Chapter Two: A Secret Mourned
Will this damn rain ever stop? Another shot of web, taking him in a smooth arc low over the road, cars belching black smoke in a heavy traffic jam below him, horns flaring into a grinding cacophony of irritation. As usual, the greater majority of vehicles were yellow taxis, and they were the main perpetrators, needlessly banging on their horns, over-sized wasps too big to swat. Spider-man wished he could swat them, the incessant hollering of the cars grated on his nerves like nails down a blackboard. Yellow car, no return, infinity. He smiled mirthlessly at the thought of the English kid he had seen with her mother, playing some form of tag where they tapped each other every time a yellow car went past. Clearly they were not so common in England as they were in New York.
The line came to the end of its use, and he shot another strand, jerking on it a little harder than intended as he changed hands. He found it interesting that their irritation could poison his own mood to bitterness, even when he swung above them, free as a bird. He felt like snapping at them – it would probably make him feel better, after all – but restrained himself, even though they could not possibly hear him. There were other things he had to concentrate on, more pressing matters more important to him than shouting insults at the drivers of Manhattan.
New York's answer to Tarzan weaved his path away from the noise along the more peaceful roads, taking himself away from the heart of town. Roads became less and less clogged, and the skyscrapers gave way to houses, stubbornly lining the outskirts like a sentinel of miniature guards. It was harder down here to fly with his usual grace; a combination of stumpy buildings and wider roads meant that any line he tried to use would scrape his backside over tarmac. Not feeling particularly in the right mood to be making unnecessary repairs to his suit, Spider-Man took himself to the rooftops, jumping with perfect ease from one to the other, hardly even a thud announcing his actions.
At the end of Richmond Road, a spire pierced the heart of the sky, white stone enveloped in quiet splendour. Mary Magdalene smiled down on the doorway and angels graced the stone walls, trumpeting silently to those still dedicated enough to pass through the age-darkened oak doors. The entire structure gleamed dully in the rain, the carven figures the colour of old bone. High above the serene images of God's book, gargoyles maintained a silent vigil, their nightmarish faces snarling at any evil that should think to come near their charge, rainwater dripping real threat from fangs and tongues. One in particular held an interesting posture, the great stone head looking over its shoulder between the unfurling wings. Its eyes stared with an unsettling condemnation at the blue and red figure crouched silently on its back, and Spider-Man could not help but cast a slightly wary eye upon it, forced to wonder why anyone would carve something with such attention to detail when it would never be seen by human eyes – the current company exempt from that rule, of course. I suppose evil comes from all angles.
Spider-Man chose to ignore the accusing glare of his host and turned his attention to the reason he had crossed half of New York. Below him, green spanned in lush peace to far off fences, the skyline interrupted in a welcome manner by weeping willows and handsome yews and other trees he did not care to distinguish. Winter was an unforgiving time for the identification of trees by a city boy. From this height, the countless headstones looked like mushrooms growing almost sporadically in a patchwork of family names and lonely souls. Two such souls lay beneath the crest of a small swell in the land under the boughs of what was an attractive maple in the summer.
At first, he felt alarmingly out of place in the churchyard in his costume, an illegal alien in a foreign country. Not that anyone was there to judge; the rain was too busy making sure that people stayed inside and well away from places such as this with so much open ground. The only other being he could see was an elderly lady veiled in grey by the downpour, bent as though the weight of her umbrella and the fresh flowers she carried were too much for her. He smiled sadly at her. Whom did she visit? A husband, swept away by the long years with only his dear wife to remember him and tend his grave? A stab of pain and guilt assailed him for a moment: he saw Mary Jane briefly in the place of the old woman, visiting his grave. The thing that hurt the most was she was not that much older than she was now… Peter forced himself out of his reverie with a mental slap.
He need not worry over being seen in this place as Spider-man. What did it actually matter if he was, anyway? Nothing would come of it, could come of it; someone already knew. The photograph told him so.
It was far worse now that he could actually see it in real-life. The stone had really been gouged out, chips and heftier chunks lying lost in the grass blades. He ran deft fingers over the scarred surface, feeling each trench in the stone and committing it silently to memory. Rough where the stone had been torn, but in each long mark a shallow, sharp groove. Worry wrapped itself round his heart, making it feel as though it hardly dared beat. His jaw clenched with anxiety as he picked up some of the larger pieces that had come from the very top of the damage and fitted them back in place in the horrible jigsaw. The sections confirmed what he feared. Neat near-circular holes made themselves obvious, half in the headstone, half in the pieces, like the initial mark of a pickaxe. How he wished it was a pickaxe. But knowledge, every inch the great friend, liked to point out cruel truths, and the cruel truth was that the rows of jagged destroyed stone – there were twelve of them – came in sets of four. Claw marks.
Spider-Man stepped back, no longer wishing to be so close. He drew a shaking breath, staring at the mutilated surface of the marble as cold realisation sunk in, a vile taste invading his mouth.
Wishing for something else to see, anything else, he turned his eyes to the old lady. She had just reached her destination and was awkwardly bent over a small, modest stone, removing a bunch of limp browned chrysanthemums, fresh yellow ones ready in hand. The awkwardness of old age was painful to witness, and for a fleeting second he considered going over and helping her, but she seemed strong in her own way; if she was able to come out in New York's own version of a monsoon, she must be capable of taking care of a bunch of flowers. He turned his back, ready to leave. He had seen enough.
The scream that rent the air gave the churchyard a chill it had not before held. The hair on the back of his neck and arms rose with its sharp shock, and he spun to look back at the woman he had observed. The umbrella and flowers lay forgotten on the grass, one hand clasping her mouth and the other her chest.
And the Peter Parker beneath the suit felt a whole new chill clench his breath in his lungs. God damn me! DAMN ME! How did I not know? How could I possibly not have known? Obstacles became nothing to him as his feet covered the grass. He slowed as he approached her, not sure of himself now, his brilliant red and blue making him feel almost sinfully out of tune with his unfamiliar surroundings. There were no super-villains with too many limbs threatening her life on the sides of skyscrapers. Would she be afraid? Or glad to see the one who had saved her three years ago?
As Fate would have it, his Aunt May did not notice him. Her focus was only on the headstone before her, her pale eyes wide and wet as her hands continued to grip. Spider-man looked at the source of her horror … and felt the bottom of his stomach take a plunge. The green surrounding them became engulfed in a black fog as anger and pain seared his vision, and all that was left was himself, his Aunt May, and the same claw marks on Uncle Ben's stone. Only this time, thistime, there was a message:
WE WILL STRIKE ALL YOU HOLD DEAR
The simple message glared at him with challenge, the words grinning at him and knowing they had stepped too far. The Peter Parker inside the Spider's costume extended a slightly shaking hand, placing the brightly gloved fingers gently on the crook of his Aunt's black-clad arm. She did not jump, as he feared she would, but looked up into his eye pieces, the pools of hazel lost and frightened as they searched desperately for something human to relate to, to find comfort in. How he wanted to comfort her as her nephew, as her son. Not everybody's Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-man. In his mind he damned his costume, damned Spider-Man, damned the bastard who had done this, even damned the weather. Peter wished desperately that he could rip off the mask. Instead, he gave her arm a light squeeze. It was all she needed. Peter held her as she clutched him tightly, shaking violently as she cried into his chest, and there they stayed, the rain beating their backs with a slightly heavier rhythm.
"C'mon," he said quietly. "I'll take you home."
She nodded, finally raising her face to search for his eyes again. "Thank you."
The black shadow watched them go with amusement, keeping itself hidden on the rooftops across the street. Revenge was an amazing thing.
The journey to Queens ran smoothly enough, for which Spider-Man was immensely grateful. And Aunt May had seemed perfectly relaxed in his single-armed hold. He had kept low and slow to make it a little easier on her, ensuring that the transition between threads was steady and smooth and tried very hard to make sure he did not have to change arms too much. But she had not jerked in surprise or shouted at any stage, even when being momentarily let go as he had to switch his hold when one arm became painfully tired of carrying the weight of two. It was a good comfort to him: she trusted Spider-Man implicitly, and that was enough. He landed perfectly before the foyer of her retirement apartment, ignoring the guard whose mouth drooped open as he leaned to the side of his desk to see round the door, the bit of sandwich he chewed being given the opportunity to look as well. Passers-by did pretty much the same, but again, they both blanked their unintelligent stares.
"It's okay." His words were more of a reassurance than an acceptance of her gratitude. "I'll tell Peter. He'll be over soon, I promise."
"I know he will." Aunt May smiled up at him. There was a … something in her eyes as she watched his expressionless face, a glint he knew he had seen there before … only this time it was more certain of itself. He stared at her, at a loss as to what to say. Rather than replying, he settled for stepping back, nodding his head to her mutely before shooting a web to the nearest tall building and disappearing from the view of her disconcerting eyes.
Does she know? He asked himself, sending another line out as he made his way higher above the city. His feet struck the edge of a rooftop and he propelled himself higher, now hundreds of feet above the umbrella carpet. But she's a smart lady, the other half of his mind reasoned.
Another rooftop and a kick.
He had to admit that the reasoning side of him was right; it had always been difficult for him as a child to hide anything from Aunt May. She always knew when he wasn't telling her something as a boy, but never nagged him about it: she used the 'look' until the guilt forced him to tell her. But this isn't a case of who used Uncle Ben's saw without asking. This is more serious than that…
The small kick at the base of his skull made his senses flare, and the familiar tingling burn spread across the back of his head and a little down his neck. He pulled his body off his path, blue and red lightening conducted by a glistening thread. He landing silently on a window in his favoured stance, his crouch keeping every muscle coiled like a spring. A bewildered yet fascinated office assistant stood on the other side of the window, making a rather undignified analysis with his mouth slightly open.
Something's here. Spider-Man's eyes shot over the skyscape, piercing the rain like bullets through air. The blank faces of buildings stared back at him, their windows with nothing to tell save for his own reflection. No silhouette framed itself against the moody cloud on a rooftop. Whatever it was did not want to divulge its position. He heard only the rain and his own breathing, and the longer he crouched, the fainter the sensation in his head became, until it had simmered down to nothing. He gave the area one last scan. Whatever it was had gone.
He dipped his head under his leg. "Enjoying the view?"
The assistant went an interesting shade of magenta and backed away. He held up the files clutched in his wiry hands as though trying to mime an excuse, before he scuttled off, burning face concealed behind the bulging folders.
The trip home held nothing but worry for him, and he kept dipping from his course to wait in shadow. Nothing transpired from this game of hide-and-seek he knew he played unwittingly with someone – or something. Nor did his senses flare again. They were never wrong, though, and that was the alarming thing. Something had been there, but it had left, and the sensation had been strong enough for him to gage whatever it was as a sizable threat, not your average no-hoper with a knife and the vague idea that they might hit you if they aimed within the general one hundred and eighty degrees you happened to occupy. This was dangerous.
He was somewhat grateful to return to his apartment and find the balcony doors open, as though the poky place wished to greet him open armed. He landed with a slight bump in front of the dresser, and was not in the least bit surprised when a fair voice said: "Hey, Tiger."
Peter smiled tiredly at her when he pulled the mask off, making himself tossle-haired, water tracing down his nose – a thing MJ found rather cute. She sat cross-legged on his bed, her hair roughly tied up and a baggy T-shirt holding her slender form in a far-too-big tent.
"Any chance that we could get a bite?"
He sighed heavily.
She frowned. "Rough day, huh?"
"You could say that." He stopped and looked to the ceiling, apparently examining the mottling of damp and sucking on his teeth. Mary Jane could read the upset in her lover just as easily as one of her scripts. He had never been very good at hiding his emotions from her. "You went to the cemetery, didn't you." Not a question, but a statement.
"And? What did you find?" she pressed gently.
"That they've done the same to Uncle Ben."
Mary Jane gasped, her fingers raising to her mouth and lowering again. "What?"
He told her what had been written as he removed the cloves so he could get rid of the prune effect a bit. He always found it had an adverse affect on his ability to live up to the name of Wall Crawler. "And the worst thing is Aunt May saw."
There was a silence, deep and awful, each person thinking of the horror the kindly old woman had been subjected to. Peter, however, had something else to convey to his girlfriend, something extremely important…
It really worried her when he called her that. Mary Jane was what her father tended to call her. The words that normally spouted from his mouth afterwards were hardly complementary, either.
Peter looked to her again. Mary Jane waited for him to speak, her legs still crossed and stray strands of hair framing her face in flame, peaceful eyes just a little scared. How we loved her! How could he tell her what he thought could be true, how could he possibly convey what he thought to her without her thinking him mad? But he could not bare the fact that she may well be in danger again because of him – the carved message may just as well have been scripted in blood. The silence stretched, cool anticipation on one side and uncertainty on the other.
"I have to go see Aunt May."
MJ sighed and nodded her head. He doesn't want to say whatever it is because he thinks I can't handle it.
"And I want you to come with me."
"MJ. Please. I need to know you're with me. Besides, she'll be happy to see you, especially today."
She silently agreed with him. While she was resolute that she could look after herself in front of Peter, she did have a deep desire for him not to leave her on her own. Whatever it was that hunted the man she loved certainly scared her. "Okay."
Peter smiled, and MJ noted the expression as a sag of relief, feeling him relax just a little as he gathered some clothes and rammed them into a bag. Mary Jane watched him as she tidied herself up a bit, changing her clothes into something a bit less house-ish, which had to be her work shirt and trousers, as she had nothing else to hand. "Conventional or unconventional travel?"
"Unconventional." He grinned despite himself. "It'll be quicker." He picked up his coat, sweeping the dust from its shoulders.
Mary Jane chuckled as she pulled her hair back into a neater ponytail.
"Just the image of Spider-Man soaring through New York with a rain coat. People really will think the weather's bad!"
"No they won't: it's for you." He draped it over her shoulders. She kissed him, touched by the fact that he had noticed she had only an umbrella to act as a shield from the monsoon. Her love for him grew to a peak in her chest as they jumped from the balcony. "You are amazing, Spider-Man."
Aunt May received their drenched forms more than gladly, and she pulled Peter in particular into a crushing embrace, for which he was more grateful than she would ever realise. She shook less than last time, which calmed his worry a little, and the wavering smile she gave him was far more confident than he had expected. The small kitchen table seated them all comfortably, while a teapot did the refreshment rounds. Aunt May talked down at her teacup while Peter and Mary Jane listened silently. She grew teary for a moment, but bit back on it; they saw the obvious effort strain her aging and dignified face as she thought of the act so cruelly carried out against her husband and family.
"But I don't understand why," she stated passionately, her hands rigid in front of her as though they too wished to convey her lack of understanding. "Whom do I know that would do that?" she asked, lost eyes imploring as they searched the faces of her young listeners. "Who would do that to an old man's grave? I don't know what I've done to deserve that…" A hand tugged at her hair, dragging it reluctantly from the neat bun. "And you two," she said, suddenly sharp with her worry, "you're not to go down any dark allies, and keep your doors locked! Especially you, Mary Jane."
MJ smiled reassuringly, reaching out a warm hand to hold the older woman's. "I'll be okay, Aunt May: I've got Spider-Man to look out to me." Peter at this point had the good humour to appear affronted, huffing like a disgruntled child. "And you, Pete, of course," she added as an afterthought, waving her free hand at him vaguely. Aunt May chuckled at them as they turned warm smiles to each other.
"Oh, you two," she smiled, sipping her tea. "You do tease each other so." Another sip. "Your Spider-Man friend is an interesting character, Peter." That look again. "I never expected to see him in a cemetery of all places! What was he doing there?" She watched him intently, hands crossed on the tabletop.
Her intense almost interrogational stare and out-of-the-blue question caught him off guard. "Doing?" Peter gave himself a mental shove at the same moment Mary Jane dug her heal into his foot. "He – uh – was visiting a friend." Vague truth, nicely done!
"Oh." Aunt May's gaze softened. "I suppose even super heroes lose loved ones, hmm?"
"Yeah. Yeah, they do." Under the table, Mary Jane gave his hand a light, comforting squeeze.
"Still. I suppose it hurts a little less if they have someone to go home to. To tell you the truth, Peter, I was happier to see that young man today than I ever thought I would be. I needed someone, a friendly face to turn to. And he was there, and I'll thank him tonight in my prayers."
Conversation continued between them for some hours afterwards, Peter ensuring that the topics they talked over veered as far away from Spider-Man as possible. The couple stayed for so long that Aunt May made sandwiches, which were followed by more tea, this time in the living room, the television on in the background. It was the news, and only Peter offered half an ear to it as they talked … but the words "gunfire" and "hostages" snatched his attention from the height of rent in New York at the moment. The reporter - Stephanie Fields - was in the middle of gravely conveying to the public that civilians were being held hostage at the world famous Tiffanies as a theft involving masked gunmen had gone seriously wrong. "Police are surrounding the building and the Armed Response Unit said to be on its way. It is unclear how many…"
Peter glanced at Mary Jane. She gave him the tiniest hint of a nod. Now for a story to let him get out… "Oh, shoot!" Shoot? Who the Hell says 'shoot'? "Er, Aunt May? I just remembered, I've got these books to take back to the down-town library, so I'll have to take 'em now."
"But Peter, it's nearly five o'clock! The library closes in ten minutes!"
"It's okay: I'll run."
"Well, alright then, if you're sure you can make it…"
"I'm sure," he said, rising from his seat and flinging his bag across his shoulders. He kissed the two women in his life hurriedly before sprinting out the door with hasty farewells following him out.
Silence filled the apartment for a few moments after that, the only sound the murmur of the now forgotten television. Aunt May turned to Mary Jane, a knowing smile gracing her lips. "Do you think he's realised yet that it's Sunday?"