Nick sidled into the booth of the small diner nearby, keeping his head low as he pushed himself as close to the window as he could get, slouching down as Gwen followed, unaware of his mannerism as she was quite lost in her outfit, far more self conscious of it now that she was in public.
"I'm guessing that place was a shelter back in the seventies?" she wondered aloud with a grimace, pulling the hem of the shirt up to examine the messily designed pattern of flowers that was so incredibly out of place on her, "Never again, Gwen; never- you okay?"
She caught Nick trying to remain out of sight, a look of surprise catching him as he returned with his own glance over his shoulder, "Yeah, just- I come here a lot. I don't want anybody recognizing me or anything."
"Really?" Gwen replied with suspicion, "Any real rea-?"
"Hey Nicky!" came a shout from behind the counter, Gwen catching the face of a spirited old lady as she waved over toward the table, "I'll send somebody right on over, hun!"
Nick gave a cordial wave before doubling his efforts to remain out of sight, Gwen raising a hand to hide her smirk, "Sorry."
He sent a sarcastic glance toward Gwen before releasing a n exasperated sigh, "You can go on and say it; I'm not easily offended."
At his go-ahead, Gwen quietly asked behind a short giggle, "Is it Nicky or hun?"
He nodded with unamused lips, leaning further over the table, "I helped her out one time and she kind of expects me to show up as often as I do now, so I can't exactly stop and let the familiarity dissipate as much as I'd like to."
"She does-" Gwen noted, catching the woman's nametags, "Frankie does seem nice. I was just teasing, but you probably already know that."
Nick nodded, "I did, but you don't really have to point that out every time; I'm patient enough to catch information twice, I don't mind."
He scratched his ear, peering through the window, "If I can get conversations as normal as possible, that'd be ideal."
"Sorry," Gwen apologized sincerely, much to Nick's surprise.
"Oh, don't be," he assured, "Trust me. I barely understand my own self; at no point would I fault others for not understanding me either."
He turned back out the window, "Especially with my thing. It's not the sort of talent that brings with it a broader sense of others. Society is so full of people wearing masks; seeing beyond those doesn't exactly help you within society."
Nick's eyes wandered back toward Gwen with a tenuous glance, "Masks, so to speak."
Before Gwen to register a response, a waitress came over with the hasty stripping sound of her notepad losing another sheet accompanying, her thick voice tearing through the air, "What c'n I get foar ya ta drink, hons?"
Nick tapped his finger attentively, "I'll just have a coffee."
Just as Gwen turned to speak, Nick continued, "She'll have a coffee as well. Two creams and a single cube of ice."
Gwen's lips coiled in playful castigation, remaining silent however as the gaudy ol' waitress slipped her notepad into her apron, "Gaught it, hons. I'll bring'm ovah 'n get yoaur ordah, a'right?"
Taking care to nod excessively, lest he meet the critiquing eyes of his guest, Nick finally acquiesced, grinning boyishly as Gwen's eyes narrowed, "So, like, can you finish sentences or something?"
"I can," Nick shrugged, "That'd be twelve kinds of awkward though, so I don't actively do it."
Gwen challenged with a wry smirk, "Let's try it, then. I'll say something and you try to finish it, alright?"
"I, uh," Nick muttered nervously, scratching the back of his head, "I don't think-"
"You said yourself, you don't exactly understand it, right?" Gwen questioned sincerely, misinterpreting his earlier words, though Nick only watched her curiously, "You're buying me breakfast, so why don't we see if we can't figure something out?"
Nick frowned, "I'm already buying 'cause I took your…mask off."
"Eh, who's counting," Gwen shrugged, completely enamoured by such an ability, "Come on; I've got a good one from my second year dissertation that I'm really trying not to think about before hand."
Allowing a subtle sigh, Nick went along with a single, "Okay."
Gwen gave a triumphant arm-pump before immediately speaking, "A scatter plot graph that shows the relationship between the stars' absolute magnitude-"
"-or luminosities versus their stellar classifications," Nick interrupted, pausing for some dramatic effect as he gave a weak smile, "is called a… Is that German?"
Caught up in her own awe, Gwen fell back in her booth with wide eyes, "Whoa... It was Hertzsprung-Russell, by the way."
Nick lowered his head, "Yeah, different languages kind of throw me for a loop in that- was that astrophysics?"
"Yeah," Gwen sighed, leaning forward onto the table, "Going into college, I wasn't sure what I wanted to go into, science-wise. I figured I'd take both astrophysics and chemistry first year and see whichever one stuck, but that was just a disaster, balancing all that mess. Kind of trained me for my current line of work, I suppose."
"Now it's all just another distraction," she muttered, growing quieter as the waitress returned with two mugs of coffee, happily asking for their orders.
Gwen shot Nick a glance that prompted him to nervously clear his throat, speaking quietly himself, "Uh, she'll have the All-American Scram- or, nevermind, she'll have the Highway- Okay, the-"
He gave a pleading glance toward Gwen, who silently apologized before thinking of the proper order, though not quick enough to beat the waitress from musing aloud, "Quite th' indecisive one ya get here, Nicky! Ya know, women like us're miiighty dang'rous, heh heh!"
Gwen stifled a snort at the sudden teasing coming from two different sides, burying her face in her arm as Nick groaned aloud, "She will have the Flatiron Flapjacks, and I'll just get the Sausage McGee, please."
"Heeey, same 's usual, eh?" the waitress noted in elderly tone, "I'll get it all settled fer both a ya!"
She walked off, revealing Gwen's eyes as they peeked out from her arm, cheeks scrunched up from her still-intense smile. She quickly turned her eyes back toward Nick, shaking her head in conflict with her amusement, readily accepting of Nick going on.
"Don't apologize," he confirmed lightly, "This is the most normal interaction I've had in a while. I'm just happy you've, uh… Most people, when I meet them, they- I'm not exactly personable; I'm pretty quiet. They usually assume I'm a creep or something, but… I don't know, I've not caught that thought from you."
Gwen paused for a moment before replying, "I mean, in my field, my perceptions are kind of skewed, I guess. I've dealt with people far creepier than you; 'n besides, I'm pretty sure I know why you don't talk."
Nick watched her curiously as her head lowered to accept a sip of her coffee, staring sadly into the mugs curling ripples as she returned it to the table, "My friend, Peter. He and I grew up together; we were like best pals, I suppose, but- He was very smart, like, he could rattle off all the state capitals when we were eight, so he was basically a genius to me."
Her lips curled into a smile as she took a moment to think about those days, continuing softly, melancholy lining her voice, "Of course, he would lose himself in books to learn more and more. I struggled so hard to match his smarts; I didn't want him to one-up me, y'know. I had to get into the same high school he did, for the smart kids. Anyway, he was the kind of guy who would turn inward at times, sometimes to the detriment of our friendship. I wouldn't hear from him for a week or two at times, but- I had to learn, long ago, that for all those times he hadn't a work to speak to me, it was only because he was being so loud in his mind, working out complex theorems and stuff."
She shrugged, "You're kind of the same way, huh?"
"I, uh- I suppose," Nick supposed weirdly, as though uncomfortable with being compared to a stranger this woman obviously held in high regard, "I wasn't good at school, really; it was more stressful than anything, having to-"
He came to a slow stop, his fingers spinning his mug back and forth atop its saucer, the grinding of ceramic breaking the air lazily as Nick began again, "I always hated having this. Especially once I realized other people didn't have it. I felt like such a freak, and hearing others confirming that, especially as kids and teenagers, I so wished I could just quiet the noise. Live as obliviously as anybody else does. For years, it was nothing more than a curse, hearing people die, hearing my mother-"
He stopped suddenly, his face turning in quiet regret, "It wasn't until I saw you, actually, that I- I mean, not you, but…you know. I would see these superheroes, Avengers, with all their tech, their strength- it was all so unattainable, you know? Like a band going on tour to play in front of fans, but you're eleven and they're never less than three states away. Just so distant."
"Boy, don't I know it…" Gwen frowned.
Nick chuckled, "But you showed up and- I don't know; here was somebody with a quickly assembled get-up just trying to do whatever they could to-"
He trailed off, catching Gwen's humored contempt, allowing her to speak it herself, "I'll have you know, my outfit's gone through quite the many revisions. It certainly isn't quickly assembled, sir."
"Okay, okay," Nick agreed with a smile, "In any case, it helped me out of that headspace I'd put myself in for years. You know, you never asked for fame or whatever, you hide your identity- you have abilities and you use them for the sake of doing good."
Gwen felt a tremor down her spine, curling her lips indecisively at how ironic his words were, knowing that she did, indeed, crave some form of recognition, if only from the Avengers, or maybe even Jessica herself. She knew Nick understood that, though he failed to bring it up, allowing Gwen to simply listen herself as he went on.
"I don't actively go out and, like, stomp on bad guys or anything crazy like that," he admitted, "But, I mean, if I hear things, like a slowed heartbeat, or cancerous cells regenerating at a quickening rate, yeah, I'll figure out a way to tell them."
He began to crack a smile, "There was this guy at the library one time, I actually heard his follicles not growing hair as quickly as they usually do, so I slipped a book on male-pattern baldness when he wasn't looking. He looked as if he'd seen a ghost."
Gwen smiled as he recounted such an amusing tale, listening as he shrugged, "I spent many nights growing up just- Just wanting to end it all. It was just such a massive weight upon me, but- I remembered that dripping… That man who'd done the same, who'd had nobody who cared for him enough to find him. But I knew. Me. I knew about him, and yet…I did nothing. I heard his pulse for a split second, his heartbeat."
His eyes fell slowly, "Nobody's ever heard my heartbeat. That's the kind of thing that only- I probably knew him better than anybody else and I didn't-…"
"I have something, an affliction," Nick explained, drearily, "Regardless of what exactly it is, you know, not everybody has what I have. Maybe there's a responsibility- if you can improve others' lives, and you choose not to… What does that say about me?"
Gwen gave him a curious stare, "Is that why you helped me?"
Shrugging, Nick admitted, "You were passed out in an alleyway; I wouldn't 've just walked off if you'd been anybody else."
Catching his misinterpretation, Gwen began again but was immediately cut off by the arrival of their breakfast, a stack of pancakes laid out in front of Gwen in a show of decadence that was wholly unfamiliar to her in her college years. The waitress made her way to the back once again as Nick appraised his own plate, staring curiously toward Gwen whose eyes were growing even wider in awe.
"You got it?" Nick asked with a chuckle.
Gwen nodded, "Oh, of course, I just- I've eaten corn dogs for breakfast, what, for years now? I'm not at all used to this kind of- Don't they need to contact the city to construct something so tall?!"
Quickly covering his mouth to hide a laugh, Nick shook his head before starting on his own meal, "I suppose corn dogs would be great on-the-go food. You can eat 'em upside-down, sideways."
"See? You've got some idea of how this sort of thing works," Gwen pointed out happily, "You just need a food that suits you. I saw on Twitcher those Norwegian places where they make ice cream helmets you eat your way out of; maybe hook yourself up with some of those."
Nick smirked, "Wouldn't be a bad idea, I suppose. If I could take some headphones in there 'n get some crazy reverb. You know, you might have something there, actually; from what I've experimented with, low frequencies travel more easily through objects, and that seems to apply to me. Get some tonal stuff, one of those silly head-things online that people sleep on their desks with, might drown everything out. Taking my escapism through music to a whole new level.
"Huh," Gwen mused absently, catching a bite of her pancakes with a soft curl of her lips, "That's what my drums were when I was growing up. Sort of a way to escape my dad's rigid lifestyle after mom died- he was a cop, after all."
She poked at her pancake stack with a wayward motion, "No parties, no going out too late. Probably why I got so good at keeping a beat- lots and lots of practice. My ankle was like a monkey's fist at one point."
Nick chuckled with quiet nervousness, "You've got me beat there. I mainly use a synthesizer when the mood strikes me, but I do play some keyboard."
"Piano?" Gwen asked.
"No, I plan on taking my computer keyboard to Carnegie one day," Nick clarified with a wry smirk.
Gwen desperately tried to stifle a laugh, unable to do so as she buried her face into her arm, her body jolting up and down in amusement, Nick partaking in much the same manner, shaking his head, "That was so bad."
"Might'a been why it was so funny," Gwen laughed, "Hey, what's the difference between a well-dressed man on a unicycle and a-
"Attire," Nick interrupted, quickly yanking his legs up into the booth as he matched her laugh, desperate to avoid her vicious kicks.
"You ruined it!" Gwen complained through her incessant laughter, still trying to jab a foot into Nick in retaliation for spoiling the joke, though soon enough, her laughter began to fade, along with her quick motions.
She reached an arm up to wipe across her face, sighing in exhaustion as her guest did the same, though Nick reached for a napkin to pass to her, groaning as tire worked its way through him, "I'll admit, I was pretty freaked by those goons, and I wasn't sure if they'd show up again- I didn't get much of any sleep last night."
"The Avengers have scales and graphs and junk," Gwen noted wryly, "Most…people like me, they have advantages and disadvantages, sooo… Considering your thing, how exactly would you-"
"Have you ever seen a capybara defend itself?" Nick asked in good humor, "I'd basically sit and wait for them to take me."
Gwen nodded with a smirk, "Those drum lessons sure don't seem like they were so incessant now."
"Oh no, I can attest," Nick answered lightly, tapping his foot against the bottom of the booth to point it out, "That monkey's fist wasn't a joke."
Trying to hide a smirk, Gwen quickly realized the futility of doing so, ultimately speaking to keep her from remaining in such a state, "Well, if you'd like to cut it short here, I feel worlds better; I should be able to get home, now. It was nice having a real breakfast for once."
Nick gave a nod, "It was nice having a real conversation for once."
"You seem well-adjusted enough," Gwen half-complimented, much to Nick's amusement.
"The voices in my head teach me enough," he assured with a light tone, "Still, it was nice talking to you-know-who."
"I think she-who-must-not-be-named has more cache to it, personally," Gwen opined, "I'm 'the evil', you know."
Nick shrugged, "Well, you changed one life for the better. I'm sure I'm not the only one."
Such words forced Peter back into Gwen's mind, her eyes turning low as she quivered, knowing she'd killed one life. Nick watched her with concern, feeling her dread, though didn't feel it proper to mention it, simply clearing his throat to break her mind from concentrating of something so dreary.
"Anyway, uh," he spoke up, "Thanks. For the other day, but- for being cool, too."
Gwen smiled, "And thank you for the help last night. and breakfast. and for not being nearly as weird as you promised you'd be."
"I can work on that," Nick assured her with an attentive nod.
Scooting out to head over to the register, Nick handled his mug a final time to down the last few sips of lukewarm coffee before returning it to the table, his outstretched arm turning toward Gwen in offering a handshake, which she quickly reciprocated with a friendly smile before sliding out to rise to her feet as well.
"I'll hear ya around?" Gwen asked with slight sarcasm.
Nick shrugged, "If you need someone to hide somewhere or listen super well, just yell or something, I dunno. You guys have a secret handshake or something?"
"First, you're not a superhero," Gwen reminded quietly, though her lips slowly turned upward, "Technically, I'm not either, not until I'm in S.H.I.E.L.D. Maybe next time, the two outcasts can make one up or something; make it a destination to be one of us instead of them or the Avengers."
Turning his eyes away toward the window, Nick replied, "Might be nice."