Dr. Connors isn't hard to track: there's a starburst break in the south face of the Oscorp building, as obvious as a bulls-eye in an ACME cartoon.
Everything is quiet when she slips through the hole, landing without sound in the carpeted hallway outside the door that leads to the super-spiders' observatory. She looks at it and a shiver runs down her spine, remembering that peculiar glint in Mr. Ratha's eyes when he said, I'm a big fan.
The fire alarms are flashing, but there's no noise, and Gwen picks a direction, keeping herself crouched low and her footfalls dead silent, hoping it makes her less of a target.
And then, from up ahead, she hears it: the slow tread of a heavy body, the slithering drag of a tail against the linoleum. Lizards aren't really made for bipedalism. Whatever Dr. Connors is doing, he's being slow and careful about it.
All of Gwen's spider instincts yell, Lizard! Run away! and the human part of her goes, we need to go that way! and she picks up her feet and sprints the rest of the way down the corridor, letting the spider think a number of unhappy things about it and try optimistically to steer her towards dark and cozy-looking corners where she can hide.
Then Dr. Connors speaks, startlingly close, and Gwen forgets everything else.
It's that deep, rock-gravel voice, scraping out over vocal chords gone thick and mutilated with growth, and Gwen slips sideways through the door into the main laboratory, stepping on the empty fire extinguisher in order to get a grip on the wall and slink upwards across the ceiling, so she tunes in only to catch the tail end of, "-- Parker, all grown up. Look at you," and it comes out in a craggy chuckle, menacing and low. "Do you know how many years of my life I lost because of your parents' selfishness?"
"Dr. Curt Connors?" says Peter with shock, and suddenly, everything happens.
They meet in the middle; Gwen dropping from above, Dr. Connors surging up from below, Peter caught behind a row of stools with only the wash basin as a shield, and she catches a glimpse of wide, brown eyes and very fragile bones before she drives heels-first into Dr. Connors' muzzle, propelling them both into the floor with a crash that makes glass rattle in every corner of the lab.
She rebounds, rolling to the side, and sees Peter move, a half-beat late, and -- oh, there's where the fire extinguisher went, smart boy -- he directs the stream directly at Dr. Connors just as he lifts his head, eyelids peeling back in time to catch the blast.
He bellows with pain, rearing back and twisting his head away to cover his eyes in a shockingly human gesture. He lashes out with his other arm, talons extended --
-- and then Peter takes a step backwards, the extinguisher dropping from his hands and dribbling foam across the floor, and --
-- there are three black lines on his chest, swelling darkly red even as she registers what and where they are, there underneath the torn fabric of his shirt.
"Gwen?" he says, sounding very small and very lost, touching his chest with confusion.
His fingers come away red and wet, and Dr. Connors catches him blindly with another glancing blow, sending him crashing down with a noise that makes her think of matchsticks cracking, and Gwen's mind whites out with terror, a sound like television static filling her head.
She screams -- she must have -- and launches herself forward.
There's no plan, there's no room in her brain for planning, just a panic that feels like noise, spreading through her head like the pins and needles of a limb that's fallen asleep and is trying to wake back up. She lands on Dr. Connors's head, grabbing hold by hooking her fingers into whatever looks sensitive; she gets a thumb in the soft membrane stretching over his ear and another into his eye, fingers digging into his jaw. His eyelids are rimmed in hoarfrost, a grey-white starburst radiating across his skull from where the main blast from the fire extinguisher hit him, and under her grip, the last remains of his lashes peel away. He thrashes, trying to throw her off, but she counters by throwing her weight in every direction like she's trying to lead a horse by the bit.
Bellowing in pain, he pitches forward into a somersault, and she quickly lets go to avoid being crushed under his weight.
They both land on their feet, squaring off to face each other.
Peter is still. Gwen strains all of her senses toward him, but she cannot -- cannot --
The Doc's flat, lizard eyes thin. She sees nothing of Dr. Connors in him, not even his eye color. She thinks about the way he'd said, who must die for you to be born? and the way he said, there's too much love in your life, and then she thinks, bizarrely, about his newborn child, about his five-year-old son. Where are they right now? What are they doing? Are they safe?
"Gwen Stacy," he rumbles. "Spider-Man. How is it that you maintain your mutation and I -- I am not adapting?"
"I don't know," Gwen answers. "You'll have to ask Norman Osborne about that, sir."
Behind them, Peter chokes on blood -- a wet, horrible sound, and the Doc's eyes flick towards him for a fraction of a second. Gwen starts to spring forward, rolling all of her momentum down into the balls of her feet, intending to take full advantage of it, but the Doc only says, "hm," and ducks underneath her leap. He skitters away before she can correct, disappearing around the desks and further into the lab.
Gwen wobbles on her landing, torn between chasing after him and checking on Peter, and then Peter coughs again and she is at his side with no clear memory of having made the decision to be there.
"-- you idiot, you moron, how can you possibly be so stupid --" she tunes back in to hear herself cursing, over and over again, grabbing at him. He tilts his body into her instantly, his hands snatching at her suit and dragging her forward by fistfuls, trying to arch so that none of his blood smears across the floor. His teeth are stained, and his eyes are very clear when he looks at her.
Gwen chants, "fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck," because had she bled this much, when Rosa the unstable mother had cut her open with a serrated knife? Surely she must have bled this much earlier, after Officer Hamburg ripped her open, but it's entirely different when it's somebody else's blood.
She doesn't think about her own leg. It doesn't even occur to her. This is Peter.
Peter is only human.
"Don't you have little brothers?" he goes, worriedly. "Should you being saying these things?"
"Shut up," she spits out viciously, and disentangles them so that she can launch herself across the tables; open files scatter and a bunsen burner tips off the edge, the glass shattering on the floor, but Gwen doesn't care, wrenching open drawers and scrambling through them upside down to find something, anything, anything -- "You don't get to talk, I thought he killed you."
And Peter, the fucking bastard, laughs.
"I wasn't worried," he tells her, closing his eyes and settling in, like he fully intends on just taking a nap on the floor. "Not when I had a hero here to save me."
For a very brief second, she contemplates stabbing him with a pipette. It seems fairly counterproductive, though, so she doesn't, and he tilts his head in her direction and calls, "Hey, if you find a needle, you could sew me up!"
"I don't know how!" Gwen wails.
She is so fucking angry and she doesn't even know why.
"I'll teach you," he promises easily, and she thinks she might finally understand why Peter and Miles were so freaked out when she tipped in through Peter's window that day and promptly bled all over them. It is absolutely, totally another story when it's not your own blood. "It looks complicated, but it really isn't. If you just find me a needle, I can probably do it myself, too, you know."
Okay, Gwen, focus. This is an Oscorp laboratory: there is sterile equipment everywhere. If you can't find a needle, repurpose something.
"What were you even fucking doing here?" she demands.
"Mad science," his voice replies from the floor. And then, when he doesn't elaborate and Gwen's silence turns incredulous, he becomes defensive. "You were busy! I wasn't going to bother you."
"How did you get in?"
HIs silence is shifty. "I … kind of stole a badge."
She takes a closer look at him. There is, in fact, a laminated badge pinned to his chest. It had belonged to one of the new summer interns.
"Last I checked, Rodrigo, that was illegal." An idea grabs at her, splattering sudden and bright across the scattered, panicked noise inside her head. She pivots on her heel, leaping across two tables and peering underneath them, until -- there! He hadn't taken it with him when the alarms sounded, good man.
"It was something I could do," Peter's saying when she lands back at his side, dropping the craft bag into her lap and digging through it. "You're always talking about how -- like -- if you can do something, then you should, and I could do this."
"Do what?" she says blankly.
Shakily, he lifts a hand, and points in the direction that Doc Connors had gone. "The Genali device," he says. "My parents … their notes said it was invented as a way to disseminate an aerial toxin over a mile-wide radius."
Just like that, the puzzle pieces shift, rearrange, and fall neatly into place. "He plans to convert the entire city," Gwen finishes, hushed in horror.
Peter's mouth quirks without humor. "The lonely old man doesn't want to be the only one of his kind."
It startles Gwen, making her flinch like he'd swung a very bright line around to shine it in her eyes. She hadn't thought once -- not even once had she thought about what it would be like if she wasn't the only Spider-Man, if there were more people willing to share her powers so that there was never a moment when there wasn't someone on guard, for whenever New York City needed them.
But that's the very first thing Dr. Connors wanted to do? To create more people like himself; superhuman, without weakness -- creatures with immense genetic longevity, reptiles who've been building themselves and adapting for millions of years, all of it leading to this point, this point where Dr. Curt Connors says, this isn't just for me, this is for everybody, like it's a gift he can bestow before Mr. Ratha and Norman Osborne stop him?
"Don't do that," Peter doesn't seem to need to be told what she's thinking. "You're nothing alike. When Dr. Connors got all that power, his first instinct was to control and to dominate and to procreate. Yours was to help."
Peter Parker, always with the words that trip her. He is the one thing she will never see coming.
"Oh, hey," Peter seems to have finally focused on what's in her hand. "That's perfect. Where did you find that?"
"Huh? Oh, it belongs to one of the lab techs. He likes to knit while we're waiting for centrifuges to stop spinning. I know it's not perfect, but --"
"No, it's great, you're perfect and I love you." He gets his elbows under him and tries to shove himself up, and Gwen's stomach drops out at the way all the color just drains from his face. She gets her hands under him, taking all of his weight like he's nothing more than a doll. "I'm fine," he goes, correctly guessing what's all over her face even though he can't see it, and that's rich, coming from someone with blood on their lips. "I got this. You go do your thing. I'll sew myself back up and I'll scream really loudly if he comes this way again, okay?"
Slowly, Gwen lets go of him.
He catches his fist over her heart, over the stylized spider that guards her sternum.
"Take care of yourself," he tells her. "I'm personally and financially invested in you now, Spider-Man, remember that."
"You know, I always wondered which one of us you loved more," Gwen replies, aiming for airy and missing by several miles.
Peter's chuckle is weak, and wet, and a desperate fear shakes Gwen straight down to her core.
"Don't die, okay?" she says, and her hands find Peter's face without deliberate direction from her brain, holding him still and tilting herself down so that she can press their mouths together through the fabric of her mask -- his mask -- their mask -- whatever. She rests their cheeks together after, for a moment, and he puts a hand around the back of her head and returns, "Yeah, you too."
When she leaves the lab, it's at a dead run, all of her senses stretched out to track Dr. Connors, and so she doesn't see how Peter's body sags after she's gone. She doesn't see him set the needle aside and promise himself he'll do something with it in a moment, just a moment, after everything stops hurting so much.
Just a moment.
The blood on the floor is very scary.
He doesn't let her fall.
Her webshooters have shattered, one ripped completely from her and the other cracked in two jagged halves, both useless, and when she plummets and tries to catch herself, hands scrabbling, her wrists tell her in no uncertain terms that if she tries to put any weight on them, they will break and she won't like it. There is nothing but the air and the fall, the sight of particles of blue caught on the wind, the Manhattan skyline.
And then Dr. Curt Connors does the one thing that might, in turn, save his life: he shucks the lizard brain and catches his seventeen-year-old high school intern before she disappears over the side of Oscorp Tower.
They rest, feet braced against the edge like infant birds who've realized the fragility of their own nests for the first time, a sudden awareness of height. The Doc blinks slowly, swampily, and his flesh-colored toes curl until the human bones show through.
He looks out across the latticework of city lights and says, "I always did love this city."
Gwen has her mask in her hands. She absently presses her thumbs against the eyepieces. Her wrists feel like they've been spun from sugar, ready to crack apart at a single touch. She has no idea where her earbud went.
There's blood on the mask -- from Peter's mouth, she thinks, where she kissed him. There are flakes of blue antigen, too, and green-hued scales caught in the web design.
"I don't think anyone can stop themselves," the Doc continues. "Not after they've been here. Not after they've been to some $10 show in the Lower East Side that changed their lives, or visited the perfect bookshop, or went to the best underground club and took a stranger to an art museum the very next day. Not after they've watched the sun set over 42nd Street."
Gwen puts her back up against the remains of the parapet, drawing her legs up to her chest and hooking her arms around her knees. "But," she says, after a little time has elapsed and he doesn't add anything more to the list. "Don't you commute in from, like, an hour and a half away?"
"Well," he admits. "Sometimes I hate this city so much I can't stand it, either."
She isn't going to pretend she understands that one, not after all she's been through since the day one of Oscorp's super-spiders bit her on the back of the neck. They share another silence. They might as well be waiting for a centrifuge to stop spinning, for the computer to finish calculating the proposed results of a test for Fred and Wilma.
The Doc quirks a rueful smile, looking out across Midtown again. "I wonder what I'll miss the most."
"The macarons from Ripley's family's cafe," Gwen deadpans, and it makes him laugh, raspy like he'd swallowed sandpaper to make it. He nods at her in acknowledgement.
Then, without a single pause to change from funny to serious, he says, "You'll watch out for them, won't you, Gwen? I'm not asking you to. I don't have the right to ask you for anything, I know that, I just …" He pauses, and she waits him out. There are sirens wailing, somewhere, but she can't tell which direction they're coming from; her head feels full of static, rattled, and she wants nothing more than to check on Peter, and her mother, and maybe get her leg cleaned up, then crawl into bed and spread her toes against her comforter and tuck her blanket under her chin and sleep. "I just want to know that after this, the city will still have a Spider-Man."
Gwen thinks about it.
But not for very long.
"Of course it will," she says finally. "Can't get rid of me that easily, sir. Responsibility, integrity, resourcefulness --"
"-- the Oscorp way," he finishes with her, and then his body ceases to hold him upright.
Gwen doesn't think, just straightens out her legs and lets him collapse into her, putting her hand on his bare shoulder as he draws his knees up, shivering down to his blue-tinged fingers and toes. He curls into the warmth of her body the way one of her brothers might. He pillows his head on her thigh, and since it's not the thigh with the cast over it, she doesn't try to move him.
"Please don't take this the wrong way, Gwen, my dear," he says, in a voice that sounds as old and frail as yellowed newspaper, sounding so far removed from the lizard creature that it's hard to imagine they're the same person, except Gwen has the scales shed across her suit to prove it. For a beat, she thinks he's talking about the contact, because he is old and naked and she's trying to be mature about this, really, but she's not blind and this is so much more than she ever wanted to see, but he continues, "but I'm so very, very glad that you exist. That Richard and Mary and I … well, that we got something right, at least."
And she is. She is the living, breathing proof of it. Cross-species genetics.
She contemplates just leaving him here, and going down to sit with Peter instead, but Peter has a lifetime of people who will love him ahead of him, and Dr. Connors is looking at nothing but the inside of a jail cell, and the chance to see his kids through bulletproof glass.
Everybody, she thinks of Ripley, of Penelope, of Aunt May and Miles and the college brochure in Peter's hand and the look on MJ's face when she lashed out with her fist and Philip racing down the half-pipe at the skate park. She thinks of Ms. Young and Ms. Ngiwidi and Fatima in her wedding dress. Everyone's worth saving. Even you, Doc.
He says, "good," one more time, and then says nothing else, just breathes unsteadily and shakes in his bare, human skin as the sirens draw inexorably closer.
They keep all of Dr. Connors' victims, both direct and indirect, in a special makeshift ward hastily set up at the Roosevelt, and nobody's allowed to visit them except for immediate family. There's no estimate on when that quarantine will lift.
There's no news about survivors. There's no news about the personnel who'd been infected, transfigured -- whatever that had been.
Gwen hasn't seen Peter since she left him bleeding on the floor in the lab.
For appearance's sake, she still has to attend school the following day. Attending is the bare minimum of what she does; she doesn't bother with make-up or anything more complicated than her most worn pair of flip flops and the same yoga pants she used to practice webslinging in, before the suit. Underneath them, her mother had helped her wash out her wounds and bandage them up; Gwen had sealed them up with another webbed cast, so they've stopped bleeding, but that doesn't mean her leg is very happy with her for putting any weight on it.
She grits her teeth and, half-way to second track, is physically forced to stop and hold herself up against the lockers. Tears blur through her eyelashes, a hot, frustrated burn forming a column in her throat, and she brushes them away.
Last night, she saved Manhattan from a biological attack with this leg. She can fucking get to Junior Art.
A hand cradles at her elbow.
She looks up.
"Come on," says Flash. "Put your weight on us."
"You've got Art now, right?" Penelope asks. She's wearing her hair down today, held in place with a headband that seems to be made entirely of little sequin planet shapes. She looks like Snow White, if Snow White wore ironic hipster glasses and Converses with music notes drawn on the toes.
"I'm fine," Gwen tries to insist, even as Flash tilts her towards him and Penelope ducks under her armpit on the other side. "I just --"
"It's okay," Penelope's voice is gentle. For some stupid reason, it makes Gwen's chest and throat ache even more.
"We're not stupid." Flash has an arm around her waist, and between the two of them, they have Gwen lifted enough that she doesn't have to put her bad leg down. She'd been trying not to show that she was favoring it, because she didn't want to draw attention to herself, but it's a little too late for that now. They start walking. "We heard about Parker. He might be getting all the attention and shit, but we know there's no reason he'd be there but for you."
Penelope peeks at her shyly. "That was really brave, what you guys did. You know, for Spider-Man."
"I didn't do anything," Gwen says.
"Of course you didn't," and, with his free hand, Flash pulls his jacket open far enough to show the Spider-Man badge still pinned to the inner lining. He smirks over at Penelope, who does the same.
They don't leave her side for the rest of the day.
MJ joins them at lunch, takes one look at Flash, flips her hair, and immediately slam-dunks him into an argument about Second Amendment rights, which Gwen is pretty sure he's never thought about critically for longer than two minutes before in his entire life, beyond what had been narrated to him on Reddit. Although, she corrects herself, watching his eyes flash like he's just imagining lifting MJ and throwing her into the fountain -- his de facto method of ending arguments -- he did score the same as her on the SHSAT.
The next day, her mother sends her to school with a note to get her out of B track, so she goes home at lunch, downs a codeine pill that she has leftover from her wisdom teeth surgery two years ago, and watches eight consecutive episodes of Mythbusters on Netflix. (She might have, in one of her weaker moments, paused it and loaded Million Dollar Baby instead. It's not quite what Dr. Connors described, but she supposes that's his memory, being selective.)
Whenever anybody gets shot or stabbed in the shoulder or the leg in movies, it's always played up as a great relief, like, oh, look, they didn't hit anything vital, a little bullet wound isn't going to stop our rugged hero!
In reality, getting wounded fucking sucks. It doesn't matter where.
She'd been lucky, before -- she knows that now. When Rosa had stabbed her, most of the blow had been deflected by the angle of their bodies, the padding of Gwen's suit, but Officer Hamburg had torn straight through her clothes and skin like it was nothing. She has to heal all of that on her own. She has to heal it without her father getting suspicious, without any of her brothers seeing her. She can't go to the hospital: who knows what they'd find in her blood if she did.
She looks up physical therapy routines online. Her mother helps her change the bandages every day.
She holds Gwen's face between her hands, after, and kisses her. Kisses her all over her face, once, twice, seventeen times, one kiss for every year she's been alive.
She says, "I am so proud of you."
The fourth day, after, Howie comes in and shyly asks if he can cut her hair, and that makes her smile and sit up. He'd done it a lot when they were little, back when he just wanted Gwen to have a shaggy boy's cut just like the rest of them, but he'd stopped once it started to dawn on him that most little boys don't like cutting their big sister's hair. She thinks about asking him for the boy's haircut again, thinking of how much easier it would be to get it under the mask, but she's too fond of it.
"How about just around the shoulders?" she offers, "and do my bangs?" and Howie nods. He cuts her hair perfectly straight, and they talk, really talk, for what seems like the first time in a very long time.
She goes back to school, and sits with Flash and Penelope and MJ at lunch. Penelope has her laptop, and she shares her headphones with them so they can listen to the demo track of the Gangnam Style/Cotton-Eyed Joe mash-up that she'd made, while behind her, a cluster of underclassmen talk about how Spider-Man has been AWOL since the Oscorp mess. She wonders if Miles, who has more or less been in charge of her entire online presence since the whole mutant lizard monster debacle began, is waiting for her to give him the OK before he issues some kind of statement for her: if she decides she doesn't want to come back, he can organize something to that effect.
It'll be months before Gwen's back to anything resembling her usual routine, she knows that. She will, though.
She'll adapt to having a weaker leg. She'll learn to mask it.
This is Spider-Man's city. She isn't going anywhere.
She doesn't have to go to work that weekend, on account of, you know, Dr. Connors going prehistoric and destroying everything. Norman Osborne issued a statement the day after the incident, she heard, but she doesn't care enough to find it.
Instead, on Saturday, she goes to the Ripleys' Parisian cafe.
It's a busy spring day and the front door has been propped open to the sidewalk, and the placemats on the delicate wrought-iron tables lift with every breeze. Gwen passes a chattering Iranian couple carrying an infant in a car seat on the way in. She spots the familiar duck of a head at one of the tables in the far back, which is, of course, crowded with two different textbooks and a tablet.
She stops and buys a macaron from the display case, choruses a cheerful greeting to Mrs. Ripley in the back, then joins Ripley.
"Hey, Gwen," she goes, jaw cracking around a yawn.
"Hey, Ripley." Gwen maneuvers herself into the chair with only minor difficulty. "I got your text, what's up?"
"I have a present for you." She pushes her chair back and rummages in the bag by her feet. She surfaces with a package, shoebox-sized and crated up the way some people pack china, which she passes across the table. "This in no way contains illegal drugs, by the way, just in case anybody was eavesdropping."
They look around, though of course no one is.
When Gwen pries up the lid, she finds a brand new pair of webshooters nestled in among red-and-blue tissue paper (well, that's subtle,) and gasps. She hadn't asked. She hadn't even thought to bring it up. She picks one up and slips it on, strapping herself in with the ease of familiarity. The weight is a little different, and it presses into the places that blistered differently, but to Gwen, it feels like being able to breathe again after fighting a particularly nasty headcold. She hadn't realized how much she missed the security of them.
Ripley watches her flex her fingers over the controls, then says, "I reinforced them, so hopefully the next time you fight a giant mutant lizard monster at the top of Oscorp Tower, they don't get so easily crushed."
Gwen looks up sharply, meeting the single eye of Ripley's that's pointed in her direction. The other's pointed somewhere towards the wall. Ripley grins, and Gwen, thoroughly without meaning to, finds herself grinning back.
"Thanks, Ripley," she says quietly. "I couldn't have -- I couldn't have done it without you."
Or her mother, or her father, or Peter, or the way the entirety of New York City came to her and pulled her into the shape they needed her to be.
"Are you going to patent them?" she asks curiously, slipping her wrist free of the webshooter and returning it to the crate.
"I might." Ripley considers it. "Just to get it done before somebody inevitably tries to copy it. You know, get a woman's name on the patent first, that'd be nice."
"You definitely should," Gwen agrees, and takes a bite out of her macaron for emphasis. She chews, simply enjoying it (say whatever you want about Ripley's adoptive parents and their sojourn to Paris, but they definitely picked up the ability to create an excellent treat,) and when she looks up, she finds Ripley watching her with an immense kind of fondness in her eyes.
"Nothing," Ripley shakes her head. "I'm going to miss you, you know. And I'm going to miss living somewhere … somewhere that's Spider-Man safe. It just isn't going to be the same."
The macaron goes down her throat, hard as pebbles.
"Are you going somewhere?" she gets out, fighting off a dark swamp of disappointment. "Where are you going?"
"Well. I'd kind of been hoping to get a position in the Oscorp labs, but that's pretty much just -- pfft," she wrinkles her nose up and blows a raspberry, like that's all it takes to sum up Dr. Connors and everything that happened. "So yeah, that tanked my education plans. So I -- put in a transfer to Ohio State."
Gwen's so startled that the only thing she can do is throw her head back and laugh.
Ripley points her tablet pen at her warningly. "Hey, don't laugh, Ohio is --"
"A powerhouse, I know, I know."
When it's time for Gwen to go, she wads up her napkin and picks up the crate with her new webshooters in it and she hugs Ripley good-bye, holding her tight across the shoulders and squeezing, hoping somehow she can take all of the gratitude she feels and press it into Ripley's bones, so that no matter where she goes, someone will look at her and just know, somehow, that she's important to Gwen Stacy, that she was Gwen's favorite coworker, that she helped, without question or hesitation, to give Spider-Man her most valuable possession.
She's almost to the door when a thought occurs to her. She stops, turns, and limps back.
"I give up," she says. "If this is a rude question, feel free not to answer it, but I'm curious and I really want to know."
Ripley lifts her eyebrows encouragingly.
"What's your first name?"
This earns her a surprised look. "That's what you want to know? My first name? You don't care about my real last name?"
Gwen doesn't see why she would. "I know the Ripleys aren't your biological parents, if that's what you're asking. They kind of let it slip the other day. But if you don't want me to know your last name --"
"I'd really rather not."
"Then I don't need to know," Gwen says immediately, holding up a hand and taking a step back. Ripley's looking alarmed, and her eyes do a quick flick from her face to her leg and back again. "Forget I asked."
She turns to go. They must have the Amelie soundtrack continually in circulation, because it's playing again; the cheerful sound of a French accordion piped in from above.
"Gwen," says Ripley quietly. She stands, and Gwen stops to take her in; the soft, short brown hair and her off-center eyes and the masculine jaw. She extends her hand, which Gwen immediately shifts the box of webshooters around so that she can shake, like they're meeting for the first time.
"I guess, since I know your name," and the way she says it, Gwen knows she isn't talking about Gwen Stacy. "You can know mine."
A pause. Gwen waits.
"It's Harry. My name is Harry."
That following Thursday, while she's sort of idly listening to her mother paint rocks with Simon and Philip to put out in their allotted garden space on the rooftop terrace and feeling intensely nostalgic for the days when she did the same thing, her dad comes to stand in her doorway, clears his throat, and says, "Gwenny-bee, can I talk to you?"
"Yeah, sure," she goes, shoving her notebook and pencil into her Algebra textbook to hold her place and sitting up.
Her dad comes in and sits on the edge of her bed. He rubs the heels of his hands together, slowly and methodically, like he's trying to get sticky glue residue off his skin. He's clearly trying to line his words up into the right order.
"Listen," he says. "I don't pretend to understand it, but I'm willing to acknowledge that Spider-Man has become a very important symbol to your generation, and --"
He scratches at the back of his neck, still looking anywhere but at her. Gwen doesn't know what her mother told him, or has been telling him, but he hasn't mentioned Spider-Man once since they arrested Dr. Connors. She'd stayed with them while they wrapped Dr. Connors in a blanket and put him in the back of a squad car, and then she'd slipped away -- there is still, after all, a warrant out for Spider-Man's arrest. Her father hasn't made a peep about it.
"I guess I just want to know, and you kids are more likely to keep each other up to date than we are. Have you heard anything? Is that kid okay?"
"Who?" Gwen blinks, thrown. "Spider-Man?"
"Yeah. Is he okay? Did he make it? He looked pretty beat up, last I saw him."
She looks at him. In some other part of the apartment, she hears Philip complain, faintly, what the hell is that supposed to be? And in that moment, Gwen Stacy loves her father more than anyone else alive.
"He's okay," she confirms, smiling.
Her father's shoulders relax.
"That's good to hear," he says. "God knows none of us could have done what he did."
On his way out the door, he turns, drums his hands on her doorframe, and adds, almost casually, "Oh, and by the way. They're taking visitors at the Roosevelt, starting tomorrow." He looks at her knowingly. "That Parker boy was asking for you."
Uncle Ben's sitting in the chair at the bedside, his arms folded over the paunch of his stomach, watching the movement of the city outside the window. Everything is quiet and a little cold, the way it is in hospitals, and Gwen's heartbeat slows automatically to meet the beeping of the machine behind Uncle Ben. All the furnishings in the room are some shade of mint green, from the chair he's sitting in to the privacy curtains around Peter's bed.
He looks up when Gwen shadows the doorway, and his face crinkles into a welcoming smile. "If you're looking for the attractive quarterback," he says, and Peter startles at the sound of his voice, craning his head around to see who his uncle's talking to. The four other beds in the room are empty, their pallets bare and machines dark. "I'm afraid he's in the room two doors down."
"Oh, darn, I missed my chance," she sighs regretfully. "Well, what about this one? Is he available?"
"I don't know. Peter?" Uncle Ben makes a show of turning towards the bed. "You know what your aunt would say."
"She would try to tell you that I have genital warts and that I drool in my sleep and you could do so much better," Peter informs her as if by rote, and Uncle Ben rocks back in his chair, laughing and saying, I knew I married that woman for a reason, but Gwen isn't really listening to him.
Peter stretches his hand over the guardrail, reaching for her, and she steps towards him instantly.
His grin falters when he catches her limp, his gaze flicking down and back up, his eyebrows scrunching in concerned question.
She shakes her head at him. The bandages on his chest are translucent with gel, sticking to him, but they're clean: the color in his face is good and she can sense the steady pump of his heartbeat, there at the skin of his throat.
He catches her fingers and tugs her the rest of the way in. When she quirks her mouth at him questioningly, he gives her the barest of nods, which she takes as her permission to lean down to him and kiss his mouth.
Affection bubbles up through her, tightening her throat like a valve, and she'd thought that when she saw Peter again, she'd want to hold him still and kiss him until her teeth ached and she could taste herself at the back of his throat. Okay, maybe she still does, but not right now. Right now, it's enough to have one hand in his and one hand on his face and his inhale against her cheek and the way he presses up into her kiss like everything in his body is reaching for her, all at once.
When something inside of her just settles like it's curling all its legs up, she blames the spider, which wants to weave a web for this boy.
"I hear you're famous," she murmurs when she pulls away, shifting her bag around so she can sit on the edge of the bed. "Coming to Spider-Man's rescue and all."
"My New York minute," he admits ruefully. "And I get to spend it with canned peaches from the cafeteria and this lout." He jabs a thumb at his uncle.
"Hey," says Uncle Ben, without heat. "You just watch me. I'm going to have a few stern words with Spider-Man the next time I see him. Putting my only nephew in danger like that."
"Uncle Ben," Peter says fondly, and his smile crinkles through to his eyes in such a way that Gwen can instantly tell they're related. It's that smile, which he tilts up to Gwen, the sparkle of humor in his eyes. Peter inherited the best of his family's smiles. "Don't, he's quite the hero."
Uncle Ben gives a chesty harumph to show what he thinks of that, but Gwen kicks off her slippers and swings her legs up, settling her weight against the pillows by Peter's head. He leans against her hip.
"I don't know, Spider-Man's all right," she allows, and touches the top of Peter's head. "But I don't have to look very hard if what I want is a hero."
"Gwen," Peter protests. "Literally all I did was hit a lizard with a fire extinguisher -- he wasn't even a small target! -- and then I promptly got sliced up like I was an incompetent white person in an informercial. That's not very heroic."
"You figured out his plan," she corrects.
He doesn't answer, just nudges the crown of his head up against her ribs. She pets him, feeling astonishingly at peace.
"What amazes me about the whole thing," says Uncle Ben quietly after a moment. He's looking out the window again, good enough to try to give them some kind of privacy without doing anything obvious like get up and leave the room. "Is that nobody died. Did you hear that? They're saying it's true. All that destruction, and not a single person died. Isn't that something."
He unfolds his arms and refolds them, settling in.
He says, "Maybe those words won't be so stern after all."
She can feel Peter's smile.
A few minutes pass in easy silence, and then Gwen's phone rings and spoils the moment.
She sighs and fishes it out of her bag: Flash, of course, because that's Flash's timing.
She picks up.
"Hey, girl, where you at!" he calls into her ear, like he's hailing her from across a lake instead of across a perfectly adequate phone connection. "I got the little man here with me for some studying. Why didn't you tell me he took the SHSAT? Why am I always the last to know these things? Anyway, we got you one of those funny Clint Eastwood drinks from that cafe you like, so why aren't you here?"
"I'm at the Roosevelt," she replies.
She can tell he gets it by the way he goes, "Oh."
He's quiet for a moment, and Gwen sighs preemptively, knowing he's going to ruin it. Sure enough, the next words out of his mouth are:
"Well, unless getting licked up by some freaky ass lizard thing made his dick bigger, he's still not worth your time, so ditch him and come hang out with us."
"Peter's dick is not the only part of him I value, Flash," she informs him serenely.
Uncle Ben lets out a great "HA!" of laughter, and Peter mutters, "oh my god, no," in horror.
"I don't understand that statement and I'm not going to address it," Flash's tone is lofty.
She snorts, and says, "I'll see you when I see you, Flash."
"I'm hanging up now."
"Yeah. And tell Parker that if he isn't back by Monday, I'm desecrating his locker."
Gwen lowers the phone to her shoulder. "Flash wants me to tell you that he misses you and hopes you get better."
She hears a tinny echo of Flash's indignant squawk, and Peter throws his head back and barks laughter, rolling through the whole column of his throat.
Three Months Later
The first of September has heat baked into it like layers in a cake, and Gwen Stacy wears long sleeves like she always does.
"You're a freak," Howie feels the dutiful need to inform her, cutting in front of her in order to snatch the box of Cheerios off the shelf before she can get to it. He has very obviously picked his back-to-school outfit with great care, because it's all new: baggy white shorts with a baggy white shirt that hangs down to mid-thigh, and a white baseball cap slung carelessly sideways across his head, like he'd flung it on at random but probably, in fact, spent ten minutes in front of the mirror trying to get the perfect angle.
She leans her hip against the breakfast bar and watches him shake his cereal out into a bowl. Philip's already there, crunching away and watching them with interest.
"Hey, you've still got the size sticker on that," she says casually, moving in. "Let me --"
"No!" Howie shrieks, jolting away from her like she'd tried to unplug his life support. Gwen smiles and triumphantly snatches up his bowl, ducking around the kitchenette to find the milk.
Everybody bustles around the time they need to leave, snatching up last-minute things, and Gwen solemnly helps Simon pick between two identical packs of Crayola markers. Philip takes the other one.
"Where's Mom?" Simon wants to know, when she puts a hand on his new, plastic-smelling backpack and propels him through the door, yelling a good-bye back into the apartment. "Doesn't she usually take us on first-day-of-school?" It comes blurring out of him all in one word.
"She's not feeling well," Gwen says.
"Is it the baby?"
"It's the baby," she confirms. Her mother's nearing the end of her first trimester, consistently caught off guard by her body's response to it. I was never this sick with any of you!, was her frequent and miserable refrain. "But she always feels better in the afternoon, remember, and I think she's taken today off work so she can pick you up."
Simon brightens considerably.
Gwen and Howie drop Philip and Simon off at their school ("this is weird," Philip declares, as they arrange themselves on the sidewalk in a different order than they usually do,) and walk the rest of the way to Midtown Science.
"Nervous?" she asks him.
He eyes her, and then carefully allows himself to admit, "A little bit."
"Don't be, nobody cares about freshmen."
"Oh my god," he gives her a cold shoulder. "I hate you."
"Nobody cares," Gwen sing-songs, enjoying this immensely. She grabs him and wrestles him into a sideways hug, because the greatest advantage of being bitten by a mutant spider is that her little brother will never be able to escape an octopus hug ever again. "You won't even register on anybody's radar unless they walk right into you."
"Getoff!" comes muffled from the general direction of her armpit. "What happened to 'freshmen are friends, not food'?"
Call Gwen a sap (actually, call her a goddamn overachieving academic returning to her natural habitat,) but she's actually always enjoyed back-to-school day; freshmen pretending not to know their parents, seniors staking out the best spots after years of having to relinquish them to upperclassmen, new clothes, new teachers to suss out, new notebooks with spiral binding that hasn't yet been bent out of shape. And no actual work actually gets done on the first day of school, so really, it's just a matter of immersing yourself in the happy illusion of productivity.
Across the quad, an old, rose-colored woman in a wheelchair straightens the lapels of Flash Thompson's camo jacket. He glances around quickly to make sure nobody's watching, then leans down to kiss her cheek.
"Woah, hey," goes Howie, digging at her ribs with his elbow. "Isn't that Miles?"
She looks, and sure enough, stepping off the school bus with Ganke a half-step behind him, Miles files out onto the lawn, glancing around with broad swings of his head. He spots her and his face lights up. He waves. Ganke looks up from his phone and waves, too.
"I didn't know he tested into MidSci," says Howie. "I thought you were tutoring him because he's dumb as a brick and his dad worked with … um, with Doctor Connors."
"We lied," Gwen says cheerily, waving back, too happy to see him to even really be bothered by the timid way Howie edges around the Doc's name. "Miles could have gone to any school he wanted to, he's smart enough."
"You lied about tutoring?" This seems to be blowing Howie's mind. "What did you do instead?"
"Got ice cream, mostly." She grins at him sideways. "Gossiped about the embarrassing contents of your Internet search history."
"Oh my god," says Howie in horror.
Miles's parents had wanted him to go to a private college-prep school in another borough, where there was a better teacher-to-student ratio and the graduation rate was 99%, but in Miles's own words: what has that school ever done to impress me?
Yeah, Gwen had said. But what has Midtown Science done for you?
Spider-Man goes there, Miles smiled at her with all of his teeth, and feelings of immense fondness fizzled like pop rocks inside Gwen's chest. I want to go to the same school Spider-Man does.
Somewhere in front of them, Melissa Klaus's brothers are there to see her off, and she leans down in order to give the younger one, the one with Down's Syndrome, a very tight hug, and it clears the line of Gwen's vision. Across the quad, she spots a familiar mane of red hair, fresh-washed and a little frazzled at the ends, and a skateboard at their feet.
"Hey," she says to Howie. "I'm going to --"
"Yeah, yeah," he goes, having already followed the direction her body's moving in. "I don't want to see your tongue today, it's going be stressful enough already without needing to wash my eyeballs out in the sink before A track even starts."
"Don't be gross," she retorts, but without heat. She reaches over, flicking the brim of his cap with her nail. "Hey, good luck today."
"I'm going to be sick, I can feel it," he grumbles, but Gwen's already gone, cutting across the quad, greeting Melissa with an easy compliment on her new outfit as she passes ("why are you in long sleeves?" Melissa returns blankly, craning her head around to stare after her.)
"-- they're so small," MJ's saying as Gwen approaches. She's watching a gaggle of freshman congregate on the front steps, all of them clutching their welcome packets and trying to look like they know what they're doing. "We were never that small, were we?"
"I think we might have been," Peter responds reluctantly. "But I won't tell if you don't."
"Remember when your parents -- er, aunt and uncle, sorry --"
"Parents," Peter allows, as Gwen slides easily into the space he makes for her at his side, tucked under his arm. She'd been debating the merits of how much it was really worth a public display of affection, but Peter turns his face into her hair and kisses her temple in greeting without seeming to need to internally debate it at all.
"-- used to make us hold hands the entire way to school on the first day?"
"I swear I thought they were going to make us do it today, too." They both pause, looking at each other up and down, and simultaneously pull the same face. To Gwen, Peter adds by way of explanation, "My aunt and uncle insisted on seeing us off this morning," and Gwen doesn't need him to tell her that all that ceremony was probably more for MJ's benefit than their own, since her father has probably never seen her off to school a day in his life.
Across the quad, she watches Howie apparently come to a decision, because he straightens his shoulders and struts purposefully towards where Miles Morales is standing on the lawn with Ganke and Kate Bishop, both of whom are arguing heatedly over whatever's on the screen of Ganke's phone, but Miles nods his head to Howie in greeting. His eyes only perform the most minor of judgmental flicks over Howie's choice of outfit.
Gwen smiles, turning Peter's body around with her grip on his waist. They head for the building, and she asks, "How is Uncle Ben? Do you see much of him?"
"No, he's pretty busy," Peter replies happily. Their differences in height makes walking together reminiscent of a lopsided three-legged race, so Gwen extracts herself from him and loops arms with MJ instead, laughing when she says, Ahh, good, I'm glad you acknowledge my reign as the superior sex. "Apparently there are all sorts of zoning laws when it comes to reconstruction around here, due to the city's historical status. But they're making progress -- have you seen the Williamsburg Bridge?"
"Mostly I've noticed that they're down to one lane, yes," Gwen returns wryly. "Still, I'm happy there's business for your uncle."
"Didn't he want to bowl professionally?" MJ tosses the question curiously over her shoulder, as they pass under the arch into the shade of the main hallway. Someone's already turned on the air conditioning, bless their little hearts.
Peter grins. "Yes, he did. He used to be in a league and everything. He's always looking for excuses to bring his bowling trophies back up from the basement."
"How does one go from bowling to architecture?" Gwen asks, and beside her, MJ ducks her head, clearly already knowing the answer.
"My parents died," Peter answers, and gestures quickly with his hands before that can become awkward. "Unsatisfactory guard railings on a bad bridge, so my uncle vowed never to let that happen again."
Gwen nods, but she watches the flicker of a muscle in his jawline and she thinks, A bad bridge didn't kill your parents. Norman Osborne did. But that's not a conversation she especially wants to have -- it might not be her decision to make, but she's pretty sure that Peter can live a long and happy life without ever knowing what she knows.
"Where's your locker?" MJ wants to know, tugging on her arm.
"Oh, um," Gwen swings her backpack around, shuffling aside her bobby pins and the mask to fish out the back-to-school letter with her assigned locker number on it. "First hall, number 40."
She looks up at them, just as the expressions on their faces begin to fall.
"No," she complains. "You're kidding."
Apologetically, MJ and Peter both point in the opposite direction.
"I guess here is where we say good-bye," MJ says with an exaggerated air of solemnity, extending her arms for a hug. "We'll see you later -- you've got Miss Ritter for first track Lit, right?"
She does, and they hug tightly ("Jesus, how many layers are you wearing?") and Gwen turns to hug Peter, who, of course, leans all his weight into her with a sad noise and doesn't let go after an acceptable amount of time, sending them into an awkward pirouette when her bad leg ceases to tolerate his weight. They bump into a sophomore and laugh, touching their noses together briefly before they part; from behind them, MJ just sighs.
There's a ridge of scar tissue under Peter's shirt -- she can't really feel it, not through their layers, but she knows it's there.
Two of Doc Connors's claw marks healed into thin white lines, but one turned jagged and formed a knotted line across his ribs. Peter claims he doesn't notice, but Gwen does; the crooked heal of it has pulled his left nipple down his chest by a quarter of an inch, something Gwen's fingers always manage to find when she's settled across his hips.
Does it really bother you that much? Peter had wanted to know, aiming for amused but clearly deciding to worry about it half-way through the question.
No, Gwen says, too quickly, and then, all in a rush, I'm a spider. I build webs. As a spider, symmetry is very, very important to me. You aren't symmetrical anymore.
Peter, boundless enthusiastic Peter with his fathomless well of optimism, understood what she was trying to say, and his face began to crack into that grin she loved so much. Are you saying I was absolutely perfect before?
Oh shut up, she snapped, but it turned into a shriek and a laugh when he pushed himself up to bite at the ticklish spot on the underside of her jaw.
After arranging the necessities inside her locker space to her satisfaction (she debates, for a moment, about taping the picture to the inside of the door, but then she does: Maggie Fitzgerald, the main character from Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, had been a present mailed to her from Dr. Connors, because there's always going to be a part of him that's cold, violent, and reptilian, and she needs to remember that; what they went through has changed them both,) she closes the door and slips her lock through it, spinning it twice to make sure she remembers the combination. She's just about to step back and head for class, thinking about scoping for a good seat by the wall, when her spider-senses flare: a heavy body is approaching her rapidly from behind, all the weight balanced on tiptoes in a bid for swiftness and silence. She smiles.
Flash's arms wrap around her waist and swing her off her feet, and Gwen shrieks and pounds (lightly) on his shoulders as he spins her around.
"Oh my god, Flash," she complains, as he sets her down again. He just offers her a smirk and a fist to bump, then leans against the locker next to hers.
She'd thought it had been unclaimed, since it didn't have a lock, but then Flash says, "Well, what do you know?" and opens it. The first thing she spots is the familiar broken spine of his favorite Ragnar Benson book sitting on the top shelf.
"No," she says emphatically and with a great, dawning horror. "You are not my locker buddy."
Flash tsks with the air of someone imparting an uncomfortable truth.
"Hey," he straightens up. "Was that baby Stacy I saw outside earlier?"
"Yes, it was," and she points at him. "Don't even think about it, Flash. Freshmen are friends, not food."
"Yeah, yeah," he goes, with a shark's grin that bares a single side of his mouth, the sharp glint of a tooth.
Overhead, the bell rings, and with a mock salute, he pivots on one heel and leaves.
"Nice shirt!" she tosses after his retreating back, and he spins back around, spreading his arms in a come at me gesture. The canvas fabric of his jacket falls open, further revealing the Spider-Man logo on his shirt, so faithful to Peter's original design that, if Gwen didn't know better, she'd say it was Peter himself designing her own merchandise.
"What can I say?" Flash goes. "Dude's a badass. I hear he gets all the babes."
"Uh-huh," Gwen laughs. "Sure, if the babe's wanted for a felony."
"Hey!" he puts his hands to his chest, mock offended. "Don't knock an inspiration."
"Right," she drags out. "I'll see you later," and he tips his chin at her in acknowledgement, turning and disappearing into the churning mass the student body created out of the hallway, not even bothering to use his elbows to clear a path like he usually does.
Smiling to herself, Gwen turns and heads in the other direction, towards first track Lit, where hopefully they're just going to go over the syllabus and then they'll be released so that Gwen will have time to put her back up against her locker and let Peter kiss her lipstick off before the bell rings for the next class, because she's gone a whole summer without that particular sensation and it's a tragedy. Maybe he'll sit behind her while Miss Ritter does introductions and thread something into her hair that she'll only find later, when she's trying to pin her hair up underneath the mask.
Entirely unable to help the way delight sparks off inside of her, she laughs, and then tucks her books in front of her and skips the rest of the way to class.
1. While most of the events referenced in this fic are fabricated, they all draw, in one way or another, on very, very real prejudices and -isms. For example, the statistic about NYPD pulling over more black men in Brooklyn than there are black men living in Brooklyn is true. (The entire video is rage-inducing, but the relevant bit is at 2:30.) That bit about them freezing constitutional rights when it's convenient for them to quell the voices of a minority? Also true. It's called a State of Exception. Now, there are several sides to every story, but it was also pretty clear to me which side Spider-Man would fall on.
2. I am not affiliated in any way with horse_ebooks or Melissa Harris-Perry.
3. Don't forget to tell my artists, quintenttsy and salvadore_hart, just how amazing they are! All the thanks in the world to them, and to the mod at heroinebigbang for all of her hard work!
4. And thank you to you, for reading.