Chapter Fourteen: Final Exam

When the phone rang, Mary Jane jumped to answer it before Aunt May woke up. The old lady had dozed off while watching the on-going news coverage. MJ had continued to watch, guiltily hoping for another glimpse of Spider-Man on film while she tried to work out her feelings about Peter. She'd been so wrong about him. It made her question a lot of things—like, why was he always late or missing, if he wasn't running around in tights? Watching Aunt May gently excuse him for letting her down made MJ angry, made her wonder about her own delusion that Peter was Spider-Man. Was she covering for Peter too, just because she loved him?

What do you mean, "just because you love him"? Is there any better reason to give someone the benefit of the doubt? MJ bit her lip at the thought. Right. I bet Mom told herself the same thing before she married Dad. Then she was horrified with herself. Peter was nothing like that, whatever was happening in his life. And whatever was happening in his life, he didn't want her there.

By the time Harry called MJ had worked herself into a funk of depression and doubts. She was almost glad to hear Harry's voice. At least this would distract her from crying.

"MJ? Figures," Harry said. "Let me talk to Peter, 'kay?"

"Are you drunk, Harry?"

"Just get me Peter, c'mon." Mary Jane rolled her eyes and silently patted herself on the back for getting out of that relationship. Harry was slurring his words and sounded mean.

"Peter isn't here yet. I'm sitting with Aunt May, um, until he gets here," she explained, tugging on the phone cord.

There was a pause and she could hear Harry breathing hard. "I need to talk to him."

"Yeah, well, looks like he isn't going to be around when you need him, either," MJ snapped. "So, why don't you take a break from Spider-Man and go looking for Pete instead? Do you both a world of good." Slamming the phone down, MJ took a deep breath. That felt good. She was so tired of getting jerked around by the guys in her life.

"Who was that, dear?"

Jumping, MJ turned to face Aunt May, who was struggling to sit up straight in the faded armchair and who had both eyebrows raised. "Oh. Um, sorry it was Harry..." Mary Jane blushed. "I didn't mean to wake you up." Did she hear what I said about Peter?

"Maybe you should lose your temper more often, dear. It sounded to me like you gave Harry some good advice," Aunt May said softly. MJ laughed a little and tugged her bangs out of her face.

"Well, I didn't want to—"

The television interrupted her with a loud fanfare and eye-catching graphics. "We have a new development in the attack on the Colonial Rotunda at City Hall Park. Part of Frankfort Street, next to the park, has collapsed, apparently due to an underground explosion. We join Marisol Gutierrez at the scene..."

Aunt May picked up the remote control and clicked the television off. "You know, I think I've heard about enough of that," she decided, pushing herself up slowly. "Would you like something to eat, MJ?"


In the tunnels beneath City Park, Cheap Shot coughed politely into his hand and raised his head to look at Spider-Man. His face was grey and his white hair covered with dust. Still, as he stood to offer his defense he had all the dignity of the senator he once had been. His soft, raspy voice was filled with emotion as he addressed the uneasy but fascinated vigilante.

"I know something about your exploits, Spider-Man. Like me, you have been labeled a criminal for acting in the interests of peace and justice," he began.

Spider-Man spluttered. "Are you insane? Peace? Do you even know the meaning—" Cheap Shot raised a hand.

"Please, let me continue." He looked down, frowning thoughtfully. "Yes, I can see how ironic that must sound to you. Consider the irony of your own position, then. You bring petty criminals to justice, catching minnows and the occasional big fish without impacting the sea of crime in the slightest. You run around patching holes while the city crumbles to the ground. Tell me," Cheap Shot looked up with a serious expression, straight into Spider-Man's mask, "tell me honestly, can you say that all your efforts have changed anything? That you have really made a difference?"

Spider-Man remained huddled, silent and motionless, against the ceiling.

"You've felt it," Cheap Shot stated. "The frustration, the futility of it all? Yes, like you I use violence to achieve my ends, but only out of necessity. You see, I have found the solution, the solution to all the ills that eat away at this city, and at our country—the way to have 'peace and justice for all'.

"We concern ourselves with properly educating children, with what they see and hear and learn. Every child hears his teachers, parents, all adults talk about right and wrong. From infancy he is told to respect people of all colors, taught not to steal or fight, to recycle, warned not to take drugs, asked to help others."

Cheap Shot paused, and his expression turned venomous. "But they don't listen!" he spat. Spider-Man started and curled his fingers against his palm.

"I'm not even talking about the lost ones, the drug-soaked gun-toting thugs that roam the streets—although my plan will save them, as well," he continued more calmly. "I mean the housewife that votes for the man who is the right color. The executive who gouges his employees to swell his own bank account. The student who cheats on her exams. The everyday hatred and greed that has swamped us."

Spider-Man understood too well what Cheap Shot was saying. For months now he had been plunged into the darker, dirtier side of New York. It was a casually brutal, tragic thread running through the texture of life that people chose not to see. He cringed as the images flooded through his mind—gangs shooting or knifing each other in the streets, a sixth-grader with a drug problem, the battered wife defending her husband—all he had seen in the endless fight he had chosen to wage. It wasn't invisible, and it didn't happen in a vacuum. It was made possible with every little act of meanness, ignorance, and fear. What difference had he made? Was it hopeless?

But this couldn't be the answer. He listened in growing horror as Cheap Shot explained his Consensus Plan, striding back and forth and gesturing eloquently. As Spider-Man had thought, small hypnotic devices were set in backpacks, calculators—anywhere students would be in range of their mind-altering waves. But while Spider-Man had focused on the advertising gains Fisk would receive from using the devices, he had missed the obvious: that the children would become entirely suggestible, accepting everything they heard. He remembered Lamont commenting on the platitudes contained in the textbooks, not realizing they were the whole point, as far as this megalomaniac was concerned. Didn't Cheap Shot realize how his 'solution' could be misused—was already being abused by Fisk? But that wasn't the point. Even if the devices had only the results Cheap Shot dreamed of, Spider-Man knew it was wrong.

Cheap Shot leaned forward. His politician's delivery was passionate, carefully calculated to persuade. "The idea is so brilliant in its simplicity. Always, power has come from the people, and where has it gotten us?" He waved dismissively. "Now, that can change. The adults are already lost, too set in their ways to be permanently affected. But the children," he smiled, "they will hear each and every lesson with all the power of my hypnotic devices opening their minds. Each moral principle will sink deeply into their subconscious and become part of who they are. All of them will grow into responsible, righteous citizens to guide us where we need to go," he finished jubilantly.

For a long moment, Spider-Man was speechless, trying to bring his anger under control. "You know," he said finally, "that's the sickest thing I've ever heard."

Caught up in the fervor of his vision, the old man actually blinked and stepped back. He quickly recovered his poise, shaking his head sorrowfully. "I have been impressed by your intelligence, your commitment to your cause. I expected you understand how my plan will work to turn people away from what is wrong and to follow what is right," he said.

"Who are you to decide—"

"Please don't give me that tired argument about who gets to decide what is right and wrong," he snapped. "I'm not talking about controversial subjects here. No one wants racism, theft, pollution. The children will learn what everyone agrees they should learn." Cheap Shot folded his arms.

"That's not—you're not talking about learning. Learning is when you think, when you receive information and evaluate it. Learning means you make mistakes." Spider-Man chose his words carefully. "Kids—people—they don't always do what is right. When they do, it has meaning, because they're—we're—not robots. Not brainwashed, not hypnotized. Because we chose to do what is right."

"That's it? That's your argument? Is all the misery you see worth it for some academic right to free will?" Cheap Shot was sneering now.

"What about the people you've killed?"

"Aren't a few lives a small price to pay for a city free of hatred and destruction?"

Spider-Man took a deep, shaky breath and bowed his head. He wouldn't convince Cheap Shot of anything, he knew that. But for himself, for his own peace of mind, he needed to put his convictions into words.

"I made the wrong choice once," the young man who'd become a vigilante remarked painfully. "A life was the price paid for my mistake. Now I do make a difference, no matter what you say, with every life I save and with every crime I stop. Because everyone's life is more than a price to be paid." Spider-Man felt his spider-sense buzz to life. He lifted his arm and aimed at the former politician. "And the only choices I have the right to make are my own."

A web spun out and around Cheap Shot's thin body, pinning his folded arms to his chest. Unseen, one of Cheap Shot's hands pressed hard against his jacket, against the switch of one last transmitter tucked into his breast pocket. Far down the tunnel, there was a rumbling explosion. Cheap Shot tumbled inelegantly to the ground, wrapped like a mummy.

"I just blasted a hole through the wall between this tunnel and the river, Spider-Man," he said, voice muffled against the dusty brick floor. "The water will reach us within moments. I know the quickest way out of the path of the flood. I'll show you if you set me free, and we will both live." Spider-Man felt his ears pop as the air pressure between the brick walls increased.

"Yeah, right." Ignoring the ultimatum, Spider-Man scooped Cheap Shot up. He ripped his way through the web blocking the tunnel back to the Rotunda, and moved fast through the dank corridor. Springing from wall to ceiling to floor, he raced against the sensation of danger and the sound of water rushing toward them. Cheap Shot struggled and flailed in his arms, slowing him down.

"Stay still!" Spider-Man yelled. He turned right down the next corridor and raced back toward the Rotunda basement. As he came around the last corner, carrying his prisoner under his arm, he flipped forward on one hand before seeing the rubble that filled the doorway into the basement. Shock from that last explosion, must've brought more of the Rotunda down. Unable to break his forward momentum, he let his feet continue over his head to hit the floor and then pushed off again, spinning midair to land running back the way he had come. Cheap Shot screamed and gagged, apparently finding Spider-Man's acrobatics hard to take.

"Which way?" Spider-Man demanded. "Come on, is there still a way out?"

"Go, go straight," Cheap Shot managed to cough weakly, bouncing limply in Spider-Man's grip.

Frantically, Spider-Man leaped through the tunnel intersection, glancing to his left as he passed. He saw a wall of green water crash through the corridor, smashing from side to side with unbelievable force and moving toward the crossing like a speeding car. He flipped to the ceiling and sprinted forward, his eyes darting back and forth across his path, searching desperately for a manhole, access to an upper tunnel—anything to get out of the path of the flood. Come on, come on. The water shooting through the tunnel behind him, as if it were being squirted through a giant water-pistol, was right on his heels and Spider-Man found himself mentally calculating the cubic volume of water in the Hudson River with one detached part of his mind while the rest began gibbering in panic. Then the lights went out.

Oh, great, the panicked part of his mind whimpered. The edge of the water hit him from behind, tossing him forward like paper in the wind. Spider-Man held his breath, tightened his hold on Cheap Shot and scrabbled at the ceiling, unable to resist the rushing force that closed over him. Suddenly, the back of his head hit something slender and hard, and before the relentless water could carry him past it, he grabbed and held onto the bar. Letting his body float, he pulled against it and drew his head back upstream, feeling upward with his forehead in the dark. Yes! There was a second bar above the first. Lungs burning, he fought the current and clung to his limp—drowned?—burden. Slowly, he hooked a leg through the first bar and swung his free hand up to the next, then strongly pulled himself upward, only to hit his head hard against the roof. The pain and fear made him gasp in river water. He choked, but refused to give into the terror, and fought the urge to breathe in more water as he steadied his grip on the bars. This had to be a way out.

Feeling along what he realized must be a ladder, he found a water-filled opening overhead on the other side. Awkwardly, Spider-Man managed to squirm his way around the narrow edge of the ladder and hooked his legs back through the bars on the right side. Gripping the rungs, he hauled himself one-handed upward into the shaft. He was growing lightheaded from the lack of air. The current pushed him hard against the ladder, making each rung a victory until he was past the lip of the shaft and the current abruptly slackened and disappeared.

Blood pounding in his head and chest feeling ready to explode, Spider-Man kicked off and upward from the rungs. He rose through the water and suddenly broke the surface, bobbing down again just as fast. Grabbing at the ladder again, he brought himself back up and gulped the dark, blessed air deeply into his lungs. Belatedly, he remembered Cheap Shot and hauled his head out of the water too, although the assassin didn't move. Tired to the bone, Spider-Man climbed blindly toward street-level.

Shaking the water off his eyepieces, he peered at the end of the shaft above him. A dim light had been growing over the past few minutes until it revealed the rusted ladder and the cement walls of the shaft. Resting at the top of the rungs, Spider-Man realized that the shaft ended in another tunnel, a tunnel that oddly enough was filled with wan daylight. Rolling Cheap Shot onto the floor of the tunnel, Spider-Man clambered wearily onto the bricks. A few steps brought him to a jumbled heap of asphalt and concrete, and standing on top of it he was able to poke his head through a large hole in the ceiling.

The fading evening sunlight was dazzled his eyes and he shaded them with one hand. The first thing he saw was the sidewalk, tilted and cracked. Blankly, he looked around and saw that the whole road was tilted, both sides sloping down toward the large open crack in the middle. Bright orange road blocks had been set up on each side, and beyond them was a milling crowd of people who were beginning to shout and point at Spider-Man's head sticking up out of the pavement.

With a sigh, Spider-Man ducked back down and hefted Cheap Shot over his shoulder, even that minor weight seeming like too much for him right now. He jumped heavily to the surface of the street, walked slowly to the barrier on the left and dropped Cheap Shot to the ground, not very gently.

A fireman rushed up to him and Spider-Man waved weakly at Cheap Shot. "Drowned, wet down there," he croaked. The fireman shouted for paramedics and bent to check the old man's breathing and heart. Spider-Man wavered where he stood, too tired to move, while people bustled all around him with oxygen and blankets. Apparently, Cheap Shot was still alive, if barely.

"Damn if you didn't get him," someone said. Spider-Man turned his head and saw two Detective Lamonts standing next to him. He blinked. "Good news is, we got video footage of him trying to shoot Fisk and you stopping him, which is enough to hold on to him. If he makes it."

Spider-Man tried to nod intelligently. Lamont grabbed his arm and yanking him back upright. "Been a rough day?"

"You could say that," the vigilante whispered.

Lamont nodded, the motion making Spider-Man's head swim. "That guy you brought in earlier today, Joule? He had a couple of warrants out against him, so he's cutting a deal. He'll turn in all the info he and his partner collected on Cheap Shot in return for us dropping the charges against him. We don't have it yet, but I'm thinking it's enough to make a slam-dunk case."

"What about Fisk?"

"Joule won't talk about who hired him. And Fisk is currently receiving all kinds of media attention, for heroically surviving the assassination attempt. I doubt Joule's evidence will contain anything showing that Fisk was in on it. The guy's slick." Lamont shrugged. "Hell, it's obvious he had to be, but I don't see him going down. You win some, you lose some."

Spider-Man looked down at Lamont's hand, which was still gripping his arm. "This mean I'm under arrest?"

Lamont gave him a hard grin, looking tired himself. "You know what? That's my job now. I'm in charge of catching you freaks, they're calling it a promotion." He snorted.

"Congratulations, Mulder."

"Re-think that crack, web-head, because right now I'm feeling pretty nice. If you can make it out of here, go."

Spider-Man looked at him, then nodded slowly. "Thanks."

Lamont nodded solemnly back, then smiled. "I'm already regretting it. Get lost."

Taking a deep breath, Spider-Man raised his arm and shot a web to the top of a nearby building. Jerking on the line, he let the rebound lift his weight and soared up out of the crowd. People turned and called out, pointing and waving as they saw his silhouette outlined black against the setting sun. Lamont, lighting a cigarette, didn't look up.


It was late, and Aunt May had gone to bed before Mary Jane heard footsteps outside the front door. She listened to the sound of someone fumbling with a key, and bolted out of her chair, knowing it had to be Peter. She reached it before he could get it unlocked, turned the bolt and flung it open, prepared to give him a piece of her mind—even if she had to do it in whispers to keep from disturbing Aunt May.

Peter stood on the doorstep, dressed in jeans and a jacket, his hair wet. His shoulders were slumped and his eyes were exhausted, but the instant he saw her he brightened and smiled. Mary Jane felt her anger evaporating. What had happened to him?

"MJ, hi," he said softly.

"Peter—oh, just come in." Mary Jane backed up and let him past her. "Peter, where have you been? You were supposed to pick up Aunt May, she had to call me, what happened?" Expectantly, she looked at him, waiting for him to talk to her, waiting for him to let her in to his life, really just waiting for him like she had been waiting since the day of Norman Osborne's funeral. She saw the light die out of his face and he looked down, shrugging.

"Ah, there was, well, there was a disturbance." He looked at her, his expression mild, apologetic, and completely closed. Oh, Peter.

Sighing, Mary Jane closed the door.


Epilogue

"I realize that with finals over, I'm lucky any of you came to class today," Dr. Connors said dryly, "but I'm going to ask you a favor. After you fill out and turn in your instructor evaluation forms—which will remain completely anonymous—please write a short paragraph on what you learned this semester and leave it for me before you go. It will help me greatly to know what you saw as the highlights of the course."

Peter leaned his head on his hand and tapped his pen against the page in front of him. What did I learn this semester? He thought wryly that most of what he'd learned hadn't been in class.

I learned that being Spider-Man costs me more than I thought. After checking in on Aunt May, he'd gone home and slept for nearly twenty-four hours straight. It was only Sunday, when he remembered that his backpack was still stuck to a rooftop near the WXXP building, that he'd also remembered his essay and the scholarship application. He'd tried to turn it in on Monday. Connors hadn't been impressed, and had said so. In detail. Peter winced as he remembered Connors' sarcasm, and worse, his confused disappointment. It was unlikely that Dr. Connors would be making an extra effort on Peter Parker's behalf anytime soon.

Scribbling some meaningless phrases on his paper, Peter continued to think about it. I learned that the good guys don't always win. Fisk was still being lauded by the press, and was playing the hero to the hilt. Also, he'd managed to insinuate that Spider-Man had been in league with Cheap Shot. Even the revelation that the school materials were loaded with hypnotic devices hadn't hurt him much—he'd simply been innocently outraged that Cheap Shot had set up such a diabolical scheme to sabotage a charitable act. Some of his sponsors were under investigation; some had covered their tracks. Stabbing his pen down on a period, Peter hoped that the Kingpin was suffering behind the scenes from letting his partners in crime down. Somehow, though, he doubted it.

I learned that keeping secrets from my friends is a good way to lose friends. Mary Jane was more distant, since Aunt May got out of the hospital. She wasn't calling him much, anymore. He wondered how long it would take her to find someone else to love. Sighing, he handed the paragraph he'd written to Dr. Connors without meeting his eyes and shuffled his way out of the classroom. Harry had started a new project, something about funding research into energy sources, which sounded like a new direction for OsCorp. Peter sincerely hoped it would work out. Maybe if Harry had some success with his business ventures, his need to hunt down Spider-Man would fade. He was already drinking less, caught up in the excitement of making deals and arranging contacts. Maybe, maybe, they'd be able to be better friends again when Harry got back on his feet, emotionally speaking. Peter hoped so.

Swinging his backpack over his shoulder, he crossed the campus lawn toward the bus stop. Now that finals were over and he didn't have any deadlines hanging over him, crime had slowed down and he had more time than usual. He thought he'd use it to try to find a job—he didn't have time for one, but he didn't have any money, either. Peter looked up at the cloudless sky.

On the other hand, I learned that it doesn't matter if I change the world or not. I learned that the difference I make is enough for me. Peter smiled, as the bus pulled up, and thought about the tourist he'd saved from being mugged that morning. He thought about the way people cheered for him, the way they'd stood up for him against the Green Goblin, about kids in school learning or choosing not to learn, about all the times he'd made life a little better for someone. He swung onto the bus with a little more lift in his step.

I guess that it's worth it, even if I can't seem to catch a break with the rest of my life, he laughed to himself, and started to whistle softly.

"Raindrops keep fallin' on my head..."

fin



A/N: Hello, out there. My apologies that this took so long to complete. All I can say is, real life has been hard on me lately but it's great to be writing again—so maybe I'll start that next story I've had in mind for awhile...

Betty: I got your review today with this about half done, so you are responsible for it getting finished and out there today. Thanks!

Me: This is it, folks.

Mark C: Guess the Kingpin will have to wait...

And thank you to everyone else who reviewed, it is what makes writing so much fun. See you soon!