"I've gotta go, Gwen." Peter doesn't look at her, scuffing the toe of his sneaker against the tile. His laces drag behind the rubber of his high tops, and he stares like they're the most fascinating things in the world. Those bushy eyebrows furrow in frustration, concentration. All his focus is now on strategy, she can tell. He's untangling the web of villainy pouring from the radio. How will he approach? She knows: he'll swing into action, all mouth, his brain forgotten in the adrenaline. What will he say? Something witty, no doubt. Phrases that slip off the tongue and make him seem unafraid. She knows that his heart is pounding and that he's frantically dodging and that his mind is working in overdrive.
Gwen knows too much.
"Alright, Peter." She stares at this boy she has come to love. His hair hangs in scruffy clumps. He runs his fingers through it when he's stressed. She plays with it when they're alone. His chin is strong, seemingly too masculine for such a skinny neck. The whole of him is skinny, which worries her on a daily basis. Her favorite thing to do is sit with him, sharing a milkshake. Then he's totally there with her, solid and alive. She fights with him about homework, about going out, about anything other than his masked life. They struggle for normalcy in a world that has allowed the fantastic.
"That's it? That's all you have to say?"
"What do you want, Peter? Do you want me to cry and beg you not to go?"
"Anything would be better than this apathy."
She grabs his face then, two delicate hands cradling high cheekbones. Her French-tipped nails dig into the brown mop atop his head. Gwen wants to yank him upwards, force him to look at her. Instead she ducks down, twin baby blues peeking out behind platinum bangs. She knows she is too open, too vulnerable. Water presses behind her eyes, threatening to choke and blind her, but she hangs on. She knows that he needs her to be strong. He sees too much fear and worry from his aunt. Gwen is his rock, and proud of her power.
Sometimes she wishes that he wasn't Spiderman, and that they could go to the homecoming dance without him layering blue and red under his tuxedo. But she knows that the hero is an integral part of him. If the powers hadn't come he would have found another way to put himself in danger. Since she saw him step in front of Flash's fist for an acquaintance, she knew. A cop's daughter-a police captain's daughter- understands justice. A strong sense of morality was imbedded in her.
Her father doesn't come to her mind often, mostly because it feels like he is still there. Her little brothers still set one too many plates at the dinner table. Her mother still makes enough food for five of them. His absence is most felt in the morning, where he would drive his children to work in his police car. The boys would hang their heads out the window like dogs, lapping up the wind and laughing in time to the siren. Gwen would sit pristinely, hands folded primly in her lap, unsure if she was embarrassed or proud. Captain Stacy would catch her eye in the mirror and send a conspiratory wink before gunning the engine. Then Gwen would feel the thrill of excitement, a sedate sort of danger flittering in her stomach. Maybe she would be a cop, or work in the forensics department; anything to feel the same scream of exhilaration building in her throat.
Now her boyfriend flies into action every time there's hint of danger. She thinks about getting him a police badge as a joke. Sometimes she seriously thinks of giving him her father's. He works so hard to protect the city, certainly as hard as any official. But he doesn't receive the accolades or the tickertape parades. All Peter gets is a black eye and Jazzy Jonah labels him a menace. He pretends not to care, hiding the Daily Bugle behind a science textbook she knows he has already read. Gwen likes to swat him with it when she's frustrated, like training a wayward dog. He laughs then, lets her see that awkward smile that breaks open the cut on his lip. She'll come to him, kissing his bruise, lightly lapping a bead of blood; showing her unspoken appreciation. Then she nuzzles his neck, gently sucking and biting until they engage in a different kind of fight.
And she does fight. Gwen doesn't let Peter fall into easy kisses, like the constantly conquering hero. Her tongue is as sharp as her words, and she pushes him. She wants him to get angry, to pour all of his irritation at the city-its people, its villains, its inability to let him sleep- into her. That's when too-big hands lift her by her bottom, or push her against the wall, or throw her down. That's when she can grin cheekily into their kiss. It's how she knows she affects him, and that he's there with her again and not mentally running through his other fights.
Peter tells Gwen she knows him too well.
Sometimes he stops calling her. Those are the times she's not sure if he's too worn down to try and be her boyfriend, or if he's afraid. The monsters that go bump in the night are real to him. He has to answer every other call, so he stops making his own. Gwen lets him be until she can't stand it. Peter lingers in her life: his smell on her sheets, his notes on her desk, his hoodie on her back. When he's gone there's nothing to remind her that he will come back, no normal routine to help her breathe again. She knows that he needs her. Peter needs a tie to his humanity, a reminder that he needs to take off the mask. But she's not quite sure if he always wants her, or if she is part of the debt repayment to her father. Her smile is genuine when he's there. But he's stuck with her, knowing that he broke his original promise to a dying man. His new goal is to make her happy, knowing that that's what her father would have wanted.
Once, she had to see him. Gwen took the subway to Queens, wrapping his sweatshirt around her until only her bangs shone in the fluorescent light. As she wandered the streets to his house, hidden in the dim twilight, she wondered if this is how he felt. Almost ethereal, as if the world couldn't touch him if they couldn't see him. Gwen cloaked herself in the shadows, playing Spiderman. She thought of what she would say: "Well now, what do we have here? Didn't anyone teach you how to play nice?" But of course, she didn't come across any crimes. Queens was quiet. The sun dripped red as it sank below the horizon. And then she was in front of his doorstep, being welcomed by chipped burgundy stairs. This was so his world, saturated with the colors of his costume. Gwen felt too blond, as if she didn't fit his custom paint palette. But she squared her shoulders, and knocked. An older woman, whose eyes crinkled in excitement, pointed her up another set of stairs and to a room down the hall to the left. There was no need to knock there, or maybe she feared he wouldn't answer. Gwen pushed open the door and found Peter, curled in his bed. The covers spread across the floor, the rest of the room a complete mess, and the single breathing being fetal. She knew then, that he didn't want to her to see him weak. He liked how he looked in her eyes: brave, strong, a man taking responsibility of his fate. Here he was still a teenager, plagued by death. No matter what he did, Spiderman would fail. A building would fall, a bank would get robbed, and someone would die. Peter Parker had to face all that in the harsh light of day. Gwen knew she too would be paralyzed. So she didn't say a word, but climbed into the bed with him. She was the big-spoon to his little, wrapping her arms and legs around him until he could hear, see, smell nothing but her.
"Gwen?" Peter's eyes were on hers now, questioning. Where had she gone? She doesn't know how to answer that look, how to convey her confidence in him. All she wants is to go with him, to help him in any way she can. She has thought that one day she would be some sort of partner, creating gadgets and gizmos for Spiderman. But there is no time for that now. She just needs him to know.
"I love you." The words are too simple for what she wants to express. Maybe it would be better if they were at the top of a building or on her fire escape, rather than the hallway of Midtown. But the clock is ticking and these moments are precious. He has to go.
Besides, it is enough. Peter's hands stop clenching at his sides, and clutch her waist. The force knocks the air out of her lungs, but it feels good-real. His lips are on hers before she can draw a new breath. Desperate and rough they move, until she has to break contact with a dry sucking sound. An inhale, and then down again they went. He isn't gentle, forcing her mouth open with his tongue, her lips grinding against his teeth. Their bodies slam together awkwardly. Peter dips down, Gwen bends her back. They are almost horizontal even as they stand. And the kiss just deepens, the uncomfortable position having no effect on its urgency or need. She wants to merge with him for this one moment, and she knows he wants the same. But the radio calls for all available units. Spiderman is needed one place, while Peter fights to stay in another. Gwen knows she has to let him go. Her hands travel down his face and neck to reach his chest, where she gives a slight push.
"Go on, Bug Boy."
Another kiss, this one chaste and much too quick, before he runs down the hall and out of sight. Gwen's hands hang in mid-air before she clasps them together and places her chin on top. He looks good coming and going, she thinks wryly.
Footsteps break her reverie. She refuses to turn; she knows who they belonged to.
"Well wasn't that just the most romantic thing you've ever seen?"
"Remember your promise, Harry. If I do this, you won't hurt him."
He laughs, long and low. It breaks into a cough and she knows his whole body shakes and convulses.
"Trust me, Gwendolyn. Your betrayal will hurt him more than enough."
Gwen wishes she knew nothing at all.