New York City, NY --- Empire State University
Peter didn’t know that his bones could ache. He figured it was mostly reserved for muscles stretched to their limits, pulled during whatever flips or acrobatic hijinks he got up to during his nightly spider crawls.
Or from pulling down an X-Man’s car… He still felt pangs of pain from that one, now and again, but it was mostly overshadowed by the way his ribs still made a tiny crunching noise with every sway of his body as he walked towards Doctor Connors’ lab.
“...and christ, Peter, you’re lucky to be walking at all!” Gwen was in step with him, strawberry blonde hair tucked back behind her black hairband. He found himself trying to meet her eyes, only for the sunshine’s flash in his vision to punish him with waves of nausea.
At this rate I’m happy I walked away with my life.
“Well, y’know. Bed rest is a wonder drug.” Peter said. He stumbled and tried to reach out to catch himself, but his arm caught in it’s nylon sling and he pitched forward. Then he felt Gwen’s hand grab his opposite elbow. She pulled him back, gently, righting him on the pavement. His cheeks burned. He swallowed.
“Uh, thanks.” Peter pulled his arm back into himself, reaching over his own chest to adjust the strap of his bag.
“Don’t mention it, Pete.” Gwen sighed. She tucked an escaped strand of hair behind her ear and began to fish for her lab keycard in her jacket pocket.
The lab hadn’t suffered much during the MSF’s attacks -- the Connors were bolted in their apartment in Queens, and the place was locked down like a fortress when they weren’t in. When Michael Morbius wasn’t making after hours visits, anyways. That still rubbed Peter the wrong way. At least Morbius had his run in with Spider-Man to think about, instead of whatever he was sniffing out over--
“Have you been here? Since, yknow?” Gwen’s voice broke his concentration.
“You know I haven’t been coming to the lab, Gwen.” Peter offered his arm, and the fabric of the strap brushed against his neck. Gwen frowned.
“I mean the campus, Pete.” Her voice was soft. She fiddled with the door, and she rotated her ID too many times, trying to make the keycard fit into the slot. Her hands were shaking.
Peter remembered the carnage he saw on the streets, the infected civilians tearing each other apart. They would’ve turned each other into mincemeat if he hadn’t stepped in. But he saw it from a bug’s eye view, a Spider skittering in and webbing all the problems away. Tie people down, make them stop. He hadn’t seen it like they would have, friends and neighbors ripping each other’s throats out with bare teeth.
At least he’d been there, to stop them. All up and down the road from the Queens-Midtown tunnel. But he hadn’t been here. He looked at the campus green, squinting against the light refracted off the morning dew. He thought about what he’d seen on the news, how you couldn’t see much of the grass beneath a coating of red. Like the outline of May’s eyes when he dragged himself through the door.
“No. No I haven’t.” Peter said. Gwen’s keycard found its way into the slot. A green readout flashed and plexiglass doors receded, opening to the lab.
Every time Peter had to take a leave, some part of him assumed the lab would change on his return. Science stops for no one, that sort of thing. But the lizards still hid in their cages, snaking between miniature plant shoots and resting their bodies in warm pools of water. Watching. Waiting. The greenery still hung in its pots, like the gardens of babylon. No, this time the only difference was that Michael Morbius had his shirt off.
Mrs. Connors was towards the back, fitting a glass slide into a microscope, while the Doctor himself had Morbius sat up on the central table, with his button up shirt sitting off somewhere in the distant reaches of the lab. Still, if Peter hadn’t looked twice, he would’ve thought Morbius was wearing a vest. Something inky and black was wound around Morbius’ chest. It was a band as thick as the tac armor Peter had seen on the Enforcers, but throbbing with every beat of Morbius’ heart. The substance was traced with lines like steel cords, their color distorting and shifting through the spectrum of black as liquid shifted through it. At its edges, it was rooted into Morbius, black tentacles spliced with skin and plunging the depths of his chest cavity. It’s thickest point was the center of Morbius’ chest -- right where Peter had tagged him with the suit.
Peter thought about the word OsCorp scientists had used to describe the suit before its breakout. Symbiote.
Gwen tapped Peter’s arm and stepped away, heading towards the rack of labcoats. Peter stepped forward. Doctor Connors flipped through his charts, holding a tablet against his chest and sliding through it with his thumb.
“We can do more for you than the hospitals can, Michael, but… Well, the prognosis isn’t exactly positive.” Connors said. Morbius ground his teeth.
“The children have arrived, Doktor.” Morbius snapped. He pushed himself off the table and Doctor Connors lurched backwards, out of his way. Morbius swiped a towel from the workbench and draped it over across his shoulders like a fine silk. He moved away without a word, evidently content to sulk in the corner.
“Mr. Parker! Great to see you.” Doctor Connors placed his tablet on the table and smoothed the folds out of his labcoat. Peter still saw the screen lying against the table, readouts and bright red exclamation points surrounding a 3D image of a black mass of tissue.
“How do you put up with him, Doc? He just--” Peter began. His eyes followed the Vlatavan scientist, struggling into his labcoat from across the way, wedging the buttons closed over the mass of black symbiote sealing his chest.
“He’s having a rough time. We all our, in our own ways. How are you feeling?” Doc’s hand was on Peter’s shoulder. Something in his muscles tightened and he pulled away. He rubbed at it with his free hand.
“Better, mostly. Docs say another few weeks in this thing.” Peter lied. A few days was more likely, it seemed like the suit had a way of helping him bounce back. Doctor Connors looked at him from over the rims of his glasses.
“Peter. I mean how’re you, y’know,” he made a vague gesture with his hands, “feeling?”
Aside from getting crippled by Mo, Larry, and Curly? Peachy, Doc, just peachy. The Enforcers were probably laughing their way to the bank with a fat paycheck by now, all for squashing the spider. And here he was, almost a month later, still nursing the same damn hits.
“Fine, I guess.” Peter mumbled. He started to turn towards the labcoats.
“Son, you don’t just… You don’t just see something like that with your own eyes and, and…” Connors said, searching for the words.
Son, you don’t just -- what don’t I, Connors? Do you wanna go a round with Megawatt and his merry minstrels?
“What are our goals today, Doctor Connors? Further assessment of formulae bonding agents?” Gwen appeared to rescue him, with Peter’s labcoat draped across her arm.
“Uh, yes, Ms. Stacy. There’s a crate of testing materials over by Martha’s station.” Connors offered.
“We’ll get right to it! C’mon, Parker.” Gwen hooked her arm through Peter’s and dragged him across the linoleum, parking him at his station. “D’ya need help with your coat?”
“I’ll figure it out,” Peter grumbled. He accepted the smock and threw it over his back, now attempting to jam his good arm into an appropriate hole.
“Doctor Connors is right, you know.” Gwen had already placed a test slide in her microscope, and set to calibrating the focus, twisting each knob.
“What, about Morbius?” Peter finally pushed his arm through and began fumbling for his own slide, groping about the hard surface of the table. But his eyes tracked Morbius, snaking between the tables towards Doctor Connors.
“About you. You sneak out of the house the night of the worst terrorist attack in the world, and you’re just… Good?” Gwen shook her head. “I don’t believe it for a minute.”
“I’m fine, Gwen.” Peter said. He had already stopped grabbing for the slide and watched as Morbius and Connors talked in hushed tones. Connors hand was open and his shoulders were up, shrugging. Morbius’ shoulders were like low points, stabbing out of the top of his labcoat.
“Even Flash is worried about you, Pete.” Gwen said. Peter recoiled. He turned to face her.
“Flash? Now that I don’t believe. That meathead has never--” He started.
“He was also asking about you after what happened to Ben. You’ve been through a lot. You’re allowed to… To hurt.” Gwen cut him off. She reached for him but he stepped aside. He stepped past her and around boxes of equipment, making for Martha Connors’ workstation.
“Can we drop it, please? I’m going to get the materials.” Peter turned. Then, there was a crash across the lab, shattered glass and twisted metal bouncing across linoleum tiling.
“I need better, Connors!” Morbius roared. The Vlatavan towered over the Doctor, and the first several buttons on his labcoat had burst, revealing the black mass that swelled with every breath he took. The twisted remains of a microscope swept off the table lay at his feet.
“I need you to calm down, Michael--” Connors pinwheeled backwards, nearly tripping himself on the hem of his labcoat.
“Calm down?” Morbius spat. He stabbed his finger into his chest. “This thing is killing me!”
“Michael, Michael--” Connors made eyes backwards and Pete and Gwen, trying to keep his body between Morbius and the children, “the organism is affecting your amygdala. I need you to take deep breaths.”
Morbius sucked in a breath. Every muscle in his face was shaking, and his pale features had flushed fire truck red. “You will find an antidote, Connors.” The more Michael talked the further his accent crept into his voice, his finger jammed harder and harder into Connors’ chest.
“We will Michael. I promise you.” Connors put his hand around the other scientist’s and met his eyes. “We will.”
Michael stared back at him for a long time. He wrenched his hand back and set to unbuttoning his lab coat as he made for the door. “A promise isn’t good enough.”
The door dinged cherrily as they slid open and Morbius stormed out. Martha Connors rushed to her husband's side, sweeping him into her arms.
“Sweetheart, are you --?” Doctor Connors waved her off.
“I’m fine dear, I’m fine.” Connors said. He straightened his coat and ran his hand through his hair. “Kids, I’m sorry you had to see that.”
It was only then Peter realized he’d been up on the balls of his feet, muscles tightening even as his ribs protested. His suit had already snuck its way up past his legs, beneath his jeans, and was already winding together around his torso. He rocked backwards against a lab table and it receded, rushing back down his body.
“It happens, Doctor Connors. Like you said. It’s a tough time.” Gwen was the first to speak.
“I… Yes, I… I suppose so.” Connors scratched the back of his head. “Kids I, um, want to thank you for coming out, but you can take off, if you’d like. I think Martha and I are going to cool down for a little while.”
“It’s fine, Doctor. Science stops for no one. Peter and I can wrap this up and we’ll get out of your hair.” Gwen offered. Peter nodded and shifted his eyes to the ground. He went for the box.
“I appreciate it, Gwen.” Connors nodded to them. “Thank you.”
By the end of it, Peter and Gwen had the process down like clockwork, rotating each slide in and out and scribbling notes about bonding agent efficacy, effects on the tested stem cells and resultant implications for formula stability. It was a grind but with each slide was progress, a little closer to cracking the code. It meant something.
Unlike that fight with the Enforcers. The loss burned in Peter’s mind, bubbling up with every pang of pain from his body. There had to be some way to beat them. They had mentioned they were a squad of Enforcers, right? Were they from some other organization? At the very least they were in Tombstone’s pocket. And then on top, on account of them he had to pretend he had some troubled home life that lead him to sneaking out and getting beaten on the streets. Fun fun fun. As if Ben wasn’t on his ass enough already. And now Gwen was looking over at him every five minutes like she kept seeing a new sick puppy.
“So. How’s it going for you?” Peter broke their silence.
Gwen shrugged. “The protein-chain solutions seem the most effective so far, ” She began.
“No, I mean,” Peter sighed. “This has gotta be the fifth time someone has said something like this today, but how are… Well, you?”
Gwen looked back at him. Her bangs framed her eyes. “To be honest? Not stellar. Dad’s been on the warpath lately. With what Captain America did, and Spider-Man out there somewhere? He’s not, um. Handling it super great.”
Peter cracked a grin. “Then he’s gonna flip when he hears the Spider-Man song you guys have been working on.”
“God, no,” Gwen said. She looked down and began jotting in another row of notes. “We dropped that last month.”
Peter nearly dropped his next slide. “You what?”
“I mean, he attacked a Hospital.” Gwen said.
Everybody reads the Daily friggin’ Bugle…
“Uh, yeah. True.” Peter pressed his eye into the microscope, seeing proteins list into each other, one at a time.
Maybe once I find a way to flush the Enforcers out I can find the time to bump up my street cred…
“You almost ready to head out?” Gwen asked.
“Last one.” Peter reported. Gwen had already started breaking down her station, packing away slides and research notes into marked file folders.
“Hey, Pete?” Gwen said.
“Hey, yeah?” Peter responded. He pulled the last slide off of his observation deck.
“I know you’re trying to be tough guy about, well, everything. But, really honestly, if you ever want to talk. I’m here. Okay?” Gwen squeezed his shoulder.
Peter turned up his eyes to meet hers. Brilliant and baby blue and piercing. Like she could see into his soul. He looked back down. “Thanks, Gwen. Really.”
She squeezed again and left his side to hang up her lab coat. Peter pushed back from his station and rolled his shoulder, judging the feeling in his arm.
Still another day or two until I can hold a webline, but… I’m coming for you, Enforcers. I’m coming.