I arrive back in my own universe with a sound like a car engine being torn apart by an uncaring God. Faulty landing messes something up in my shoulder, but no worse than the other one, which took the brunt of the Scorpion’s tail about half an hour ago. Kind of nice to have a matched set. Symmetry.
By the time I haul myself to my feet I’ve grown an audience. Old guy, face maybe familiar, shored up in a pile of cardboard on the corner of—I check the signs—Delancey and Allen. I sigh, rubbing my eyes, and belatedly give the guy a reassuring wave. He subsides back to his bottle. I wonder where he got it.
Nothing in my pockets but lint and that odd cube I stole from the other Peter’s Aunt, and there’s no way I’m passing that to this old man, so I finish my wave and stumble my way away through the snow.
Delancey and Allen. Long way from home. Long, painful way, with both shoulders the way they are.
But not, my tired mind suggests, a long way from her.
The Black Cat’s in the Bowery proper, up back behind the soup kitchen. I flash back a little, fatigue and pain shaking time loose from its foundations—or maybe that’s the aftershocks from the literal time-travel—to the first time old Ben Urich brought me here. I was so angry back then, young and angry. I’m still angry now, when I remember to be, or maybe when I forget to not be. If that’s even a meaningful distinction. But it’s different, now.
I’m tired, now.
Not too tired to duck into an alley on the way and pull off my mask and gloves, though, make myself a little more presentable, a little more nondescript.
There’s a kid on the door—sweet-faced, blond, looks way better suited to grifting or Hollywood hustling than muscling anybody out, but maybe he’s just look-out, maybe there’s some guy built like a brick shithouse hiding in the alley ready to put me through the wall if I look too much like a pig. I wince, send a silent apology to my new friend. A cop. Ham doesn’t need the unflattering comparison.
I must pass muster, because the kid just gives me a half-appraising, half-pitying look. “You need a doctor, Mister?”
He’s not as young as I thought at first—got fooled by the gams. My age, maybe. Eyes like a too-hot summer sky. “I know a guy,” he continues, taking a step closer, his gaze shifting over my shoulders, taking in the blood—mine? not mine?—on my lapel. “Discreet.”
“Thanks,” I say, and my smile comes out easier than I expect. Maybe I’m still hopped up on victory and new friends, somewhere under the grime. “Not tonight.”
The kid shrugs. “Suit yourself.” He doesn’t turn away, though; I can feel him watching me all the way inside.
It’s the tail-end of blues’ night, the canary on the stage doing more swaying next to her upright bassist than singing, but nobody seems to care—most business being conducted at the dimly-lit tables must’ve concluded by now, with the mooks going back to their wives and the respectable businessmen back to their mistresses, leaving just the hardcore drunks who’ll need to be turned out on their ear before long.
I have no idea what time it is—I have no idea what day it is—but I can tell it’s close to closing because there’s a white cat picking its way through the empty chairs to wind around my legs, and Felicia would never let her pets downstairs otherwise. I lean down, let it sniff my knuckles. I should probably learn their names. She’d like it if I learned their names.
It lets me pick it up, which itself is basically a get-through-free card for the guy on the stairs even if I hadn’t vaguely recognized him from other visits. He gives me a brief once-over and then nods, and I let the cat perch on my shoulder as I take the rest of the stairs two at a time.
Don’t ask me what the rush is, I don’t know. I just know—after everything, after learning what I learned, meeting who I met—I need to talk to someone real. Touch someone real, know someone and have them know me. And Felicia knows me. For better or worse, she sees me for who I am.
“Peter,” she says, surprised, looking up from her desk. Her account sheets are laid out in front of her, logbook and piles of cash at her elbow. Her hair looks different—or maybe it’s just that here, everything is finally the right colors again, the waterfall of white tumbling over her shoulder and down to curl at her cleavage, her silver robe open nearly to her navel. Her scars, cross-hatching her nose and jaw, only her luminous eyes the same as when we first met.
“Don't let me interrupt," I say, leaning against her door frame. The cat jumps down off me in favor of Fel's lap. Lucky bastard. "I could stand here and watch you do math all night."
She smiles, thinly. Her gaze never drops from my face as she stands, but I know she's taken in the awkward set of my injured shoulders, the blood on my coat, just like the kid on the door. It gets harder to breathe the closer she comes, like she's eating up the air between us in tiny invisible bites before her perfect inexorable mouth meets mine.
I don't drink much, never really did, but kissing Felicia feels like the first shot of good whiskey after a long day of anticipation. Smooth, heady, and with a burn that flips your stomach, makes your hands tremble.
She trails her fingers down my throat to pluck at my collar. "Am I gonna have to read what you've been up to in the papers tomorrow?"
I laugh, maybe too loud, because she takes a step back from me, raising her eyebrows. "Don't think you're subscribed to the right Times. " I run my hands over my face. "I was—far away. Really far. In a way that's hard to explain."
Felicia has her rooms set up as half office, half bedroom. The place used to be pretty artfully decorated, a warm and exotic space full of expensive-looking curios, inviting and intimidating at once. You’re here for business, it’d say, let’s talk business, but if you’re lucky there’s pleasure just through that curtained doorway. Now, she hardly has anyone in here at all, and there’s less artistry to the clutter. Somehow I prefer it this way. It feels more lived-in, more like someone’s home.
Maybe I’m just flattered she’s still willing to let me in.
She crosses to the silver mask hanging off her bed-post. “Try me,” she suggests, tracing a long finger over its cheek, over her own in its polished surface.
I lick my lips, missing her mouth, looking for the right words. “I got—pulled away. Through a door, or a, a hole. In the sky. Landed in New York, but it wasn’t our New York.” She’s gonna think I’m nuts. Just finally cracked, absolutely batty, but once I’ve started I can’t quite stop. “I met another me, there, multiple other me’s, I.” My fingers find the cube in my pocket, and on a whim I toss it to her. “I brought you this.”
She isn’t even looking at me when I start the throw, but she turns in time to catch it, her robe shimmering around her twisting body like snakeskin. She holds it up to the light as if that will help solve its mystery. “What is it?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. A puzzle, I think. Everyone there seemed to be able to… read it in some way I can’t, maybe some kind of skill commonplace in the future.”
She turns it over and over in her hands. I drift closer. “The future?” she asks. “That’s where you think you were?”
I hesitate. “Not our future. A future, but one where… we’re already there.” The rushing of the place, the lights, the subway trains, the impossible variety of people and clothing and sound, all so impossible to convey. The spectrum of selves, from porcine to divorcee. “You ever seen an animated picture? All those drawings in a row, pulled really fast in front of the camera so they blend together, look like they’re moving?”
Felicia’s hands, holding the cube, go down, and her dark eyebrows go up. “I saw Felix the Cat once.”
I laugh, and she smirks at me, willing to share the joke, even if she doesn’t know where I’m going with it. My chest warms. “Aunt May had this thing, this… toy, I guess, like a disk with all these drawings. Does the same thing as the film in the animation camera. A zoetrope, she called it.” I cross to her, staring upward, running my eyes over the familiar lines of the ceiling. “That’s what it was like, seeing my other selves.”
Felicia eyes me, not yet following.
“When you spin the disk,” I continue, moving a finger in a slow circle, “we all look like the same man, acting in sequence, becoming one Spider-Man. But when you stop, there we all are again, distinct. The guy at the beginning of the disk never really becomes the guy at the end of the disk. I’m not the Peter Parker I met in the future, and I’ll live my whole life and then I’ll die without ever being him, but.” I think about that Peter, washed up, depressed, and still trying so goddamn hard. I think about blond, heroic Peter, six feet under. “I still am him, because he’s me. We’re drawn the same.”
“Someone smashed your mirror,” says Felicia, “and now all your little reflections run wild.”
I hum. “Mirror smashed a long time ago, I think. Someone just shoved me across the cracks.”
Felicia hums back. “Shame they didn’t shove me, too.” She steps back into my space and I can breathe again. “I wouldn’t mind a couple more of you around.”
I grin, running my hands up into her hair, my grip clumsy touching something so fine after a dozen web-lines and twice as many right-hooks. “None of the others were your type. One of ‘em was blonde. ” And married, but maybe when Felicia’s got a hand working it’s way southward, that isn’t the smartest thought to voice. Instead, I lean in, nudge up under her jaw. Tighten my fingers in her hair. “Besides. I’m a jealous man.”
Later, she sits up in bed, her torso bare, robe pooled around her waist like moonlit water on a still night. She leans over and grabs a cigarette and a book of matches from the bedside table, tears one off, and then grips my jaw, her thumb sliding over my lower lip. I quirk my mouth at her and she narrows her eyes. “Hold still,” she commands, and then strikes the match, hard, against my jaw.
It flares to life, and she laughs so hard at my expression she almost puts it out again before managing to light up. She blows the smoke away from me, which is a kindness, and then squints at me again. “Sorry,” she says, but there’s nothing sorry about her voice—I want to wrap myself up in her voice and never leave. “Always wanted to try that, and apparently you didn’t have time to shave in your mirrored future.”
I scratch my jaw in the wake of her match. “Don’t think I took my mask off the entire time I was there,” I admit.
“Disgusting,” she says, but her eyes are warm. She’s always looser, after sex. So am I. “Get out.”
I gasp at her like a landed fish. “You’re kicking me out? After the day I’ve had? I’ve never known you to be so cruel—”
“Into the shower, Parker,” she says, nudging me, and so I go.
Cruel she may not be, but Felicia Hardy has made a pact with some sort of devil for the quality of her towels. I take my time, using the little shaving mirror in the bathroom - the only mirror in the place, other than Felicia’s mask. It’d been nice, seeing Fel laugh like that, but I’ve never been one for facial hair.
I wonder, briefly, if there’s a me out there who is. I lather up, crafting from the suds a full beard, a goatee, a mustache in succession as I shave, trying to imagine it. How many others are there? How much tragedy have they seen? I think of Felicia, silver and gold in the lamplight, in the moonlight. How much beauty? How much love?
When I get back she’s got the cube up to her ear. It looks no different than it did earlier, but for some reason I feel like she’s closer to solving its secrets. She looks thoughtful, taking a drag from her cigarette, and then twists it one direction, then the other, all without looking at it, just listening.
“I don’t think it’s going to say anything when you get it right,” I say. My place in her bed has been supplanted by three of her cats, all of whom look at me balefully.
“Have you ever cracked a safe, Pete?” Felicia asks, arching her brows and giving the nickname a slight inflection, the twang of slang. I know enough cant to know it’s mocking, but not mean.
“No,” I admit, taking a single step toward the bed. One of the cats hops down obligingly. I decide that one’s my favorite. The other two shift closer to Felicia, glaring harder.
“Ironic,” says Felicia. “Maybe leave it to the experts, then.”
I use what feels like the last of the strength in my weary bones to vault over her, sending the remaining felines slithering and leaping away like the remnants of a very offended puddle displaced by a bicyclist on a wet night.
“I don’t have to crack a safe,” I say, but even speaking feels like a losing battle. If Felicia’s towels were soft, her bed—now that I’m clean and thrumming and my pain has receded—is the night sky itself, velvet and bottomless, and all I want to do is sink. Or. Rise? I can’t shake the feeling Miles would know what I mean. “Can just—pull it open.” I raise a hand and wiggle my fingers. It’s not the most impressive show of my strength, I admit.
“How thrilling,” says Felicia, her voice a lullaby. “I’d like to see that sometime.”
“Any time, beautiful,” I say, and the click-click-click of the strange future-puzzle pulls me down and into sleep.