"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,"
She's 24 when she dies. She's 24, fighting Red skull, and her friends are screaming when she dies. Her name is Penelope Parker, she is Spider-Woman, and she dies protecting New York, the world, her family. Penelope doesn't regret it even though there are things she does regret but dying for the people she cares for isn't one of them. Penelope doesn't know how Red Skull is still alive but she knows the glowing cube is dangerous and powerful, can feel it as her spider sense wails inside her head. She does not hesitate, doesn't stop to think, and is reaching for it, even as the machine Hydra made starts. Between the upheaval of the Hero Registration, trouble at work, family, and her recent break up, Penelope is tired, worn at the edges. The machine, Penelope can't remember what it is for, bends beneath her strength and the cube, glowing blue and clear, the power of creation contained within, burns her hands. But Spider-Woman does not let go. She heaves, back arched, fire and lightening scorching every nerve and vessel, and screams. The machine gives, misaligned the Hydra program fails and crashes. Red skull rushes her, determined to stop her, to kill her but fails to reach her. The cube answers her, her wish buried deep within her heart, even as her determination, her goal roars from within the depth of her soul. Free the cube from Red skull, back into the InBetween -the Beyond- and yet, protect the world, friends and family, protect her home.
To fulfill the first, the latter must perish. To protect the second, then the former must be let go.
An anomaly. A paradox.
The cube answers, Red skull collapses on the ground gasping for air and lies helpless as his muscles atrophy. His skin swivels and cracks. All throughout the underground compound, those of Hydra that remain suffer the same fate and the enhanced can do nothing as their power abandons or turns against them. Some implode, spreading gore and brain matter all around them. Others are consumed, drained, left feeble and emaciated. Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and Scarlet Spider stand motionless but unharmed, proof of Spider-Woman's influence over the cube, and she's choking now unable to scream, to cry. Spider-Woman can no longer feel anything, numb to it all, but her hands hold the cube in a vice even as her legs give out. She's falling back and Scarlet rushes to her, to his sister, the woman he's cloned from, who accepted him despite his hate, his flaws.
He manages to reach her before she hits the ground but its already too late. Blue Iris petals cascade all around her but Scarlet doesn't care for them. Distantly, he remembers they're her favorite.
(Later, the Fantastic Four will release a copy of the security footage to the public before SHIELD can hide it away. The world will watch as Spider-Woman defies a monster, watch as she suffers untold agony. The world will see a hero embrace death and fade away. They will see a brother call out to a sister who can no longer hear him and weep with him. To the heroes of the world, her actions will expose a plot to enslave and kill them. Her actions will reveal an enemy waiting in the cold expanse of space and the chance to defend against it. Later, the world will know her name, what she stood for, how she strived to save the world one person at a time, how she offered hope to all who meet her and asked for nothing in return. The world will learn her belief in the power of responsibility and the power of kindness. Her name and her deeds will be immortalized in paper and ink, in stone and steel, in history as a woman who was selfless, who sacrificed her own happiness to help others, who loved deeply, who reminded the world what it meant to care for people. Fans and supporters will petition to have her buried in Arlington National Cemetery, the first and only hero to have that honor).
Scarlet Spider, Kaine Parker, clutches his sister's body, like it was something precious, as if he could keep her alive using just his presence, and screams her name, screams himself hoarse, begs her to come back...
That is how she dies.
Beyond this place, within the InBetween, the cube breaks down. It opens like a flower in bloom before the petals scatter and disappear. There are many who witness it but only one steps forward to grasp at what is left behind. A light, small but strong. A soul, tired but bright, warm, and beautiful. It is familiar to some of those present and were it not so tattered by the cube's sloppy abuse, would evolve and ascend to join them.
"Worry not, Little Spider, you are loved. You are honored. You will join us again. But not today. Not yet. Not yet."
With great care, the being whispers softly to the soul cupped within its hands, like a parent would for it's child, and for a second it burns with all the glory of a newborn sun. Then it is gone.
This is how she is remade, in the cradle of creation and by the care of a god, ancient and powerful, whom cast a shadow against the void shaped like a spider's legs.
Penelope Parker is four years old when the dreams start. Some are terrible. Dark and twisted. They leave her cold and afraid. Her parents put up dream catchers and other trinkets to "ward away the bad pokemon". But little Penny is smart. Her parents say so, too. The dreams feel different. They belong to her, she knows that. Even if she doesn't know how. They aren't being taken. It feels more like...she's getting something back. Something really important. Something she didn't realize was missing.
Her heart song hums quiet and soothing in the back of her mind. (She feels disoriented by it. She keeps expecting something else to hum to her. To tell her something.)
More of the dreams come. Some are good. (She's flying!) Some are so terrible she wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. (A blonde girl is falling, falling, falli-)
They're important. So, so, important and little Penny clings to them. She plays them over and over in her head. She knows they're important but they're also...incomplete. (Why?) Little Penny is smart, though, the dreams are like a puzzle and when the pieces are missing, you have to wait for them to show up. (There's a voice in her head, soft like a whisper, trying to warn her.)
Little four year old Penny doesn't say a word about what she sees. (She listens to that voice.)
(This World is Strange.)
Little Penelope Parker is five when she is Chosen for the first time.
(Pokémon Chose who they will bond with. Pokémon Chose a person they will follow, a person they will call friend. It is believed when you are Chosen, you increase your chances of meeting your soulmate. There are plenty of people who are Chosen once or twice. They are considered Common. If you are Chosen Thrice, you are considered Gifted, someone who is destined to further society. If you exceed the Gifted number of Chosen , you are Blessed and are fated to not only meet your soulmate but also bestow a great Boon that will revolutionize society.
(Not everyone is Chosen. There have been many Gifted, historical figures like Einstein, Julius Caesar, and even Martin Luther King Jr. But there have only ever been less than a handful of Blessed in the world. There are none today.)
(And even if you are Chosen, not Everyone meets their Soulmate.)
Little Penny is no stranger to bullies. Ever since the dreams started, the other children have avoided her. As if staying away will keep the ghost or psychic pokemon who torments her away. When the dreams keep happening, they think she's cursed. They think by making her go away they will make the scary pokemon go, too. It's not like that. But little Penny is smart. Smarter than the other kids. Smarter now than she was before, too. So she doesn't try to correct them because they're scared and don't want to hear what she has to say. That doesn't make the bullying stop and some days she goes home to cry and cry and cry. She wants to cry herself out of tears, wants to cry herself until she's too weak to move.
She does not do that. She does not give up. She does not give in.
Little Penny dreams of a hero. She's beautiful and strong and smart. She wears a suit with a spider symbol on it. She is Spider-Woman. Spider-Woman is her hero because even against terrible monsters Spider-Woman never gives in. Against people that give little Penny nightmares and people in suits who say they're police, she doesn't back down.
(Men in suits scare her. Detectives and secret agents make her shiver. She sees how dark, how cruel, they can be. How easy lies drip from their lips like poison.)
Spider-Woman is her hero even if they don't really exist. Little Penny wants to be like her. So the little girl cries her eyes red, cleans them and than tries again the next day.
Its recess and she's being bullied again. There's a girl in a pink top with a meowth. Her name is Rachel. The only Chosen in their class and everyone wants to be her friend. But Penny doesn't like the look in her eyes. Or how the Meowth eyes her like she's something to eat. Penny stares back because she isn't afraid. She doesn't care if its a Meowth or a Rhydon, she won't back down because someone thinks they're special. That's not something Spider-Woman would do.
(The voice tells her not to give in. Never give in. No matter who or what. That the day she does is the day she truly dies.)
They call her names. She starts to tune them out. (She thinks of her dreams and tries to make them fit.) They throw dirt at her. She takes a hand and dust herself off. (She's learning, slowly, how to let things go, how to let the hurtful things fall to the side.)
Rachel, frustrated, picks up a rock and throws it at her. It doesn't get far. There is the sound of something cutting through the air and the rock ends up inbedded in the ground behind the crowd. There is a Pokemon in front of her. Its fur is white as snow. It-she- has a dark face with red eyes, a curved horn and a spiked tail. (Penny doesn't know how but she knows this pokemon. Doesn't know why but she gives Penny a warm feeling, like a piece slotting into place.)
"Absol." the Pokemon doesn't growl or roar. Her presence radiates power and mystery. Rachel's Meowth pulls his ears back and whimpers, scurrying behind his human.
"Y-you freak!" Rachel's voice squeaks. She flinches when Absol snarls, lip curling and fangs gleaming white and sharp. The other five year old flees with her pokemon and the crowd quickly follows.
When they're gone, its quiet. The Absol turns to little Penny and walks up to her. The air grows heavy with every step, thick with anticipation.
"Hello." Little Penelope knows her manners. Absol was kind to protect her from her bullies. Its only right she thank the pokemon.
"Sol." the pokemon offers her paw almost like a handshake.
(Take it, the voice whispers softly.)
She takes her paw, careful of her claws-
"Oh!" Penny's eyes go wide, her jaw goes slack. A warmth unfurls from her belly and her face becomes flushed. Her toes and fingers tingle. Penny feels giddy and bubbly and happy. A smile, small and shy, takes root.
(A piece of the puzzle returns to her.)
"Its nice to meet you, Pandora." she says to her new friend, meeting the absol's gaze and for a moment, less than a split of a second, Penny's vision is clouded by a bridge made of rainbows.
Pandora purrs and the moment is over.
That night the dreams aren't so bad. Pandora, her Absol, cuddles close. Little Penny feels safe. She feels a little bit stronger, too. She knows she'll be treated differently now. But she doesn't care. Her new Pokémon Chosen ID card sits on her desk. Her mother promises to get her a wallet to put it in. She knows she is the first person an Absol has ever Chosen since Edgar Allen Poe, the writer but Penny doesn't care about that. Although, Penelope wonders about writing her dreams down and making them a story. She knows no one would believe her if she said they were real but having them written down would help her remember them better.
(Later, the voice whispers, when all the pieces fit.)
Aunt May has a Miltank named Milly. They work as Nutritionists and have lots of books on pokemon. They'll be going to Aunt May and Uncle Ben's this weekend so Penny can get started on learning how to properly take care of her Absol. Her parents also want her to talk to a counselor about what careers she can choose from with her pokemon if that's something she wants.
(It is. Her dreams show lots of things. Some with pokemon. She wants to try being a coordinator! Not a Battle Frontier Fighter, the voice whispers, too many eyes.)
Still, she can't wait for when she's old enough to enter her first show!
Penelope Parker is six when she gets her second.
She'd been invited to another birthday party. She didn't want to come but her mother said she had to. That she needed to make friends with other Chosen. But Penny knows she's wrong here. The people here aren't nice. The girl reminds her of Rachel, strawberry blonde curls and an "angel" face. She was Chosen by a Murkrow but she's been bragging about how her daddy is an important breeder and she's going to get a Shiny Starter. Her daddy said so.
(Pokémon breeders are a rare occupation. They are people who have come from a long line of Chosen. Those who did not find soulmates but married and had children. If the Pokémon are compatible, any eggs they lay can be given to their human's children. These are Inheritors, children Chosen from hatching. Those that are not partnered with a human either go wild or are sold at auction before they hatch. Always before they hatch. Trafficking, enslavement, the voice whispers, angry.)
Getting a starter is a big deal. Its a sign you are destined for great things. It could be anything. Wealth, power, beauty. If you had a starter, your future must be bright. A shiny of any kind is exceptionally rare. But it is also a sign of a life rich in joy despite adversity and difficult times. Penny feels terrible for that pokemon. But she doesn't say anything. She watches and listens. Pandora stays close to her and snarls when someone or their pokemon get a little too close.
(Something is wrong here. Terribly, terribly wrong. Run, the voice whispers, run.)
Its hard not to run away. She doesn't like it here. Pandora stays tense the entire day. She tries to tell her mom, but Mary Parker won't listen, sees only that her daughter needs more friends. Mr. Sorano is convinced by his daughter to have a sleep over right then and Penny wants to cry because she doesn't want to but her mother still won't budge. She's on the verge of breaking down when Pandora nudges her to the bathroom at the far end of the hall. Little Penny takes her overnight bag from her mother and locks herself inside. If she has to stay, it'll be as far from the rest as possible. But just as the duo is settling into the large bathtub, a shrill alarm goes off. It goes on for a short while before being turned off.
There is a commotion outside and after a moment of quick talking, Penelope hears the voices lower even more as footsteps hurry by the door. She doesn't know what's going on but she has no plans to unlock that door.
It doesn't matter. The tile above her opens and a body falls inside. Penelope gives a short shriek when she feels blood splatter her face. Opening her eyes terrifies her but she does it. Laying on top of her sleeping bag is a pokemon, froglike with a scarf or something like a ninja, bruised and battered. The frog ninja is bloody and tired. There is a collar around her neck and as it starts to spark, sears her neck raw. But she's looking at Penny desperately. She can hardly move and little Penny feels so helpless. Pandora doesn't know how to heal like Milly.
She strectches her arms toward Penny, and the six year old realizes there is something there, a pokemon, a baby.
It sparkles a shiny soft blue. She trembles in her mother's arms, eyes glassy with tears.
Penny reaches back, palms up, waiting. Even when her arms get heavy, she waits. Tentatively, she reaches out and its only when the baby froakie is settled in her lap that the warmth bursts across her tongue, her eyes, like sipping Aunt Mays special hot chocolate.
"Hello, Chiyome." she whispers, her voice breaking "I've been waiting for you."
(Hide! Hide! Hide!)
"I'm going to hide you now, okay? Don't be afraid. I won't let them find you. I promise."
She carefully hides the pokemon in her bag, covering the blue baby with her spare clothes. Penny cradles the bag in her arms as her mother finally finds her, pounding relentlessly on the door. But Penny doesn't answer just yet.
"I'll take care of her." she whispers, looking the mother pokemon in the eyes. "I promise."
There is something like relief in the pokemon's gaze. She closes her eyes for the last time just as Mary Parker manages to break inside.
(Afterwards, her mother doesn't force her to go to anymore parties and she never sees the Soranos ever again. Abusive Pokemon Breeders are given some of the harshest sentences of the law. Disgraced, their families flee into obscurity.)
The little froakie is a pretty little blue color and Penny gives her a soft yellow ribbon that ties in the back. Chiyome doesn't like to be separated from her. So, Penny finds the nicest bag she owns and keeps her pokemon inside, letting the little water pokemon stay close and still see the world. Penny made a promise and works to keep it for weeks after the little baby pokemon joins her. Milly's milk is good and Pandora usually only drinks a quarter before going for her poke food. Penny pays careful attention to her pokemon, making sure to give them the right amount of moomoo milk and solid food. She's also extra careful to make sure her parents don't see her froakie.
She stops taking showers and takes baths so that Chiyome can play in the water. Pandora lays by the door to keep guard and Penelope is always grateful. She makes sure Chiyome remembers to thank Pandora for protecting them. Shyly, the little water pokemon does so. It's good at the start and they fall into a routine but it cannot last. The stress starts to wear on all three of them. Fortunately, it does come to an end because Chiyome learns to camouflage herself. Things become easier after that and miraculously, her parents never notice.
(Richard Parker has his science and is away a lot even though he does spend time with her when he comes home. Mary Parker is very similar but she also gives Pandora a glance, wondering and calculating. Sometimes, she'll leave and talk on the phone for a long time. She never notices the slight shimmer on her daughter's other side. Those looks scare six year old Penny and she doesn't know why...)
Then, something changes. Her dad comes home and tells her she needs boosters to help her. He pulls out three needles but Penny is a smart six year old. She knows she isn't sick. She doesn't need boosters. Richard Parker tells her its so no one can try and take Pandora or any other pokemon away from her. Pandora snarls at her dad and near her feet, she can feel Chiyome go stiff as a board. But her dad doesn't move, doesn't make her take them.
"Why?" For a moment, she doesn't think he will answer but he looks at her. Really and truly looks at her.
"Do you remember Mr. Osborn? The man in the suit?" Little Penny shivers.
She does. He liked how she was friends with his son, Harry. She likes Harry. Penelope became friends with him before she was Chosen but he wasn't always in school with his mother so sick. When she died just before Penny turned six, that changed and Harry hasn't missed a day since. But his dad scares her. The way he looks at her scares her. (He's in her dreams, too. He's a monster. A goblin. The Goblin. He wants to tear her apart. He wants to take her a part piece by piece. He wants to break her, own her, and leave nothing but an empty doll behind. A doll he can play with.)
She never wants to be alone with him. Ever.
"He scares me..." she starts with a whisper, "He looks like he wants to eat me." (He does. He wants to eat all of her. All of her secrets and her father's secrets, too.)
Her dad gives her a sad smile but doesn't tell her she's wrong.
"I know." he whispers back, "He likes how smart you are and that you've been Chosen so young. He asked me about forming a Contract between you and Harry."
Penny inhales loudly and has trouble focusing on her dad.
(A Contract is serious and are not created equal. Its like an arranged marriage but more strict and between parties who are or who can vouch for a Chosen. Very few are lenient. Very, very few. There can be no dating, no casual sex, no free travel without an escort or guard, and no casual friendships. Trips to the moves or the diner become business ventures and every person meet has to be pre-approved by the controlling party. That part belongs to the side with the most power in the Contract. The biggest factors on that depend on who has the power to refuse. Those who can refuse are those Chosen who have the pokemon bonds to back up the refusal. Two pokemon are stronger than one after all. Contracts are not formed with Commons in mind. That does not stop certain people from trying to bind a Chosen and their pokemon to form a lineage. It does not always work because a bond between a Chosen and their pokemon cannot be contested and pokemon do not always get along. People still try. But, they can do nothing, absolutely nothing, in the face of a Soulmate, either.)
Her dad reaches out and pulls her into an embrace. The hug is warm and reminds her that her dad loves her, that he will do all that he can to protect her.
"He thinks I'll bond to more." Penny has trouble seeing clearly but clings to her father's arms.
"Yes." He hesitates for a second before blurting out, "There are studies that show the younger a person is Chosen, the higher chance they become Gifted or Blessed. You've been Chosen young, very young and to a very strong pokemon. There is a high probability that...you'll be Chosen again and soon. I refused the contract because Harry hasn't been Chosen but that can change and Mr. Osborn may try something else. Do you understand?"
Penelope nods into her dad's shoulder, trembling. (She knows all to well. Osborn would burn all the world to have her. He almost did, once. He promised, swore, nothing would stop him from having her.)
"That's what these are for. So, even if he tries something with Pandora or any pokemon you may by Chosen by, he can't. I won't let him have power over you, I promise."
He doesn't say how they do that and for the first time, Penny pulls away from her dad to look him in the eye. Richard Parker holds his daughter's gaze, steady and sure, unwavering and unyielding. She can't hide her shock because she knows what that look means. That he can promise that, that he's so certain. Against drugs, psychic attacks or even torture, for her dad to promise and to look like that...
"Will it hurt?" It means he knows it will work. That its possible her dad knows how or even why pokemon choose a person to bond with. To fight for. To die for. To live for. He knows and he's using it to protect her from a monster.
"Just a pinch and a bit of a headache. That's it."
"And my pokemon?"
"A headache and maybe feeling a bit queasy."
"Okay. But..." Penny feels torn. For a long moment, she can't decide and looks to Pandora for help. The absol is still as a statue before reaching over and nudging the empty space where Chiyome is hiding in plain sight. The froakie lets the camouflage go and fidgets in place.
"Fro?" For a long moment her dad is silent.
"I...I'm sorry daddy." she looks down and bites her lip. "I made a promise but you're helping and I don't want you to be mad or disappointed. But I had to! A-And..."
"Easy." Her father holds her close and starts to rock her gently. "Easy. Its okay. I'm glad you trust me enough to show me. Okay? I just...I..."
Richard Parker starts to cry. He doesn't bother to wipe away his tears, just holding his daughter as tight as he can. When Pandora and Chiyome shuffle closer and lean against his legs, he refuses to let little Penny go. When warmth flows through him, seeps into his very bones, he cries harder and still does not let go.
(After he gives her the boosters, all three feel a bit nauseas but her dad spends the rest of the day taking care of them so its okay. Everything is okay...He never tells his wife about Chiyome.)
She is seven when Mary Parker tells her daughter she is fixing a surprise for her and Pandora. It makes her nervous and anxious. Little Penny can't tell why but she blames the parties and all the times her mom made her go. She blames the lingering danger that Harry's dad brings but trust her dad to keep her and her pokemon safe. Mary and Richard Parker are not Chosen even though Aunt May is and Uncle Ben had a Golem when he was younger before he went away.
(Penny thinks the pokemon died but doesn't say that to her parents. She doesn't think they like to talk about it.)
So she isn't sure if this excess of attention is because her mom hopes she'll become Chosen, too.
She never finds out what that surprise is. The next day, her parents drop her off at her Aunt and Uncle's one night, tell her they love her, and tell her they have to leave but promise to be back.
(The voice tells her they won't be coming back.)
Little Penny starts to cry and tells her parents she loves them even if they don't come back and then her mom starts to cry. Richard Parker picks up his daughter and holds her tight. Holds her like he might never get the chance to again. Even when his wife joins the hug, he doesn't let go. It takes the beeping of his watch to force him to move. Just before he leaves, he places a small yellow egg with white spots in her arms. The spark of warmth, of her father's hugs and confident protection engulfs her. It envelops her, surrounding her in a cocoon of love and bright light.
Cracks form along the top of the egg. It stops her parents at the door. Everyone is silent and still as the pokemon hurries to break free and when it does, sparks fly as a small fluff of yellow fur wiggles around in the palms of her cupped hands. The newly hatch Joltik perks up at her and thrills happily, bright blue eyes gleaming in happiness. For a second, the world stops, and Penelope's vision is clouded by stardust.
"Voltaire." She says absentmindedly, "Welcome home."
When she looks at her father, for the last time, she commits everything about him to memory. His wrinkles and determined eyes. His rumpled work shirt and long coat. He smiles and kneels back down to her.
"I love you. Always. Remember that." He takes a deep breath, "Whatever happens, don't let Osborn pressure you. You do what you feel is best and right. If he tries, you've got all the power you need. Okay?"
"Yes, daddy. I love you!" She gives him one last hug and holds him as tightly as she can before he lets her go.
(That is the last time she sees her parents. She doesn't stop crying for days. When news comes about the crash, she's already all cried out.)
The funeral for her parents is full of people. Most of them she doesn't like.
Pandora keeps them at bay and Voltaire sticks to hiding in her hair or the hood of her sweaters. Chiyome helps Pandora by being lookout while sitting on the absol's back and hiding in plain sight. No one questions her at the cemetery so she refuses to move for a long time. Even when the guests move on or when someone talks to her aunt and uncle. Penelope doesn't move but the adults stay a bit to the side, just out of her line of sight. All her pokemon huddle close to her, silent but warm.
She is Chosen for the fourth time, here, at the grave of her parents.
"Kyu?" A head peaks out from behind her father's headstone. For a moment she though it was a strange looking Pikachu. But then it moves away from the stone and Penny can see it clearly, a pokemon that looks like a Pikachu because its covered by a ragged Pikachu doll. Pandora growls in warning at the pokemon but it comes no closer.
"Can yOu See mE?" It's voice is distorted. Broken. Haunted.
Penelope considers not answering. It's a ghost pokemon. (It's taboo to be Chosen by a ghost pokemon. There are stories about children being stolen and killed. There are theories that being Chosen by one is to be tormented by the spirits of the dead and to be followed by the sins of the pasts until the day you die.)
But all she can feel is the lonliness that echoes her own.
Pandora and the others remain strangely silent as the pokemon slowly extends a black claw from beneath the rag and offers it to Penny. She reaches out a hand and grasps the claw.
Its cool to the touch than a sharp rush of warmth burns through her. It trails along her arms and legs. It scorches her fingers, toes, ears, and eyes. The air leaves her lungs and she can't take another breath.
(Her vision goes dark. All around her is the cold expanse of nothing. All around her is Everything. The Universe begins and ends.)
"Arsene." she exhales grief and turmoil and fear. "You waited a long time. Thank you."
"Kyua!" The Mimikyu thrills in tired relief.
"You'll have to hide. At least for a little while. Will you be okay?"
"Mimi!" He chirps with a nod of his doll's head.
"Let's go home."
Time marches onward.