Flash was beginning to wonder how his week could get any worse. On Monday he had allowed himself to be co-opted into the Midtown Science Winter Formal Committee in the hope of getting a date with Cora, a cheerleader he had found notable for a range of her physical qualities. By Tuesday he had found that not only was the committee mind-numbingly dull, no amount of hot on Cora's part could make her remotely fun to be around. In Wednesday's boring meeting he had been charged with spending Thursday afternoon helping Cora plan the seating arrangements. She giggled and winked at him across the table. He thought about putting out his eye with the nearest sharp pencil. As the sun went down on Thursday, the last table setting was being labelled and the hope of escape began to glow on the horizon, Cora drew his attention to the last couple who had purchased tickets. Gwen Stacey was taking Peter Parker. Though he grudgingly admired Parker these days, he had retained the tenuous hope that one day Gwen would be his. Flash couldn't hold the headdesk in.
The other members of the Midtown Science Winter Formal Committee were not the sort of people who ever gave a moment's thought to either Gwen Stacey or Peter Parker other than to tick off with satisfaction the complete list of student formal attendees. They were consumed with loftier concerns. Between them, the committee had managed to pull in every one of their parents' contacts and Cora had secured the attention of no less than Mr Anthony Abbott himself. As a result, this year's formal had become an extraordinarily big deal.
Due to Abbott's generosity and the string-pulling of one of his low-level flunkies wielding the power of his big name, the students would convene under the domed glass roof of the City Courthouse affording them a view of the towering buildings and the night sky. They would be served exotic dishes that were almost guaranteed to cause teenagers to turn up their noses and they would sway, probably awkwardly, to the haunting melodies of The High-Highs performing live. Some of the girls practically swooned in anticipation of watching a romantic snow-fall on the glass dome above while they danced in the warmth beneath with whichever jockstrap they had managed to secure for the evening.
Peter found himself unable to resist getting a little sucked in to the anticipation around school. He never saw himself as being that kind of guy but there was something about the tantalising promise of the night with Gwen on his arm in her beautiful dress. Having her back in his life had given him a distinctive spring in his step. Even seeing her around the corridors at school and being able to approach her and take her hand was like so much freedom after a long confinement. And he'd been watching her quietly for a whole year, so he knew that things felt different for her too. She would wink at him if she saw him pass by outside her classroom, and he saw her smiling and laughing more in the two weeks leading up to the dance than he had seen in the previous twelve months. The closer the dance came, the more his nervousness was replaced by excitement.
At one point when they almost collided in the corridor as Peter left his biology class and Gwen emerged from Physics, they had to stand aside as the officious lab assistant wheeled a trolley full of brightly-hued substances into the hall ahead of them. After a quick glance into the vacated prep room, Gwen grabbed Peter's hand, slipped into the tiny lab and yanked him in behind her, kicking the heavy door shut with her boot. The cupboard of a room forced them to be pressed right up against one another.
"Umm, hi?" Peter laughed.
Gwen was unapologetic. "Well, you're refusing to come to my window these days, so how else is a girl to get a little alone time with her superhero?"
Peter grinned. "Can I just tell you how much I am loving the fact that I just got pulled into a prep lab by Gwen Stacey?" He tilted his head back as if reminiscing. "I was never even creative enough to daydream this happening!"
"Did you really used to daydream about me as much as you claim?"
"Um, Gwen, when you say 'used to', what precisely do you mean?"
Gwen laughed, winding her arms around Peter's neck "We better get on with the kissing before Mrs Glasson gets back."
Peter revelled in Gwen's soft lips, in her arms around his neck, in holding her close, in the fact that this dream scenario was happening to him. His every nerve ending tingled, and Gwen's embrace warmed him in so many more ways than the merely physical. He couldn't get enough of her presence, her touch, her lips. He felt one of her hands pressed flat against the small of his back and the fingers of her other hand winding up into his hair. He pulled her more tightly against him and kissed her more urgently. She responded with enthusiasm and just as the kiss reached the highest point of its intensity the lab door swung open to reveal a surprised lab assistant. Peter immediately flushed red and ducked his head down, his mortification rendering him unable to speak. Gwen quickly found her voice. "My fault, Mrs Glasson," she cooed, pushing Peter out the door ahead of her. "I'm really nervous that we're going to get this kiss all wrong for the school play. I've been shoving poor Peter into broom cupboards all over the school trying to find some time to rehearse!"
The two of them bolted laughing down the corridor to English class and made it into the two remaining seats in the back row just before their teacher began the lesson. Sitting next to Gwen in class again was still a novelty for Peter. Mostly she was a model of a student dedication but sometimes, like this time, after they'd just been so brusquely interrupted, she was less than supportive of Peter's desire to learn. After the flurry of retrieving books and pens from their bags had ended and they settled into listening to Professor Boundy's introduction, Gwen linked her arm around his and traced distracting little patterns lightly on the back of his hand with her forefinger. He twisted slightly in his chair towards her, pressing his leg against hers and looked intently into her steady blue gaze. Unbidden, their conversation from a previous night came flooding back to him. Would he really always be able to leave her when someone else needed him? Would it always be as simple as he had made it seem? He wondered what she was thinking as she confidently met his eyes. Her tracing on the back of his hand had a mesmerising quality and he felt as if he were gradually being hypnotised by the light pressure of her fingers. A loud outburst of laughter from the class shook him out of his reverie and they turned from one another to find the whole class, including Professor Boundy, looking at them and laughing.
"I was saying," the professor intoned, half-stern, half-amused, "that Romeo and Juliet's fixation on one another early in the play was being demonstrated before our very eyes."
"And you didn't even hear her!" a vacuous cheerleader called Cora cackled. Even in his supreme embarrassment, Peter noticed Flash with his forehead resting on the desk next to her. He turned to grin sheepishly at Gwen who simply squeezed his hand under the desk.
Later that evening, Peter crouched in the heat of the spots, his head and body full of Gwen. If he didn't think it unbecoming for a superhero, he would have sprawled on his back with his hands casually tucked under his head and assumed his preferred position for daydreaming. So fully had he projected himself back into the prep lab with Gwen that when the first awful screech sounded, he didn't even know where to start looking. The night sky was as dark as it ever got in the permanent neon twilight of the glare of New York City. He was flummoxed. The screech definitely did not sound human. He ran to the edge of the building and hurled himself into the air, swinging himself around the perimeter of the tower to see if he could see anything. The traffic continued to rumble and the pedestrians bustled unperturbed. Peter began to assume that he must have been imagining things. He returned to the centre of the floodlit rooftop shaking his head slightly. There was silence for a moment or two before he heard the noise again. An ungodly screech, like that of an eagle - but impossibly loud - sounded from below, or was it above?
Peter scanned the sky for any hint of the source but New York looked much as it always did from this vantage point. He decided to be proactive and began a quick crawl down one side of the mirrored tower. The height advantage allowed him visibility without necessarily drawing attention to his investigations. He scanned the streets below for anything unusual as he descended but nothing jumped out at him. He heard no more screeching as he climbed but kept a wary ear out. Nothing. Peter shook his head as if to dislodge some water in his ears. Was a head full of Gwen making him delirious?
He began his climb back up the building and, as everything remained quiet below, entertained himself by peeking in the windows as he went. Some of the scientists and researchers working back late noticed him and gawked, others acknowledged him with a cheery wave or salute and some we so absorbed that they didn't even look up from their Bunsen burners. "Boffins," Peter chuckled to himself.
While he was still chuckling, he reached what appeared to be a small conference room at about the thirty fourth floor. He peered in and found himself looking straight at Gwen. She was presenting some data on a screen to a gathering of white-coated scientists and she stopped to stare at him open-mouthed. Her audience automatically followed Gwen's gaze out the window and swivelled in their chairs to see Spiderman clinging to the class. Some of the scientists waved, some laughed, one lady even blew him a kiss. He waved back, assuming Gwen would know that the gesture was for her, and went to move on quickly, hoping that she might be able to recover from the distraction and carry on with her presentation. Suddenly, without warning, he was hit from his left with incredible force. He lost purchase of the window and fell. Even through the thick glass, Peter could hear Gwen scream. He had been blindsided but what could have reached him on the thirty fourth floor? A bio-cable quickly righted him and as he hunted over his shoulder and above and below for whatever struck him, he made a point of swinging himself back past Gwen's window to reassure her that he was ok.
Within an instant, Peter gained terrifying insight into what it must be like to be a swallow who'd become prey in the eyes of a hawk. As he shot web after web, swinging pendulum-like from building to bridge and back again, the creature – or was there more than one – screeched and wheeled at him. Only after several minutes of ducking and weaving for his life did Peter manage to get enough distance to see his assailant. It was hideous. A kind of hawk/human hybrid but high on the hawk and low on the human, part carrion bird, part carrion, soaring and pecking at him with razor sharp beak and claws. Thus far he had managed to avoid the creature making contact but he could almost feel the blades every time he just scraped away from them. Though all of his wit and bottle was required to avoid this creature, in the back of his mind was Gwen watching, he imagined, in horrified silence from the conference room window, so close to the action. He always had a strong desire to survive, but Gwen increased his survival instinct ten-fold. He would not let this creature get him. If he were going to die, he at least wanted to be certain that Gwen wouldn't have to be standing helplessly by. Now that he had caught a glimpse of his attacker and it did seem for now that it was alone, he began to be able to go on the offensive a little more. He found, not just the time to shoot a cable to save his neck but also the time to fire a cable at the creature, trying to knock it off balance by disabling a wing. No luck. His aim was true and he could wrap the cable around the grotesquely feathered humanesque limb but the creature's ferocious wing-beat seemed to always shake the cable loose before it could tighten.
Unlike a hawk, this creature wasn't so much prone to hovering on thermals. Rather, it had extraordinary ability to change direction, and speed, to spin on a dime. Peter relied on momentum and swing, this creature seemed to pack an inexplicable thrust. It had been a long time since Peter had faced an opponent so worthy that he feared for his life. Dr Connors was a monster somewhat of his own creation so at least he had an idea of how to proceed but now, in the back of his mind, he began to feel the dark cold and exhaustion of inevitable defeat.