- - -

"Are you sure I can't do anything for you, Officer Martins?" Anna Watson's smile as she leaned out of May Parker's car window was inviting. The button up men's shirt she had on, was a button or two down, showing a very interesting amount of cleavage. Her hair had been gathered into a short tail and pulled away from her face. "You only saved our lives after all."

The slightly portly, round-faced man with the ruddy complection blushed harder, swallowed and tugged at his collar. "Uh... thank you, ma'am. Just... just... part of the jugs- job. I mean part of the job." He stammered and looked away hurriedly. He noted that MJ Watson, sitting shotgun was glaring daggers at him.

He coughed, "Anyway, we're well outside the military cordon here. You should be able to make it to your brother's place with no problems. I need to get back to Detective Stacy and let him know you guys got clear."

MJ gave a sweet smile that didn't reach her eyes and said in a sacharine tone, "We really shouldn't keep you then. We'll see you around, Officer Martin." She gave him a last glare over Anna's shoulder. He gave her a small, apologetic shrug the moment Anna looked away.

In the back seat, May was asleep. Well, unconscious, really. The stress of the past few days had interacted a bit too strongly with the pain killers Anna had managed to dig up for her twisted ankle and now she was finally getting some sleep. Anna had confided in "Officer Martin" that poor May had been sleeping badly since her husband's death.

As they pulled away, MJ shot him another look over her shoulder, through the back windshield. She rolled her eyes and smiled, trying to show him that all was forgiven just from her facial expressions. Which he was kind of glad for, but the whole thing had not been his fault. At all.

Anna had been the one flirting with him.

The entire car ride. He was glad their escape from the Red Zone had been so anti-climactic. Otherwise, he would have been much too distracted to be of much use.

He ducked into an alley as the car pulled away and let his body shift back to his own form. Peter heaved a sigh of relief. He was glad MJ had decided on the story that 'Officer Martin' would be needing to leave once they were outside of the Red Zone. It would be safe enough for them to drive to Staten Island where they would be staying at MJ's house. He'd rejoin them there as himself.

Of course, if he'd wanted to, he could've just showed up as Peter when he'd come to rescue them and they could all have gone together. He needed some time to himself first.

He still didn't understand why he kept feeling these impulses to hide himself away. To disguise himself. Well, perhaps it did make sense. After all... Peter Parker was human. He was just a normal teenager.

The longer he could keep that illusion up... his mental gears ground to a halt at that. It wasn't an illusion, he insisted to himself. He was human. His body had changed almost beyond all recognition. He was a killing machine, but he wasn't reverting into some kind of murderous animal...

I hate to be the one to break it to you, boy... Cletus' voice said mockingly, then laughed.

The clamoring of almost wordless jumbled voices in the back of his mind had gotten louder. There were more in there. Threads of thought. Images. Scents. Memories that had no context and made no sense, but were all still pressing against the back of his mind. At least a dozen more. Maybe. Not all of them had voices. Not all of them had joined in the chorus. Most of it was just... hunger. Need. Fear. Lots of fear.

He was actually losing track of how many people he'd killed- eaten- in just the past few days. Not even Cletus at his worst had been that bad.

I always kept track. Cletus interjected proudly.

If nothing else, Cletus Kassidy had been a tidy monster. It would just be his luck that the clearest voice in his head would be the one belonging to the murderous psychopath.

Takes one to know one, Cletus shot back.

He fought down another shudder and kept walking. He didn't know where he was going... but he had time to kill.

Bad word choice. His own voice drawled.

He had the address they would be meeting up at in Staten Island, but every road out of Queens was already clogged with people fleeing. He wished he could have stayed with them, but he didn't really want to risk it. His brand of... protection... certainly wasn't going to be useful against normal people. Putting him to use against the infected was one thing, but he didn't want to risk having himself in the middle of a crowd of normal people if something bad were to happen.

Except, if you actually were there, then you might still be able to help, his own voice drawled. Instead you're over here. They're over there. Maybe this time you'll be too late to help.

He didn't know how long it would take for them to get through the human tide trying to get out of the borough, but he wasn't expecting them to manage it anytime before dark.

He'd probably need at least that long to get his own head on straight.

He hadn't really picked a direction, per se. He'd just walked.

In little under an hour of random wandering, that had ended up with him right in front of the Stacy house.

He stared at the house. The neighborhood was still quiet. No one, it seemed, really wanted to be out on the street. Dusk was still some few hours away, but with everything happening, he wasn't surprised that people would want to stay in.

He really hadn't planned on coming back. Despite Gwen's impulsive invitation, there really wasn't any need for him to get her involved.

On the other hand, she at least deserved to know that he was okay. She had seemed worried about his leaving. And perhaps he could at least give her a little more phone time with her dad. It was probably the least he could do. Also... if she didn't mind, it probably would've been a better place to kill a little time than wandering the street.

But on the other hand,even with those excuses, the thought of a friendly face to keep him company, and a voice that wasn't in his head, what he really wanted a little time to himself to think. He would have crossed the street and kept walking, but the front door opened and Gwen peeked out. She gave him another of those brilliant smiles and said, "You're okay."

Well, there really wasn't any helping it then. He smiled weakly, thinking furiously. He knew she would ask what had happened. He just knew it. He needed something to tell her. Something that wouldn't sound ridiculous. "Yeah, I... uh... I didn't manage to get past the Marines."

She winced and beckoned him inside, "Come back in." He went.

The TV was still on the news. Images cut back and forth between various streets packed with cars. Peter recognized a couple of on ramps for the bridges or the freeways. Nothing was moving. The traffic had everything stopped. A few cars had actually been abandoned and people were trying to walk just to keep moving. A few were longer shots of some sort of military barricades or checkpoints stretched across the bridges or freeways. Nothing close enough for those military men to notice that they were being taken, though. He suspected they had orders about how they were to deal with cameras.

She hit the mute on the remote in her hand, then tossed it onto the couch. She had relaxed slightly, but he could practically feel the nervous tension crackling off of her, "Do you know what happened to them? Are they okay?" Her tone was concerned and he noted idly that she still hadn't relinquished her grip on her shotgun. If anything it had tightened.

He gave her another weak smile and nodded, "Yeah, yeah... I got hold of them on the phone. They're out of the Red Zone. Aunt May twisted her ankle and they're kind of freaked out, but they're okay."

She heaved a sigh of relief. "I'm glad. So where are they?"

"They're heading to Staten Island. They have a place they can stay there. I'm going to meet up with them later." Peter replied, but noticed Gwen's expression look concerned once more. "What's the matter?"

"Petey, the Marines or the Thunderbolts might be keeping that Red Zone locked down, but everybody's trying to leave Queens. I mean everybody. The news said that the Marines and the National Guard are trying to control traffic in and out, but it's so congested nothing's moving." Gwen replied slowly. "After you left, there's been no other news being broadcast other than that people should stay at home. They're instituting a curfew too all over Queens. Nobody out after dark. For any reason."

Peter winced. "What, not even the people stuck in that traffic jam?"

Gwen shrugged and hugged her stomach, cradling the shotgun in her arms as though it were a shield, "It's bad. If they're trying to make it out of Queens, I don't know how far they're going to get."

He groaned. "I better let them know, if they don't already." He reached into his pocket for his phone.

Gwen nodded. "They're welcome to stay here until things blow over." She plopped into an easy chair, put her shotgun down on the floor next to her and tucked her feet up underneath her, settling a throw pillow on her lap. "I... I mean... I'd..." She shifted nervously and Peter realized just how scared she really was. "I'd actually appreciate the company you know?"

He smiled and while he could understand that. He... was fine. He didn't really think anything out there could really hurt him anymore. He was more worried about hurting other people. MJ at least had her aunt and Aunt May with her. Gwen on the other hand... she only had her dad. He was still deep in the Red Zone right now. Surrounded by Thunderbolts, but also by rampaging infected.

"They'd probably appreciate the place to stay. Hopefully they haven't gotten too far into the traffic jam yet." He pulled his phone out and dialed MJ's number.

She picked up on the first ring, but she only got as far as "Pe-" before there was a scuffling noise and it was another voice.

"Peter," Anna's voice was uncharacteristically terse. "Where are you?"

"Uh-"

"And before you answer, I want you to know that I can usually figure out when MJ is lying to me." She continued, interrupting him, "You aren't even close to her level of skill. So," She let her voice drift off for a moment, "Where are you?"

"Detective Stacy's house." He blurted out.

There was a long moment of silence before she asked gently, "So... not the library?"

"Uh... no." He sighed. In this specific instance, she seemed to have already figured that detail out.

Anna made a little hmmming noise and Peter could just about imagine her looking over at MJ.

"What's going on, Ms Wa- I mean, Anna?" He stammered out. She wasn't even here and she was doing a number on him. Embarrassing indeed. He glanced over and noted that Gwen was watching, still concerned.

"Why are you at Detective Stacy's house?" She asked, voice still cool and tightly controlled.

He wracked his brains at this one. He... well... he honestly didn't really have a reason to be here. He'd just ended up there by chance. Earlier he'd sort of been intending to go, but that was just to... well, that sounded like a better reason than: 'I kind of just wandered here.'

Peter replied, "I was checking on Detective Stacy's daughter for him. They got separated earlier."

There was another momentary pause before Anna spoke again. "Peter, were you at the library at all today?"

He flushed and muttered, "No, ma'am. I was at the Police Station... um... I told Aunt May I was at the library so she wouldn't worry."

Anna gave a small laugh, "I'm guessing you're the one responsible for sending the police officer to get us out?"

"I..." Peter hedged, but well it was technically true. "Yes."

"I thought as much. We're at the library parking lot. As it turns out, it's been closed all day for renovations." Anna said, her voice amused now.

"Oh."

"Yes. Oh. I'm glad you're safe at least. The traffic was so bad I decided it would be easier to pick you up first before we tried for the freeway. Imagine my surprise when MJ kept trying to persuade me not to."

He could almost hear the smirk in the older woman's voice. In the background, he could hear MJ's slightly scandalized voice saying, "Aunt Anna!"

"That obviously got me suspicious, especially when I know she's been wanting to see you all afternoon." Anna continued with just the tiniest bit of a teasing tone. Peter could easily imagine her winking at MJ as she said that.

He coughed in embarrassment and flushed once more. He was really glad that this was a phone conversation. Gwen's expression had gone from concerned to amused at his reactions. Peter grabbed hold of the bit of the entire point of the call and held on tight, hoping to divert her before his face spontaneously combusted. Given how weird his body had gotten, he wasn't ruling this out as a possible ability. As it was his face had heat up so much he half expected it to float off his neck.

"I actually wanted to talk to you about that." Peter replied."The news is pretty much showing it's going to be almost impossible to get out of Queens right now. Gwen, that's Detective Stacy's daughter, she said it would be alright if we stayed here for a bit. Just til things quiet down." He glanced over to Gwen who was nodding.

"I don't know, Peter..."

"It beats staying in the car, Anna." Peter said. "There's also a curfew coming in to effect. I don't know what they're going to do to anyone caught out after it, but I don't want you, Aunt May or MJ to find out."

"There is that, but wouldn't we be imposing?"

Peter pitched his voice low enough that Gwen couldn't quite hear, "And I think Gwen's worried since her dad's still in the Red Zone. I think you'd be doing her a favor. She could use some company.".

"I see." The teasing had left Anna's tone, but it was light and playful still. Peter wasn't good with people, but even he could tell that it was a mask. Anna was scared. Her best friend, Aunt May, was hurt and out cold. She was the one in charge and Peter could tell she was not liking it. "If you think it would be a good idea."

"It... um... it sounds good to me." He tried to force a bit more cheer into his voice, "Once they start letting people out, you'll get to see Detective Stacy again."

"Oooh," Anna laughed, "You do know how to sell an idea to a lady, Peter. Alright. What's the address?"

He rattled it off and she repeated it back to him before passing the phone to MJ with no warning.

"So. Flirt-meister..." MJ said in an almost too casual tone, "You're at Detective Stacy's house... with his daughter?"

"Um... yes."

"Is she cute?"

"MJ, she can hear me." Pete mumbled into his phone. That curious expression was back on Gwen's face, even as she pretended she was paying more attention to the TV.

"Yes or no question, Peter," He wasn't sure if she was just teasing now or if her voice had taken an edge. How exactly was he supposed to answer that? There was no correct answer! How did that even work? There was no getting around the fact that Gwen was gorgeous. He could always just tell MJ the truth...

That's crazy talk and I won't hear none of it. Cletus drawled,

He blurted out the first thing that popped into his head, supplied as it was by a voice he wasn't familiar with.. "Not as cute as you are."

There was a long pause. Peter noted absently that Gwen had picked her shotgun back up and quirked an eyebrow. He smiled apologetically to her and shrugged.

MJ suddenly laughed and said, "Nice save, Tiger. I'll see you soon."

She hung up.

Gwen glanced over to him and treated him to a slow, lazy smile. Not the one that lit up her eyes, but this one resembled those smiles she used to get when she had a fistful of his legos in her hands. The shotgun cradled there in their stead did not fill him with confidence in his continued well-being.

"So..." Gwen said, gesturing idly with one hand towards his phone, "Your girlfriend?"

Peter shoved his phone back into his pocket hard and covered his face with his hands, the furious blush back on his face with a vengeance. barely showing around his fingers. "I... I have no idea."

"One of those complicated things, right?" Gwen nodded sagely, "She's your 'not-girlfriend'."

"Didn't Betty Leeds in fifth grade used to call you my 'not-girlfriend'?" Peter asked, peeking around his fingers.

"You remembered." Gwen laughed like tinkling bells.

"It's not the same thing." He continued to mumble from behind his hands, his blush not having abated at all. "Maybe. Kind of. Sort of."

"And your 'not-girlfriend' is cuter than I am?" She smiled wolfishly.

He lowered his hands, met her gaze with a tight embarrassed smile and gestured to the TV, "Can we concentrate on the zombie apocalypse a couple of blocks over instead of me?"

"I suppose, but you're funnier." Gwen gave her tinkling laugh once more. Peter considered that and realized that it must have been a relief to be able to laugh, even if just a little, "You haven't changed a bit."

He chuckled despite himself and felt himself relax just a tiny bit more. She thought he hadn't changed. That was important. "I guess not."

- - -

It took a bit over two hours before Aunt May's car pulled up to the Stacy house. Aunt May was still asleep and Anna had been surprised when Peter had gently pulled her out and easily carried her inside.

Gwen directed him to an undecorated guest bedroom on the second floor and he overheard Anna murmuring aloud, "I didn't realize he was that strong."

MJ's voice floated up in a half-joking low mutter, "Aunt Anna, I saw him first."

Gwen had laughed.

Once May had been settled and MJ and Anna had time to freshen up, Peter had done the introductions. Gwen had offered them cold cut sandwiches and sodas while the Watsons settled down on the couch. Gwen kept to her easy chair. Peter could have taken the other chair. The recliner, but he prowled around the room, vaguely restless.

MJ had the hood of her hoodie back up and she'd gone quiet again. Acting like she did when he'd first met her... was that only a few days ago? He hadn't thought about it too closely, but realized that she'd shied away from Gwen and had barely spoken to her. Maybe she really was just naturally shy. The bruises on her face had faded some, but she could also still be trying to hide them.

Peter wasn't sure when, but he noticed that Gwen was no longer holding her shotgun. Huh. Maybe she'd only held onto it specifically while he was around. Just like her dad had told her to, he thought sourly.

They chatted quietly, watching the news, which was filled with a great deal of nothing important. Nothing was being broadcast out from the Red Zone anymore. Absolutely nothing. Peter had tried to reach George Stacy to see if they could get any more information from inside the Red Zone, but the older man's phone had simply rang until voicemail picked up.

That could have been worrisome. Or it could simply have been that he wasn't in a position where he could take the call.

Or he's dead, Cletus supplied cheerfully.

As they chatted, the conversation had turned to what they'd seen in the Red Zone. Gwen had admitted that she'd been at the Police station when the initial rush of infected had burst out.

This had earned him sharp looks from Anna and MJ when she told them about how he'd saved her and her dad.

Gwen noticed everyone's expressions, especially Peter's wince. "Oh. Oops. I guess I shouldn't have mentioned that? Sorry."

Peter smiled weakly. "I... uh... I might have forgotten to mention it. I guess."

"You most certainly did forget." Anna said with a shake of her head, a tiny bit of frost in her voice. "I'm just glad your Aunt May's still sleeping."

"You don't need to tell her," Peter said in a rush.

Anna leaned back into the chair, crossing her arms under her breasts. Which Peter very hurriedly looked away from. "I really should, but no harm done right now. She's still been worrying about you so much." She shook her head once more, "And then you go and do exactly the sort of thing that's just going to stress her out even more."

He hung his head, "Sorry."

Gwen said, holding a hand up, "Hey, come on... it's not like he knew those things were going to be there. And if he hadn't been there, I would've been dead. It's not fair to-"

Anna held both her hands up, "I know, I know. I'm sorry. It's not really my place. I won't tell May you've been hurling yourself into danger. She'll just start fretting then start in on the complaints about you being just like Ben."

"Really?" Peter blinked.

"Jumping in without thinking, mostly. Him and his brother," Anna smiled gently, "I guess it's something with the Parker men." She elbowed MJ, "Keep that in mind, hmm?"

MJ blushed slightly, burrowing deeper into the couch cushions and mumbling something incoherent.

Peter might have said something else, but MJ was looking at him through her bangs from under her hoodie and she had a serious, thoughtful expression that made him wonder. - - -