Once upon a time, there was a green goblin that occasionally took people over and drove them mad. It had claimed many lives and ruined just as many. Some people thought it was the spirit of lost and abused children. (Technically it wasn't, but that would still be really cool.)
"I thought it would be hotter," said Harry Osborn.
"Actually you're in luck," said the person guiding him, who might have been his father but probably wasn't. He was green, anyway, green and pink and slightly demony. "Y'know, boy, it says a lot that you expected to be in hell."
"Don't I deserve it?"
"No," said the guide, "you did the best you could with the hand you were dealt."
They seemed to be in downtown New York, except it was weirder, the way familiar places sometimes are in dreams. The scenery kept changing: one minute there was a horizon and then there wasn't. Then there was a load of infinite shining space, and then there wasn't.
"I just want to see my son again," Harry said. "Can I see him? Please."
"Sorry," said the guide. "There are rules. I mean, you are dead."
"Hey," the voice said, "that's the sacrifice you made. Anyway, you're nearly at your destination."
"You know there can only be one place."
Some fog that had only just appeared disappeared again, and Harry saw the George Washington bridge.
"This is where we part ways," said the guide. "Actually, this is where many have parted ways, but you knew that. So long, Harry. Hope we don't meet again."
"What are you?"
"I'm some miscellaneous bits of your soul," the guide said. "The bits you threw off in your last moments- nice job on that, by the way. I'll still be around, I'm always around, but I'll leave you in better hands."
"Whose?" Harry asked, but the thing had already gone.
He waited for a while (he wasn't sure how long) looking out over the city. He thought of his family- a framed photo in his mind that didn't include his father, but did include Peter and MJ- as the sun rose. He was still lost in his thoughts, sitting on the edge, when Gwen appeared.
"Hey Harry," she said gently. "I knew I'd find you here."
Harry got up and ran to her, almost falling over in his fear. (This was, after all, extremely new to him.) They hugged, but Harry let go first, fairly sure he didn't deserve this. "Gwen, I...my father killed you." It seemed important to get that out first, as he'd spent his last days denying it. As soon as he did, it was like a weight was lifted off. "My father killed you!"
"You didn't," Gwen said. "Don't think about it. You're here now and things will be okay." She held him tightly, like a sister would. "I've missed you. I've missed you all."
"You're still so beautiful," Harry said to her, crying. "I mean, you would have been beautiful anyway - I mean-"
"Stop talking!" Gwen said, and just like that things were starting to seem vaguely okay. "Listen, you're owed an explanation. You're owed many." She sat down and patted the space next to her, and Harry sat there. "This place is...different. You'll miss Liz like I missed Peter. You'll miss your son like I missed-" She paused. "You'll miss everyone. But you will still sense them, you'll know they're there. They'll know you're there. Okay?"
Harry's hands shook. In fact his whole being shook- he had spent the last few months of his life certain he was damned, and that he was damning all his loved ones with him. During his last trip on the glider, during his long fall to the ground, he'd known what awaited him. Even though he apparently hadn't really known at all.
"It really is okay," Gwen said. "Peter forgave you everything, many times over."
"Is that why I'm here?"
"No, it's because you're at heart a good person," Gwen said. "Apart from in high school, when you were a dick."
Harry laughed, although it was one of those half-sobbing laughs. "Gwen, I've done some really terrible things. And there's more to come." He had tried to tell Peter before death finally claimed him, but the words literally hadn't come out. He hadn't been able to warn Peter about the one last terrible betrayal, he hadn't been able to call for his son, he hadn't been able to apologize- the Goblin had taken his tongue.
"You don't need to punish yourself," Gwen said. "For God's sake, you're as bad as Peter."
Harry smiled, just a bit. A little bit. "I left things unfinished."
He supposed she had been in the same boat. "You sure I can't go back as a ghost?"
"Don't be ridiculous!"
The ground was shifting beneath their feet, but Harry didn't notice. "People have come back before."
"Death's a funny thing, Har." Gwen got up, and stared thoughtfully into the distance, probably seeing all sorts of things Harry wasn't. "I'm sorry your death was painful," she added. "Mine was so quick, I always forget how dragged out it is for most people."
"I couldn't talk," Harry said. "I couldn't tell anyone how sorry I was. That was the worst thing in the world...I mean, knowing how badly you destroyed everyone's lives, and knowing you can't do a thing to change it or even apologize- hey, that's why I'm here, isn't it? That was the debt I had to pay before I could move on. One heavy dose of the worst thing in the world."
"It doesn't really work like that," Gwen said. "We all think it does, but I doubt it."
"I suppose you've had more experience with these kinda things."
"I've actually welcomed lots of people here," Gwen said. "Children are the worst." Harry looked at her. "Sometimes I tell them I was Spider-Man's girlfriend, to get them to trust me."
"Does it work?"
Harry thought about the good old days, the ones where they weren't dead. Also, although he didn't realise it, the bridge had gone entirely and they were in the Coffee Bean instead. "Gwen, you know that Peter and MJ..."
"I do know," she said, "and I'm glad about it. Honestly, truly glad."
Harry knew she wasn't lying- he wondered if you even could lie, where they were. "I still don't feel I should be here."
"Don't you think that proves you should?"
"No." Harry leaned back in his chair. "I wish I could talk to Peter again. Just one more time."
Gwen waved it away. "Harry, he held your hand when you were dying, he touched your face, he cried for days-"
"It's been days?"
"Of course it's been days, this is the afterlife. Anyway, my point is- he always knew you were worth saving. He knows you're...I don't know...safe now. You've gotta start accepting it, you're really not in hell."
Harry gripped her hand, not even realising he was doing it, and thought about it. "Is there a hell?"
"I don't know."
"If there is, is my father-"
"Don't," she said gently. "Not now."
They sat there for a good few minutes, holding hands. Finally Harry said, "Do you ever stop missing people?"
"No," Gwen said firmly. "You never stop missing people. Or life. I suppose one day they'll all come join us, though." She nodded at the window, and Harry looked and saw countless people fading in and out. (Quite a few of them were in X-Men uniforms.) "Peter will be here one day, although I hope it's later and not sooner. For his and MJ's sake."
"It wasn't fair what happened to you, Gwen."
"I know," she said. "Don't apologize again, I know you're going to, don't. But you're right, it wasn't fair. I had so much stuff to do. I never got to get married, I never got to wave a kid off to school, I never got to travel the world or go scuba-diving- I even missed out on Harry Potter, for God's sake."
Harry almost laughed. Gwen almost did too. They ended up sharing a look of commiseration.
"You know, your mother is probably expecting you," Gwen said.
"Oh." Harry hadn't thought of that. Well, he had, but other things had gotten in the way. "Yeah...my mother..."
"Don't worry if you can't remember her." Gwen said. "I couldn't remember mine either, but...she remembered me."
Harry inexplicably thought of Liz. "I do want to see her. Does that mean leaving you here, though? Cos I don't want to do that."
"You won't be leaving me- you can't get rid of me," Gwen said. She smiled. "But you do have to go and do your own thing for a while, it's always best, you know? Get you used to the place, without needing anyone around."
"But I always need people around."
"And you thought you didn't belong here," Gwen said cheerfully. She stood up, and then she pulled Harry up with her. "Come on."
They went outside. It was light and sunny and the temperature was cool...it could have been any good moment in their lives, or a whole bunch strung together. Harry breathed in the fresh air.
"My son will be okay, won't he?"
"Yeah, he will."
Things were looking up, in all the ways people hope things look up after they die. Gwen and Harry walked down the street. And as they did, time passed- although of course it didn't really pass at all. Harry found his mother, and Gwen returned to her own family- and then as night fell on the street for the third time between sunrises, a child cried in an alleyway.
"This one is for you," Gwen said to Harry.
Harry went to the kid. He didn't look like his own son in the least, but he still reminded him of all he'd left behind. "Hey."
"He's going to get me," sobbed the boy. "Daddy."
Harry's heart broke a little, but he remained focused on the job in hand. "It's okay. No-one can hurt you now." The child continued to cry, as Harry offered his hand. "It'll be alright, I promise. He's gone, whoever was hurting you he's gone. I can help you." The child sniffed. "It's okay. I won't hurt you."
The little boy looked so uncertain. Harry knelt right down, so the child was taller than he was. "I won't hurt you. I promise. I..." He turned to find Gwen, but she'd gone off somewhere. She'd be back, though. "I was Spider-Man's best friend."
"Really?" asked the kid.
The boy took his hand- he was still shaking, but the tears were starting to dry. "Really?"
"Yeah. Don't worry. You're safe now."