's leg, and she completely checks out, the same way Peter and Miles had when she climbed through the window with her stomach sliced open.
Gwen forgets, sometimes, that most people go their entire lives without ever seeing serious blood.
Her eyes follow the length of her mother's arm, down to the gun in her hands. "Since when do you know how to shoot?" she asks, with a voice as shaky as marbles.
"Since about five minutes ago," Helen Stacy replies with a strange calmness, and she rips the rest of her magazine from the gun and tosses it aside. "There are a worrisome amount of firearms just lying on the ground. I think most of the mini-Godzillas running around used to be police personnel."
"At least they didn't change much from how people already view them."
"Gwen," her mother admonishes her. The name seems to shock her, because the next thing Gwen knows, she's got her face in her hands, stroking the mask's cheeks with her palms. Pride wobbles at the corners of her mouth.
With a small, involuntary sound deep in her throat, she all but pulls Gwen upright, gathering her close and chanting, low in her ear, "Gwen, Gwen, my girl, my baby girl, my one and only daughter."
"Mom," Gwen says weakly, getting her arms around her mother and hugging her back, feeling very fragile about it. "Mom, my leg, I need to --"
She needs to stop the bleeding, first. There's nothing she can do about the pain but grit her teeth and try not to let it overwhelm her, but the bleeding needs to stop. And she can make a cast for herself, but she needs the space and the time to do so, and she has neither of those right now.
Her mother pulls back, face set in her usual way like she's about to take charge, except then her eyes skip down to Gwen's leg and it occurs to her that she has no idea what to do.
"Mom," Gwen continues, and it's stupid, it's so stupid, just how relieved she feels to have her mother there. "I need you to take your nylons off."
Together, they get Gwen out of the road, taking shelter on the steps of a smoke shop with a sign hanging in the window that says "out to lunch! we'll be back" on the front of a clock face, the hands pointing to a time that was roughly seven hours ago. Gwen's mother shimmies out of her nylons with only a minor amount of awkwardness, and, with some starts and stops, they get them ripped into strips which they use to wrap tightly around the mangled parts of Gwen's leg. Blood oozes blackly down onto the steps, staining through the stone, and she tries to tell herself that it looks worse than it really is, that she can still roll her ankle and wriggle her toes and both of those are minor miracles of intact musculature and she shouldn't be feeling this weak.
It's just cramps, she tells herself. Just pretend they're cramps. You've had worse cramps than this, come on, and people always expect you to do shit when you have cramps. You're not going to get out of dealing with Dr. Connors just because someone mangled your leg, geez.
She peeks up at her mother. There's a rust-colored streak on her cheek from where she tried to brush her hair back.
"Are you going to tell Dad?" she asks quietly.
Helen Stacy gives her an even look. She doesn't need to ask what Gwen means. "Do you want me to?"
"Okay." She finishes knotting a strip of nylon just above Gwen's knee, stretching the fabric out so that it covers as much of her skin as possible. Then she asks, "Who else knows?"
"Peter." Her mother makes a funny face at that. "Miles. Probably Ripley, too, because she helped me build my webshooters and she's kind of a genius. You." She tilts her head curiously. "Speaking of, how did you know?" She has sudden visions of having, like, left the Spider-Man suit in her laundry basket or something.
Her expression turns wry.
"Gwenny-bee, I gave birth to you," she says patiently, her hand straying, seemingly without thought, to cradle Gwen's face again. "I changed your diapers. I bathed you. I took you bra shopping for the first time, did you think I wouldn't recognize you, even wearing a manly costume?" She considers it. "But I guess I didn't know for certain until you stood up to your father. You've never done that before."
Defensive, Gwen scowls. "He wanted to arrest me!"
She chuckles, and knots the last strip of nylon. "I tried to tell him that wasn't going to work. Okay, there, I think you're good. Now we …" she pauses, checks herself, and then defers to Gwen. "Now what?"
"Now I need to make a cast," she lifts her webshooter-clad wrists to show how she's going to do that. "It's only temporary, but it'll have to do. Then I need to find Dr. Connors."
"He's heading towards Oscorp."
The speed and certainty with which she volunteers the information makes Gwen blink, feeling like she's missing something.
"Oh," her mother says, and tilts her head to the side, digging into her ear like she's got some kind of bad wax build-up. She surfaces with a earbud, the kind that Gwen's father likes to laugh about whenever they appear in cop movies and on shows like CSI, because they're often crap quality, are completely conspicuous, and hurt like hell because everything's either too soft or blasts out hard enough to puncture eardrums. She passes it to Gwen.
"Dad gave you this?" she asks in wonder, rolling up the bottom edge of her mask so she can slip the earpiece inside.
"I might have liberated it from someone in your father's building," her mother says innocently. "They weren't using it, on account of having recently been transfigured into a giant mutant lizard monster."
"Mom," Gwen says, in a oh my god, please don't embarrass me while I'm Spider-Man, kind of voice. She finagles the earpiece into place; for a second, she gets nothing. And then a dispatcher crackles a "10-4" in response to somebody else.
"There," says her mom. "Now you can kind of follow your dad's movements."
"Okay." Two priorities war inside Gwen's aching, pain-shattered skull. She reaches out, catching her mother's hands, and focuses all of her attention into speaking. "Okay. Here's what I need you to do. I need you to find Dad and make sure neither he nor any of his officers go anywhere near Oscorp Tower until I give the okay."
Helen's mouth skews. "He isn't going to like that."
"He's going to have to deal. I'm the one biologically equipped to handle Dr. Connors. Dad just has sarcasm and a gun."
Her mother doesn't say anything, just looks at her. The shape of her mouth wobbles slightly.
"What?" Gwen says, with all the innate nervousness of a firstborn child who realizes they're about to see their mother cry.
"How did you turn out like this?" Abruptly, she gives in, rocking forward in order to enfold Gwen in a hug again, pressing into her so tightly it's like she thinks she can imprint herself into Gwen's bones. "It certainly wasn't anything we did. We got so lucky. So lucky. You're a hero. You're my hero." She sounds so wondering. "My baby girl is a hero."
"I'm not," Gwen protests, watery and cracked. "I'm no such thing. I have to clasp my bra in the front and shuffle it around to the back just like everybody else."
Helen chuckles, and pulls back so that she can grip her shoulders and ask her, "Is this what you want?" She tugs at the silver webbed design of the suit. "What you really, really want?"
Gwen doesn't need to ask. "Yes," she says fervently. "Yes. This is my brain surgeon. This is my bees in Minneapolis. Oh, Mom, yes. I didn't ask to get bitten, in fact, I was being used, but once you see what you can do --"
The mask fits. The suit fits; everything that Peter built like it was architecture and everything Gwen wove together like a beautifully symmetric web and everything the people of New York gave her, and Gwen can't imagine ever turning that down, that strength.
"Good," says her mother. She squeezes Gwen's shoulders one more time, and then she stands. She brushes grit off her knees and straightens the hem of her pencil skirt. She smooths down her hair, forgetting about the dark-colored blood stained in her cuticles and knuckles. "I'll talk to you later," she promises, and smiles down at her. "Good luck, Gwenny-bee."
"Thanks, Mom." She watches her mother descend the steps, brisk, and calls out after her, "I'll try to stop by Walgreens on the way home to pick up those meds for Simon, okay?"
Helen Stacy lifts an acknowledging hand.
"And I'll call you if I need anyone else shot!"
And disappears from view, leaving only her laughter trailing behind.
Gwen will give her mother this: when she wants to get shit done, she will get shit done. It's probably why they pay her the big money. In the time it takes Gwen to create a mold, cast it with careful application of her webshooters, and apply it to her leg to act as both crutch and armor, Helen Stacy has already located her husband. Her voice comes through the earpiece, shortly delivering the command to steer clear of Oscorp Tower.
Then, suddenly, while Gwen is carefully scaling the smoke shop building, moving far, far slower than she would like and breathing through the pain, her mother speaks into her ear.
"Gwenny-bee," she says, startling her. Her voice is low, like she's whispering to something she's caught under a bushel. "I know yours isn't a two-way, so you can't reply, but I just wanted to let you know that I moved everyone else to a different channel, so all you're going to hear is us. We'll keep you updated, okay?"
"Okay," Gwen answers, and hauls herself up onto the roof.
Oscorp Tower sits visible amongst the other skyscrapers that make the famous landmarks of Midtown Manhattan, an enormous, green-lit obelisk of a building. Ripley's favorite joke is that Norman Osborne always wanted to have the biggest dick on the Manhattan skyline, but the city wouldn't let him.
Gingerly, she eases herself into a standing position. She starts to put her weight on her bad leg, and whimpers, quickly shifting back to the other one.
A news chopper circles overhead. Its searchlight glances off of her eyepieces, briefly turning her vision to nothing but stunning fractals.
"Oh," says her mother. "I see your problem."
Her voice rises.
"George! Who's the construction foreman for the Oscorp business district?"
"How the hell should I know?" her father's voice returns, further away but still audible. Then, a beat later, he adds grudgingly, "Joshua Coleman."
"Thank you. Can you get his number for me, please?"
She puts the man on speakerphone. He's indignant, fast-talking, all New York bluster, and he's very unimpressed by the fact that Helen Stacy is a police captain's wife, up until he is.
"I'm not risking my men and my equipment!" he says hotly.
And, in Gwen's ear, her mother says, soft, "Mr. Coleman. Spider-Man is somebody's baby. And that somebody wants him to come home." She waits a beat for that to sink in, and then asks, "Do you have children?"
"A son," the foreman admits. "He's five." A pregnant pause follows. "His name's Jack."
"And wouldn't you say that it's our responsibility, the very least we can do, to do everything we can to get our children safely home?"
Five minutes later, Gwen wobbles upright.
"You're kidding me," she says in startled disbelief, as a row of construction cranes rise up into view all across the Oscorp business district, appearing in between buildings and hiking themselves around so that, suddenly, a path materializes, one she can swing from easily. "No way."
In her ear, her father says, low, "I should have you write more of my speeches."
"You should," Gwen's mother agrees, like she's saying something else entirely.
"Next time you see that Spider-Man," interrupts the foreman, for which she's weirdly grateful for, because she's pretty sure she was just about to listen to her parents kiss. "Tell him to be careful of what stringy stuff he leaves all over my cranes, yeah?"
"They're water soluble, oh my god!" Gwen yells, though of course no one can hear her. "If they bother you that much, get a squirt bottle!"
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