"Huh," says Miles, staring at the tiny polyester version of his costume propped up proudly in the store window.
It's not a great copy, to be fair. The hems are too high and the fabric is too loose to fit the way his is supposed to, falling over the mannequin more like a set of pajamas than a skintight uniform. There are holes cut in the mask that let kids see through when they're wearing it, unlike the microfiber that seals his lenses. It's shoddy, mass-produced, the kind of thing that comes in a bag from Amazon. But it's his suit. Unmistakably so.
Gwen gives her rapidly melting ice cream — mint chocolate chip, two scoops — a long, tactical lick along the side of the cone to prevent drippage. "Yeah," she says. "Mine hit stores a few months after I started. They always get the design wrong. Yours came out faster, though. They must really like you."
"That's my costume," he says, and a dollop of cookies n' creme dribbles down his hand. He ignores it. "That's my design."
"You can't really sue for trademark violation, if that's what you're thinking about. I already asked Peter B. He said that the best you could do was sign a licensing agreement, but you need to get legal representation first, and since we're minors that's kind of weird territory. He didn't start making money off royalties and appearances until he was eighteen." She pauses, eyes up the cone, and gives it another careful lick to even out the other side. "Plus, your Peter probably already had an agreement with them, so you'd have to figure out how to license your brand as an independent thing. Not impossible, but you'd need another name for it, since I think calling yourself Spider-Man in the first place is a violation of his trademark, technically." She shrugs. "Better to just sign an advertising deal."
Miles only hears about half of this. He's focused on the kid coming out of the store with a copy of Miles' costume bundled gleefully in his arms, babbling excitedly at his mother and making web shooter motions with his free hand.
"That kid," he says. "He bought my suit. People are wearing—"
"Your suit? Yeah. Duh." She elbows him. "Spider-Man is a big brand, dude. You should check with May and see what kind of accounts your Peter had lined up."
Ice cream pools on the sidewalk beneath his forgotten cone. "Look! That's my—"
"Shhh," she hisses. She sends a meaningful look at the group of people passing them, and then lifts her eyebrows, as if to say, not so loud, dingus, which is an expression of Gwen's he's become pretty familiar with, all things considered. He shuts his mouth quick over the words my suit, which he only just realized he'd said out loud.
"I hadn't thought about that," he says, still kind of numb. "People want to wear — that suit?"
"Chyeah," she laughs, and nudges him again."The new Spider-Man is pretty cool, if you haven't heard."
He huffs and tries to roll his eyes, play it off like he isn't struggling not to grin, and turns away. They start walking again, and he only sends four or five glances over his shoulder at the street window.
"Haven't you seen any merch of yourself before?" Gwen asks, cocking her head. "Like a Funko Pop or something?"
"I mean, n— do you have Funko Pops?"
"Not anymore," she says, and slurps up the side of her cone. "I gave mine to Peni. Apparently they're worth thousands in the future. You should really look into trans-dimensional insider trading, it's incredibly profitable."
He only knows she's joking by the flicker of a grin that creeps up the side of her face, before she irons her mouth back into a flat line. "Anyway, I bet the suit's only the tip of the iceberg," she remarks. "Have you checked out Redbubble lately?"
"I don't know what that is."
"Copyright hell. But there's some good stuff in there. I nicked my winter costume off a fan design."
"Winter costumes?" It's not a bad idea, now he thinks about it. New York winters have the tendency to hit like a fist to the teeth, and anyone running around in thin spandex is liable to get frostbite or worse. He makes a mental note to ask May about it.
"Yeah, winter costumes. Great for advertising, toy models . . . haven't you been doing this stuff?"
"I guess not," he says, taking an absentminded nibble at the edge of his cone. "I just hadn't thought about it, I guess."
Gwen gives him an odd, unreadable look. "Dude," she says, "you realize you're like, a superhero, right?"
"Oh, jeez, Gwen, really? I hadn't noticed."
"Okay, well, I'm just saying," she argues. "This is all pretty basic stuff. Merchandising, autographs, birthday parties — it all comes with the territory."
"Nobody told me about it."
"Didn't you get to watch your universe's Spider-Man One Point Oh do it all, the first time around?"
"I mean, yeah," he says, and stares at his feet. "I didn't think it'd be the same with me."
Because Gwen is nice, she doesn't ask why. She doesn't press, but purses her lips and sweeps a calculating, evaluative look over her cone, feigning absorption in the task of finding an ideal ice-cream consumption strategy. Gwen is nothing if not a master in the art of deflection.
She doesn't like recalling the circumstances under which he began his career as Spider-Man. He doesn't ever ask, but he thinks she still feels guilty about her role in it. About trying to drive him out, instead of trying to welcome him in. If he had to guess, he'd say it came from a place of about pressure, and loss, and grief, but he's not really ready for that conversation, and he'd bet that she really isn't either, so he doesn't try to start it now. In time, he figures, and maybe once she's less skittish about the whole "having emotional connections in general" thing. (He's working on it.)
He opens his mouth to break the ice, and another kid sprints past, wearing a black mask and a plastic web shooter cuffed around her arm. "¡A su servicio!" she cries, and catches up with her friend, who's already sporting one of the costumes. They tackle one another, tussle briefly, and then sprint off, making their own thwip! noises to imitate the jettison of webbing. His heart constricts and for a second his breath snags in his lungs, struggling to make it through the new lump that's developed in his throat. He watches them ricochet off buildings and vault over fire hydrants, cackling joyfully.
"There's a lot to the job besides saving the world," Gwen says cryptically. Then she slurps the last of her ice cream, loud and deliberately annoying, and he snorts a giggle. They amble off together into the sunny afternoon.
He doesn't give the encounter much of a second thought.
Here is the hard lesson that Brooklyn teaches, murmured under its breath to anyone who stays still long enough to hear: Even in a crowd of millions, you can still find yourself alone.
Midnight patrol sucks. This is true even when it's not a Monday night and he has an hour of reading left to do before class tomorrow, and a mugger left a bruise on his arm that he just knows is going to start aching the second the adrenaline wears off, and he accidentally knocked over a row of garbage cans coming to a stop in an alley and look, web travel is hard, okay, it's not even his fault (mostly). Midnight patrol just sucks in general. You're up late, crime is worse, there's nobody to keep you company, and basically nothing is open. It's scientifically the worst. All the other Spider-Folk agree. Plus, he's hungry. He left before dinner at Visions, and his stomach has been in violent protest ever since. Add it to the list of general discomfort.
It would help if he weren't bone tired already, he thinks, but he can't exactly stop for coffee in the suit. So he just webs his way onto the roof of the next building and ignores the way the landing jostles his bruise, knees aching from the strain of another rough landing. Nobody ever said the superhero workout was good on the joints.
All right, Brooklyn, he thinks, gritting his teeth and latching a web to the next building. Let's try and have a quiet night, huh? Please? For me?
The thought is interrupted by a violent shout, echoing from the next alley over, followed by a crash and the characteristic yelps and clamor of a scuffle. Electrified, Miles leaps and hauls himself over the building in the next second, moving with a speed that's damn near instinctive at this point, and wheeling over the lip of the eave so he can see what's going on. No quiet nights, he thinks grimly. Okay then.
A guy in a hoodie is backed up against the wall, hands lifted high, eyes wide. A garbage bag lies beside him, discarded, its contents beginning to spill out. Opposite him in the alley, a skinny, rat-looking man aims a gun at him, his black hair slicked and greasy, knobby knuckles white around the handle of the gun.
"—don't want any trouble, man, but I don't have you want, okay? I'm shit broke, I don't even have rent money, how you think I'm gonna come up with—"
"Shut the fuck up!" The guy with the gun snarls and cocks the gun. "Just — just give me your wallet!"
"Aight, aight, aight, look, I'm doing it. See? I'm playing nice, all right, man? Just don't shoot. I'm doing it." The garbage guy slowly and deliberately reaches into his pocket, keeping his other hand high in the air. Never drawing his eyes away from the gun. "You want my wallet, you got it."
"I said shut the fuck up!"
Miles decides it's time to make his entrance. He aims his web shooter, squints, and then fires. The webbing snags the gun and tears it free of the guy's hand, whisking it back to Miles, who fumbles in catching it before tossing it away, and leaps down into the alley.
"Come on, man," he calls. "You kiss your mom with that mouth?"
The gunman shrieks in surprise, but it's too late, because Miles is fast; he snares both the guy's wrists and tugs them back, binding him like a pair of cuffs behind his back, before looping a third strand around his ankles. "On the other hand," he says, "if I had a face like that, my mom wouldn't kiss me, either." One quick push, and the guy goes down, trussed up like a bird on Thanksgiving, and hits his head on the pavement. His chest's still moving — unconscious, not dead.
Miles carefully steps back. A tremor is running up his spine and he's jittering because that was a gun, holy shit, that was a gun, but it's fine, because everything worked and now the guy's on the ground and Miles did it. He stopped the bad guy. He saved the day.
He's three months into this, and the rush is still the same every time.
"Anyway," he says, turning to the garbage guy, and his voice barely cracks. "Are you all right, sir?"
The man, still plastered against the wall, takes a sharp breath and nods. "Thanks," he says brusquely. "Um. I really appreciate it."
"No problem," Miles says, and beams, before remembering that he can't see Miles' face, and then flashing an awkward thumbs-up. "Uh, are you good calling the cops? I can't really, uh . . ."
"It's good, I know the drill," the man says, which is great, because Miles doesn't. "I'll wait for you to go before I call."
"Awesome. Cool." Miles rocks on his heels, looking around. "Well, you, uh . . . you need anything else, while I'm here? Oh! You want help with that?" He bends and picks up the spilled trash bag, offering it.
The man blinks. Up close, Miles can make out the finer details of his face, like the pudgy smear of youthful fat in his cheeks, the warm, dark eyes, and the adolescent scattering of stubble over his chin. He wears a white t-shirt with a grease stain on the side and some jeans, with an apron tied around the comfortable swell of his belly.
"Thanks," says the guy, and then takes it hesitantly. "I, um. I like the suit."
"Hey, thanks, man."
"That spray paint?"
"Cool," he says, and they lapse into silence.
Miles, feeling the tension congeal like cold soup, sucks a breath through his teeth and steps away. "Well, have a good evening, sir."
His smooth exit is ruined by his stomach choosing that moment to give a tremendous wail of protest, freezing him in his tracks. The guy with the garbage back actually jumped a little. It's loud and inelegant and so embarrassing Miles wants to die.
"Damn, man," says the guy, after a moment. "You hungry?"
"No," Miles snaps, and then, after the guy continues to stare at him, he mumbles, "Maybe."
He expects a laugh, or at the very least a smirk. But the guy just jerks his thumb over his shoulder. "You want a bite?" he asks. When Miles hesitates, he blurts, "I'm supposed to be closing the kitchen, but I'm the only one around, and it's not like I've got anywhere to be tonight."
"I don't have any money," Miles says, after a moment. He left his wallet in his civilian clothes, back at Visions.
"Nah, nah," the guy says, waving it away. "Spider-Man doesn't pay here."
Kind as the offer is, Miles still spares a glance for the eaves above. It's already eleven, and he's still got so much territory left to cover. But his stomach growls again, and he breaks.
"Yeah, okay," he admits, with considerable relief. "I could eat."
"Come on in," says the guy, and lets them in through the back door.
The restaurant is a small Mexican takeout place, with a dim, warmly lit kitchen that smells of spice and smoke. The guy ushers Miles through into the dining room, a cozy little box of a place strung with bright paper decorations and the walls painted a friendly shade of yellow, where he's plopped firmly down in a red linoleum corner booth lit by a small white candle. Then he disappears into the kitchen, where the clatter of pans and plates cuts easily through the silence of the empty restaurant. A neon 'OPEN' sign sits dim in the window. Miles rubs his arms and breathes in the warm, thick air, which smells similar to but not exactly like his mom's kitchen. Outside the street is almost empty, pitch-black and sparsely populated at this hour, and he wonders if anybody is looking through the window right now, watching him back. It's hard to say.
After about ten minutes, the guy comes back with a plate of something savory-scented and drenched in dark sauce. "Mole poblano," he said. "It's my little brother's favorite. Eat up."
"Thanks," Miles says fervently, and then, when the plate is set down in front of him, he pauses. He could just pull up the mask, but showing even part of his face is kind of giving his identity away, and he wracks his brains trying to remember if Peter ever ate with his mask up. Peter B. did, but then, Peter B. just walked around in his costume with nothing but a bomber jacket and sweats to hide it, and it's not exactly like Peter B. is some kind of gold standard for superheroism, either.
"I can look away, if you want," the guy says awkwardly, and Miles decides this is all silly. The guy's not going to ID him by his jawline.
He tugs up his mask to hang around his nose and shovels food into his mouth. It's delicious, rich and thick and spicy, with a perfect tang of sweetness from the chocolate, and he almost weeps with relief at how quickly his hunger vanishes and the pain in his stomach recedes. He clears his plate in under a minute and the guy runs back to get him some more, coming back with a dish of tortillas to wrap the meat in.
Sometime through his second serving, Miles comes up for air. His stomach has stopped hurting and everything feels a little better, actually, right down to the bruise on his shoulder. "That was awesome," he sighs, rubbing his shoulder absentmindedly. "Thanks, uh . . . ?"
"Leo." The guy sits down across from him, folding his arms and offering a friendly, if tired smile. "Leo Silva."
"Leo," he says gratefully. "I appreciate it."
"Hey, no problem. The old guy used to come by sometimes, pick off some of the nasty characters that hang around down the road, and I'd always keep the grill on late for him when I heard he was around."
"Peter came here?"
Leo winces. "I guess," he says. "It's weird to think about him as 'Peter,' though, you know? It's like . . . he was Spider-Man. That guy who came in for midnight burritos, he wasn't some stranger, right? He was just Spider-Man."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Well, like— I never met Peter Parker." Leo gestures to himself broadly, expressively. "I dunno the guy. They say he was a grad student and a photographer, or something? He had a wife, apparently? Like, okay, I guess so. I mean, good for him, that's awesome, but I didn't meet that guy. I never met Peter Parker. I met Spider-Man, the dude who liked burritos and couldn't handle spice if his life depended on it."
"Oh," says Miles, a bit helplessly.
"And you," Leo continues, "you're Spider-Man, too. Not whoever's under there. Just Spider-Man."
Miles doesn't quite get what he means, but he thinks the sentiment is nice, and he tugs the mask down self-consciously. "Thanks," he says. "I think. Um."
"Yeah," Leo agrees, although he hasn't said anything that needs agreeing to. "Sorry to talk at you there, man. Guess I just . . . had some stuff I needed to get out." He stares at his hands, and a pang of guilt lances Miles' side.
"No, it's fine," he says. "We all miss him."
"No," Leo says abruptly, looking up. "That's not what I meant. I just—" He huffs, shakes his head, and stands up. "Listen," he announces. "If you ever get hungry on patrol again, you gotta come by, okay? I'll make you something good. The real shit. Whatever you want, on the house. Nobody wants you passing out on top of a building or something because you're dehydrated or you forgot to eat or whatever. Don't be dumb."
"Okay," Miles agrees readily, because food is food and it's an unmistakably generous offer, and if he's bewildered, well, it's not an unfamiliar sensation. He stumbles over himself, and manages, "That's super nice of you. I don't know what to — if I can give you something in return, or . . . ?"
Leo stares at him for a long, long moment. Then he barks an incredulous laugh.
"Nah, man. You're good."
"Are you sure? I don't want to take advantage of you, or anything—"
"Seriously, it's no big deal—"
"—or get free food without paying, you know, I feel like you should get something out of it—"
"Tell you what," Leo says. "Can I grab a picture with you?"
Miles blinks. "A picture?"
"Yeah, like a selfie. I can put it on Twitter, frame it on the wall, it's great advertising."
It's such a basic request that Miles is disconcerted, but it's not like he's going to say no. "No, of course. Absolutely. Do you wanna do it here?"
"Works for me," Leo says, and pulls out his phone. He twists and lifts it high above them both, grinning at the lens, while Miles throws up a peace sign. The shutter clicks, and then Leo lowers the phone. "There. I'll put it next to the other one."
"The other one?" Miles asks, and Leo beckons him over.
He leads him up to the front of the store, where a collection of framed photographs are pinned to the walls: Leo, with various celebrities, actors, musicians, athletes, one or two politicians, and finally, Spiderman, hunched over in the corner booth in much the same way that Miles had been. Peter is flashing web-shooter hands at the camera, goofy but earnest, and Leo is grinning. He looks younger in that photo, but not much younger. The entire wall is a monument to important people, revered people. Some of the shots are even signed, with broad flourishes and tasteful scrawls of the obviously famous.
Miles swallows hard as Leo starts to rearrange the frames to make room for a new addition, humming thoughtfully as he contemplates where to put the photo.
"I'm thinking right there," Leo says, and points to the empty length of wall beside it. "What do you think?"
Miles coughs and shakes himself out of his reverie. "What?"
"Your photo," Leo clarifies, and then smiles with an edge of something soft. "You know, in between the old guy and the police chief? You'll fit right in."
Life is hard, Brooklyn says, as it gazes impassively down at the starving thousands who fill its streets. Life is hard, and the world will not change itself to make things easier. The world does not have a heart. You cannot appeal to its better nature.
It's May who brings it up next.
He comes over for tea on Sundays, partly to catch up with May and partly because it gives him an excuse to visit the Spider-Lair, where he's slowly been sorting through Dead Peter's collection of gear. Some of it, like the mesh glider wings, are useful; some of it, like the camouflage stealth suit, less so. (To be fair, he's sure it would have been very useful to anybody who couldn't turn invisible on command.) And some of it is just . . . dumb.
"Why did he need a toy helicopter?" Miles asks, mystified, holding up the plastic vehicle by the tail. One blade twirls pathetically in his grip.
May glances up from the box she's unpacking, and laughs. It echoes around the high, vaulted walls of the lair. They're perched cross-legged on the floor, a pot of tea between them and mounds of Peter's old boxes piled high into a little fortress that walls them in, with music playing from the speakers in the walls. Styrofoam confetti coats the ground like a layer of plastic snow. "I forgot about that," she says. "He had about a dozen of those. Used them for surveillance. He couldn't be everywhere at once, so he'd tie a camera to little flying toys and send them out to cover his bases." Fondly, she shakes her head. "He used to spend a fortune in batteries."
"He couldn't just check Twitter, see what's going on?"
She smiles and shrugs. "You have to remember that Peter was figuring all of this out for the first time. There wasn't any Spider-Man alert network, back then. No drones, no live updates, no Twitter feed. He had to make do with what he could, and that meant a lot of trial and error."
Miles lowers the helicopter delicately back into its box. "So he used toys."
"Or engineered his own. He couldn't exactly take out a grant for Spider-Man related research, although in the later years he partnered with a few companies to help make some of his more advanced creations." She nodded at the glowing suit display. "The final suit — the last suit he wore, I mean — was designed with the help of a grant from Stark Industries."
Miles wrinkles his nose. "Aren't they in military tech?"
"They used to be. Their PR would tell you that they're into independent hardware development, now, but Peter still had his reservations. In the end, they worked together a handful of times." May primly folds over the top of her box and sets it to one side. "More tea?"
She pours him a cup of chamomile. May makes a mean brew, hot and rich, and he sips his while he shuffles through a collection of paperwork that Peter kept around in his desk. There's a lot of it. He's been going through ever since he started the job and he's still not even halfway done. Most of it is written in gibberish legalese that he'd need a J.D. to even begin sorting out, and the few papers that aren't are certificates of ownership and patents for things Miles hardly even knows about. It's beginning to dawn on him exactly how much work Peter put into being Spider-Man for almost a decade.
May must catch the cloud of worry dimming his face, because she reaches over and pats his hand. "It's not so bad," she assures him. "You'll get used to it."
"I know. I mean, the normal stuff, the superheroing, I know. This is all just—"
"Superficial," she says. "And unnecessary, ultimately. You don't have to worry about any of the bureaucratic parts if you don't want to."
"But Peter did."
"Spider-Man was Peter's full-time job," she says gently. "It's not yours."
He wants to argue, because it's not like he's any less Spider-Man than Peter was, but he gets the feeling that's not what she means and anyway, he doesn't know if he wants this to be his whole life yet. He hasn't even taken the PSAT. Committing himself to a whole career of superheroing is more than Miles is ready to contemplate, let alone sign on for.
"Gwen talked about getting a lawyer," he mumbles. "Did Peter have one?"
She pauses, as if startled. An imperceptible frown knits her brow. Then she bursts out laughing.
"Nothing," she assures him, pressing the back of her hand to her mouth to stifle a chuckle. "Oh, nothing. You wouldn't know, would you?"
"What?" he demands, growing annoyed.
"It's just — I did have a job before I was a full-time aunt."
It takes him a second.
"You were a lawyer?"
She hides a smile behind the rim of her teacup. "Harvard Law, Class of 1979."
He blinks. "Oh," he says. Then: "I didn't know that."
"As I said, you wouldn't. I'm retired from practice."
"Were you Spider-Man's lawyer?"
"And manager of his estate," she says primly, sipping her tea. "My specialty was torts, although if I could do it again I'd pick con law. Much more useful, where vigilantes are concerned. The stories I could tell you! Are you old enough to remember the Superhero Registration Act?" She snorts disdainfully. "Never heard of a more overt violation of privacy in my life. It's like nobody in Congress ever bothered to Google 'right to privacy' before signing off on the damn thing. And everybody was up in arms about it, as though the entire bill wasn't going to drop like a lead balloon the first time someone bothered to appeal it in court." She makes a disgruntled sound in the back of her throat. "Half of them are actual children, I swear. Anyway, Peter knew better than to argue that with me. It was the one time in the past twenty years I wished I was still in practice. I'd have sorted them out nice and quick."
He stares at her. Small, grey-haired, and diminutive, with a vein of pure iron in her spine, May Parker settles her china teacup on its saucer with the dignified atmosphere of a queen. He begins to understand why supervillains never tried to come after her.
"Have a scone," she tells him. He takes one.
"This is all to say that you don't have to worry about the legal side of things," she assures him. "I'm more than happy to take care of that. Until you're eighteen, anyway. If you're still interested by then, we can talk about it."
Eighteen is a million years away and still too close to think about. He takes a big bite of scone to distract himself and shuffles through a few more papers, brushing off a stapled packet of contracts dated back to 2010.
"Oh," she says suddenly. "That reminds me. I wish you'd check the PO box, Miles, they've been sending me increasingly panicked notices about running out of room."
His head snaps up. "I have a PO box?"
"Spider-Man does," she says. "For gifts and letters and things."
"People have been sending me stuff?"
"Quite a bit. It builds up fast. I'd try and swing by about once a week, people will sometimes send food and you don't want it to spoil."
"Wait, for real?"
"Of course," she says generously. "You're very popular. I think one of the letters mentioned a life-size plushie?"
"Is there—" He stumbles over his words. "I mean, how much stuff—"
"I would get a locker," May tells him, matter-of-fact. "It'll be easier than trying to explain your new influx of merchandise to your parents, and although you're always welcome here, dear, I only have so much storage space."
Miles gapes. She smiles.
If you ask the world to change, Brooklyn says, it will not.
Winter sends an ambassador ahead of her in the form of a bitter, wet November, who delights in dumping a torrent of rain onto the streets of New York whenever Miles happens to be on patrol. Nights turn icy and the city rooftops disappear behind thick, dangerous clouds of mist, making each grasping arm of web fluid functionally a shot into the dark. Several times he shoots for a building and misses while in midair, leading to desperate, tumbling recoveries or hard landings on damp pavement. With the benefit of Gwen's forewarning, he restyled one of Peter's old winter suits, and the double layer of insulation does wonders against the cold, so he never freezes while he's out and about. Unfortunately, even the best microfibers can't do anything about the rain, which soaks through even the best waterproofing eventually. He comes in from patrol with teeth chattering, dripping wet, and has to peel the clammy layers of his suit off his skin before wringing it out and sneaking it into the dryer along with a load of dark clothes, hoping his mom won't notice. On the bright side, he's done six loads of laundry in as many days.
Sometimes it takes hours for him to warm up, and once he's recovered it's already time for school and he has to go back out into the cold. Sometimes he takes a long, hard look at his frost-glazed window and gives the entire thing a second thought.
It doesn't make any difference. He wrestles into the suit, still damp from last night, and climbs out his window. Every night he can. Because Brooklyn needs him, and if he's being honest, he needs it, too.
One night, he ends up perched on top of a roof in view of the Bridge. It's late enough that he could justify heading back to his dorm, and normally he'd finish up by swinging around his own neighborhood, but not tonight. Tonight, he's too exhausted to manage the trip back without falling and hurting himself. So he decided to sit here and wait in the rain.
It's not a terrible night, weather notwithstanding, he muses. The Bridge is lit up beautifully. A smattering of technicolor lights illuminate the streets from beneath, tracing black ridges against the horizon. The water of the bay glitters like a sea of pearls under the churning rain, and the chittering chorus of night traffic orchestrates the scene. People yell and honk and sprint to and fro across rain-slick streets, umbrellas brandished high. He's always found the rain calming, although typically not when he had to sit outside in it; the wash of water against his window is a soothing sound. In the moment of peace and respite, he catches himself dozing, slipping in and out of a daze brought on by cold and exhaustion. It's dangerous, he knows, to let himself sit on the edge of a building like this, but he still can't work up the resolve to start moving again and it's a rare moment that he gets to himself, these days.
When he goes back to Visions, there'll be homework to do and teachers to email and excuses to make, and a few scant hours of sleep before he has to get up and do it all again. There'll be classes and short meals and more homework, and then a handful of glorious hours when he gets to be Spider-Man, except nowadays that involves a whole lot of swinging around in the cold and being uncomfortable, and he still wouldn't give it up for anything, but it's a lot to handle at once and it's not like there's anybody who he can confide in or go to for help about it, except maybe the others, but the others are literally whole universes away and sometimes he just wants a friend who's not so far away.
Absentmindedly, he pulls out one of his stickers and pastes it on the eave beside him. The rain blurs the color and the ink weeps out onto the stone, the design vanishing into a muddy watercolor smear. His fingers come away stained with the dim yellows and reds of his tag. He laughs quietly and without humor. Then he sniffles. Sniffles again. Resists the urge to pull up his mask and scrub over his eyes, because he's not a kid, he's Spider-Man, and he's gonna handle this just fine. No, really.
The door opens. Golden light floods the roof. He flinches and turns, shoving himself to his feet, ready with an apology and an explanation and a quick escape if need be— but then a figure steps out of the light, the edges of their features sharpening the further they get from the door. It's a woman, short and round, with a thin brown hair and a face knit with worry, her silhouette dominated by the enormous umbrella that haloes her head. She's dwarfed by her enormous green parka and the pair of thick rubber boots that she uses to wade through the puddles between them, coming closer. A fluffy white towel hangs over her arm, and she grips a red thermos in her free hand.
He squints, shields his eyes against the light with one hand. "The one and only," he says, trying for 'upbeat' and landing somewhere around 'hoarse.' "Can I help you?"
"No," she says meekly. She avoids meeting his eyes, instead staring holes into the roof. "Not exactly, I mean, um. I'm sorry to bother you."
"Don't sweat it," he says, bracing himself. "That's what I'm here for. What can I do for you?"
"I thought you might want these?" She thrusts the towel and the thermos at him, cheeks flaring bright red, still glaring at her shoes. "I heard you land on the roof and I figured you were just passing by, but then you stayed there for a while and I didn't watch you, I wasn't creepy, but I came out on the fire escape and you were still there. So. Um. You looked pretty miserable, and I figured these might help." She nods at the door, though which warm yellow light still leaks onto the roof. "You can also come inside and dry off, if you want to. But you don't have to. I know you probably have places to be."
Miles accepts the towel, which is still warm, as if she'd run it through the dryer before giving it to him. He swings it around his shoulders like a cape and immediately the warmth sinks straight through to his bones, fluffy and soft and so, so needed. The tension flees his shoulders in one massive sigh.
"And this," she says, emboldened by his acceptance, almost eager, "this is pasta fagioli. My wife made it."
"Thank you," he says, stunned, and wraps his hands around the thermos. The heat seeps through the metal and eases the stiffness out of his frozen fingers.
As if on cue, someone calls from the apartment below: "Elisa! Cosa stai facendo lassù?"
Elisa turns and yells, "Sto solo controllando un rumore strano! Torno subito!" To Miles, she adds hastily: "Sorry. I have to get back soon."
In somewhat stilted Italian, given that he only picked up some from the family that lives next door, he nods towards the door and says, "È tua moglie?"
Her face lights up. "Sì," she says, "Sì! Parli italiano?"
"Not really," he admits. "Just a little."
"Oh," she laughs. "Well, better than nothing." She knits her hands, a nervous tic, before bobbing a kind of bow and backing away. "Anyway, thank you for going out tonight. I know it's not nice weather to be out in. We're all grateful for it."
"My sister works late at her convenience store," she blurts, and averts her eyes. He waits for her to elaborate, but she doesn't. The rain sloughs off the side of her umbrella and creates a shield of water around them. "She, er . . . she often has to walk back to her bus stop and wait in the dark. Sometimes very late at night. Nothing ever happens, but . . . you know, those kinds of things do happen, sometimes, when it's dark. I used to get very afraid of her waiting for the bus all alone."
"Oh," he says.
"But it's better nowadays," she says. "I still worry. But not as much as I used to."
"Oh." What else is there to say? He clutches the thermos and tries not to feel small, but he does, under the weight of that enormous unspoken expectation, that enormous unspoken burden of gratitude. That Elisa trusts him with her sister's life. That he's spent all this time sitting around on the rooftop when there were people like Elisa's sister who were out there waiting in the rain, maybe needing him.
"So thank you," she says, and in a spurt of bravery, darts forward and clasps his hand. "Really."
"It's okay," he tries to assure her. "I mean, you're welcome. A su servicio, you know? Anytime. "
"If you keep your blood pumping you will stay warmer," she suggests. "Don't sit still in the rain. You will get soaked and your body temperature will sink faster. You should wear a poncho. The other one, he always wore a poncho."
"And invest in hand warmers," she advises. "Very good for keeping warm. The pocket ones, you can put them in the folds of the costume. And you should dry off as often as you can, even when you're working. Hypothermia sets in faster if you're wet."
He feels like he should be taking notes. She rattles off the suggestions like she's given it some thought. "Poncho, hand warmers, hypothermia. Gotcha."
"Don't get sick," she orders. "My sister has to work double shifts next week." Then she flushes an even brighter red, and squeezes his hand before hurrying back into the light of the doorway, swinging it swiftly shut behind her. Miles is left alone and somewhat dazed on an empty, darkened rooftop, with a towel draped around his shoulders and a thermos clasped in his hands.
Sometimes, Brooklyn says, the world will be cruel to you. When this happens, you can only do as you must. You cannot choose not to fight.
In the spring, things get easier. Less cold, less rain. The flowers start to bloom in the park, and some rooftop gardens have sprouted brilliant colors. The air tastes sweet, with the smoky undercurrent of industry that it always carries, but tempered by the spring breeze. The journey through New York's canopy becomes fun again, and patrols become considerably more enjoyable. The wind still kicks up sometimes, and the snow doesn't fade from the streets entirely until March, but he gets better at handling it, too. He remembers Elisa's advice and buys boxes of hand warmers to stash in his pockets during patrols, which help a lot, actually. He passes on the advice to Gwen. Crime's been up in her New York, so she can't come over as much, but with Peni's help they wire up an inter-dimensional wifi router that lets them text sometimes, which is nice.
Clear, starry evenings make for better patrols. So does six months of practice. He sweeps up onto the roof of an apartment building and nimbly sprints along the lip of its eaves, before leaping off and lassoing the building above. He swings himself in a perfect pendulum arc that vaults him two stories higher than before, twisting and arcing in midair, and he touches down on top of the taller building with a light grace that he thinks even Gwen would be impressed by. The movements flow into one another naturally, unthinkingly, the same way that running does. The rooftops of New York open up before him like an inviting obstacle course, all of them familiar terrain.
The streets are peaceful in twilight. So far, there's been little Spider-Man-ing to be had, which is fine by Miles — he likes a quiet night as much as anybody — but rare, for Brooklyn. So he takes his time and enjoys the view, throws up a few of his stickers in impossibly high places, and plugs in his earphones. The bass settles into his bones and thrums along in his diaphragm, low and rich. He dances a little bit along the roofs of each building he lights on, a shimmy here, a kick here, before he tosses himself off the edge into another leap. Sailing above the buzzing, glowing streets, with nothing but the wind beneath his feet and music blaring through his ears, flying — it's a really good night. So much that takes him by surprise when he hears gunshots.
With an expert swivel in midair, he swings narrowly around the corner of one building and zips off in the direction of the shots. His heartbeat kicks up, in part because of the sudden swoop of vertigo brought on by the change in direction, but mostly because even after six months, gunfire is still scary. He's dealt with armed criminals before, sure, but he's also not exactly familiar with it, and it's not like the suit is bulletproof. It takes a certain amount of steeling himself before he can make himself go towards the sound of gunshots instead of away from it. He doesn't know how his dad manages it every day.
Speaking of which, the shrill whine of a siren pierces the air. Police en route, possibly closer than Miles. He could turn away, but he doesn't. He's faster than they are by half, and if there's a chance he could get there first, he's got to take it. So he wings himself across the next few streets at top speed, whizzing around buildings and darting sideways across walls, leaping from block to block to block with the agility of a diving bird in flight. The closer he gets, the more his hairs stand on end. His blood surges and his heart beats out a klaxon urging him forward: Danger! Danger! Danger!
He skids to a halt on top of a roof overlooking a condemned lot, one of those places that was sold and bulldozed years ago and then summarily forgotten, left to accumulate debris. Yelps and shouts of pain echo around the arena. Two people there wrestle furiously, one bleeding from the mouth and the other with a bruised circle around their eye, flinging punches and clawing at each other as if they've both got nothing to lose. They're young. Almost as young as Miles, if he had to guess, although the injuries make it hard to tell. Ratty clothes, most of them stained. One of them favors his left side, probably because he can't see out the injured eye. A gun lies off to the side, knocked away in the scuffle. Maybe intentionally discarded. Miles takes it all in at a glance, and then, bracing himself, drops down.
He deliberately makes some noise as he lands, drawing their attention. The pair of them both let out little yells of shock and break apart, scuffling away on their hands and knees. The first one to get up rounds on Miles, fists balled,
"Hey, man, we don't want any trouble," one calls. "Just move along."
He's the taller of the two, with broad shoulders and only a light dusting of hair. He wears a baggy hoodie with holes worn through at the elbows, and dusty rings of exhaustion line his eyes. He's skittish. Vibrates on the balls of his feet when Miles appears like he's a split second away from either running or jumping him, and he's still making up his mind. For his own sake, Miles hopes he doesn't try the latter.
Miles turns to the other one, who's smaller and has his hair drawn back in a ponytail, with big, gaunt eyes, a narrow face, and skin drawn tight over bones like a sheet draped over a wire frame. The clothes hang off him, two sizes too big. Blood tracks its way down the side of his jaw and dribbles onto his shirt, which is dingy, much like the rest of him. When the other one moves, he flinches. He seems much happier to see Miles than the other guy, and Miles makes an educated guess.
"Hey, you all right?" He holds out his hand. The smaller one eyes it warily. "Can you get up?"
A sharp nod.
"You need a hand?"
A dithering tilt of the head, like he still doesn't trust Miles, but he grasps Miles' outstretched hand and struggles upright. He shifts his weight away from his right ankle. Twisted, Miles guesses, or sprained.
"What's your name?"
"Hey," the other insists loudly, "I said move along," and Miles holds up a hand to him.
"Hey, chill," he says, with a coolness he does not at all feel. "I'm just making conversation, man."
"You're not needed here, okay?"
"I'm Spider-Man," he says to the smaller one, ignoring the other. "You?"
"Nathan," he mumbles. His voice is soft and low.
"Nice to meet you, Nate. How's your night been? Doesn't seem like it's been great."
A shake of the head.
"You want me to leave too, Nate?"
Another pause. That's answer enough.
"Aight," he says, brushing off his hands, and turns to the other, all business. His heart's going into clinical cardiac arrest, but his voice comes out smooth, somehow. "I don't think my man Nate wants me to leave you two alone, so I'm just gonna go ahead and ask you to leave."
"Fuck no, I'm not gonna—"
"It wasn't a suggestion." Miles folds his arms and waggles his fingers at him, drawing attention to the web shooter. "We can do this one of two ways, you know? I don't wanna tie you up, but listen, I'll do what I gotta. This is all on you."
The big guy shifts from one foot to the other, reluctant. He glares.
"You not hear me or something? I said bail, my guy. Going once, going twice." Miles cocks his head, turning an ear to the west, where the distant wail of the siren is growing loud enough to be noticed even without super hearing. He drops his voice, straining for nonchalance. "Between you and me, the cops are gonna show up soon, so if you wanna be here when they do—"
It's enough. The big guy takes off running for the fence, where he wriggles through a gap in the chain links. Flashing one last dirty look at Nathan, he clambers into the alley beyond and darts away.
Miles exhales, long and shaky. A burst of adrenaline surges and then vanishes, leaving him loose-limbed and jittery. Thank God that worked. "Uh, so," he says, turning to Nathan, "do I want to know what that was about?"
Nathan rubs his arms. "I owe him some money," he says quietly. "It's just . . . it got out of hand."
Nathan gives him a dead-eyed stare and wipes some blood off his chin.
"Yeah, okay," Miles says, feeling himself flush. "Fair enough. You have anywhere to get that looked at?"
Nathan tips his head from side to side in a noncommittal movement. His jaw works. Then he turns to the side and demurely spits out a tooth. Miles winces.
"I know some basic first-aid," he offers. "If you need stitches, I can help you out. Um. I'm not really good at them, though, so you might wanna wait until you can get them from someone professional."
Nathan stares at him with an inscrutable expression. His eyes go wide, wide, wide.
"And don't put too much weight on that ankle, by the way. Even if it doesn't hurt that bad now, it doesn't mean it's not gonna start hurting bad later. Endorphins, you know? You probably want a splint for that, just looking at it. Maybe a cast."
The sirens come howling down the block, close enough that he can hear the snarl of the car's motor. He instinctively steps back. "I gotta go," he says apologetically. "The police and I, you know, we're . . . I mean, we're not on bad terms, right, but it's just—"
"I get it," Nathan says quietly.
"—better not to run into each other," Miles finishes. "Right. So, um. I'll just—"
Footsteps pound against the ground, and there's the whine of feedback from a walkie-talkie, and shit, they're closer than Miles thought. "Sorry," he blurts, and then pops out of sight, scrambling up the fence and then webbing a building to pull himself up just as an officer rounds the corner and runs into the lot.
He bites his tongue and clings tighter to the wall. It's Sally Gonzalez, one of his dad's work friends. She's come over for dinner several times; Miles had play-dates with her son, Tommy, when they were both in elementary school. One of the things that she and his dad have in common is their opinion on Spider-Man.
"We heard gunshots," Sally says, guarded. She steps forward carefully, one hand hovering over her taser, the other on her gun. "Is there a problem here?"
Nathan turns his head and looks — impossibly, improbably, because he can't see him, Miles knows he can't — straight at Miles.
"Used to be," he says.
"Got in a fight," Nathan says. "Other guy ran."
"He just ran away?"
Nathan maintains eye contact with Miles. He says, "Yep."
"Why did he do that?" Sally doesn't believe him. She scans the lot with an unimpressed look. Miles thinks too late of the strands of webbing he left dangling from the building that he dropped down from, free-floating streamers of silk flapping in the wind like giant neon billboards: SPIDER-MAN WAS HERE!
Come on, Nathan. Please, buddy. Please.
"Dunno," says Nathan.
"There was no . . . intervening actor? Someone who might still be nearby?" An edge of excitement tinges her tone. Spider-Man is a bigger catch than some kid who got in a scuffle. Miles holds his breath.
Nathan slips his hands in his pockets. "Can't say."
"Your attacker just stopped of his own accord." Unimpressed.
"Sir," Sally says thinly, "I can tell when someone is lying to me."
"Apparently not," says Nathan.
A rush of something warm, almost burning hot, floods Miles' chest.
Sally knows when she's not going to get anything, and her shoulders drop slightly. Jaw square and set with frustration, she exhales through her teeth. As she turns to leave, she says, "For the record, covering up for a vigilante is considered an obstruction of justice, by law."
Nathan lifts his jaw and wipes away another trickle of blood. Miles slowly starts to crawl up the building, hand over hand, his nerves still alight. Before he slides out of earshot, he hears one last snatch of the conversation.
"I ain't obstructing justice," Nathan says. "I'm obstructing you."
But Brooklyn changes its tone, now, and hesitates: You can, however, choose not to fight alone.
May sweeps into New York on a rush of warm air, and it brings with it the Vulture, fresh out of prison and no more friendly towards New York's second Spider-Man than its first.
The costume's a bit of a Green Goblin rip-off, Miles thinks skeptically, diving to avoid the sweep of one razor-sharp wing. Green lacquered armor, flight capability, clawed fingertips, ghoulish mask. None of it's very original. And what's with the green, anyway? It's not like vultures are green. They're black. And definitely not armored. Kind of a confused motif, if you ask Miles.
"Do you take design notes?" He webs the edge of one wing, but it backfires when the Vulture snaps it back and wheels Miles around with it, sending him hurtling through the air until he catches himself on the fire escape of a nearby brick apartment building. "No? Thought not."
The Vulture snarls. Not one for mid-fight repartee, apparently. Their fight has carried them up to the southern edge of Prospect Park, whose trees are lush and emerald in spring, although a trail of rubble left behind them traces their path across the borough. Miles tried to keep them away from residential areas, but there's only so much that he can do when the Vulture keeps trying to bludgeon him to death.
"I mean, it's just uninspired," he huffs, standing up, and then doing a handspring to get out of the way as the Vulture lunges again with his claws. "At least Doc Ock had a cool color scheme."
A trio of bladed claws whiz past the place where his head was not a second ago, and he hisses a breath through his teeth. He webs two nearby buildings and slingshots himself forward, sailing high out of reach. The Vulture soars after him. "Google 'color theory,'" he calls over his shoulder. "And then google 'vulture,' actually! That is, if you can still get wifi when you're in jail. You probably can't. Maybe that's why you look like a turtle at a steampunk convention." He lands on the rooftop and shoots a trio of webs for the Vulture's face and hands. Two miss, but one hits, and he uses it to wheel the Vulture around like a shot put. The armored villain shrieks in surprise as he's vaulted back towards the park, and Miles leaps after him, sprinting across the rooftops to keep pace.
"I mean, it's just embarrassing," he calls. He runs his mouth more when he's fighting supervillains, he notices. It's not necessarily something he tries to do. But he's got to do something with the nervous energy building up in his stomach, and cracking jokes is better than screaming, so he does. It distracts him from how dangerous it is, what he's doing. "You ever see me out there in a hoodie and sweats? No. It's called professionalism, dude."
The Vulture rattles off a few death threats and leaps for him. Miles flickers out of sight and then slips to the side, sending the Vulture flying forward with his own momentum. He plummets down to the street at Machate Circle, and whistling, Miles hops after him.
He pops back into view as the Vulture staggers upright. He left a crater in the asphalt where he hit the street. Cars screech to a halt in front of the intersection and people climb out, cell phone cameras flashing, as Miles strolls towards the Vulture with his hands perched airily on his hips. "Hope you're gonna pay for that," he says, pointing at the dent in the concrete. "Public infrastructure is hella expensive, you know."
"You're toying with things you don't understand, child," Vulture growls. The dude's got gnarly teeth and a lisp, which Miles would find kind of funny, under normal circumstances. It's just such a mundane affect for a supervillain. "You have no idea what you've brought upon yourself."
"Bad costume choices?" Miles suggests. "A kind of sucky Sunday afternoon?"
"It's Spider-Man, actually. You're thinking of my sidekick." Miles jumps up on a car and uses the leverage to flip over the Vulture's head, trying to web the neck. It doesn't work, since the Vulture sees what he's planning and scampers backward, claws skittering against the pavement. With a beat of his wings, he bears down on Miles from above, forcing Miles to web a tree and fly backward out of his range. He accidentally knocks out a few branches as he scrambles to make a stable landing.
The Vulture stalks forward. "You are meddling in places where you do not belong." He flaps his wings and jumps again, soaring down upon Miles and pushing him further back. Miles backpedals fast. His muscles begin to ache. They've been going at this for hours, and it's not like Miles has a battery-powered suit making things easier for him.
"Seems to me like you're the one doing that," Miles manages, although it's a little breathless. "What are you doing out of prison, again?"
"So quick," the Vulture purrs. He lashes out with one claw, and Miles skips further back, retreating further into the park. It isn't a good move. The trees aren't tall enough to give him significant leverage, and the Vulture can fly, but without a nearby building to latch onto— "So clever."
"Wish I could say the same for you," Miles grits out, and then flings another trio of webs, these ones seeking purchase wherever they can. The Vulture merely reaches out and catches them, snaring all three in his enormous clawed hands.
Miles realizes what he's doing too late. The Vulture wrenches him forward, and the other armored fist comes rushing up to meet him. It's too fast for Miles to catch.
The punch slams into him like the hammer of God, knocking him clean out of the Vulture's grasp, sending him flying dozens of feet before he drops and skids to a halt. He rolls onto his hands and knees, trying to flip back onto his feet, but then the world lurches and he topples down onto his elbows. For a moment, his vision sways and blurs. Pain radiates from the whole right side of his face, so intense it becomes hard to think, hard to feel anything but the fire running up his jaw. Distantly, he hears the crunch of grass underfoot as the Vulture approaches with long, leisurely strides.
"So small," the Vulture muses, and a boot comes down on Miles' back. Shoves him down, belly to the earth, and he struggles, but the world still won't stop spinning. "So very like . . . an insect." He kneels, bringing his ugly, pinched face close to Miles. "Do you know what we do to insects, when we catch them somewhere they don't belong?"
Come on, Spider-Man.
Miles' breath comes harsh and fast. He plants his hands in the ground and tries to roll out of the way, but he's stopped by the Vulture digging in his heel.
Get up, Spider-Man. You gotta get up. Come on.
"We kill them," the Vulture murmurs. The tip of one claw brushes against the back of Miles' neck .
Get up! Get up! It becomes a panicked refrain, bouncing around the inside of his skull, but he can't, he strains and strains but he can't budge the armored limb pressing him into the dirt, and the more he thinks about it the more his thoughts collapse into a cycle of panic, get up get up get up get up and oh God he doesn't want to die—
A rock bounces off the Vulture's hull.
The Vulture pulls away and wheels around, face wrinkled in bemusement. Miles rolls onto his side and shoves himself up on one elbow, in time to see another rock come hurtling out of the trees and smack the Vulture on his shoulder.
A kid steps out from between the trees. She's small, reedy, with twin puffs of curly black hair is twisted up on either side of her head, and in her face is set the most furiously determined expression Miles has ever seen on anybody, superhuman or otherwise. She wears a black Spider-Man t-shirt, and she's smeared twin stripes of dirt under her eyes like war paint.
Another rock sits ready in her slingshot. She points at the Vulture, who blinks, perhaps too surprised to react.
"Step away from the superhero," she warns him. Her voice is high and tinny. It doesn't shake at all.
The Vulture tilts his head. "What are you doing?"
Run, Miles thinks, panicked. The Vulture is huge and she doesn't stand a chance, and he can't help her when he's pinned like this. He starts wriggling, trying to slip free.
"I'm saving Spider-Man," she informs him, cool and matter-of-fact, as though she's already made up her mind.
"I said leave us, little girl."
"And I said step away from him." She squares her shoulders aims her slingshot between his eyes, as if for all the world she's wielding a weapon of mass destruction instead of a toy.
The Vulture narrows his eyes. "Exceptionally brave," he says. "Unfortunately stupid."
"I warned you," says the kid, and she shoots her third rock. The Vulture bats it away effortlessly, but the movement shifts his weight off Miles, who rolls out from underneath his foot. But there's not enough time to get up, and between one breath and the next the Vulture seizes him by the neck, lifting him high. Miles' feet churn empty air. He grapples with the hand around his neck. He tries to concentrate enough for a venom strike, but it's next to impossible with the airflow to his lungs slowly but surely thinning and nothing to ground him.
Another rock bounces off the side of his armor, this one from a different direction. The Vulture spins.
A businessman in a pinstriped suit shuffles out from below the shade of the trees. His hair is parted immaculately, his Oxfords spotless, and a fine leather briefcase sits rested against the nearest rock. He looks damned uncomfortable to be there, with his crisp blue pocket square and tie, but he nevertheless stoops to pick up another rock.
"Well," he calls nervously. "You heard her."
The Vulture laughs, every bit as incredulous as Miles feels. "Charming," he says. "Isn't that just. You realize, of course, that—"
Another rock dings against the back of his head, and he snarls, spinning again to face the third interloper: a skinny, green-haired teenager, rocking dark smudged makeup and more leather than Miles has seen on most bikers, already bending to grab another projectile.
"Three on one," she calls. Her voice is hoarse, and thin, and it trembles when the Vulture turns the full weight of his attention on her, but she lifts her second shot threateningly despite the evident terror in her face. "Come the fuck on, you avacado-looking bitch."
"¡Por aquí, cabrón!"
A hunched, elderly woman with her grey hair pinned back low against her scalp and a cane wielded menacingly in her fist shuffles into the clearing, her face knit with absolute scorn. She grips her scarf with one gnarled hand and curls her lip.
"Suéltalo," she warns the Vulture, and it isn't clear what she means to do if he doesn't, but the threat is apparent enough for Miles to flinch.
"What," the Vulture seethes, "on earth—"
"She said let go of him, asshole!" Another woman darts into the clearing behind the elderly one, tense and on edge, but chin held high, dark hair pulled back in the same fashion as her mother's. She scoops up a rock of her own.
"You need her to repeat herself?"
Sixth, seventh, and eighth civilians step into the clearing, holding various rocks and sticks and whatever other hand-sized projectiles they can find, wearing jogging clothes. One of them still has her earbuds in, and Miles can hear the faint tish-tish-tish of her music pounding from the speakers, thrumming like the frenetic pulse of his heart.
"She means scram," the eighth clarifies. "Get out. We don't want you here."
"Beat it, fucko."
"Get out of Brooklyn!"
"Get out of New York!"
"¡Vete a la chingada!"
More civilians appear out of the trees, the ring swelling to a crowd. Dressed in everything from suits to sweatpants, they stream off the streets, packing tighter and tighter until there is no escape but through their ranks. Voices rising into an angry chorus, like a swarm of buzzing hornets, pelting stones and various debris at the suited supervillain, loud and rude and furious, cussing him out in a dozen different languages. Nothing in common, no unifying thread. And despite their number, they speak with one voice: Let him go.
The Vulture's grip slackens. Then Miles drops to the ground, gasping breaths of sweet, relieving air. The black spots fade from his vision. He's barely landed before he's scrambling to stand again, trying to drum up the energy for a venom strike, when gentle hands wrap around his shoulders and draw him up. They bear him back into the bulk of the crowd, away from the clearing, as firm as they are careful, and he is passed backward into the close-knit ranks of the anonymous passersby, who pass him gingerly from arm to arm until a thick barrier of people stands between him and the Vulture. He is surrounded on all sides by a human shield.
They keep ranks for the entire ten minutes it takes for the PDNY to show up. Even then, the shield doesn't drop, and it's not until the squad cars are pulling away that the military discipline of the crowd drops.
With a great murmuration of relief, the group begins to dissipate. Some leave with a kind brush to Miles' shoulders or hands; some simply walk away, as if having done nothing remarkable at all, and get back into their cars and drive back off to their perfectly ordinary, extraordinary lives, nothing more than perfectly ordinary, extraordinary people. The man in the pinstriped suit hails a taxi. The teenager with the green hair wanders into the park. The old woman pinches Miles' cheek and then leaves on her daughter's arm. They vanish into their own private lives and become strangers again, united only by the bond of having once done something unthinkably brave.
The last one to go is the little girl, who stands there silently, waiting for everyone to leave. The clearing is empty save for her and Miles when the last stragglers hurry off. Miles shifts from one foot to the other, uncertain of what to say, and ultimately clears his throat and says, "Thanks."
"A su servicio," she says simply. Then she grins, and waves her slingshot at him, before scampering into the trees.
Miles blinks several times in quick succession. There's something blurry over his eyes, and after checking that there's nobody around to see, he reaches under his mask. His fingers come away wet.
In reality, of course, Brooklyn is an area. It's a set of socially constructed geographical boundaries, serving as home to 2.649 million people. It can't talk.
But if it could, it might say something like this.
Miles' parents are watching the news when he gets home. Footage of the scene in Machate Circle plays, with a ribbon of headlines running underneath it: CIVILIANS FORM HUMAN SHIELD TO SAVE SPIDER-MAN; SPIDER-MAN RESCUED BY GROUP ACTION; BLACKIE DRAGO TAKEN INTO POLICE CUSTODY; SPIDER-MAN, RESCUED; SPIDER-MAN, SAVED.
He turns away and scrubs his eyes.
"Hey, Miles," his mom calls. "How was Ganke's house?"
"Uh, it was fine."
"Did you have fun?"
"Get some studying done?"
He makes a beeline for his bedroom, hoping they won't see his face. He knows for a fact his eyes are still red, and he's got a bruise around his throat that his hoodie doesn't do a single thing to hide, and he really, really isn't up for any kind of conversation right now, let alone that one—
"Miles," his dad calls.
He stops, rooted to the spot. Turns, plastering a smile on his face.
"You see this?" His dad gestures incredulously to the television.
"You mean the Spider-Man thing?" Miles makes a show of looking at the screen briefly, then flicks his eyes away. Feigns disinterest. "Yeah, I heard about that." It's not technically a lie, anyway.
"It's incredible, right?"
He shrugs aggressively. "I guess."
His mom clucks her tongue. "They're lucky it turned out so well," she says worriedly, and his dad takes a deep breath.
Miles braces himself for a tirade. What kind of idiots must these people be, protecting Spider-Man? I mean, look at them, they're not prepared to fight, did you see the age of that little girl? This is why he's a bad influence, you see what he made them do? I've been saying this for years, vigilantes are bad for society, the police could have handled it just fine . . .
"They really love him," he says, and it knocks the breath out of Miles.
"I mean, I don't agree with him," his dad says, with a note of resignation. "God knows. I still think he's out of his jurisdiction. But when you've got people willing to make that kind of thing happen, to do that for you? Someone who can bring people together like that? That's powerful." He pauses. "It's not every day you find someone the city loves that much."
He looks at Miles out of the corner of his eye, with a suggestion of a knowing glint, and an electric bolt of fear goes down Miles' spine: He knows.
But then his dad looks away, indifferent. "Anyway," he says, and shuts off the TV. He stands, stretching. "Who's up for Thai?"
Miles settles somewhat. No, he was imagining things. A trick of the light. He's still jumpy from almost getting killed. His dad would be all up in Miles' business the instant he so much as suspected anything was off; if he thought Miles was Spider-Man, he would do more than just wink.
"I'm starving," his mom agrees. "Miles?"
They turn expectantly to him. He stands there, frozen in place, mouth moving wordlessly.
"I, um," he says. "I have . . . homework to do."
His mom's brow furrows. "On a Friday night?"
"Yeah," he says. "And I have, uh . . . a test. On Monday. And a paper. There's a lot."
He tenses as she frowns, biting her lip.
"They give them so much work," she complains to his dad, and Miles sags with relief.
His dad leaps to his defense. "I'm sure the teachers know what they're doing," he says. "Miles can handle it, can't you, Miles?"
"Yep," Miles chirps, edging towards his bedroom. "Absolutely, Dad."
"But it's a Friday! Kids should be having fun on Friday nights."
"And he will, once he's finished with his homework," his dad says proudly, and nods at Miles.
"He can do it tomorrow," his mom laments, but she's already wandering towards the door, leaving Miles to inch further and further into the safety of his room.
"Never do tomorrow what you can do today."
"Don't you quote Charles Dickens at me, Jefferson Davis. 'If it weren't for the last minute, nothing would get done.'"
"Rita Mae Brown."
"Have fun on your date," Miles yells, slipping into his room, and he receives an identical pair of scoldings through the bedroom door.
The front door opens and shuts, and then he wilts against the wall.
There is a lump in his throat and it feels like it's been there for months. His knees buckle, and he slides to the ground, landing with his back against the door. He draws his knees up to his chest, and finally, in the security of an empty house, he lets himself weep.
He tries to stifle it into his elbow, but the tears keep coming, fast and hot as the burning ember that's somehow become caught between his lungs. He isn't sad, or angry, or frustrated, and so it takes a moment to realize why.
He's happy. Bright, white-hot, searingly happy, so happy that the only way to express it is to cry. Happy in a way that's not foreign not exactly, but unexpected, because he's never felt it on this scale before. It is the unbearable and overwhelming sensation of being loved.
After what feels like an hour, he dries his eyes and clambers to his feet. His legs are still shaky, so he drops into his desk chair without grace and gives himself a moment to breathe. Gives himself a moment to think.
He pulls his sketchbook out of his backpack and cracks it open on the desk. Uncapping his pen with a crisp flourish, he begins to draw.
Here is the love song that Brooklyn hums, hidden beneath car horns, tire screeches, sirens, bird chatter, the hum of electricity, and the raucous voices of two and a half million people, shouting in chorus: You may be alone, but you are never unloved.
There is a building within sight of the Brooklyn Bridge that was condemned a few years ago. As such, it's known for being home to squatters and ample amounts of street art, and its walls are in a more or less constant state of being layered over by different artists, each of them dropping a tag or a quick sketch to mark their turf. The neon colors of ten years' worth of graffiti papers over the dark brick, swoops and bubbles of spray paint clashing and fading into each other, patterns and figures jumping out at random like an autostereogram. Most of it stops below the second story, because any higher than that is impossible to reach without a ladder.
Or rather, it's impossible for most people.
Miles slips out his window a little after midnight. He leaves a note for his parents about heading to school early and heads towards the Bridge, leaving a trail of silken strands fluttering in his wake.
It takes him sixteen cans of spray paint, all told. His arms ache from clambering up and down the wall for hours on end. He's so tired he can barely think straight. He's going to be useless in class today, he just knows it. But it's worth it; as the glowing suggestion of dawn buds on the horizon, Miles swings up to a nearby roof and surveys his finished creation.
The mural is enormous. It swallows the three upper stories of the condemned building, corner to corner, encompassing every bare inch of cracked and crumbling brick. Popping out from the dull facades of the building's neighbors, Miles' art shines like a neon beacon, massive and impossible to ignore.
Hundreds upon hundreds of people in Spider-Man costumes stare out from the wall, dancing, leaping, twirling, arcing, hand in hand and moving together in one long crowd. Most of them are life-sized, although some are smaller, peering out from behind shoulders, ducking under arms, or tucked away in the odd corner of blank space. The costumes themselves are every one unique, each to each, different colors, different styles, different logos, different designs; the only common thread is the spider on their chests. The river of people loops and sways across the building, shoulder to shoulder and hand to hand, faces lit with joy and determination. Some of them have their masks down, to reveal their faces, while others are hidden behind the wide, expressive eyes of the mask. Some are tall. Some are short. Some are fat. Some are skinny. Some crouch shyly near the windows, while others fling their limbs wide out in bombastic expressions of joy as they soar across the wall, strung up by white silk of their web-shooter. Little marks and dots of color draw lines of movement through the piece, so it looks like the crowd of spider-people are themselves moving, ready to surge off the wall and leap onto the streets of Brooklyn.
Miles thinks about tagging it, but he decides not to. It's clear enough.
He sits down on the edge of the building and gazes at his work. Pulls out his phone and grabs a quick photo, texts it to Gwen.
goddamn, she replies. that yours?
that's amazing, miles.
The dawn grows ever more insistent. He tips his head towards the rising sun, just breaking the surface of the bay, turning the water to sheer white glass where it touches the horizon. It paints the eastern side of New York in liquid rose gold, washing over ancient streets and young buildings and millions of upturned faces that peer over a million hunched shoulders to greet the oncoming morning. With a grumble and a sigh and the shrill anacrusis of birdsong, the city lifts its head and bares its teeth, its same old weathered face presented to the wind.
Miles stands, lit half in gold and half in perfect shadow. He smiles. The city smiles back.