Disclaimer: I don't own Spiderman or anything involving it blah blah etc.
New York is a large city, and Empire State is a large university, but every so often—approximately once a week—the whole mass of it seems to shrink to the size of a thumbnail. Those are the moments Gwen runs into one slouchy, brooding Peter Parker.
The first time it happens is two days into their orientation week. Despite the fact that they are neighbors, literally living in the same hallway, she hasn't seen him all summer and she is momentarily struck dumb at the sight of him. At once she is both determined to ignore him and determined to one-up anything he says with a remark that is more clever and more nonchalant than his. She struggles for words, struggles for air and common sense and all of the things that only just started coming naturally again after all these months without him, but it turns out it doesn't matter, because Peter doesn't even see her in the crowd with his head ducked down and his headphones in his ears.
All the subsequent times Gwen runs into him hardly matter, either. He is usually either skateboarding or running. She doesn't keep in touch with him these days but she gets the impression that he is perpetually late for class, late for work, late for god knows what else he spends his time doing. She never sees him coming back to his apartment or leaving it. She suspects that he doesn't often use his door.
Two years pass.
It's upsetting, the way that they pass without seeming to pass at all. After graduation Gwen imagined that over time she would eventually stop thinking about Peter, stop checking headlines out of the corner of her eye and gluing her eyes to every news program, stop feeling like he is sucking all the air out of the city every time he walked past. But now, as they start their junior year, two years grown and two years apart, it sometimes feels like she perpetually lives her life in the moment he slid out of her window for the very last time, that cold January night so long ago.
The rest of her life hasn't stalled—in fact, everything else seems to be rushing at her with such an intense speed that sometimes it's almost a comfort, being stuck on something as frivolous seeming as a boy. Her internship at OsCorp has become a demanding part-time, paid position in a research lab, where she and a select team of people are testing new methods of cloning. She still tutors on a regular basis, primarily in math and science. Her brothers are growing up with alarming speed and her mother seems to need more help wrangling them with each day that passes. Between the chaos of school, work, and her frequent visits home, Gwen rarely has trouble falling asleep at night.
Rarely. There are nights when she isn't tired enough, or when her thoughts are pestering her, darting so irritatingly that she can almost imagine the synapses in her brain firing on overload, that she can't sleep. She usually spends them thinking of Peter.
One night, in first month of their freshman year, she almost works up the nerve to knock on his door. On the television that is absurdly expensive and well-maintained in comparison to her dingy apartment, she has been intensely watching news coverage of Spiderman's latest misadventures, which this particular time involve attempts at disabling bombs that have enough power to blow an entire city block. It ends with a contained explosion in a bank and no sign of Spiderman.
There is a rational explanation. The NYPD are waiting outside of the building in another attempt to apprehend the masked vigilante. It would only make sense for Peter to slide out unseen.
But that doesn't stop the beat of her heart abusing her ribcage, pumping the words what if, what if, what if.
She doesn't knock on his door, doesn't even leave her apartment. A few uneasy days later she sees him at an intersection on campus shoving a bagel into his mouth and feels an almost violent irritation at ever worrying about him in the first place. He's fine. He's eating a bagel and not thinking about her and fine.
Gwen has one friend.
Well, that's an exaggeration. Gwen has plenty of friends, but Mary Jane is the one she ends up seeing the most. It isn't even that she and MJ are particularly well-suited to each other, and Gwen doubts that if they hadn't gone to high school together that they would even bother spending so much time together in college, but their schedules are both fairly hectic and it's nice to have the kind of friend she can casually meet fifteen minutes for coffee and not feel bad about being short on time to really connect.
Mary Jane is different from Gwen, in more than a few ways. She pouts a lot. She giggles a lot. She is very theatrical and loud, the kind of girl who can wear short-cropped t-shirts that expose her midriff without ever being labeled as a slut. They're a good match for each other, Gwen thinks, because she sometimes needs a little bit of crazy in her life and Mary Jane is someone who is in perpetual need of an audience, which Gwen is all too happy to provide.
On the first week of their junior year at Empire State they're spending the afternoon in Mary Jane's dorm—Mary Jane is loudly memorizing a monologue while Gwen attempts to finish some paperwork from her position at OsCorp.
Mary Jane flits over to Gwen, who doesn't look up for a moment, trying to finish a precariously worded sentence.
"We went to high school with Peter Parker, right?"
Gwen's head snaps up from the paper so fast that Mary Jane flinches in surprise.
"Yeah," says Gwen.
Mary Jane looks pensive for a moment, nods, and shoves the marked up monologue page in Gwen's face and says, "Do you think this is a good monologue to use for a Hamlet audition?"
Gwen hasn't read Hamlet in six years, and couldn't care any less about the play right now if she tried. She bites her tongue. She will not ask. She will not, she will not, she will not—
"Did you run into Peter somewhere?" The words burst traitorously from her before she can even think of a more casual way to ask.
"Huh? Oh, yeah," says Mary Jane. She pokes at the monologue again, beckoning Gwen to read it.
"Like, in a class, or—or what?"
Mary Jane sets the monologue down in Gwen's lap. "A class," she says. "Some British lit class, one of the required cluster classes." She regards Gwen curiously for a moment. The problem with having a theater major for a friend is that not only is she nosy, but sometimes obnoxiously perceptive. "Why, do you know him well or something?" she asks. As her eyes narrow Gwen can already predict the type of questions that will follow.
"We all went to high school together," Gwen says noncommittally.
"Ohhhh," says Mary Jane. "You liked him, didn't you?"
Gwen rolls her eyes, tries to stay casual. "That's always your first thought with a boy, isn't it?"
"Well, I guess he is kind of cute. In that sulky hipster way."
"Whatever," says Gwen, highlighting something that doesn't need highlighting.
"Gwen Stacy," says MJ, a grin curling on her face. "You're blushing."
"I'm not," Gwen snaps, setting her papers down with enough force to knock MJ's monologue aside and send the other girl reeling back in surprise. Gwen takes a breath and collects herself. Mary Jane is staring at her, her face a mixture of hurt and concerned.
"I'm just—I'm really busy right now," says Gwen lamely.
Mary Jane nods, her eyes trailing the floor. Gwen knows from experience that she will take this personally and sulk for a little while, but Gwen also knows from experience that she'll be over it sometime in the next few hours, at which point she'll resume texting Gwen about more audition crises or how fat she is after eating one of those giant cupcakes in the Village.
Gwen leaves MJ's dorm, into what she prays is some of the last of this brutal summer heat. It isn't a long walk to her apartment from here, but she doesn't want to go back there just now, back to a place where Peter Parker may or may not be breathing, eating, sleeping, just twenty feet away.
She wanders around for a while, finds a few yards of grass that someone has decided to call a park and sits in it, letting the heat soak into her skin until she feels sticky and raw and gross. It's probably the first time all summer she has had anything resembling free time, and here she is spending it melting like a popsicle on the sidewalk. She sits there for an hour, sits until she runs out of thoughts to think and the sun finally starts to sink in the sky.
Gwen isn't stupid enough to stay out late in New York by herself, and even if her safety weren't an issue, she doesn't want to run the slight but very real risk of running into Spiderman on these streets. She heads back to her apartment, set on the idea of a cold shower and a few chapters of some silly detective novel her brother wants her to read.
She isn't looking up when she bursts through the door that leads to the hallway of her floor, so she doesn't see Peter's aunt, just hears a happy voice call, "Gwen!"
Gwen's head jerks up. "Oh," she says, and her hands fly up, either to make some gesture of hello or to gage whether or not Mrs. Parker is going to try and hug her, but the other woman crosses the space between them and envelops her easily before Gwen spends any more time struggling.
The hug is easy, natural, and undemanding. It has been a long time since Gwen has even seen Peter's aunt, and she can probably count on one hand the number of times she has spoken to the woman in person, but Mrs. Parker hugs her as if she has known her and loved her for years. Gwen can't help but ease the tension in her shoulders, the tight muscles of her face. She remembers a time when her mother used to hug her like this. She hasn't thought to miss it until now.
Mrs. Parker pulls away, holding Gwen at arm's length and peering at her.
"You look so grown up," she says affectionately. "How have you been?"
"Good," says Gwen, because that's what she always says to adults. "And you?"
Mrs. Parker smiles and says, "I've been just fine. I was in the city so I tried to drop by and visit Peter, but you know him. He's a hard fellow to catch."
"Yeah," says Gwen uncomfortably, wondering exactly how much Mrs. Parker knows about their strained, nonexistent relationship over the past few years.
"I feel better, knowing that he has a friend so close by," says Mrs. Parker, unwittingly answering her question.
Gwen feels an inexplicably guilty twist in her stomach. If it's anybody's fault that they don't speak to each other, it's Peter's—but she does feel somewhat indebted to Peter's aunt, if not for always trying to keep her in the loop, then for moments like this, when she treats Gwen with the kind of parental love that Gwen has done nothing to deserve. Gwen bites her lip, trying to decide the honest but appropriate way to answer, but what comes out instead is, "Yeah, it's nice, being neighbors."
It isn't. Gwen doesn't know why she even keeps this apartment. In all honesty she had no idea Peter was going to be living here when she signed the initial year-long lease, that summer after graduation. She could and still can afford much better, but at the time the apartment was just veiled attempt at pretending she was moving out—even then, Gwen knew she would be spending most of her days back at home with her mom and her brothers. She picked this place because it was cheap and close to campus, not because she intended to spend any real time here.
It doesn't explain why she renewed her lease last year, though, or why she renewed it a second time last month. She tells herself it's because the place is rent-controlled, but what does rent control matter when she has enough money to live in the ritziest single dorm Empire State has to offer and then some?
Mrs. Parker is looking at Gwen uneasily. Gwen thinks that maybe she didn't lie well enough to satisfy her.
"You should come over next Sunday for dinner," says Mrs. Parker sincerely.
"Oh—well, maybe," says Gwen, trying not to wince.
Gwen smiles, her face aching with the effort. Let Peter find some excuse to get her out of it; apparently he has no problem lying to his aunt about still being friends with her, so he should have no problem lying to stop this dinner from happening, either.
Okay, okay. This is happening.
Things that are relevant for knowing: Unfortunately, I can't update this every day. School is starting in a few days and it will be full of extensive reading and learning of things. I'm shooting for maybe a few updates per week. It will be completed at some point, that much I can promise.
Also can we talk about how Andrew Garfield got a speeding ticket, and that if I had been his girlfriend sitting in the front seat next to him I would have loved him enough to tell him to slow down before THAT embarrassing debacle. But let's be real, he wouldn't have even been driving, because if it were me with him we'd have pulled over to make out pretty much before he released the emergency brake.
You will all be proud to know that I have not bought a SINGLE PAIR of Gwen Stacy boots in the time I've been away from story updating. Somebody please praise me for my otherworldly self-control in managing this feat.