Chapter Four:


a·tone·ment [uh-tohn-muhnt]


1. satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.

New York never did anything by halves. Today, they buried their beloved police chief. The parade of mourners was impressive: the black-draped motorcade; the honor guard, mounted on horseback; the mayor, in a midnight Mercedes; not to mention scores of ordinary citizens on foot. But it wasn't, apparently, enough, and the sky added its own tears to the collective grief.

Peter clung to the slippery, steeply-pitched roof of the church. The rain drummed on the hood of his grey sweatshirt; he heard the Captain's voice in time with each drop.

Leave Gwen out of it. Leave Gwen out of it.

He peered over the edge. A sea of umbrellas flowed along the sidewalk below him. One of them suddenly tilted up to reveal the Captain's daughter, her pink cheeks and green eyes a splash of color in the sober landscape. Peter moved back a little, afraid that if her searching glance found him, he wouldn't be able to stay away.

Some part of him felt like he shouldn't stay away. And not for purely selfish reasons (although being without her felt like having to learn to breathe again). No, even his inexperienced heart understood that the best thing for her, the most healing thing, would be his arm around her, his hand holding hers, his presence by her side. To know she could lean on him, could fall apart and he would put her back together.

The rain came down a little harder, as though it had heard his rebellious thoughts. Yourfaultyourfaultyourfault, it said.

And that was really the problem. It wasn't just that a promise to a dying man was pretty well inviolable. Peter might've been able to argue himself out of it, on the grounds that it was in Gwen's best interests.

But the promise you make to a dying man, when it's your fault he's dying? When it was your selfish curiosity that led you to give an equation, hidden for thirteen years, to someone who'd worked his whole life toward that end? Someone who might be so desperate to heal himself that he'd use it, consequences be damned?

He might just as well have impaled Captain Stacy himself. (Oh, and the bullet that killed Uncle Ben? Yep, that had his name on it too. "Not my policy"—well, he'd spend the rest of his life trying to make up for that smart remark.)

He watched Gwen look around once more, then collapse her umbrella and slide into the waiting town car. As it slipped into the long line of cemetery-bound vehicles, he had one horrible, heartstopping thought: What if she thinks I'm guilty, too?


As it turned out…she did.

Oh, she didn't blame him for her father's death (at least, he didn't think so), but it was pretty clear that she blamed him for his absence, for the empty space next to her.

She showed up on his porch, once again in the rain (had it stopped raining since George Stacy died?), eyes raw, looking like a bruised angel. At first, he'd said almost nothing, afraid that if he opened his mouth, the pain of their suddenly shuttered future would explode in an incoherent howl.

She didn't make it easy on him, though. The catch in her voice, the tears that hung on her lashes, even the way the tip of her nose got red—it all hit him like a physical blow. At one point, he had to reach out and touch her cheek, or else crumble into nothingness.

It didn't help. She was still there. The hurt glazed her eyes, but something else—something a little like hope—was dawning behind it. He couldn't let her do that, knowing what he knew, knowing what he'd promised. The words came roughly, torn from him: "I can't…I can't see you anymore."

She understood, then, that it wasn't his choice. By the time she snapped open her umbrella and clattered down the steps, she had figured it out: "He made you promise, didn't he? He made you promise to stay away, so I'd be safe."

It should've made him feel better, that she knew. It should've made him feel better that his aunt still believed in him, still thought he was nothing but good.

It should've…but it didn't. He went quietly upstairs and puked his guts out in the hall bathroom.


He had cut ties with Gwen and had spent the last few days laying low. (Well, more accurately, he'd spent the last few days feeling like absolute, bona fide crap. He couldn't summon the energy to pick his underwear up off the floor, much less fight crime.)

And Connors was in jail. But that didn't mean it was finished, that everything was tied up in a neat bow and he could move on.

No—the equation that had caused so much havoc might still be out there. Was it saved in the OsCorp simulator, or the BioReactor unit? Had Connors discussed the formula—and what it could do—with anyone else? His father had left town—had ultimately died—rather than reveal it. Who else would want it, and why?

These questions finally roused him from his near-stupor. He searched the news, and kept his eyes open going to and from school, but there was no evidence of any mutant animal form at large in the city. Connors' lab had been shut down, and the Ganali device destroyed. Peter wondered what had happened to Freddy, whether someone had been called in to "take care" of him. (If so, he didn't envy whoever it was.)

Only one man could really answer his questions, of course. But meeting with Dr. Connors was not a possibility. Even if Peter could've come up with a reason for visiting that was legitimate in the eyes of the Justice Department, Connors was being kept under sedation and in isolation—no visitors allowed.

So he turned to his computer, searching through file after file of articles by and about Connors, looking for anyone linked to his projects. In one of them, he stumbled on a quote from OsCorp's Vice-President of Biomedical Research, Dr. Rajit Ratha: "The work that Dr. Connors is doing could have broad application across a range of conditions and diseases. It's tremendously exciting."

Something tripped in Peter's brain, and he clicked through to the OsCorp website's Employee Profiles section. There he was…the dark-haired man Peter had bumped into on his "intern" tour…who had dropped a folder with the øø symbol…and who had led Peter to the Biocable Development Unit.

Where was he now? Peter hadn't seen him quoted in any of the recent press coverage. He googled the man and found a short clipping from the Washington Bridge incident. Apparently, Dr. Ratha had been in one of the cars that the Lizard threw over the railing; he had sustained a head injury and was (at the time the article was written) in critical condition at NYU Medical Center.

That had been two weeks ago. By now, he could've been discharged…or died (Peter checked the online obituaries—nothing)…or could still be slurping up banana pudding at NYUMC. He needed to be able to trace this guy—to find out what he knew, and how he was connected, if he was connected, to Connors' project.

Unfortunately, he had no access to OsCorp, and no idea where to look if he did. He knew someone who probably had both; almost as a reflex, he picked up his cell and dialed her number.

Leave Gwen out of it.

It rang once before Peter pressed the "End Call" button. The wound of his promise opened afresh and he realized that he'd lost more, even, than he'd thought. Gwen wasn't just a teenage romance—she was the only person who could understand his drive to find the truth…the only person he didn't have to hide from or make excuses to…the only person who actually knew who he was. He didn't know if he could do this without her.

Atonement really, really sucked.

A/N: I'll be away from the computer for a bit and may not be able to post. I will, however, still be writing…so I hope you'll hang around!