Disclaimer: I don't own them; take no offense and hire no lawyers.
It was hours before she found out. She was driven from Oscorp in a squad car just so she could have the special privilege of crowding around the TV with her mom and brothers, watching the news anchors scramble for information after they lost the helicopter feeds, waiting, hoping…
It's been like this before, the feeling like she was no better than a spectator in her father's life. Hostage situations, the bomb threat, the bank heist a few months ago… she's always hated it. Sitting around waiting for news, no better than any other uninformed average citizen. Disconnected. Now more than ever.
And then there was a text from Peter that only said I'm so sorry, and Gwen hadn't known what that meant other than that Peter was alive and Peter was breathing and Peter had use of his fingers, and she couldn't imagine what he could possibly be sorry for until there was a knock at the door.
(She will never forget the look on her mother's face as the words Helen, I'm so sorry, we didn't get to him in time spilled from Sergeant Filipelli's lips, and she should have known they'd pick him to do it. that man watched her grow up, like an uncle to her, her father's best friend, her father is dead…)
It's like her brain is a phantom limb, nonexistent and beyond her control but still constantly aching, nerves firing helplessly to try and account for the deficit.
He's never going to walk her down the aisle. She keeps thinking of stupid things like that, like how he'll never meet his grandchildren or see any of his kids graduate high school, let alone college, and god, how are they going to pay for college when her mom is just a paralegal, and why is it that she can only miss her father in the future tense? He's absent now, it's present, but she can't even… she doesn't…
He was going to learn how to fish, when he retired. They've lived their whole lives in the city, but after he'd paid his dues to the force he was going to buy a boat and take it upstate and learn to fish. They'd joked about it.
And if Peter's so sorry, why isn't he here?
She's never felt so lost before; never known herself so little. She's always been the steady, stable one. Dr. Connors even talked about that, in the recommendation he wrote for her—It is the unique individual whose level of confidence is equal to their talent. Gwen Stacy has one of the surest minds and steadiest hands I have ever encountered, and it is a boon to the world that she knows it so young.
Her dad had cried when he read it. She wasn't supposed to see it—it's technically against the rules—but Dr. Connors e-mailed her dad a copy, apparently, and all she'd known at the time is that she'd come into her father's den to find him misty-eyed and staring blankly at the glow of his computer monitor. It freaked her the hell out, because she can (could) count the number of times she's seen (had seen) her father cry on one hand, but he'd just beckoned her over and made her sit in his lap, and they'd looked at it together.
She can still remember the way he'd held her securely to him, the smell of cigars and cologne that clung to him, the way he murmured That's my girl into her hair.
How can a person just be gone?
Her dad is dead. She will never feel that way again, and she won't because Dr. Connors killed her father, and god, what if no schools let her in? What if she doesn't go to college over this? Who listens to the recommendation of a psychopath who tried to turn everyone in New York into a mutant lizard person? To the man who murdered the father of the applicant?
Why is this what she's thinking about?
She wishes she could talk to someone about what's going on in her head, but she feels utterly alone. Her brothers are hopelessly lost, too young to even know how to grieve for themselves, let alone help others; her mom will be busy trying to figure out how to keep their family afloat while mourning the loss of her husband;her friends couldn't possibly understand, and Peter…
Peter isn't here, Peter didn't save him, Peter lied.
I've got you, he'd said. A pretty lie. She told him how she didn't think she could do it twice, how the uncertainty weighed on her, never knowing if her dad would come home. And Peter had held her close and Peter had kissed her and Peter had filled her heart with empty promises about how it would be different, this time.
It's a lot easier to be mad at Peter than to miss her father.
Time passes in a blur. She woke up this morning to a world without her dad, and she'll do that tomorrow, and she'll do it the day after that and the next day and she'll keep doing it until she dies herself, because there's nothing left of him. She overheard her brothers talking, last night, about how everything from now on will feel like Before and After, but that requires a sense of chronology and Gwen has none. All she has is with and without, and she'll be without for the rest of her life.
Dad had no say in the matter, and that kills her. But her phone's been lighting up all day with texts and calls from close friends, from family, from people she barely knows— wishing her well, sending her love. One voice is missing in the crowd, though, and it eats away at her. Peter is choosing to stay away, and somehow, that breaks her a little more than anything else.
So that's what she focuses on. She resents Peter as she fixes bowls of cereal for herself and her brothers, her mother long since gone to the police station; she blames Peter when she searches through her closet and can't something even vaguely appropriate to wear because she's never owned much black, never liked how somber it was; she mentally rails against Peter as she herds her silent brothers onto the subway; she composes a thousand angry speeches of what she'd like to say to Peter as she gives her statement to a very nice detective whose name she forgets as soon as she hears it, because if she's not mad at Peter she'll have to think about how her dad probably knew this man's name, probably knew the name of his wife and kids if he has any, probably remembered to ask about their important milestones or vacations. If she's not angry then she's empty, and to subtract any more from her already-lacking life might turn her into a vacuum completely.
When it's all over her mom takes them home. None of them speak a word to each other.
(She can't remember the last time the apartment was this quiet. Maybe it never has been. Simon's been crying on and off, but Phil hasn't said anything all day. Neither has Howard, other than to ask Mom if she was okay when they met up at the precinct.)
It can't be healthy, but she can't find the courage to be the one to break the silence.
She doesn't sleep at all that night. She keeps vigil in the living room with her mom, because if Mom isn't brave enough to go into her own bedroom and face the depression of her husband's form on the left side of the bed, who's Gwen to leave her alone?
She must be exhausted, though, because she falls asleep around half past midnight. Gwen covers her up with the blanket Nana knit for them, and god, she never thought she'd be glad her grandmother died, but at least her being gone means she doesn't have to live through this. No parent should have to outlive their child, and that thought marks the first time any of this has felt even remotely right or natural.
About twenty minutes later Phil runs in, actually runs, and she shushes him quickly before he can wake up their mom.
"What's wrong, buddy?" she asks in a whisper, getting down on one knee to get to his eye level, brushing his bangs back from his forehead.
"Simon's having a nightmare; he won't wake up."
She frowns in confusion. "I haven't heard anything. Is he crying? Did he wake you?"
"No, he kicked me."
"What were you doing in—?"
Phil stares at the floor and says, all in one breath, "I couldn't sleep because I was thirsty and Dad always got me a glass of water after he read to me and I thought maybe Howie would, only when I got to Howie's room Simon was already there, and Howie said we could both stay as long as we were quiet and we didn't tell Mom, and then he read the one about the bunny who makes chocolate sandwiches because Simon wanted it, but after I fell asleep Simon kicked me and he's crying and Howie said to go get you so… so… I'm getting you."
Something crucial in her fractures. She was so worried about her mom and so involved with herself that she didn't even think about her brothers; she owes Howard big time for stepping up and being the responsible one.
She lets Phil lead her by the hand back to Howard's room, and she quickly closes the door behind them to muffle the sound before flicking the light on.
"He's awake, but he won't tell me what's wrong," Howard explains tersely, holding their sobbing baby brother in his arms. "Mom still asleep?"
"Yeah. You did good, 'Wardo," she tells him earnestly, purposefully using the nickname he only ever let Dad get away with. They've got to do that, now—find little ways of keeping him alive. She's starting to get that, she thinks.
"Gwen?" Simon asks tearfully from Howard's embrace, and she climbs onto the crowded bed immediately, reaching out to wipe at his tears.
"Yeah, Simon, it's me. I'm here. It's okay, okay? I've got you," she says, opening up her arms for him to crawl into. Howard sits up to make room, and she leans against his shoulder so Phil can sit on her other side. "Did you have a bad dream?"
"No, it was real."
"What was real?"
"Simon, monsters aren't—"
"But they are," he insists."Daddy said monsters aren't real but they got him, I saw it—"
The little that was left of her heart shatters completely. "Simon—"
"It was big, and green, and it climbed up that building and it—it—" He cannot continue, dissolving into tears once more. Phil whimpers and burrows into her; to her right, Howard sniffles—a brief glance reveals that he's staring resolutely into space, jaw quivering with the effort of not crying himself.
How is she going to fix her boys?
"Simon, that wasn't a monster, it…" She swallows.
She can't do this. She can't tell him that the thing that killed their father was kindly Dr. Connors, the man who always gave him a lollipop when he'd visit her at work, the man she talked about as if he hung the moon. She can barely deal with that herself; how can she expect a seven-year-old to?
"It's gone now, Simon," Howard chimes in, saving her. "It's not gonna get you, okay?"
"Sometimes monsters are real," Gwen concedes quietly, closing her eyes. "And sometimes they're really strong, and not even people like Dad can stop them. But you have to remember that even though monsters are real, it's okay, because… because…" She can do this. "Because Spider-Man's real, too."
"But Dad hated Spider-Man," Phil protests.
"No, he didn't," Gwen counters. "He just wasn't sure if Spider-Man could be trusted to keep the monsters away, because he seemed kind of scary at first. Like all the other spiders. But he changed his mind, remember? Dad told all his men to stand down so Spider-Man could save us."
Simon seems to accept that, thank god, and nuzzles in closer to her.
Like she said: she doesn't sleep at all that night.
The next day, Oscorp calls. Or rather, Suzie from the HR department calls, because they're so worried about her. (It's obvious that company just doesn't want her to sue them.) Suzie says that Oscorp will be there for her in her time of need; that they completely understand if she doesn't want to continue her internship under a different advisor, that Oscorp will pay for her father's funeral, that she'll receive all the course credit she would have earned by the end of the semester because Dr. Connors—and Gwen almost laughs, because this is a direct quote—recommended her highly.
For one bizarre, forgetful moment, she finds herself wishing Dr. Connors were on the phone to tell her this himself, because he would never talk down to her like this. It was always Astutely observed, Miss Stacy with surprised furrow of his brow and a fond twinkle in his eye, and if it were him calling her, he'd find a way to ironically mock the scripted quality of the conversation whilst telling her exactly what she needed to hear. He'd make it be okay.
But of course it's all his fault that any of this happened, and nothing about that is okay. Nothing will ever be okay again.
Unfortunately, Suzie is only an omen of things to come. Apparently the press decided that a whole day was more than enough time for a family to grieve and regroup, because the phone rings off the hook after that. Everyone and their sister station in Philadelphia wants a statement from the Captain's widowed wife or his brainiac children. They talk about her on the news like she's some sort of prodigy—as if her being first in her class excuses her from Dr. Connor's blame, because she's so bright, she couldn't have known, it's utter betrayal—
It's bullshit, is what it is. A few reporters are brave enough to knock on their door. However much she wants to yell at them, she forces herself to be civil, to try not to cry on camera, and—most importantly—to maintain the new pro-Spider-Man family party line. She won't put him in danger of her father's own men if she can help it; if she has even the littlest bit of sway in the court of public opinion, she knows she has to use it.
It doesn't stop her from wishing her doorman were half as intimidating as Peter seemed to find him; perhaps that would keep the so-called journalists at bay.
(This thought, of course, only leads her down a spiral that leads back to his absence.)
That night she keeps her mom company again. This time they lay together in her parents' room on her parents' king-sized bed, because her mom hasn't slept alone in twenty-two years, and Gwen can't just leave her like that.
"Why hasn't he shown up?" she asks into the dark, in a voice far more raspy than she'd anticipated. It's only been two days, but it feels like a lifetime.
"Peter's dealt with this kind of grief before, sweetie. He knows it's a family time."
She thinks it's kind of special that Mom knew who he was implicitly; like maybe it counts for something. And that explanation sounds really good, actually, and she wants to believe it, but…
"He could try to talk to me."
"Maybe he thinks you wouldn't listen."
The thought fills her with instant dread. What if Peter thinks she hates him—what if he's afraid she blames him for what happened? Granted, yes, she's thought a lot of unfavorable things about Peter Parker in the last forty-eight hours. But never once did the thought cross her mind that he did anything less than his best to save her dad. Peter doesn't have the capacity to not give his everything; she knows that the same way she knows that the blue sky isn't really blue at all, but an illusion of refracted light.
Does he really doubt her that much?
"What do you mean?" she asks, because her mom doesn't know Peter was there—her mom barely knows Peter at all—and she has to stop freaking out about this.
Her mom sighs heavily; Gwen moves with the rise and fall of her chest. "Oh, honey. I can't tell you how many conversations I've had today that I don't remember. All those reporters. People talk and I just can't hear them. It wasn't long ago that Peter lost his uncle, he knows how it feels. Maybe he's just giving you room to be lost for a little while. He can't find you for you, you know."
She remembers Peter's first day back at school after his uncle's shooting. How she'd watched him wander through crowds all day, eyes glassy and fogged. How she'd hugged him, trying to press her heartbeat against his own, trying to wake him up, and he'd just walked right by like she wasn't even there. Like he didn't see her.
And maybe he thinks she'd be like that, but they're not built the same. Peter didn't want to be touched, but god, she does. She wants to be held, she wants to be comforted, she wants a pulse to match her own.
She texts him before she falls asleep. A simple I don't blame you, just in case he didn't know.
She doesn't go to school on Monday. She isn't ready to face it yet.
Flash comes over at half past three, though, just like always—not for tutoring, but to bring her the work she missed. (He must have gone out of his way to get it, too, because they're only in one class together; he never had the brains for an AP schedule. That kind of touches her, actually.) He also brings a casserole his mom made, and he tells her he's sorry.
"You can beat me up like Parker did," he offers, because it's the only language he knows and the only comfort he can imagine. An actual, literal pain stabs her heart as she respectfully declines.
He tells her that he'll see her at the funeral.
It starts raining around dinnertime (dinner, of course, being a loose term, as none of them have much of an appetite these days. The table feels haunted by the ghost of her father at its head, forcing them all to crowd around TV trays in the living room) and it doesn't let up all night. She spends the evening on her own bed, listening to the thunder rumble and simmer, not quite above her, one step removed. Over the bay, she thinks.
Storms in the city don't sound the same as they do anywhere else. The buildings trap the resonance and it all just echoes echoes echoes until it's one wall of ominous noise. They used to terrify her as a kid—but then her dad bought her a book about weather patterns and barometric pressure and it was such a relief, the knowing. She didn't have to be afraid anymore, because suddenly she could understand. It was the first time the saying "knowledge is power" meant anything to her. It changed her life.
Peter doesn't show up.
That night, to the funeral, at all.
Most of her is torn between despair and fury, but part of her feels guilty. Why would he show? She didn't go to his uncle's funeral, after all. But they weren't close then, not like they are now, and…
It's just that she wouldn't mind the rain so much if he were there to keep her from drowning.
(It makes her feel stupid. Which is kind of new for her. But after his uncle died, it only made her want to be closer to Peter, want to take care of him. Poor baby, she thought. Like he was a kicked puppy or something, and with a little TLC he'd be good as new again. She had no idea it would feel like this. Not even the tightest hug would alleviate the pain, but if Peter were around to even try… that would mean something. It would.)
She lives in perpetual fear of someone asking her about his conspicuous absence, which is terribleon more levels than she can 's her father's funeral and all she can think about is Peter, and she doesn't know what kind of person that makes her. But they make it through the whole ceremony—the twenty-one gun salute, the speeches, the lowering of the casket—without a peep from anyone.
It couldn't have lasted, though. Her luck runs out when everyone else has gone, when it's just her mom and her brothers and her dad beneath their feet, six feet below them under saturated soil, and a marble monument, freshly carved.
"Honey… where's Peter?"
It takes everything she has not to snap at her mom, wondering what happened to Peter knows it's a family time, because Gwen doesn't have any answers. And God, she doesn't want to have to defend him when she's so furious herself that it's the only thing keeping her from crying.
"You saw how they were like when he came to dinner," she says, a fib coming to her lips easily. "Dad hated Peter. I think he's staying away out of respect for his memory."
Her mom goes on to reprimand her, reminding her that her dad didn't hate anyone, but all she can hear are her own words echoing in her ears. Of course. How could she have been so stupid?
Her dad said something, and now Peter's staying away to follow his wishes.
The low pit of anxiety and festering anger in her stomach ignites into actual rage. How dare he?
Part of her is relieved that at least there's a reason, at least he's not staying away because he wants to, or because he doesn't want her, but that part is quickly consumed in the flames of her resentment. She hates this. Hates everything about it.
She spends the rest of the day sitting on her desk chair sobbing silently, listening to "The Chain" by Ingrid Michaelson on repeat and waiting for Peter to knock on her window with an explanation or god, please, a hug. The sun sets and the moon rises on the other side of the glass; she's never any less alone.
All the while the music reverberates through her skull, lyrics in a round as the song crescendos: So glide away on soapy heels and promise not to promise anymore, and if you come around again then I will take the chain from off the door…
She's driving herself crazy, but she doesn't know how to stop.
It goes on for days like this. She still hasn't gone back to school, because she's been dealing with her brothers while her mom sorts through all of their insurance policies, figuring out how they're going to pay for the life her father built for them. He always told them that the families of cops killed in the line of duty would be taken care of, whatever that meant, but the reality of it is a lot scarier, and requires a lot more math than she'd thought.
It still seems easier to face than classes, or people giving her sympathetic looks, or Peter.
The stupidest things get to her. Things like digging through her drawers for pajamas and finding her dad's threadbare Police Academy t-shirt, the one that's so big on her it could be a dress if she belted it, the one that hasn't even smelled like him for years because she stole it so long ago that she barely even remembers him wearing it. Things like that one commercial that uses his favorite song by The Who. Things like Phil offering to make cocoa.
Like how it's Peter's turn on Words with Friends, and the last thing she played against him was turning his SONS into LIAISONS because she'd had a ridiculous overabundance of vowels and was trying to be flirty, and if he doesn't respond soon their game will lapse and then…
And then the last thing he'll have said to her will be that I'm so sorry text, and there will be one less trace of him on her phone, and one less reason for them to connect.
(She tries to leave him messages, but his voicemail inbox is full. She doesn't know why she keeps calling when she knows he won't answer. He doesn't have room for her when his phone is still filled with his uncle's voice.
But then, she hasn't deleted anything her father left for her, either.)
It's raining again and she's sick of the silence between them. She has to end this, for her own sake.
The subway ride into Queens feels like it takes forever, but the rain has just about let up when she emerges onto the street. She chooses to take that as a good sign. Then again, the sky opens up again right as she steps onto the Parker's porch, and she's less sure what to make of that. She can't escape the twisting sensation in her gut that tells her to turn around and walk away, to just wait until she sees him at school, to not deal with this. Doubt gnaws at her.
She rings the bell.
Her eyes widen automatically when Peter opens the door; she can't help it, she's desperate to take him in. She hasn't seen him since he threw her out that window, and even then, he was masked. The last time she saw his face was in the hallway before Dr. Connors (The Lizard, she mentally corrects herself; she has to stop doing that) attacked. There's a bruise on his cheek, but otherwise he seems fine. Perfect, even. He's always been unreasonably beautiful, and she's never been very good at ignoring that.
It doesn't make her any less furious with him.
"Where have you been?" she demands, because he doesn't get to start this conversation.
"Hi," he breathes in return, barely managing not to choke on it. Staring at his shoes.
And suddenly all she can think is oh, fuck his hi.
"My father died," she says, trying to get a reaction out of him. To make him look at her. She hopes he can hear her anger through the lump in her throat. "There was a funeral. They… made speeches, and fired rifles. Two of my teachers showed up. Flash showed up," she adds, and she'd laugh at the absurdity of it all but she can't. "Everyone was there but you."
He looks at her like she's the most precious thing in his universe, and she can't keep her lids from fluttering when he reaches out to her. She's missed this. And yet… and yet the tentative brush of his fingertips on her cheek may be the cruelest thing he's ever done to her, because she can already tell this could be the last time they touch.
"I can't, I can't do this," he croaks, and her eyes shoot open, suddenly so sure she's been wrong this whole time. That he's going to say I can't stay away from you anymore, and end this torture now that he can look in her eyes and see what it's doing to her. "I'm sorry."
His being sorry really doesn't fit in with her newfound hope, but—one of them has to be brave. So she asks. "What are you saying?"
"I can't see you anymore," he finishes, and the fact that she can hear his heart breaking when he says it doesn't make it any easier to take.
She's glad to have the umbrella, to be able to put up a shield against him before she spins on her heel and walks away from this, but it's not right, they're not done yet, she can't just…
Her feet stop her before she even reaches the street, because she isn't going to let anyone end this on false terms. Not her, not Peter, not even her father.
"He made you promise, didn't he?" she calls from the sidewalk. "To stay away from me, to keep me safe?"
Every cell in her body wills for Peter to nod his head even the most infinitesimal amount. To accept what they are, to at least take the burden of responsibility off his own shoulders.
He doesn't nod.
It doesn't make it any less true.
(She doesn't know how she walks away. She takes a cab all the way home despite the cost, because her feet just won't hold her up after that.)
Gwen's first day back at school, they watch a documentary in Genetics about river ecosystems. There's a whole section about otters, and how they hold hands to keep themselves from drifting away from each other, and she cries so hard Dr. Linden sends her to the nurse.
Peter won't look at her as she walks out.
That's their new normal, now. Because apparently, when he said I can't see you anymore he'd meant it as literally as possible, and now he's like allergic to her or something.
And you know what? That's fine. She can't even stand the sight of him anymore. When they pass each other in the halls she just has to avert her gaze, and it's hard because he's always shone so bright, for her, and he's unavoidable. They're in almost all of the same classes; always have been, because they've been neck and neck for the highest GPA since freshman year.
(She's always wanted to be top in her class, but part of it was a kindness—because she knew that Peter Parker would never be able to deliver a valedictorian speech without hyperventilating and possibly breaking something, and god, she knew that about him before they were even friends, and she'd wanted to spare him that.
She's always wanted to save him.)
To distract herself, she spends her time writing a new batch of college essays to send as supplementary material to all the schools she applied to. It's too late to get another academic recommendation, and besides, no one would have the same clout or know her half as well as Dr. Connors did. So she does it herself—explains the situation, explains who she is, explains what she learned from it all.
It's strangely cathartic, though she isn't sure if she means half the things she says. She knows she wants to, but it feels almost as if she's inventing a new version of herself: one that has moved on, one that can see the silver lining in even the most tragic circumstances. A Gwen who wouldn't be afraid to give her idiot ex-boyfriend a piece of her mind, though obviously she doesn't mention that part. She doesn't really believe in that girl yet, but she's not the one who has to; as long as the admissions officers do, it's fine.
One night, she's peacefully doing her homework when the quiet is interrupted by the sound of her mother screaming in the kitchen. Papers fly everywhere in her haste to cross the apartment; it feels like she's never run faster in her life.
"Everything okay?" she asks breathlessly, sliding in on her socks.
To Gwen's relief, her mom's already sort of laughing at herself, though her hand still rests on her heart as though she had a fright. "Everything's fine, I'm sorry if I scared you. There's a spider in the pantry; I panicked. And… well it always used to be your father's job to get rid of them…"
Gwen remembers. She would pester her dad about it every time it happened; force him to get a cup or a piece of paper and deal with the bug or mouse or whatever it happened to be humanely, releasing it onto the terrace or the fire escape.
Without a word, she grabs a paper towel off the counter, gestures for her mom to step aside, and squashes the spider under her thumb.
She's been doing pretty okay, she thinks.
But all it takes to spin her world off its axis once more is a low voice, not even a whisper, from over her shoulder: "But those are the best kind."
She stays put when class ends, buying some time by trying to look busy with her notebooks because she can sense Peter's stillness behind her. She can't bring herself to turn around and face him, even after the room empties out.
"So you're talking to me now?" she asks once they're alone, and even she's surprised at the harshness of her voice.
"I—yes, but—" Peter stumbles to his feet and lurches forward, launching himself into the now-empty desk in front of her. She does everything she can to not notice the appealing way his torso twists as he turns backward in the seat to face her, and stares slightly over his shoulder as he continues, "—but not… here. Not now."
"No, of course not. That would be ridiculous," she mutters.
"Look, I know lately I've been…" He stops and shakes his head, apparently unable to articulate just what he's been lately. "But everything's different now. You'll see. I'll come by your house after school, okay? And we'll talk then."
It's all she can do not to roll her eyes. "Yeah, okay."
"No, I really—I'll be there. I know I've messed things up and I'm sorry, but that's over now. I'll come by later, I prom—" He catches himself just in time. "I just. I'll be there." Her distrust must still be evident on her face, because he actually reaches out to catch her chin with his fingertips, gently coaxing her to meet his eyes. His voice is firm and final as he repeats himself: "I'll be there, Gwen."
She's waited so long to hear him say those words that they barely even sink in for her now.
What else can she do but believe him?
She's been home from school for two hours, and he still hasn't shown up.
It was stupid of her to put her faith in him. The only thing he does anymore is let her down, and no amount of staring at her window is going to make him magically drop from the sky.
She's so intensely focused on glaring at her fire escape that she actually jumps at the sound of light knocking at her door. "Not now, Mom, I'm busy!" she shouts tersely, not even turning her head.
"No, it's me," Peter says from the other side of the wall, and she can't scramble out of her desk chair fast enough.
"Peter," she says breathlessly as she throws her door open for him. "I—you used the front door."
He stares at his shoes. "Yeah, I thought that—I wanted to make a fresh start. And I owed your mom some flowers," he mumbles. "Can I come in?"
Wordlessly she steps aside and retreats to the other side of the room, behind the lounge chair that's still stained with his blood. If she's going to get through this conversation she needs some distance between them, because otherwise her hormones will take over and it just… it feels like she's defenseless against herself every time she's near him. She hates the way her body pulls toward his, especially now. It's gravitational—as simple and intuitive as keeping her feet on the ground. She can't be near Peter without wanting to be nearer to Peter, and nothing ever feels like it's close enough.
Right now, he couldn't feel any further away. And much as she missed him before, all of a sudden she kind of feels like he deserves to be.
"Well?" she finally goads, when it feels like minutes have passed since he closed the door behind him and he's still not talking.
Peter takes a deep breath. "Hi. Um. I've been—stupid."
"You think?" she throws back at him sarcastically, because now she's livid and she's not just going to let him charm his way back into her heart with his halting, stuttering speech. Not yet.
"No—I mean yes—I mean, I do. Think. I know. I was wrong." He gulps more air, and she can tell by the way he keeps tensing and releasing his fists, fingers flexing, that it's all he can do to get the words out. "You were right. That day. Your dad made me promise."
"Promise what?" she asks, and fear spikes her heart when she hears her voice crack. He does not get to see her cry. He hasn't earned that. "What could my dad have possibly said that would justify the way you've treated me?"
"He knew. About me. I don't know if you knew that. But he told me he was wrong about me, and that the city needs me, and that I would make enemies. He told me that the people I care about would get hurt, and he told me to leave you out of it. It was his dying wish, Gwen."
"In what world is this not hurting me?" she asks. He opens his mouth, but she's not done yet. "Leave me out of it? God, Peter. That means, like, discourage me from putting myself in danger. Don't recruit me to be your freaking sidekick, or whatever. But I'm pretty sure my dad didn't mean ignore my daughter while she mourns my death."
"You should be! You, of all people, should know how this feels!" Her eyes are burning with the effort of holding her tears back. She can't keep it up anymore. She breaks. "How could you leave me like that?"
"I don't know," he whispers.
She's crying in earnest now. "You could have helped me. You could have told me it was going to be okay. Even if you were lying, you could have said it. You've done this before. You could have helped me cope."
"I don't know how!" he insists, and he looks up and meets her eyes for the first time. "I don't know how to deal with this. I don't have any coping methods for you. I don't—I don't deal with things, Gwen. I—"
"Oh no, I know. You don't deal with things; you make yourself a spandex outfit and swing around the city like some kind of savior to try and make up for the people you didn't protect. Believe me, I get that, even if you don't." His mouth is open, like he can't quite understand what he's hearing, like he's actually insulted by her audacity, but she is so not done yet. "But most people don't get credit for punching out their problems, Peter. Most people don't even have a target. And at least you had that luxury," she croaks. "I can't do anything. I know exactly who to blame, and it doesn't help, because Dr. Connors is—was—"
She doesn't even know how to finish that sentence. Behind bars? Human again? My friend?
She can feel her face crumbling, and Peter's falls in response. He clears his throat. "Everything I've done… ever since it happened, I've always… I was trying to do the right thing," he says, and she can hear the tightness in his throat. "You have to know that. But then, when you came to my door—Aunt May saw. And she thought you were pretty, just like Uncle Ben did. And she wanted to know if I'd asked you out, and I told her I was no good for you, and she told me that—that if I was one thing, it was good. And I'm trying. I'm trying to be."He shifts uncomfortably, not knowing what to do with himself. "The last thing my dad ever said to me was be good."
She scoffs, voice breaking on an attempt at a barked out laugh, then brings a finger up to swipe the tears from her eyes, because she still can't stop crying. "Well, you're lucky. The last thing my dad ever said to me was get in the car."
"Gwen…" he murmurs, chancing a step forward, and it's enough to let her get a hold of herself, if only for a moment.
"No I love you. Not even a be safe. He told me he knew you were a man of many masks, and he took the antidote, and then he was gone. I didn't even get to say goodbye."
"I don't want your sorry! I just—I don't want this. I don't want any of this to be real, I don't want to miss him, and I don't want to be mad at him and I hate that I am."
"For telling you to keep me away!" she explodes, and she didn't even really know she felt like that until the words are of her mouth. "Leave Gwen out of it? Do you have any idea how demeaning that is? Like—like I'm not allowed to be as good of a person as you are. Like I'm not allowed to make my own decisions. And you did it too. I was not going to leave that building until I got everyone out and the antidote was completed, and it's a damn good thing I didn't, or else—"
And then she has to stop, because she doesn't know or else. She feels petty, like she's whining you're not the boss of me, and there's no taking back. Any of it. Saving the city didn't save her father, and she can't find anything to be proud of.
"He did the best he could," Peter says. With a questioning look, he moves slightly towards her again; she's not sure what he sees on her face, but it's enough to make him stop after a few steps and settle for perching himself at the foot of her bed. "I know he and I didn't see… eye to eye… on a lot of things, but your father was a good man, the best man. I can't—I don't know what to say to you. To make it better. I wish I could."
"I know," she assures him quietly, voice thrumming with warmth and unshed tears.
"All of it."
Because she does know Peter wishes he could help. Because her father had been a good man, even when they didn't see eye to eye. How such a staunch Republican managed to raise such a feminist daughter, she'll never know, but…
But he was special. He was human.
She's heard the stories. How they'd been so ready to have a girl. So ready. And for a few years she'd played with the dolls and the kitchen sets, more out of a sense of amused obligation (You were the most cynical toddler I'd ever met, her dad said once) before she started reading books about the water cycle and photosynthesis and what happened to the dinosaurs, and by the time she hit her sixth birthday all she wanted in the world was a chemistry set.
By that point Howard was sort of a person and Philip was in diapers, but they kept all her girly stuff, just in case the last baby evened out the set. But then it was Simon, and the dolls gathered dust, and Gwen won science fairs.
Before she started high school, she asked her parents to redecorate her room, because she was tired of it being filled with kiddie stuff. They had to clear everything out before they could paint, but when Simon got home from pre-school that day and saw all the toys on the living room floor, he didn't think twice about playing with them. Gwen spent the whole afternoon watching him march her dolls around the apartment, asking him questions, getting him to tell her stories about them, creating a narrative. They lost track of time, and then suddenly dad was home, gun still strapped to his hip.
For a moment she'd been nervous, because he's always been conservative, and he's always been hard on them, and he's always telling the boys to be men and for her to be lady-like, and she doesn't want to fight with him about gender roles today, she doesn't want to fight about anything with him today, not today, not over this when he just got home—
But then he'd raised an eyebrow, and smiled a little bit out of the corner of his mouth. "Well at least somebody's using them," he'd said, and the way her chest had burst was—it was—
She'd never felt more proud of another human being in her life.
Until she met Peter.
Who's talking to her.
"What?" she asks weakly, glancing up. The air catches in her throat same as always when her eyes meet his; Peter's always left her breathless.
"Never mind, it doesn't matter. It—I—I go away sometimes, too. Up here," he clarifies, rapping one finger repeatedly, manically, against his temple. "To think. Especially when I miss people. It's a lot to… process."
She can feel herself forgiving him, one second at a time. "No, it's okay. What were you saying?"
"Just that—I wasn't ignoring you. Or, I was, but I wasn't—I thought about you. All the time. Imagined this."
Hesitantly, she crosses the lounge chair to join him on her bed. Even though there's probably a good foot of distance between them, and despite the fact that they still can't bear to look at each other in anything more significant than a passing glance, her whole right side erupts in goose bumps from their sheer proximity.
"Yeah. I'd fantasize about—about coming here. About talking to you. Trying to figure out what to say to fix it."
"And this was the best you came up with?"
"I—I guess. In one of them I sang."
She doesn't know what she expected him to say, but that was not it. She laughs. A single, disbelieving ha. "You sang?"
"I webbed up here with a guitar and I sang. Wonderwall. You know, um. There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don't know how?"
"You can't play guitar."
"I can't sing, either, but this was my fantasy. It was all very impressive and romantic. Like The Notebook levels of romantic."
"You've seen The Notebook?"
"The point is that I thought about it."
She lets that stew in the silence for a minute. This feels good, sitting next to him. Teasing him again. They used to trade barbs so easily. "Did I forgive you?"
"In your fantasies. Did they work? Did I forgive you?"
He shakes his head. "No."
"I didn't deserve it. I don't."
"So why are you here?"
His smile is wry and self-deprecating. "Because I want you to anyway. And I finally realized that… that maybe protecting you means you should know that."
She pulls one leg up and turns, rebalancing to give him her full attention. "What changed?" she asks, searching his eyes.
"I missed—I don't know. I missed you. Miss you."
"And you didn't before?" she asks, knowing that's not what he meant but unable to stop herself from feeling stung anyway.
"No, I did, I just—I don't know. I never stopped. I never—it's been hell for me, staying away from you."
"I'm sure," she spits, and she's halfway back on her feet when his hand shoots out, grabbing her by the elbow and keeping her in place.
"No, wait, stop, I didn't—I wasn't trying to say it's been harder for me than it has been for you. I didn't realize, that's what—I didn't want to—argh," he growls, blinking rapidly as if it could induce eloquence. "I thought I was helping. I thought I was doing the right thing. Keeping you safe. The last thing your dad asked was—"
"My dad is dead, Peter!" she shouts, and she really hopes her family is nowhere near her bedroom, because her walls are far from soundproofed. "He's dead, and I'm alive, and you could have been here this whole time. What does it matter what he asked you? I'm here. Where were you?"
Funny. She'd really thought she was done crying.
"I didn't want you there to be my boyfriend, I just—wanted you. To be there. Just as a friend, just as Peter. Everyone else was, and I needed you."
"I know, I know, I'm sorry, I know," he breathes, pulling her towards him, and he finally, finally takes her up in his arms. They're on her bed and he's holding her and she's sobbing, and there is nothing wrong with this picture except that this should have happened weeks ago and suddenly that's all she can think about. All the comfort she imagined she'd glean from his embrace evaporates completely, and it only makes her cry harder.
Shushing her quietly, Peter pulls up his knees and scoots the two of them backwards until he can rest against her headboard with her on his lap, propped up by pillows.
"Shhh. Shhh. Gwen. I've got you," he says, and she wants to kick and scream at him, wants to beat his chest, because he said that last time and look what happened, but she can't. She just doesn't have the energy to protect herself from him anymore.
"It's okay, it's—it's okay. Just cry," he reassures her, gently wiping her cheeks with his thumbs before brushing a stray lock of hair behind her ear. When she looks up at him his lips flicker into a blink-and-it's-gone smile, like he's testing the waters to see if he's allowed to cheer her up yet, or maybe to tell her that he's happy just to be with her. Either way it pulls at her, as if the contortions of his mouth control her marionette heartstrings.
"I, um. I missed you too," she admits, because despite the fact that it's the only thing she's been telling him since the night her father died, she still hadn't said the words.
"I should have been here," he concedes in response, and cups the back of her head to maneuver her against his chest again, nestling her into his shirt so the fabric can catch the remainder of her tears.
She calms down after a while, but it's still not… this isn't peaceful the way she wanted it to be, and it takes her a minute place the reason why. Peter is doing his best to be soothing, but he's tense and anxious; she can feel his heart going like a jackhammer under her cheek.
"What's wrong?" she asks him, hoarse from crying.
"…Shouldn't I be asking you that?"
"No, I—you're panicking."
"I'm not panicking," he insists, and his whole body moves with the force of his emphatically shaking head. "I'm not—I'm not—I'm not panicking."
"I can hear your heart racing."
Of all things, he starts chuckling, the sensation thrumming through his chest and into her. "Gwen. That's not… that happens every time I'm near you."
All at once, it occurs to her what position they're in. Not that he's holding her, but that he's touching her. Peter Parker is in her bed, flush against her, and there's barely a single point of contact where their bodies don't meet.
Without a thought she turns in his arms, and her lips are on his, and suddenly that last missing link is eliminated.
She wonders if kissing Peter will always feel like this. Like that time he took her web-slinging—the dizzying thrill of falling, falling, falling, then being caught, pulled taught, soaring. Flight.
His is no longer the only heart racing.
Good chemistry, her mom said after Peter left, on the night of the mortifying dinner. It looks like you two have good chemistry together. And Gwen had rolled her eyes because she's always hated that phrase, because chemistry is quantifiable and testable and real, and you can't just use it like it's not. It would be like calling a tree talented—the word simply doesn't apply, no matter how tall said tree may grow or how vibrant its leaves are. But now she finds herself rethinking her disregard, because honestly… that's what this feels like. Chemistry. A sustained biological double-replacement reaction: kinetic, concentrated, perfectly balanced. Neither of them ending the same as they began.
It's remarkable how different she feels with her lips sliding against his. The security she'd thought would come from being in his arms rushes through her now, and for the first time since that awful night, she feels awake. She feels confident entwined with him, nerves firing, movements sure. She's one hundred percent in the moment, totally engaged with the sensations of her body, and his body with hers. Like coming up for air. He keeps her from drowning.
(She remembers English class freshman year, their poetry unit, when Mr. Dalton made them read ee cummings out loud. Gwen raised her hand because she doesn't know how not to raise her hand, she never did, and suddenly she found herself saying i like my body when it is with your body, it is so quite a new thing, muscles better and nerves more, i like your body, i like what it does, i like its hows, and Peter was the only one who didn't laugh at her, Peter smiled, and for the first time in her life she liked literature more than science. And god she likes the thrill of under her him quite so new, then vivid fantasy, now extraordinary fact.)
She slips her hands under his shirt, desperate to feel his skin, and her fingertips slide against spandex instead.
Knowing he's been wearing his costume under his clothes this whole time kind of kills the mood.
"Gwen?" he asks against her mouth, feeling her shift in posture, and she pulls back slightly enough to rest her forehead against his.
"I'm sorry, I just, I can't do this," she says, and the change in his grip, his terror, is immediate.
"What?" he gasps, and only then does she realize those were the words he used to break up with her, and what is she doing, she's supposed to be the one who's good at this. His fingers are firm on her hips, keeping her in the moment, and she's so glad they don't have to keep their distance anymore.
Peter Parker is like a foreign film in a language she doesn't understand, but his touch subtitles all the things she can't hear him saying. And maybe hers is the same for him.
"No, it's not… I don't mean us. I really need there to be an us," she tells him, and she hopes he knew that already. "I just can't… when you're…"
She hasn't said Spider-Man since that exhausting day spent talking to the press. Part of her thinks she'll never be able to again.
"I can't not be," he says miserably, and she nuzzles against him in an Eskimo kiss, feeling the worry lines of their brows slide into place against each other like a key in a lock, grooves perfectly aligned. Made for each other. It occurs to her that she's never held his hand; she wonders if it would feel half so intimate as this.
"I know. I know you can't," she reassures. "I'm not asking you to choose. I'm not—" my father "—I wouldn't do that. But could you just—could we take it off? Just for now, just for—"
"You want me to take off my shirt?"
Her mother picks the absolute worst moment of all time to knock on her door. "Kids? Can I talk to you for a sec?"
"Um—one second, Mom!" Gwen calls, throwing herself off of her bed and scrambling to make herself look presentable. Peter deigns to sit up a little straighter when she turns around to look at him expectantly, and she glares at him for not being more panicked about this. "Come in!"
(The look he sends back to her, in the half-second it takes for her mom to open her door, warms her heart more than anything else has, maybe ever. She'd had no idea how much she'd missed that self-satisfied smug little smirk, and—normal. God, she feels normal.)
"I hope I didn't interrupt anything?"
"Of course not," Gwen manages to choke out, voice strangled, and she wishes, not for the first time, that she was better at lying to her parents. Parent.
"Well, it's just that it's getting late, and the boys are all starving. Is Peter joining us for dinner?"
"Yeah, I—" Peter pauses momentarily and then glances at Gwen, as if for permission. But what she finds in his eyes instead… it looks a little more like a promise. "I'm staying," he says solidly, still looking at her and not her mom.
What else can she do but believe him?