In the great tragedies of his life, Peter had always had the same feeling of time rushing by incalculably fast. He always thought that if he had just a few moments more, he could save the world. If Uncle Ben had just held on for a few seconds more, the paramedics could've gotten to him. If Gwen had just fallen a few seconds longer, he could've come up with a way to stop her without breaking her neck.
That was what he felt now, while his heart exploded over and over again in his chest. If he had just a few more moments, he could keep Mary-Jane and save his aunt and stuff a fist in Mephisto's face for good measure. But Mary-Jane was walking up to Mephisto, whispering something in his ear, and if Peter only had a few minutes, just one more, he could find a way out of this…
The Devil smiled.
Peter was about to speak, was about to say that he didn't want this, when Mary-Jane's lips touched his for the last time. He wasn't sure if she heard him tell her he loved her. Then they were lost.
Peter Parker had his evening all figured out. He would fight the Shocker, go home, eat a frozen dinner, maybe watch some TV and then masturbate to some internet porn if he was feeling really wild. The realization that he was actually planning a sock session sucked all the fun out of trouncing Shocker.
"No wisecracks? No smart-ass remarks?" Shocker brought an awning down somewhere near Peter's head. "Finally giving me the respect I deserve!"
That pissed Spider-Man off just enough to get him interested. He recklessly jumped to point-blank range, but leveled Shocker before he could do anything about it. "Listen, Herman, can I call you Herman? You suck as a supervillain. Making fun of you is like MSTing the Special Olympics. Sure, it's possible, but I'd just feel like an ass. Look at you, you're wearing a quilt and vest after I've beaten you how many times? How can I take you down a peg when there is no lower peg? I'm not even going to tie you up. Webbing's expensive, you know."
He shot out a webline to swing away on, but wouldn't you know it, Shocker sat up, gauntlets charged… and lay back down, due to Black Cat having landed on his chest.
"This a private battle royale, or can anyone drop in?"
Peter debated whether to let go of his webline. He felt like kinda a dork holding onto it (and it seemed very important not to seem a dork in front of Felicia), but webbing was expensive. "I wouldn't call it a battle royale. Not even a battle. It was more of a 'batt'.
"Well, if webbing's too pricey…" she held up zipcuffs. "I buy these in bulk."
"Cute and frugal. You're gonna make some lucky guy very happy."
"Or some lucky girl. I'm not picky." She finished cuffing Shocker to see Spider-Man was swinging away. "Hey, wait up!" She shot a cat-cable after him. "I wasn't done bantering yet!"
Any attempt at re-greeting was obscured by the sound of Peter tearing a cocoon open. Inside the ripped webbing was his outerwear. Felicia, seeing Peter switch identities, felt the same way she would seeing him undress. Which was not to say embarrassed…
"I just don't feel like talking," Peter said, shaking his mask at her.
"You? Not talking? Now I know something's wrong. What is it? It's not May, is it?"
Peter's teeth subtly bared. "You know, it really bothers me when you act like you care—"
"I do care. I like the old broad. She's got… gumption. Or whatever. You know how much I wish my mom had had gumption?"
Peter finished slipping on his shoes, the last staple of his transformation. "I'll see you around."
"Yeah, okay." She played it cool. "If I'm not too busy. Hey, tell Mary-Plain I said hi."
Peter's voice was almost inaudible as he stepped down into the building. "We broke up."
The next time Felicia saw Peter was… the next day. She went to the trouble of knocking, twice, before she picked the lock. The place was a pig sty. Apparently, Mary-Jane had left and taken the maid with her. Felicia made a few clean-up attempts before remembering her dignity. No Hardy would clean up after failed webbing experiments.
Felicia ducked, fast enough to evade the baseball bat with its sights set on making her head a home run ball. "It's me! It's me!"
Peter stood over her, gradually lowering his bat. "You broke into my apartment?"
"I knocked! Twice!" she added defensively. "And how many hot babes with white hair do you think there are in New York?"
"There's Storm," Peter said unhelpfully. He belatedly gave Felicia a hand-up.
"New York City, not New York the state." Felicia brushed some empty sandwich bags and assorted crumbs off her back. "What the hell happened here? Did Venom trash your place?"
Peter looked around. "Yeah. Let's go with that." He set the bat down and flopped onto a couch. "So what're you doing here? S'not like I have anything worth stealing."
She ignored that hilarity. "I was worried. Last time you and Mary-Jane parted ways, you wound up living on the streets. How do you think that reflects on me, your ex?"
"Good point." He started a staring contest with the ceiling.
Felicia sighed. "Okay, normally I wouldn't do this but—"
"Cat, a pity screw would only make me feel worse."
"'Normally I wouldn't do this'," she repeated emphatically. "I was talking about cleaning."
"Is this a fetish thing?" Peter rolled over to look at her. "Like that time you wanted to try bondage, made me slap you, then cried for thirty minutes?"
"One, it was ten minutes, and two, would you stop making everything about sex?"
Peter looked at her. Then he burst out laughing so loud she couldn't help but join in. They laughed so hard, Felicia almost didn't notice when Peter started sobbing. She held his hand and waited until he stopped, not daring more than rubbing the back of it with her thumb.
"So, you clean, I'll help, we'll have this place spotless in no time."
Peter nodded, fretful. "Yeah."
Felicia didn't know half as much about cleaning as Peter, but she could scrub a dish with the best of them. She used his costume's gloves for the dish-washing, which made Peter blast her with the faucet in retaliation. She blocked it with a dinner plate, managed to make him step in the mop bucket. They had so much fun, Peter didn't even realize Felicia was taking all evidence of Mary-Jane's presence and stuffing it into a box earmarked for the back of Peter's closet.
Good feng shui.
The next time Peter saw Felicia, she was standing on his doorstep. "I didn't even have to pick the lock."
"Or knock twice."
Just to retain her edge, Felicia slunk by him into his apartment. It was still clean. "Damn, we did a good job on this place. How ya gonna pay me back?"
Peter drolly shut the door behind her. "And here I thought you were just being nice."
"Me? I never do anything without getting something out of it."
"Or into you."
"Down, Spider. You'll make me blush. No, I was hoping for a favor of a less close and personal kind."
"I'm not helping you steal anything."
Felicia rolled her eyes, along with her entire head. He'd used to know her so well, now it was like he'd been brainwashed into accepting this caricature of her as the real thing. Okay, so she did like everyone else thinking that of her, but she'd trade it in a heartbeat for him to know her. The real her.
"Sometimes you act like I only care about fucking and stealing."
Peter crossed his arms.
"I also like cats."
"Mmm-hmm." He gestured to a chair, which she indolently spread on. He sat across from her. Crossed his legs.
"My cat had kittens. I can't take care of all of them, being a superhero and all, and I can't give them all away. I want you to have one."
"Are you kidding me? I can't find time for a kitten. I'm a superhero-cum-photographer-cum-teacher…"
"That's a lot of cum," Felicia said, eyebrow arched.
"Cat, I'm serious."
"Ooh, change of pace." She stood. "Okay, I'll give him to the pound. And when no one wants him, they'll put him to sleep, but I'm sure I can live with that if you can."
Peter groaned. "Fine. But you'd better throw in a self-cleaning litterbox, because I am not…"
She reached across the distance separating them and squeezed his knee, smiling wide. "Thank you. I mean that."
"You're welcome," Peter said. He could feel every whorl of every fingerprint on his knee.
"I'll give the kitten some time to grow up before I separate him from the mother, but you can visit anytime you like."
"I don't know. I might be fucking or stealing." She smiled. "Tomorrow's fine. Think up a name for the little scamp, eh?"
Bounty hunting was close to stealing. It had the same foreplay, the same climax (it was close to that other thing as well). You scoped out your target, took what you wanted, and sometimes needed more than one or even two people to get the job done.
Funny coincidence, how she'd joined Heroes for Hire after Peter joined the Avengers. Yeah. Funny.
They were tracking Shocker. After bailing him out of jail, Colleen and Misty were hoping he would jump bail and lead them to the new Sinister Six, where they would swap their bail bondsman hats for bounty hunter hats. Two birds, one team of sexy bitches (and Humbug).
"Define 'deal sealed'," Colleen said, breaking radio silence.
"He's adopting one of my kittens. That's almost like moving in together. And he's coming over to my place to meet the little furball, so all I have to figure is how to 'greet' him and dot dot dot."
Shang-Chi, her partner, looked like he had something to say.
"And I'm not a suggestion box, so keep your fantasies to yourself."
"I merely wished to state that despite our expectations, cleverness and subterfuge are often trumped by sincerity and openness."
"You took a vow of chastity. What do you know?"
Misty's amusement rung over the comlink. "He needed to take a vow of chastity. What does that tell you?"
Shang-Chi blushed, vividly.
Humbug piped up "You know, for many species of spiders, the male can trigger a predatory response from the female if it fails to properly execute a mating ritual. Sometimes, the female will even eat the male simply for hunger, before or after copulation. I don't know why I brought that up."
"I don't know either," Felicia sniped. "Anyway, spiders are arachnids, not insects. Or does any creepy-crawlie fall under your purview?"
"At least I have a superpower! The only special ability you have is falling into bed with a new man each week."
"Peter's special!" Felicia said, pounding the pavement behind Shocker with stomps instead of steps. "And I'll have you know that some of those men were just androgynous women!"
Misty cut through their argument like a samurai sword, just as Shang-Chi grabbed Felicia's arm to keep her from walking right into Shocker. "I won't have any slut-shaming or power-pounding on my team! Don't give a good goddamn how many brothers a sister entertains, or what somebody's jive is! Now, I won't make you apologize since you ain't children, but if you keep acting like kids then I guarantee you'll be sorry! Dig?
They murmured affirmatives.
"Good. Now kitten, hook a sister up. What makes this Peter such a fiiine catch?"
"He's super-smart, funny, good with kids (best teacher ever, did I mention?), respects his mom, is sweet without being a wimp, and he's just a big damn hero all around. You know… the Peter Parker."
"Peter Parker?" Felicia could hear the rasp of Colleen scratching her chin over the comm. "Isn't he the guy that Spider-Man sued for faking some photos?"
"Had to dress up like a giant chicken?" Shang-Chi added.
"No, he is…" Felicia realized that her team had, indeed, been living under the proverbial rock. "Peter Parker. He's the one. You ever met the one and just known?"
"Danny Rand, winter of '97," Misty answered. "Good luck with your man and all that, but right now, it's about to get all sorts of kung-fu."
"I'll admit it, Felicia Hardy, I wasn't exactly expecting you to answer the door in jeans and a Nintendo T-shirt, but this is…" Peter ran a hand through his hair. "Nice dress."
"Thanks. My mom made it for me." Felicia did a little twirl. "Wore it to the prom. Still fits."
Her dress had neither a high hemline nor a low cleavage. There were no cut-outs. It had sleeves. It was classy, elegant even, and wearing it only let in the good memories of her mother. Wearing it wasn't keeping her attraction to Peter a state secret, but it wasn't shouting it from the rooftops either. It was just there. It had always been there.
"What's the occasion?"
"A girl can't feel pretty?"
"You always feel pretty." He brushed her cheek with his thumb. "How could you not?"
There were any number of responses she bit back, not wanting to inundate him with crazy on their first not-really-a date. A disturbingly large number of those censorships had to do with the love of her life having picked a supermodel/actress over her (if Mary-Jane had been a singer and She-Ra too, Felicia would've had to take her own life rather than live in a world where redheaded childhood fantasies poached her men).
The way he'd touched her cheek: Fondness or just her imagination?
"So, when do I get to meet the little fuzz?"
"Right this way."
The kitten was as cute as advertised. Barely more than blind, he kept taking a few wobbling steps in a random direction before he fell. After three or so little trips, his mother would get up to drag it back. Felicia let the mother lick her hand before she took the kitten to Peter. He was sitting on the couch, so Felicia had to bend over to set the kitten on his lap.
"I was beginning to worry you were a Skrull," Peter said of the view.
"I am a genteel lady and haven't the foggiest what you're talking about."
"Mmm." Peter scratched the kitten's head as Felicia perched sideways on the cushion beside him. "So… nice place."
"Thanks. I tried to hire a nice decorator and this guy named Stavros had some very interesting ideas about open space… all the furniture came from this tiny store in the Village, his recommendation."
"Cool." Peter nodded. "Who are the other kittens going to?"
"Just people around the neighborhood. I told everyone about Mittens being pregnant at the last block party, had a few takers."
"How many were trying to get into your pants?"
"Just two. Must be losing my touch."
"Not from where I'm sitting. Ow!" The kitten was kneading Peter's thigh with his claws before he curled up for a nap.
"Aww, that means he's comfortable with you."
"As a mattress?"
"Usually it would only do that with its mom."
"Great, I'm a foster parent."
"Would some Chinese food soften the blow? I've got some noodles in the fridge just dying to be reheated."
"Feed me, Seymour."
Felicia petted the kitten's mother as she disappeared into the kitchen. The cat, reclining as she nursed her kits, glared at Peter.
"What're you looking at?"
He heard the hum of the microwave coming on. "Don't mind her. Cats are very protective of their young and you're all stranger danger over there."
"Great. I can't even win the trust of a cat. No wonder the public doesn't like me. Maybe I should start small. See if there's any bacteria I can sway to my side."
Felicia came back in, bearing two steaming-hot take-out cartons. "I have more than one cell and I think you're the cat's meow."
"But you're an ex. That mean I have to date all of New York to get them to like me?"
Felicia handed him his chopsticks. "It's not as hard as it sounds, trust me." She laid down across the couch to rest her head on his other leg. "Your kitten's right, this is comfy."
"Consider yourself at home, consider yourself a part of the furniture…" Peter sang.
Felicia laughed again as she chopsticked some noodles into her mouth, looked up at him. "So how ya holding up? Really?"
"I quit the DB. And no, I don't mean the Daily Bugle. It's a tabloid now. So I'm hoping my history will get me a job at another paper. Robbie's promised me a good reference, so who knows, maybe the New York Times will take me."
"If they hired Jayson Blaire, they'll hire anyone."
"And you, Ms. Hero for Hire?" Peter asked, playfully twirling a loop of her hair around his finger.
"Oh, they're fun and all. Pay the bills too, occasionally. And all the girls are pretty cool. Guys too. Except for that Paladin jerk. He's not even the original Paladin, just some asshole leeching off the name of someone who was a D-lister to begin with!"
Peter paused before setting down his chopsticks. "This guy an original-flavor jerk or ex-boytoy jerk?"
"Oh, we skipped straight from UST to bitter exes. And that sounds remarkably like jealousy."
"Because it is." Peter helped himself to some more chow mein. "So, went straight to the Ex-Files, huh?"
Felicia, railroaded, just said "Yeah. After some… ahem… simpering which we will attribute to temporary insanity brought on by not having a date in months—"
"My humblest apologies."
"—he kicked me in the gut for a quick buck." Felicia felt Peter go rigid with outrage. "This was after…"
"While I was unconscious, Paladin felt me up in the Savage Land."
Peter paused for a long moment. "Do you call it the Savage Land when you stop waxing…?"
She dug her nails into his leg. Peter winced and petted her hair apologetically. It was starting to feel good. "You know, you can do better."
"I know. So can you, Mr. Girls Gone Wild. … So how'd you do it?" Felicia asked, apropos of nothing but her desire not to scare him off by going too deep, too fast.
"I can remember, as intimately as the birthmark on your butt, you getting on national TV and flashing your secret ID to everyone and their mother. But I cannot… I just can't remember if you'd shaved that day, if you were bruised, how long your hair was. Blank." Felicia stifled a yawn. "And no one I've talked to can remember your face either. It's not on Youtube, it's not on Piratebay, it's gone. I want to know how you made everyone forget you were Spider-Man."
"I don't know. But I think someone up there likes me."
"That's your answer? Divine intervention?"
"Hey, we've got Celestials, we've got Watchers, we've got Eternals… someone must've decided to do me a solid. Never look a gift horse in the mouth, Cat."
"Yeah. Tell that to the Trojans. No man can be that lucky."
"I met you, didn't I?"
She was fading fast. The fight with Shocker's Six must've taken more out of her than she'd thought. And she didn't have to keep one eye open with Peter. She could let her guard down. He would keep her safe.
Felicia woke up with the kitten on her stomach and Peter gone. That brought a profound sense of loss, even worse than her usual home-bodied heartsickness.
The kitten mewled forlornly. "I know the feeling," she said, delivering the kitten back to its mother.
It was raining the next morning. Felicia was prodded awake by her finely-honed senses detecting an intruder. She telescoped out a baton she kept under her pillow and grabbed a gun for good measure. You'd be paranoid too if someone shot you full of cocaine and tried to rape you.
The drizzle of rain on the outside of the building was in one place amplified, like a parabolic dish, by an open window. Peter closed it, muting the raging thunderstorm outside. His wet suit clung to him and Felicia tried to conceal her shortness of breath by throwing a bathrobe over the ratty T-shirt and panties she'd been sleeping in.
Peter took a box out of the webbing he'd had slung over his shoulder. "I brought breakfast," he said, holding up a donut. "Got milk?"
Felicia's arms were crossed under her breasts. "You tell me." She went to get some from the fridge.
Peter took off his mask and wiped some of his damp hair off his brow. "I didn't mean to cut and run last night. I just had a patrol to run and… you looked like you could use the sleep."
"I had nightmares."
"Probably karmic payback for all those stories you've been telling. According to you, by your twentieth birthday you'd been raped, lost in the wilderness, hooked on drugs, kidnapped, seen your parents divorced, seen them die, made a suicide attempt, ran away from home, been involved in illegal street races, gotten pregnant, been in a cult, slept with your brother, had a cancer scare, contracted an STD, contracted leprosy, been addicted to Internet porn… for God's sake, you told Hulkling you knew what it was like to be exposed to gamma rays! He's not even that kind of Hulk!"
"It's not like he wore a badge saying he was a gay Skrull. Although the fact that he never once looked at my breasts should've been a clue. Not so much for the Skrull thing… although do Skrulls have a breast fixation?"
"With breasts like yours, who wouldn't?"
Felicia smiled at that and took a Danish from him. "It's easier to talk people down when they sympathize with me."
"You said you were gang-raped by both the Kree and the Skrulls."
"The old story was too Lifetime."
"Why would the Kree and the Skrull even do that together? They hate each other!"
"I'm just that bootylicious, baby."
Peter laughed. Ate another donut.
"Do you want something from me?"
He stopped giggling like the rain would eventually stop, into a screwed-lips sort of grimace. "I keep thinking about you."
"I keep coming back to that night when I took the mask off. When I shared my secret with you."
"I was a stupid child. I overreacted."
"I wasn't ready either. I should've dealt with that rejection instead of…"
Peter hung his head long enough for Felicia to regret speaking up, regret all the needling and bitchy asides. Poor bastard really did love her. It had to hurt him for Felicia to talk shit about her. "Yeah," he said at last. "It just wasn't in the stars. But… we're ready now. You've changed and I've changed; we're different, better people. And what if we never get another shot, if you meet someone and I meet someone… Maybe this is where the stars align for us, right here, right now, there'll never be a better time. So we can keep screwing around and never got our feelings bruised, or we can…" He held out his hand to her. "I care about you. A lot. And what I keep coming back to isn't how you hurt me or whether I can trust you or not, it's that time you said… you remember this? You said that if I'd given you time, you would've calmed down and 'come around to me.'"
"I shouldn't have said that. Like it was your fault the whole relationship went ka-blooie. I was the bad guy there, we both know—"
"Did you mean it?" Peter cut in with shocking passion.
Felicia smiled and crossed her heart as she moved to embrace him. There were tears in her eyes. She wanted to tell him how she felt because she finally had the words, but he held her back with an outstretched hand.
"I have to be honest. I'm not over Mary-Jane. But I swear to you, I won't let what I had with her come between us."
"Can I talk now?"
"Go right ahead."
Felicia thought for a moment. "I can't think of anything to say." She kissed him instead. That pretty much said it all.
Mary-Jane didn't wake up in time for breakfast. Kristy gave her big sister half an hour of beauty sleep while the food got cold, then went to see if Mary-Jane was alright. She found a red-eyed mess huddled in bed, countless wadded-up tissues discarded around the room.
"MJ? Why're you crying?"
Mary-Jane futilely attempted to dry her eyes before looking at Kristy. "I don't know!"