Senior year ends. Gwen is valedictorian. She gives an eloquent speech at graduation that Peter doesn't listen to. He stares at his lap, trying to focus on anything but the sound of her voice, the way it kind of gravels at the beginning and end of her sentences, the distinctive rhythm of her words.
Instead he stares at the banner at the other end of the gymnasium, the one that lists all the universities the students in their class are attending, with stars underneath them to indicate how many people are going. There is one under Yale. It should be Gwen, Peter thinks, but he knows that it's Richard. There are plenty under NYU, a few under Columbia and other schools in New York, but the rest seem scattered throughout the nation. Peter can't really blame his classmates for wanting to get the hell out of Manhattan.
There are seventeen stars under Empire State. Peter is one of them. Much to his frustration, so is Gwen.
"… the class of 2013!"
Gwen finishes her speech with a flourish and everyone is up and clapping. Peter drags himself up to his feet and mechanically follows suit.
She walks down from the podium as everyone starts shifting in the aisles, waiting to line up and walk on stage one by one for their diplomas. On the other side of the room Aunt May is waiting with a camera; in Peter's pocket his cell phone is practically burning a hole in his side, heavy with the weight of an unexpected voicemail he doesn't want think about.
Listen, Peter. I know I'm the last person you want to hear from right now.
He blinks, focusing on the stage. His row hasn't been summoned to stand up and wait yet. Out of the corner of his eye he can see Gwen shuffling through the row behind him, with the other people with "S" last names.
They haven't spoken much since that night in her room, after Peter recovered from the last robot attack. They say hello to each other politely in class. They talk about homework, about the weather, about the school basketball team's unexpected success, but they don't talk about anything with real substance, and they don't talk for very long.
He misses her. The ache in his chest, he thought it might subside with time, but it hasn't. Every time he sees her it's like reopening a wound. He wants so much from her that he can't take.
These days it seems like she wants nothing from him. She is cool and relaxed and hardly ever says anything with the bitter edge in her voice that she used to use, back when he first started avoiding her last October. It almost disappoints Peter. He wants her to be angry. As long as she is angry, she hasn't moved on.
His row stands up and walks in an orderly fashion to the stage. They've rehearsed this a few times but everyone is stumbling with nervous energy, giving each other anxious, toothy grins as they come closer and closer to leaving this place forever.
Peter hears them call his name. He nods at the school principal and takes his diploma. At the last second he remembers to smile in the general direction of where Aunt May and her camera are sitting.
He still hasn't managed to edge his way back into his row by the time Gwen's name is called, but he turns around anyway, accidentally bumping into someone walking behind him in the process. She looks up at him for a fraction of a second as she takes the diploma, then quickly looks back down at her feet.
But I see what you're going through, and—I know you said you didn't want my help, so you can take this or leave it, but you might come to find that I'm the only one who understands.
Peter didn't get the scholarship that would have paid for school. It went to some girl in Rhode Island. But he still gets into the academic program, and still gets financial aid, and with the new freelancing job at the Daily Bugle that is becoming both the highlight of his days and the bane of his existence, Peter is reasonably certain he can afford to go to school and feed himself at the same time.
Aunt May's hug is almost suffocating. A part of him is starting to think she wasn't counting on him making it this far. With all of Spiderman's close calls over the past few months, he can't really blame her.
They settle on a diner for an early dinner, a few blocks away from the school.
"Our last dinner together," says Aunt May wistfully.
Peter tries to smile. "I'm only half an hour away," he protests.
She nods, swirling the gravy on her plate with her fork. "Don't be a stranger."
By the time they get home some of the heat has mercifully radiated off the sidewalks. There's a slight chill in the air, probably the last of the season. Peter savors the walk home from the subway with his aunt, listening to her as closely as he can, laughing and smiling or frowning at the appropriate points in her stories. There's something about this night, about it being the last of its kind, that makes him want to focus on everything, which makes him unable to focus on anything at all.
Except the voicemail. Peter jams the key into the front door and twists, directing his energy on everything and anything else, but it doesn't make it any easier to push aside.
This girl—this Gwen—I can tell that you love her. The way I loved your mother.
There aren't as many boxes as Peter thought there would be. He's leaving a lot of things behind. Walking through his old house, trying to determine what he will take with him, is the first time he has really had some perspective on how much of himself he has left here in the past eleven years—a skid mark on the wall where he rammed his first skateboard, an ugly hand-woven oven mitt from second grade, the remaining evidence from the bathroom he near obliterated after his abilities first developed. There are traces of him everywhere. It is unbelievable to him, looking back, how openly and wholeheartedly his aunt and uncle treated him as if he belonged here from the very first day.
It's only one taxi ride across a bridge, but Peter hugs Aunt May before he leaves for a long time. She strokes the back of his hair, treats him for a moment like he is eight and not eighteen, and tells him to call her when he gets settled into the apartment. She asks again if he needs help and he shakes his head. He doesn't want her going there, not ever. He doesn't want her associated with anything that might be associated with him.
He shoves the boxes into the taxi and checks his pocket to make sure he still has cash to pay the driver. Peter is embarrassed by how much cash he has lying around these days, ever since the freelance job took off. It isn't enough to completely pay for school but it's enough to make him think twice about where he leaves it.
Aunt May waves from the door as the taxi pulls away. He knew that she would, so he is careful to turn around as they're leaving and wave back. He imagines Uncle Ben standing there with her, and imagines that it would be much easier to leave her if he was.
At some point you're going to have to decide how much you love her. Either you love her enough to let her go—or you love her so much that you let her decide the risk she wants to take.
"I'll just, uh—do you mind waiting? I have to make a few trips to get these boxes up," says Peter apologetically to the taxi driver.
The man points. "Meter still running."
Peter nods in understanding, grabbing the first two boxes and running them up the six flights to his tiny, bare, ugly apartment. It is completely uninhabitable, his Aunt May would say if she saw it, but he doesn't plan on spending much time here except to sleep every now and then.
He stands there in the apartment for a moment. If he lies down on the floor he thinks he could touch his head to one wall and his feet to the other. The window looks out to two or so feet between his building and the brick wall of its neighbor. It's barely enough for him to crawl through at a moment's notice, but he has easy access to the roof here, so he'll make do.
He runs back down the stairs to collect his other boxes. He goes for three at once, paying the driver and balancing them precariously as he walks all the way up again. He sets two of them down at the door so he can place the box full of plates and glasses and silverware down carefully in the kitchen, then heads back out to the hallway to collect them.
At first all he sees is a blonde head poking out of the apartment across the hall.
Your mother … I will never forgive myself for what happened to her. But I wouldn't give back those years with her—those years we were in love, when we had you—not for anything.
It is laughable. It is maddening. It isn't possible. What would Gwen Stacy be doing in an apartment building as grimy and cheap as this?
She looks at the telltale boxes in his arms and offers him the barest of smirks. "Howdy, neighbor."
He feels like there is something lodged in his throat. "Uh. Hey," he says weakly.
She walks down the hallway and leaves through the stairs, her short skirt lifting dangerously with the breeze created by the opening door. He doesn't know where she is going. He doesn't bother to ask. But he knows with a nauseating and thrilling certainty that she will be back.
He shuts the door to his apartment behind him, his stomach sinking, his heart flying. He will never escape her. She is his blessing and his curse.
This is going to be a long four years.
I may ... or may not ... be writing a sequel.
I told myself I wouldn't. I TOLD MYSELF I WOULDN'T. But I just sort of started writing one (woops). If I get a lot of it done before school starts, I'll post it. In any case, I'm going underground for two weeks. I have that singing competition to get ready for and my family is going on vacation to Alaska and at some point I'm getting all my wisdom teeth removed (ALL OF THEM! GASP!). So if it's any good, you'll see it in the next few weeks, and if you don't see it, well. I probably deleted it all in a violent rage. What I can say is it would be set at Empire State, and it would be from Gwen's perspective this time around.
Thank you again to everybody who has humored me and my writings over the last month. This has been the weirdest, dorkiest, most awesome summer of my life.