(Disclaimer: I do not own Spiderman. I do own my Spiderman jeans. I do not own Doc Ock, though I'd like to. That doesn't matter because he's probably not going to be in this fic. I just like to mention him. grin)

Spider In The Gate

Chapter 1: Hostage


This is what he loved. Webswinging from one sky-scraper to another. He loved the smooth arcs, the tight snap as he let go of one web to fire another, that heart-taking weightlessness of the deep, downward swing. He could race from Coney Island to the Brooklyn Bridge in less than 10 minutes, but this morning he was taking is easy, taking his time, relishing the clean, cool breeze against his mask. For grins, he swung past the Daily Bugle and waved jauntily at J.J. Jameson, who scowled and dropped his cigar. Yes, life was just fine this morning for your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

All too soon, however, gravity beckoned. Spider-Man might be content to webswing all day long, but Peter Parker had a 7:30 class and an 8:45 dentist appointment. A few long swings brought him back to the alley where he had stashed his street clothes. He alighted on a second-story fire-escape, but before he could retrieve the webbed bundle hidden there, his spider-sense caught him. He was head-up and alert an instant before he heard the sirens. He dropped down into the alley only to leap back up the wall when a blue sportscar, barely under control, careened past him, closely followed by for black and white police cars, lights and sirens blazing. The sportscar ricocheted from side to side in the narrow alley, scraping sparks from the brick walls before screeching though a sharp turn onto the busy street beyond, barely missing colliding with a bright yellow Volkswagen.

Spider-Man leapt onto the roof of the second police car as it streaked by. From within, he heard snatches of the squawking radio. "East on 93rd... Reports of a hostage... Officers down... freak's on your car, Jake!" Deciding he'd heard enough, Spider-Man shot out a line to a cornice a block away and jumped, letting the car's momentum speed his swing. He dodged around the first chase car and caught up effortlessly with the sportscar, landing lightly on its roof.

The occupants hadn't heard him, which gave Spider-Man time and a tactical advantage. Crouching on the roof, he peered upside down into the rear window. A heavyset, bearded man filled the passenger seat, staring resolutely forward as his driver, a younger, clean-shaven man barely older than Peter, steered recklessly through the slower traffic. The hostage was with him.

Inwardly, Spider-Man groaned. The driver had his hostage, a young, pale-featured woman with braided bright hair in his lap, her arms laid over his and her head laid back on his right shoulder. The careful positioning meant two things. First, that the driver knew what he was doing, and what type of risk he was running. With the hostage so close to him, and with her head between his and the driver's side window, no police sharp-shooter would risk a shot. But for a get-away driver to be so worried about a sniper in the first place meant that he was paranoid. Peter knew all too well that smart and paranoid was rarely a good combination in a criminal.

The paranoid driver chose that moment to look over his shoulder. Spider-Man jerked his head up, but too late. He'd been seen. The driver cursed explosively and jerked the wheel, trying to shake off his unwanted passenger. Blessing his sticky fingers, Spider-Man clung on doggedly. The car sped up as it reached a clear stretch, then swerved to the curb and stopped with a suddenness that would have thrown an ordinary man flying. Spider-Man somersaulted onto the hood, staring through the window. The bearded man scowled thunderously, but the driver smiled archly past the girl's fair hair while she goggled at Spider-Man, opening and shutting her mouth like a fish.

The driver let go of the wheel slowly, raising his hands in an apparent gesture of surrender. Spider-Man cocked his head curiously: it was never this easy. His spider-sense gave him only a heart-beat's warning before the man's hands darted, one for the girl's throat, the other for the gun hidden above the sun-visor. Spider-Man lunged forward, driving his fists through the windshield, meaning to web the gun away, but suddenly it was pressed to the back of the girl's head and the driver's finger was tight on the trigger. Peter froze.

"No closer, Spider-Man," said the driver in a whisper. He nudged the girl's head with the barrel. Finally catching up, the police skidded into an enclosure around the sportscar, leaping from their cars to aim guns at the criminals.

"You are surrounded!" shouted a sergeant through a mega-phone. "Release your hostage and come out with your hands up!"

The driver rolled his eyes laconically and shook his head in slight irony. "Tell them that I decline, Spider-Man," he said, whispering again. The girl continued to gasp, clearly too terrified to move. "Repeat everything I say to them, and nothing else. Do you understand me?" Another nudge, harder this time. The girl's head rolled back onto his shoulder, completely limp. No help there. The bearded man had drawn his own gun and trained it on Spider-Man, his face threatening.

"Why not?" said Peter with a lightness that he did not feel. He hated hostage situations. "It's not the first time I've played ventrilo-dummy. Just don't do anything crazy." He held out his hand placatingly, and the finger tightened again on the trigger. "No closer, I said," hissed the driver. "Now tell them no, without moving. Just tell them."

Spider-Man responded to the intensity in the man's eyes. Raising his voice, he spoke to the surrounding force. "The driver says no."

The sergeant with the mega-phone glared at Spider-Man for a moment, then looked back at the car. "We have a negotiator on the way," he called to the driver, ignoring Spider-Man. "We're willing to listen to your demands. What's your name?"

The driver laughed sarcastically. "Tell them that I do not want a negotiator, and I have no demands other than escape."

"So this is a kidnapping, rather than a hostage situation?" asked Spider-Man.

"Of course," demurred the driver wryly. "Now, tell them what I told you."

Resignedly, Spider-Man relayed the message. Sgt. Mega-Phone turned and waved another man away from the barricade, then he called out again. "If you won't talk to a negotiator, who will you talk to? We can get you anyone you want." Spider-Man could see that the man was sweating.

The driver took a moment to think, his eyes never leaving Spider-Man's mask. "I think I'll just keep talking to you," he said quietly. He had not yet spoken louder than a whisper. "Since we're having so much fun already." He winked cruelly and tightened his grip on the hostage's neck. Her eyes widened to full circles as already-strained breathing took on a whistling sound. "Unless you're tired of being a 'ventrilo-dummy'?"

"No, no, no," Spider-Man assured the man earnestly. "I'll talk to you all you want. I'm good at talking. Ask anyone."

"Good. Now, all I want is safe passage away from New York. Tell them I don't want to see another police car inside the city limits. And to help ensure this, Spider-Man, I want you to web every police car here into place, except for those three there." The bearded man gestured to the three police cars that blocked their path. "I want you to move those elsewhere." The driver's tone was offhand and jocose, but his eyes were stone hard and cold. Peter had seen such eyes before. He knew that if this man got away with this girl, she would never be seen again. Not alive, at any rate.

"Gotcha," he said obediently, his mind racing. In apparent submission, he half-stood, crouching on the hood and called out to the tense police. "He wants an escape route, and I'm going to give it to him." He knew that they couldn't see his face, but he winked at Sgt. Mega-Phone anyway.

Abruptly, he shot his foot through the absent windshield, aiming to kick the gun away. An inch from impact, though, he hit a solid something. He looked down to find the bearded man's free hand, the one not aiming a gun at Spider-Man's head, gripping his foot in an iron fist. With a meaningful glare and a bone-grinding squeeze, he released it. As Spider-Man drew it back, his gaze returned to the driver. He couldn't constrain a shudder. If the man's eyes had been stone before, they were ice now. This man was dangerous. Without a word, he moved the gun down from the girl's head and fired. Peter twitched at the echoing report, but it was the girl who bled, a crimson trickle from her shoulder. Her only reaction was a blink at the sound. Behind Spider-Man, the police had reacted to the shot, ratcheting up the tension in the air.

The driver's face softened into nonchalance as the gun pressed once more to the girl's head. "I pull the strings here, Spider-Man. I pull, you dance. Do you understand?" He caressed the girl's jaw with his thumb, staring aloofly at Spider-Man. Dry-mouthed, Spider-Man nodded. "Good. Now, tell the police to stand down, or the next shot goes through her lungs. Or through yours." Again, that infuriating half-smile. "Now, Spider-Man."

Defeated, Spider-Man forced himself to shrug. "Whatever you say, chief. Just don't hurt her again. You hand her over to me, and I'll make sure you get away free and clear." It was a long shot.

It didn't work. "What would be the point, Spider-Man, in leaving without what I came all this way to get?" He held the girl's head up so she could meet Spider-Man's masked gaze. Her eyes were a milky shade of grey, and so wide that they appeared to be perfectly round. She was still doing her fish-out-of-water impersonation, opening her mouth in an even, deliberate rhythm. "Isn't she amazing?" he said with an oddly familiar avidity. Feeling slightly nauseated, Spider-Man recognized it as the feeling he got whenever he made a scientific breakthrough. "Flawed, obviously, but still an incredible find." The bearded man grunted a warning, the first sound that Peter had heard him make, and Driver shot him a glance. "You're right," he said softly. "It's time for us to go, Spider-Man. You have your orders."

Seeing no choice, Spider-Man stood slowly and faced the edgy police. "Please don't shoot me," he said frankly. "I'm supposed to web all of your cars in place so you can't follow him. He says he doesn't want to see another cop car on his way out of the city, or he will shoot her again."

"What's the status of the hostage?" called Sgt. Mega-Phone.

"He shot her in the-!" Spider-Man broke off with a shout as pain streaked up his side. He collapsed to the hood, clutching his ribs. The bearded man lowered his smoking handgun. "That's only a graze," said the driver darkly. "No more talking. This is your last warning, Spider-Man. Just do what I've told you and then get out of my sight." There was no humour left in his soft voice. "Not another word, or I'll kill her."

Gasping, Spider-Man nodded. Holding his side, he stood again, slumping dejectedly. With one hand applying pressure to stop the bleeding, he did as the man had asked, fouling the axles of the police cars with webbing. Too soon, the sportscar had a clear escape route. Hating the situation, Spider-Man stepped back off the car and out of its way. "Thank you, Spider-Man," mouthed the driver with a grin as he raced away, tires squealing.

Slightly stunned, Spider-Man stared after the receding car until he was startled by a hand on his shoulder. Sgt. Mega-Phone stood there, glaring at the car as well. "How's the girl?" he asked gruffly. His badge named him as Michael Stives.

"He shot her through the shoulder," Spider-Man answered absently. "She didn't even move."

"A clean shot?"

"Looked like it. I would have got the gun away from him, but he kept it behind her. I couldn't get a clear shot with my webbing. I couldn't do anything." His voice shook with a quiet helplessness. The sergeant patted his shoulder with rough sympathy, and Spider-Man winced as the motion jarred his bruised rib. Blood was still seeping through his fingers.

"How old are you?" Spider-Man looked at the man, not answering. The man shrugged and withdrew his hand. "I'm just sayin', you win some, you lose some. It happens to all of us. More often to us than you, though. We sure could use a guy like you on the force."

"I'm flattered, buddy, truly, but I'm afraid I've got to decline," retorted Spider-Man. "Besides, I look funny in uniform." He lifted an arm and fired a web-line to a convenient ledge above, but he faltered when the pain in his side flared up again. Blackness teased at the edges of his vision. The graze was deeper than he had thought. Gingerly, he peered at the finger-sized flap of missing skin under his torn suit. "Ouch."

"We've got an ambulance here," offered the sergeant. he seemed gruff, but well-disposed towards costumed vigilantes. "That need stitches."

Peter looked around at the police. Some of them were angrily, and vainly, trying to remove his webbing from their vehicles, but more were watching him with barely-veiled curiosity. Then the sergeant's radio squawked unintelligibly and he reached out again to catch Spider-Man's arm.

"Come and get stitched up, kid. HQ wants you to stick around for a bit, give us a report." Seeing Spider-Man test, about to draw away, he turned to cajoling. "Hey, don't worry. No one's going to try and get under your mask. You just got the best view of the kidnappers and you're the only one he spoke to. Just hang around, answer a few questions, and get that looked at. It can't hurt."

Spider-Man considered his options. With his side in this shape, he was going to have to foot it home, and then seek help as Peter Parker and try to come up with an explanation for the injury that didn't involve a gun. Might as well offer what help he could. He was going to miss his class anyway.

"Sure, buddy," Spider-Man said. "Anything for the boys in blue." He let himself be led to the paramedics and delivered as detailed a summary as he could of the encounter. He spoke through gritted teeth, though whether from the pain of his wound and stitches, or from the story of his helplessness, even he would be hard-pressed to decide.

"And then all I could do was let him go. I couldn't let him shoot her," he finished, rolling the top of his costume back down over his stitched ribs. "But I think I've left her to die anyway. The driver is a very dangerous man."

"Even I could see that," agreed Sgt. Stives. "I hope you're wrong."

Spider-Man left them then, bounding up over a wall and into a narrow alley beyond. A short time later, Peter Parker left the other end of the lane, limping slightly towards the bus-stop. He would miss his class, but he might make his dentist appointment on time.

As the week went on, Peter tried not to dwell on his failure, with very limited success. He spent his nights web-swinging, taking out his frustration on every mugger and car-jacker he could find. He rode around town on the roofs of police cars, listening surreptitiously to their radios for any word about the blue sportscar or its driver. One week passed, and then two with no sign. Peter regretted the incident deeply, but it was not his first failure and it would not be his last. He began to set it behind him.

Another cool, clear morning dawned, catching Peter sleeping in for once. A bus honked outside, waking him up slightly. A look at his clock woke him up more. 8:00. His eyes flew open. Class had started at 7:30! He scrambled into his suit, not wanting to think about how late he was. And for the second time in two weeks. He wouldn't be fired, but Mr. Myers would be less than pleased. He grabbed a nutri-bar for breakfast and took a high-flying shortcut to school.

As he got close to good old P.S. 108, he dropped into his usual alley to change back into his street clothes. "Good thing those brats can't see their teacher now, right, Peter?" he grumbled to himself as he landed behind a dumpster. His spider-sense roused briefly, but there was no danger that he could sense. Nonetheless, something nearby was wrong. He crawled around the alley walls, seeking the source. The alley was cluttered with trash and thrown-out furniture, but he found nothing wrong aside from a rampant disregard for New York's litter laws. At last, he checked the dumpster.

At first, he stared at the pale, slender arm protruding from under a pile of battered cardboard, choosing not to comprehend. Then, moving slowly, reluctantly, he webbed the cardboard out of the way. The pale girl lay there, face down, still in which Peter had last seen her. A browned blood stain decorated the back of her shoulder. Spider-Man looked at her for a moment before he realized that, even though she wasn't moving at all, he could hear her gasping. She was alive. Crouching on the dumpster wall, he carefully rolled her over, supporting her neck and head. She lay completely limp, her eyes fixed on him as she gasped with the same fish-impersonation that he had seen before.

There was more blood here on her front. Long streaks of it had seeped through her odd blue blouse in a strange Y pattern, all dried. He examined her swiftly, but nothing was bleeding that he could see. Her heartbeat was fluttery and strong under his fingertips. He looked her in the face, checking her pupils. Normal. "Can you hear me?"

No response. She just goggled at him. "Not much of a conversationalist, eh?" He joked to push down his anxiety. He felt a strangely paternal concern for the young woman, who looked like she should be taking her driving test, not laying in bloodstained clothes in a dumpster. "Don't run off," he said facetiously and raced from the alley to find a phone and call for an ambulance. He knew better than to move her himself. Aside from the danger of her injuries, having the infamous Spider-Man bring in a seriously wounded kidnapping victim wouldn't do much to dislodge the reputation that J.J. Jameson had worked so hard to create for him. But when Spider-Man reached the street, he found a traffic jam filling it as far as he could see, completely stagnant. Even with the help of sirens and lights, an ambulance would never get anywhere near the girl. There would be no help for it.

He returned to her, looking around for an answer. Finding a couple broken 2x4s in a heap of trash, he webbed them together with the battered cardboard to form a crude combination stretcher and backboard. Working with extreme care, he moved the girl onto the contraption and webbed her securely in place, immobilizing her neck with his wadded suit jacket. Strapping the whole thing to his back, he set off on the ground, sprinting as smoothly as he could down the sidewalk. He knew that the nearest ER was almost three miles away, and he settled into an easy, ground-eating lope. He would be faster in the air, but he couldn't risk the sudden jolts inherent in webswinging. Who knew how long she had lain in that dumpster? A few minutes more spent in travel would make little difference.

A short time later, Spider-Man ran in through the ER doors of Mercy Hospital, shrugging the makeshift backboard off his shoulders. "I need help here," he called out to the surprised staff. An orderly ran up with a gurney and a nurse, who helped him transfer the girl from the cardboard to the bed. "What happened? How is she injured?" the nurse asked, efficiently examining her and pushing her towards a curtained alcove. Spider-Man trailed along, feeling suddenly useless.

"I found her in a dumpster near Midtown High," he said. "She was mostly buried under some cardboard. Face down. I rolled her over, to check her for injuries, but I was very careful with her head and neck. Nothing was actively bleeding, so I immobilized her and brought her here. I would have called an ambulance but traffic was backed up for miles. This was faster." He trailed off as the nurse efficiently sliced the girl's shirt open. The bullet hole high on her right shoulder was a small, clean hole, nearly closed up. Lower, a long, y-shaped incision spanned her flat chest and sunken stomach, stitched neatly but red with infection. The girl still gasped and stared unnervingly.

"What's this?" the nurse wondered aloud, touching a small silver disk embedded in the hollow of the girl's throat. She picked at it slightly, but pulled her hand back when the girl uttered an inarticulate, strangled cry. "Okay, I'll leave that alone." The nurse pulled the curtain belatedly shut around the girl, blocking Spider-Man's view, and called for a doctor.

Shut out, Spider-Man hung out on the ceiling of the waiting room until the woman at the desk, giggling nervously, asked him to please come down, he was upsetting some of the patients. He subsided to a vacant chair and rolled up the lower half of his mask to drink a cup of bitter, tepid coffee. He knew that he shouldn't stick around, but he needed to find out if the girl would be okay. He felt responsible fore her in a way that was unfamiliar to him, and yet completely personal. When a doctor in scrubs came out of the girl's enclosure, he stepped in his path.

"How is she?" he asked. The doctor looked at him judgingly.

"I'm not allowed to give you that information," he said stiffly. "Now, what can you tell me about her? For starters, what's her name?"

"No clue." Spider-Man shrugged. "But two weeks ago, she was a hostage, kidnapped by some men in a blue sportscar. Get in touch with the 12th district PD, ask for Sgt. Stives. He'll come down right away. But please, please just tell me if she's going to be okay." His plea was quiet and urgent, but the doctor didn't relent. Expelled from the ER, Spider-Man hung around outside while waiting for the sergeant to arrive. When he did, Spider-Man followed him unobtrusively into the high-ceilinged ER. Counting on the oft-proven theory that no one ever looks up, he clung to the acoustic-tiled ceiling and eavesdropped.

"What can you tell me about her?" asked Stives, looking at the girl who lay pale behind an oxygen mask. Her eyes were focused on Spider-Man.

"Well, she's in no real danger, first. In the last four to seven days, she's had some pretty major exploratory surgery." He indicated the new gauze covering her torso, and the healed bullet hole in her shoulder. "And this looks like a clean, through GSW, maybe two weeks old. She's also suffering from extreme exhaustion. If I had to guess, I'd say that she hasn't slept in more than two weeks."

"What about that gasping? She was doing that the last time I saw her, too."

"Oh, I thought you knew," said the doctor, slightly taken aback. "She quadriplegic, probably has been her entire life. We did an ultrasound right after I called out, and there is literally a gap in her spinal cord, just two inches below her brain stem. She has no voluntary interaction with anything below her throat."

"Then how is she breathing?" asked Stives. Spider-Man looked at her with a new-found empathy. He had felt helpless at her kidnapping; now he couldn't help imagining how much more helpless she must have felt, unable to move or even call for aid. He'd failed her once. He would not do so again.

"It's called 'forced breathing,'" explained the doctor. "It's a technique commonly taught to people in her situation. But it does take a great deal of practice and conscious effort. If she falls asleep before we can intubate her, she could suffocate."

"Then why haven't you done it yet?" demanded Stives.

"We can," answered the doctor gravely. "She's already been intubated, we think, with a permanent tracheal tube, but it's unlike anything I've ever seen or heard of." He indicated the finger-tip-sized silver disk on her neck. "I think this is the intake. If you look closely, you'll see that it's porous. And the tube inside her trachea is just as odd. We can't interface with it. What I want to do is take it out, replace it with a standard trache, but I'm waiting for her x-rays and lab results. I'd rather not work blind."

"Understandable," agreed Stives. "I'd like to get my hands on the creeps who kidnapped her. They shot two of my men."

"Do you know what they were looking for?" asked Spider-Man, sliding down a web-line upside down and startling the two men. "What are you doing here?!" blustered the doctor.

"Eavesdropping," said Spider-Man frankly. "It's what I do best." He looked at the sergeant. "They, the kidnappers, I mean. They were looking for something. An incision like that, you don't usually see it on a live body. But it is the standard opening cut for an autopsy." He grimaced in revulsion and pity. "To do that to someone who's still alive, it's vivisection. So, Doc, do you know what they were looking for?"

The doctor gaped up at him. "Er, ah, the ultrasounds didn't show anything abnormal, except... I shouldn't be telling you any of this!"

"Ah, come on, Doc," pleaded Spider-Man, flipping right-side up and dropping lightly to the floor. "I'm just worried about her, you know?" He looked at Sergeant Stives and thought he see an approving sort of sympathy there. "I got shot trying to save her. I think that makes her health my business, don't you?"

"Yes," said Stives gravely, looking meaningfully at the obviously reluctant doctor. "It does."

"Fine," sighed the doctor with ill grace. "The x-rays will tell us more, but the ultrasounds showed her to be perfectly normal inside, as far as we can tell. Everything's where it should be, except..."

"Except what?" Spider-Man asked carefully. Stives was watching him obliquely, and the scrutiny made him deepen his voice and check subtly that no skin showed anywhere.

"Except that there's an empty cavity in her chest. It's a small cavity between her left lung and her rib cage, about the size and shape of a match box. The lung's deformed around it, with a thick layer of what seems to be scar tissue, so it has obviously been there for a very long time. Years at least, but probably since birth. I can't imagine why something like that would be done, to a child no less, but if something was there, and I can't be sure there was without an exploratory of my own, which I can't do without consent and not until I've got her properly trached." He ran his hands through his hair, obviously tense. "Oh, god. I have to do a trache on a conscious patient. I'm not..." He shook himself, gathering professionalism to himself like a coat. "Now, do you have any ID for her? Any next of kin we can call in? A name?"

"We've got nothing on her," admitted Stives, reaching abortively for the pack of cigarettes in his pocket, pulling out a pen instead to twiddle with his fingers. "We've had broadsheets out since her kidnapping, an artist's work-up on the news every hour, her and the kidnappers both. We got nothing. How about you, Spider-Man?"

Spider-Man shook his head. "They disappeared while I was getting stitched up, and I haven't seen them or their car since."

"Fourth Jane Doe today," signed the doctor. "And I haven't even had breakfast yet." A nurse came in, casting sidelong glances at Spider-Man, and handed the doctor a file folder marked "LAB" in blue letters and a large manila envelope with "X-RAY" printed on it. The doctor put the films from the envelope up on a light-wall, and Spider-Man stepped forward for a better look.

A dark tube ran down the girl's trachea to her lungs, tapering to a rounded, perforated point just above the paler mass that was her breastbone. To the left, Spider-Man could see the faintly rough, rectangular shape that the doctor had described. The doctor whistled through his teeth.

"Now here is something I have never seen before." He traced the dark object's path with his forefinger. "It's metal," he said incredulously. "Who would make a metal trache?"

"I'm sure it's of tremendous scientific interest, Doctor," drawled Stives. "But you can study it when you get it out of her."

Reassured as to the safety of his self-appointed charge, and wary of wearing out his welcome, Spider-Man leapt to the ceiling to leave. A breathy cry came from below.

"Enta! Tol cabr-" It broke off in a long gasp as he spun to look back. The girl was staring at him with a pleading expression on her face.

"You'll be fine," he told her calmingly, dropping on a web-line above her bed. He kissed her forehead gently through his mask, making her smile. "I'll come back. Don't worry." And before the doctor could say anything, he vaulted over the curtain and out of the ER.

Three hours later, Peter Parker was at home, worrying about her. He paced his small apartment, wondering why he had left the hospital. Sure, the doctor's barely concealed suspicion had been wearing on his nerves and Stives' constant, subtle appraisal had kept him on edge, but he shouldn't have let them drive him away.

He jumped when the phone rang. Fumbling for the receiver, he answered absently. "Peter here."

"Parker!" barked Jameson. Peter held the phone away from his ear, wincing. "Parker, what are you doing this afternoon? Don't answer that. You're going down to Mercy Hospital to see this Jane Doe everyone's talking about. The girl was kidnapped in front of a dozen cops two weeks ago. Spiderman was there, probably making a nuisance of himself as always. You didn't bring me pictures of that, either. I'd fire you if you worked for me, instead of freelancing. Just get some pictures of the broad looking pitiful for me, some human interest stuff, got it? Good." He hung up with a bang, and Peter took a deep breath. A phone call from J.J. Jameson was like being run over by a bull. He sat down on his coffee table. He hadn't taken pictures of the first encounter, and he wouldn't have handed them over if he had. Having pictures of himself being shot splashed across the front page of the Daily Bugle, doubtlessly under an accusing headline, was not what he needed right now. Trying to calm the strangely parental anxiety that still affected him, he drank three cups of coffee from his ancient percolator, checked his old camera for film, and headed out.

He took a bus to the hospital, meeting up there with one of the Daily Bugle's reporters, Jessica "Jack" Jordan. They had to flash their press passes to get into the ICU, where the girl was resting after her re-tracheotomy. While Jordan chatted interrogatively with the doctors and nurses, he looked at the sleeping girl. She lay nestled in a tangle of wires and tubes while an oxygen machine pumped rhythmically by her bedside, matching the slight rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was still in its mussed bright braid, and she wore a blue hospital gown that made her pale skin look insubstantial. He took a few pictures, but mostly he just watched. It hurt almost physically to see the dark bruised circles under her eyes.

"What do you think, Pete?" asked Jordan eventually, coming to stand at his shoulder as he watch the girl sleep.

"What? What do I think about what?" he asked, startled.

"About Spider-Man, and about her. The staff says he hung around for more than an hour after he brought he in, asking questions and acting in general like a one-chick hen. We both know that that's not like our Spidey. And I should know. He saved my life once, you know. Knocked out some muggers with a knife. But he didn't stick around. With Spider-Man, it's always the 'swing, fling, you're welcome' thing, isn't it?"

"Yeah," Peter answered softly. "It has to be."

"What's that?" Jordan asked, puzzled.

"Oh, nothing," Peter backpedaled. "I mean, he has to be fast, doesn't he? He couldn't help very many people if he hung around to chat with each of them."

"I suppose not," agreed Jordan. Peter looked at her, startled by the warmth in her voice. She was staring off into space, a fond smile on her face. "But it would be nice if he'd let us get to know him a little." She blushed, and Peter gaped, astounded. This was Jack Jordan, nail-biting tabloid-journalist, world class sarcastic and cynic, stubborn enough to beat Jameson with a headline... and she was blushing over him! Well, over Spider-Man, but it was the same thing.

Peter fought down a blush of his own as a warm glow suffused his chest. Jordan may have been old enough to be his mother and bossy enough to be his aunt, but if he'd been wearing his mask, he'd have hugged her then and there. Someone appreciated him. Someone loved him, Spider-Man, for what he did.

A sound from the bed brought him back down from cloud nine. The girl's eyes were open, locked on his. For a moment, his heart stood still. Somehow, impossibly, undeniably, she recognized him! Then she smiled. "Enta," she said. "Es micol tors?"

"What language is that?" asked Jordan, before she was interrupted by a business-like nurse at the door.

"Doctor Myers, she's awake." The doctor, the same one from before came in and took Peter's place at the bed-side, checking the girl's pulse and shining a tiny flashlight in her eyes, which were bloodshot around their pale grey irises. As he turned away, Jordan stood in his path, her tape recorder at the ready.

"Has the patient said anything understandable since she arrived here?" she asked quickly. "Has she identified the kidnappers?"

"No," answered Myers shortly, pushing past her and disappearing down the corridor." Jordan looked at Peter. "Helpful much? Do you have all the pics you need?"

Casting a last look at the girl, who's eyes were still on him, Peter nodded. As he followed the reporter, he wondered again; who was she?