A Shadow/Spiderman Story by Stephensmat and Scarlet
Stretching exercises. Stretching exercises. Of all things, true telekinesis training involved something as mundane as stretching exercises.
Such was usually the first thing on Stephen Cranston's mind as he sat down on the floor at The Temple of the Cobras each morning. Of all the things telekinesis required of a projector, especially one as strong as he was, the last thing he would have thought he needed to learn was how to stretch his mind.
Of course, that was before Marpa Tulku planted him on his backside repeatedly the first day of Stephen's new training regimen with barely any concentration whatsoever. It mattered not how hard Stephen would project a burst of telekinetic energy that had knocked men twice his own size off their feet; The Tulku would simply brush it off and the next thing Stephen knew, he was pinned to the floor with no way of breaking the hold. "You cannot break the hold because you have nothing to hold onto," The Tulku would repeatedly say, until Stephen finally gave up on the offensive tactics. It mattered not that the days of Stephen as an initiate-in-training were long gone, because Marpa Tulku did not teach students who were not willing to admit that they actually needed to learn something.
So, for a week now, Stephen had started every morning after breakfast sitting on the floor of the main chamber, learning to stretch his mind. Telekinesis, Marpa Tulku explained, involves using the mind's energies as an extension of one's self in every way. The goal of this round of training was to use it as a sense of touch, starting with the clothes on one's own body and gradually moving out toward floors, walls, ceilings, encountering each new sensation along the way and absorbing how the mind reacted to the encounters. This would give the adept greater control of the mental energies because the tactile sensation inside his psyche would give feedback as to progress.
That was the idea, anyway. Sometimes Stephen viewed it as just another way to annoy him by forcing him to move slowly instead of the rapid-fire pace he'd gotten used to as The Shadow.
"Your mind is drifting," Marpa Tulku reminded him.
"I know," Stephen replied, then returned to the task at hand. Despite his skepticism, this exercise was indeed turning out to be interesting. Today was easily the most tactile he'd felt his mind becoming; the extension of the psychic waves outward from inside his own mind had encountered dust particles he'd never felt so intensely before, as if what he once regarded as just harmless bits of fluff had suddenly sprouted ridges and ripples and facets. He found his psyche settling into cracks in the floor, slowly swirling outward across the floor like a scrub brush dipped in richly-soaped water. Better yet, he could feel a bit of a reflection from the nearby walls, a threshold he'd almost given up hope of ever reaching…
"Not so fast," Marpa Tulku cautioned. "Slowly. Overextension will cause the stream to break and snap back."
Stephen frowned. "I'm well aware of that, Tulku." He fought back the frustration in favor of letting the pressure behind his eyes gently push the thoughts outward again.
The walls were even closer now. Stephen could feel the change in the room's airflow pattern as his mind crept toward them from all directions. So close…, he thought, refocusing his mind toward his goal…
The gently flowing sheet of mental energy pulled away from one section of Stephen's psyche just millimeters from his desired goal. That one snap disrupted the entire stream, and instinctively, his mind changed the energy stream's direction, pulling it back to protect the area that had lost its energy flow.
At least, that was the way Marpa Tulku had explained it. Stephen, of course, had a much less technical explanation for what was about to happen next…
…his psyche was going to get crushed by the mental energy equivalent of a tactical nuke, and it was his own damn fault.
The wave of ultra-strong Cranston projective telepathy slammed into Stephen's brain so hard that it literally knocked him off the kneeling cushion and flat onto his back. Stephen let out a mental cry of pain loud enough to shake the temple walls as he held his head and writhed on the floor. The screaming from his injured psyche lasted well over ten minutes until it finally went silent with the psychic equivalent of laryngitis.
The ringing of a cell phone finally broke the silence.
"You should probably answer that," The Tulku remarked helpfully.
Without standing up, Stephen pulled out his cell phone out of the pockets of his senior initiate robes and flipped it open. "Your timing sucks," he said by way of greeting.
"I get my sense of timing from my father," the woman's voice on the other end answered. "It's a lousy thing to have inherited."
Stephen actually smiled slightly at the sound of the familiar voice. "Hi, MJ. What's up?"
"I'm not really sure," Mary Jane Watson replied. "I got a message handed to me by one of your runners this morning. It says 'Kit Ramirez needs a new job' and has a phone number written on it."
Stephen made eye contact with The Tulku. "Business call," his mind spoke, sounding weak and somewhat strained.
The Tulku gave a nod in response.
Stephen struggled for a moment to get to his feet, then managed to get enough balance to leave the room, taking a stroll back through the hallways to clear his head as he continued the conversation. "Kit Ramirez is a new agent," he explained to MJ. "Two days ago I ordered her to quit her job and told her I'd be sending an agent to give her a new assignment. She's worked as a waitress since forever, so she's a good people watcher. I'm putting her to work on surveillance detail."
"So…why is this message in my hand right now?"
"You're the agent who's going to give Kit her new assignment. Find the woman a job."
"Wait…you've clearly never actually seen my employment record, right?"
"Do you really want an answer to that?"
He could almost hear MJ rolling her eyes. "O.K., then you already know that I could barely get myself hired sometimes…"
"…and now you're going to get someone else hired," he interrupted.
"What, you're turning me into a headhunter service for unemployed waitresses?"
"All of my agents have valuable skills. Some even have remarkable powers. Peter does, Sarah does, and you do, too."
Again with the silence implying an eye roll. "I am not flirting with a Starbucks Manager to get a woman I don't know a job so that you don't have to come back to town and hypnotize him…"
"Do I really need to remind you that agents don't get to pick their assignments?"
This time he heard a sigh of acceptance. "Right. Sorry. O.K., I'll give her a call."
"Good girl. Call me if you need any help, and let me know how the audition went."
"Oh…I can't believe I didn't already mention it!" She began to sing her words. "I did it! I did it! I got the part! I'm in a Broadway musical!"
Stephen laughed warmly. "Awesome! That is so exciting! I'm so happy for you."
She was laughing, too. "I can't believe it! I got the news right before the agent dropped off this note…I got the lead in a brand new Broadway musical! They're going to be putting my name up in lights at the theater!" Then she gasped. "Oh, God, I just jinxed it. I'm going to show up at rehearsal next week and find out it was all a dream and I'm making a huge fool of myself…"
"MJ," Stephen cautioned.
"O.K., O.K., panic attack over," she said, calming down.
Stephen smiled again. "This really is great news. I'll be getting back within the next two or three days--weekend at the latest--and when I do, we'll celebrate. Make arrangements--drop my name to reserve my private suite at the Cobalt Club. Dinner, drinks, whatever you want. Invite the gang. We'll all make a fuss over you."
"Sounds like fun. I'll invite Peter, you invite Sarah…"
Stephen winced. "Um…about that. You invite Sarah. Things have been a little awkward between us since Gwen showed up." He sighed. "Actually, make that a lot awkward."
"I thought you guys worked through all that," MJ said, confused.
"I thought we had, too, but…things have been a little tense anyway…and that incident with the memory mix-up didn't help matters…"
"Oh, honestly. Are you really so desperate to avoid sending mixed signals that you want me to ask your girlfriend out for you?"
"She's not my girlfriend."
"Neither am I, but who have you been spending the nights with lately?"
"Go not this place," Stephen said in a warning tone.
"O.K., O.K., I'm shutting up. See you when you get back."
Stephen hung up the phone, then took a deep breath and looked inside his own psyche.
The energies were no longer roiling with pain and frustration. As they calmed down, the pain subsided and the walls around the reservoir were no longer trembling to contain the surge.
Which meant it was time for him to go back for another lesson. Stephen steeled his resolve, then pocketed his cell phone and returned to the main chamber.
Sarah Branson arrived at Cranston Manor for an appointment, and she let herself in through the massive iron gates and pulled into the driveway.
Already in the driveway, parked at the door, was Moe Shrevnitz's cab.
For a moment, Sarah had hope that Stephen was finally back from wherever-the-Hell he'd been since last Friday. But her clairvoyance quickly corrected her misconception: The only person from Moe's cab who was anywhere nearby was Moe, who was apparently taking a coffee break in the manor's large kitchen. Dammit, she mentally swore as she pulled into her normal parking space on the side drive. I can pick the man out of a crowd anywhere in Manhattan, so he made sure to get the heck out of Dodge so I couldn't figure out what bizarre mission he's taking on this time. Apparently he's not so busy that he couldn't have Burbank send a note telling me I've got fight training this morning, though. He's probably so completely over me now that the training's probably on a specially produced DVD.
That thought made her angry enough to slam the doors of her parked car.
By the time she got to the front door, Andrew was there to greet her. She ignored him and headed straight back for the armory. "All right," she said in an annoyed tone as she reached Stephen's massive weapons store, "who's he got doing his dirty work this time?"
"Me," Moe Shrevnitz said as he came into the armory behind her.
She whirled around. "Moe?"
He finished the last of his coffee. "At your service." He laughed. "Did you really think it'd be him?"
"Well, I knew it wasn't," she responded. "Clairvoyancy and all that fun stuff."
"So, what's he wearing up at the Temple?"
That caught her off-guard.
Moe noticed. "You do know that's where he is, right? He went up there to talk to The Tulku. Said it was urgent business. He did tell you this, right?"
Sarah tried to cover. "Oh, yeah. I just thought he'd be back by now."
Moe didn't believe her, but it wasn't his place to speculate on why Stephen wouldn't have told her the truth. Maybe she was still under agent probation. Or maybe it had something to do with that aborted trip to Europe they hadn't gone on once they caught that identity thief. All four of them had been acting weird since then--especially Stephen and MJ. But, again, not his place to question, and eventually it would all work out like it always did.
"So…I got a note that I'm supposed to be here for basic fight training," Sarah said in an uncertain tone.
"Yep," Moe said. "That's why I'm here. Come on, be honest: Do you really think my talents would be limited to driving like a maniac?"
Sarah smirked. "No, I guess not."
"You're right. I drive a cab in Manhattan. I've got to know how to fight anything and everything that comes at me. If you're going to continue being so close to the inside as an agent, you'll need to be able to do the same. So let's see what we've got to work with here." He gestured to a corner. "Get rid of your jacket and high heels and drop your purse over there, then come back and show me your best defensive stance."
Sarah headed for the corner and doffed the named articles of clothing, depositing them and her purse in a pile while Moe pulled a martial arts mat out of a closet and unrolled it in the center of the room.
Sarah stepped onto the mat and positioned herself in what she hoped looked like a defensive posture.
Moe tossed aside his own jacket and kicked off his shoes. "Not bad," he noted at her position. "Now show me your best offensive stance."
She balled her fists and raised her arms slightly, looking ready to start a round of Tae-Bo.
Moe studied her stance. It looked like some aerobics thing, not a true threatening offensive demeanor. "Shift your weight forward a bit. Bend at the knees. Not a lot, just a little bit."
Sarah did so.
"Now," Moe said, "hit me."
Sarah took a deep breath and swung at him. Sort of. Kind of. Maybe it would fool a camera in a movie fight or the audience at a pro wrestling match.
Moe didn't even both to dodge as her fist hit him in the chest so lightly that he wasn't sure she'd even penetrated all the layers of his clothing. "I said 'hit me', not 'wrinkle my shirt'," he complained. "What the Hell was that?"
Sarah blushed. "Well, I don't really want to hurt you."
"Mission accomplished," Moe mocked.
Sarah flushed. "O.K., let's try it again."
Stephen collapsed to the floor again as the thin sheet of telekinetic energy once more snapped just shy of the wall. This time the screams of pain were mixed with cries of frustration.
"Awareness of the danger and appreciation for the danger are not synonymous, Stephen," The Tulku said in a placid, calm voice that still managed to convey disappointment that one of his prize pupils was still refusing to abide by simple boundaries.
Stephen held his head and lay on the floor for a moment longer, letting the cool stone floor calm his battered brain. "Granddaddy was right," he finally said. "You are a sadist."
The Tulku smiled. "Hardly. A sadist would enjoy seeing you in pain. I merely find it amusing. You came to me, saying you wanted to learn to 'control your telekinesis better'. I pointed out that you had never really learned to control it at all, but merely how to turn psychic defense into psychic offense without splitting your skull open when the rebound headache hit. You said you wanted to learn. I warned you that you would have to completely rethink everything you ever thought you knew about how telekinesis is accomplished. You reiterated that you knew it would be hard, but you didn't care how long it took, you just wanted to learn. So, now you are learning, and instead of being grateful for the lessons, you accuse me of sadism."
Stephen finally got the pain levels in his head down to the point where he could once more sit up. "Even a modicum of sympathy might be useful in this situation to keep me from trying to overreach so often," he noted in a mental voice that was sounding a lot harsher than he intended it to, but now that the words were out, he was going to take advantage of the chance to push his teacher's buttons."Or had that never occurred to you?"
The Tulku refused to rise to the bait, instead crossing the room to take a seat on his altar.
Stephen stayed on the floor and rotated to face him.
"Why do you want to learn this, Stephen?" The Tulku asked.
Stephen didn't overtly react. "I have my reasons."
"We have already been over your list of reasons you might like to know it, but none of those are the real reason you have this burning desire to learn better telekinetic control."
"I see. Well, since you've already read my mind, why not tell me why I want to learn this?"
"I am not in the mood to play games with you, Stephen. I have many other students who need my attention. And I care not that I owe you my life, or that I am your agent, or any other intimidation tactic you have in your arsenal, because right now, all of that is irrelevant. I have something you want, and you will not leave without it, and I have the patience to outlast your stubbornness." The Tulku looked down at his student. "Now that we have both drawn our lines in the sand, perhaps it is time to lower the level of hostility in the room and discuss this like adults."
Stephen gave a sigh. "What do you want me to say, Tulku? That I've reached the end of things I can learn on my own and now need help? That I'm worried about not being able to hold up my end of my partnership with Peter sometimes? That I'm interested in understanding what more I'm capable of doing?"
The Tulku gave a slight smirk. "You say those things as if you have not already said them to me in some form or another. Those are your public reasons. You have deeper reasons, and if you do not give voice to them, you will never really be able to find answers to your questions."
"Fine. Whatever." Stephen looked down and gave a hard sigh.
"Looking away will not get me to drop the subject," The Tulku reminded him.
Stephen didn't look up.
He felt something sweep through his mind, and he looked up, smacking back ferociously. "STAY OUT OF MY HEAD!"
The Tulku drew back slightly. "Anger. Interesting. Why would discussing your real reasons make you angry?"
Stephen bit back his anger hard. He was going to stay in control of his emotions, come Hell or high water.
"How long have you feared losing control?"
Stephen looked up. "Seriously…get out of my head right now."
"Stephen, we can go around in circles like this until eternity passes…or you can admit the truth. The next move is entirely yours. Which will it be?"
The chiming of the bells for the noon meal relieved Stephen of the immediate need to give an answer. Teacher and student got to their feet, gave each other a nod, then left the chamber together.
Sporting fresh bruises on her body and ego, Sarah came off the elevator and headed for her office at the Classic only to notice the door was already open. She gave a clairvoyant sweep to see if Peter had come in today for a change…and instead mentally found the last person she ever expected to find anywhere near her. She rushed over to her office and found said person sitting in her chair. "Gwen?" she questioned.
Gwen Stacy quickly stood up to face her and launched right into a speech she'd been dying to give for weeks. "I know you probably hate me, but hear me out. I screwed up. I was so full of rage over my father getting killed that I was willing to ignore the obvious and blame a man in a mask, a vendetta that put the people I love most in my life in mortal danger and almost got them killed. You were also there, you also almost got killed, you're clearly very important in Stephen's life and in his inner circle, and I came to beg your forgiveness…"
Sarah found herself wondering how in the world Stephen Cranston had managed to attract two women who could spin the ditziest apologies so fast that taking breaths wasn't even needed. "Look, Gwen…"
"I think Stephen blames himself for putting you in danger too," Gwen added quietly. "I mean, we were friends, so when I mention Shocker, you guys are available and he sends you and MJ down to Hell's Kitchen because he thinks he's doing me a favor."
Sarah bit her tongue hard, aware that Gwen was missing a few pieces to that puzzle. "Yeah, but…"
"Stephen and I made peace, and MJ's my next stop. You were right, what you said when we met. He doesn't make friends. I'm one of them, and I want to keep it that way. Sarah, you don't know me. I didn't exactly make a good first impression. Or for that matter, second or third. But, I'm here. And Stephen is family. Peter and MJ are my oldest friends. I don't have a single childhood memory that doesn't include at least one of them. I don't want to just…just go away and pretend I never found them again."
Sarah heard her own thoughts thrown back at her and wondered briefly if Gwen was telepathic, awakened or not. That would explain her attraction to Stephen, after all.
Gwen didn't even notice Sarah was conducting her own internal monologue about this situation as she worked to finish her own. "So all I'm asking is, we're going to be running into each other again, often, probably, so can we start over?"
Sarah gave some serious thought to the question. She was already feeling guilty about her first reactions to this girl. Stephen had made a point of explaining her motivations and the role he had played in them, and things were strained enough between them already without her sending his surrogate sister away. It might actually make it easier for the two of them to try and find their way back to togetherness if they included Gwen in their circle instead of excluding her.
And upon reaching that conclusion, Sarah held out her right hand. "Sarah Branson."
Gwen smiled and shook it. "Gwen Stacy. Nice to meet you, Miss Branson."
"Likewise. Now, what can I do for you, Miss Stacy?"
The two ladies giggled. "This really is kind of ridiculous," Sarah admitted. "O.K., Gwen, what can I do for you?"
Gwen got her laughter under control. "A good friend of mine, Stephen Cranston, said that I can learn about some of Spiderman's exploits here. His career as a superhero has become something of an interest of mine recently."
Sarah smirked. "I'll bet it has." She gestured with her head toward the doorway. "Follow me."
Moments later, the two women arrived in the basement via the elevator, and Gwen was now right behind a fast-moving Sarah as she led the way to the paper's archives section. "Speaking of my good friend Stephen Cranston," Gwen said, "I understand things have been a little tense between you two since I showed up."
Sarah almost missed a step. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I figured that. Neither does Stephen. It's nice to be the only one who knows what I'm talking about for a change. Speaking as the one girl who's known him longest, let me just say that he might just need a little…what's the word? Encouragement."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "You, Moe, Peter, MJ, even Marsh. Everybody's trying to set us up." She shook her head. "Forget it. It would never work."
"If you're worried about me and Stephen, you're nuts. We tried that once when we were eighteen."
Now Sarah looked behind her. "Really?"
"Uh-huh. We got halfway through our first kiss and broke screaming from the total 'ugh' feeling."
Sarah laughed. "Oedipus Schmoedipus, as long as he loves his mother," she said, repeating an old joke from her literature classes in high school.
"Yeah, that exact same joke occurred to me, too. But that's just the way it is. I've thought of him as my brother for too long to ever even consider him in a romantic light." Gwen hesitated for a moment. "But he is hot."
Sarah smirked. "I suppose," she admitted, relieved that the next door on the left was the main archives room. "O.K., here we go. Spiderman's been around for less than 10 years, so just about everything on him is probably online." She found an unused computer terminal. "Log in as guest, password 'archive'," she continued as she typed the commands onto the screen, "then put your keywords into the search box right there and you'll get links to the stories. If you know the exact date you're looking for, enter the date on that form right there, and the whole paper will come up with two links. One set's PDFs of pages, the other's the news story texts only. There's also a separate search form for front page items and another one for editorials. Have at it, print out what you want, but make sure to log out when you're done."
"Thanks, Sarah," Gwen took a breath. "So, we going to be O.K.?"
"I guess so," Sarah agreed.
"I ask, because I don't want it to be awkward this weekend at MJ's thing."
"MJ?" Sarah said in surprise.
"Yeah, I mean, it's a big deal. Her name in lights, Broadway show…"
Sarah forced her face to smile. "Right. I just didn't know you knew about it."
"Well, I asked Stephen not to tell you or MJ that I was invited, because I wasn't sure if you still hated me."
Sarah did not hate her. She knew that. But she was still in shock because clearly, Stephen, who as far as she knew wasn't talking to any of his agents except by correspondence through Burbank, had obviously picked up a phone and called Gwen personally. "Gwen, you're family to Stephen, to Peter, and to MJ. You should be there, even if I did have a problem. Which, I don't."
"O.K. then." She took a seat at the computer and gestured over the screen. "Search box, keywords, dates for whole papers, front page, editorials."
"Got it. Thanks."
As Gwen got down to work, Sarah nearly sprinted for the elevator.
Five minutes later, Sarah had managed to work out most of her snarls during the elevator ride back to the third floor, but was still mumbling things about snipers and co-workers when she returned to her office and found it occupied once again.
"They don't deserve you," a somewhat annoyingly familiar voice said.
Sarah literally could not believe it. Who had she managed to tick off in the realm of karma to deserve this? "Brock?"
"Oh good, you remember me," Eddie Brock responded with a completely insincere smirking smile.
"I do, but I worked at the Post then," Sarah said. "To what do I owe the dubious pleasure of your company that I might put a stop to it immediately?"
Brock put a hand to his heart. "You wound me. My dear Miss Branson, word is that the Daily Bugle is prepared to once again put Spiderman on their front page. Ready to roll up my sleeves and play my part in spreading the gospel of Spiderman, I of course, am first and foremost seeking employment in the papers around the city, but I wanted to know, first of all, whether my old friend Peter Parker was really living up to his potential here. After all, he's lucky when it comes to the Spider, but is that really enough?"
Sarah was not impressed. She was completely not in the mood for the disgustingly annoying Eddie Brock, who since their last encounter had managed to parlay his one shot used by the New York Post into a series of bad photos that had him bouncing from paper to paper like an overactive rubber ball; last she'd heard, he'd even been fired from one of the lowest of the lowly community "Take One Free" rags that were tossed aside on the subway. His mere presence so repulsed her that he wasn't even worthy of her pure ditz responses that usually scared away such nonsensical types. "What, did the Bugle already shoot you down? Jameson doesn't exactly hold the highest standards for his reporting or his photographers, so if you can't get back in the door there, you must be even more worthless than your reputation suggests."
Again, Brock played the wounded soul. "Hardly. But I compare the work of this fine newspaper to that gossip rag, and I find that this place has certain respectability."
"So…you thought you'd take the opportunity to get rid of that for us?"
Brock sighed. "Ah, why do the pretty ones always have such sharp tongues?"
"Brock, if you want a job you've got to talk to my boss, not me," Sarah said, shooing him out of her chair so that she could finally get down to work this morning.
"Introduce me," he responded in a challenging tone.
O.K., now this had passed from annoying to delusional and ridiculous. "What?"
"Well, I figured you might be willing, given that we've worked together before…"
"Worked together is overstating it," she reminded him. "I bought a collection of your photos once."
"I suppose, but it's a start, given that we're going to be working together once proper introductions are made."
Sarah deduced that Brock couldn't possibly be a human being. He had to be first cousin to a cockroach. "We've already got a Spiderman reporter," she reminded him.
"Parker. Great guy, my hero! But you've got to take a step back from the hype-"
"Take it up with our editor," she cut him off.
"And where can I find him?"
"In the big office with the word 'Editor' written on the door," she said with the best get the Hell out of my office now glare she could muster.
Brock took the hint finally and left her office, giving her the tongue-click and double finger-guns idiot nerds who thought they were cool gave women.
Sarah got up and slammed the door to her office, then plopped into her chair again and rubbed her eyes hard. What a day. Could it get any worse?
The question was answered when she found an email waiting for her, from one of The Sanctum's main computer system's many aliases, marked 'Urgent.' The automated e-mail scanned thousands of records from hundreds of sources, checking for certain keywords in combination that might indicate trouble brewing. Stephen had shown her how to set it up and had left her in charge of following up news stories based on those keywords, just as he had done for years when he was Manhattan's finest investigative reporter, the Prosperous Pulitzer Winner. Now it was her job to follow in his footsteps. She clicked the mail.
The keywords were highlighted. "Harry Osborn."
Sarah rubbed her eyes again and started digging.
Classic Editor-in-Chief Clyde Marsh looked up from reading the AP wire to see his assistant coming into his office, trailed by a young man with spiky blond hair and a camera hanging from a strap around his neck. "This man wanted to talk to you about a job," the assistant said, "but he doesn't have an appointment. His name is-"
"It's Brock, sir--Edward Brock, Jr.," Brock interrupted.
Brock. Why did Marsh think he already knew that name? And why in the world was he getting the impression this discussion would be either accompanied by or followed by a massive migraine headache? "I'm sorry, Mr. Brock," Marsh said with the calmest tone of voice he could muster, "but we aren't hiring at the moment."
"Well, I'm sure I can change your mind," Brock said with unshakable calm.
Lunch at the Temple was uneventful, a meal of fresh garden vegetables notwithstanding. Neither Stephen nor Marpa Tulku spoke to each other during the meal, each instead occupied with other pressing needs: The Tulku addressing a very young senior initiate who sat near his side, Stephen contemplating how to give voice to the many feelings running through his mind about why he had come.
When the meal was finished, the junior initiates cleared the dishes, then followed the senior initiates out of the dining hall, dispersing to their afternoon chores and classes.
Moments later, Stephen was the only one left in the room. And he was not certain he wanted to leave. But time was short. Even now he could feel a strange sense of foreboding about his future, a sort of twilight that had been creeping up on everyone around him in his immediate circle. For a man who bore the mantle of Master Of Darkness, the dread he was feeling about this twilight was unnerving.
Finally deciding he could not put this off any more, he got to his feet, steeled his nerves, and headed for the main chamber.
He stopped at the edge of the chamber as he saw Marpa Tulku, seated on his altar in meditation, his expression as inscrutable as ever and his sense of utter calmness filling the temple. But the barest of ripples of fear that occasionally came through The Tulku's thoughts weren't lost on Stephen. And that was definitely not comforting.
"You may come in, Stephen," The Tulku's voice spoke in his head.
Stephen entered the room and bowed. "Tulku," he greeted.
The Tulku gave him a nod in return. "How was your lunch?"
"You did not each much of it."
"True." Stephen gave a wry smile. "Granddaddy's journals contain many stories of afternoons spent in meditation in the temple, just drinking in the sensations of so many growing psyches surrounding him, their mind energies blending into something that should have been cacophony but were instead incredibly peaceful. I wanted to experience that for myself after all of the hard work over the past few days." He paused. "There are quite a few new faces since I was last here."
"Yes," The Tulku admitted. "Quite a few. It always surprises me how many students manage to find their way to this place. It also reminds me that my own mission is not yet complete." That last statement seemed to give The Tulku pause.
Stephen noticed, but had other concerns. "Any…strong projectors?"
"A few. One or two westerners arrived a few weeks ago with building projective reservoirs. One should be awakening any day now. Strong projectors are rare, even among telepaths."
"I know, one in ten. That was the number Granddaddy had in his notes." Stephen took a deep breath to calm his swirling psyche, which was threatening to run away with the plans he knew he would have to be making soon. "The projectors…tell me about them. Age, condition, training, that sort of thing…"
"You are looking for a student of your own." It was not a question.
"Victor's death made me seriously consider giving up the mission, just for a moment. But when I stopped being The Shadow for nearly three months, I realized that it had grown beyond my own mask. It…the mission has to go on. The Shadow has to go on, with or without me, and I won't be around forever." It was a difficult admission for Stephen to make.
The Tulku gestured with his eyes to a step below the altar.
Stephen crossed the room and took a seat below his master.
"I sense we are finally approaching the real reason you have come here." The Tulku did not wait for Stephen to acknowledge the statement. "But that reason only raises more questions. If you fear losing control, why did you start this way? Why did you begin by forcing me to teach you the things you did not know? You are afraid of your powers becoming too strong, but you insist that I make you stronger. You have been worried about not holding up your end of the mission compared to your partner, and you are searching my ranks for an apprentice to take your place one day. Stephen, what are you trying to prepare for?"
The words that he would need to say were almost too frightening to even think. Which would make thought-speech of them that much harder. He took several steadying breaths and focused his mind on the plan he'd spent much of the last month contemplating. "I…I need someone to be ready to take over, regardless of what happens to me."
"You once told me that you would never even dream of burdening anyone else with your mission, much less your son. Those were your words just days after Victor's death. What has changed?"
"Do I really need to answer that?"
"Yes. Because if you do not put words to your thoughts, they will forever remain too frightening for you to contemplate." The Marpa Tulku looked at his student, a young man so much like his grandfather--both physically and psychically--that the resemblance was almost frightening. It was also incredibly stimulating for The Tulku's own psyche to be around another Cranston mind once more, even for this short time. To hear the doubt and distress in that mind was unsettling and brought out even more old feelings and memories of a teacher-pupil relationship that had ended over 80 years ago. All of The Tulku's students were like his children, and all of them had given something to their teacher that would carry through eternity or whenever the gods had decided that Marpa Yeshi's psychic lineage had finally achieved spiritual perfection. But the Cranstons were special, and The Tulku knew Stephen needed a father figure to give him the guidance Stephen felt he was lacking. So even though the body of Tenzin Chokyi was easily half Stephen's age, the thousand-year-old psyche of a 23-generation Tibetan Lama was as well-equipped as anyone to provide that guidance. "Stephen, say what you want to say," The Tulku urged.
Stephen wouldn't look away from the floor. "It was so…easy. I told you about the battle between The Shadow and Khan's army after Victor's murder…but only about the end, with Khan."
"That's because it's the only part of the fight that I can remember. I remember getting onto the boat; I remember seeing his guards below deck…and then, nothing. The next clear memory I have is lunging at Khan, and he puts me face down into the water."
"Your Grandfather told me he had similar moments from Ying Ko's time," The Tulku noted. During the times Lamont Cranston had confided this to his teacher, in the early months of his own training, The Tulku had attributed it to a dissociation between the unawakened-at-the-time part of Lamont's mind and his darker side, Ying Ko, the murderous warlord who embraced the power of life and death in the swing of a blade or the flexing of a trigger finger, the one who had come to use Lamont's partially awakened abilities--fear manipulation, night vision, even the occasional mind-read--as tools for spreading death and destruction. After years of speaking with Lamont as he aged, and continuing the conversations with Victor after Lamont's death and Victor's brother Alexander after the birth of young Stephen, The Tulku had come to realize it was an artificial separation that the Cranston psyche had developed to avoid falling into the trap of Ying Ko's overarching rule-the-world dreams once more. But as Lamont's mind aged and his body became weaker, his mind's strength began to soar to new levels, and keeping that part of his personality pushed to the side became ever more difficult, a part of Lamont's psyche that the elder Cranston fought for the last 2 years of his life in particular after Margo's untimely death from cancer and Lamont's own near-fatal heart attack mere months later. And even though Victor had never been Ying Ko nor had he known his father during that part of his life, Victor had built the same walls…and had the same dark nature ever lurking around the edges of his powers. Alexander had the same dual nature in his own mind…and he feared it happening to Stephen, because even as a child, both Alexander and Marie could see and feel their son's child-like psyche asserting itself as the "terrible twos" turned to the "thoughtful threes". Now, Stephen was finally acknowledging his own darker side. This was healthy, but it was also dangerous. The Tulku forced his expression to remain placid as he listened to Stephen giving voice to his deepest fears.
"My grandfather did not pick 'The Shadow' as his name by accident," Stephen continued. "'Ying Ko' is 'Shadow' in Chinese, and Khan has never let me forget it. You broke Ying Ko's power over Granddaddy, Tulku, but you didn't destroy him. My grandfather turned Ying Ko loose every time he pulled on that hat and cloak, and you were the only one that ever managed to knock him down."
"I could no more have destroyed Ying Ko than I could have destroyed your grandfather, though more than once the thought of doing both crossed my mind," The Tulku admitted. "Ying Ko was a mask worn by Lamont Cranston, just as The Shadow was Lamont Cranston under a hat and cloak. That darkness that makes your family so powerful is the same darkness that gives rise to a murderous warlord. It is only the way you choose to use that darkness, to drive evil out of the shadows and into the light, that differentiates The Shadow from Ying Ko."
Stephen scoffed. "Trust me, I am well aware of that. Tulku, I can't even remember the details of that night, and believe me when I tell you that I have tried. All I know is that the few who survived? It wasn't because I showed them mercy."
"It was because you showed Sarah mercy instead. Her survival was more important than finishing off Khan, which is why you broke off your attack on Khan and called Peter for help. That is Stephen Cranston taking control over Ying Ko, just as your grandfather had to do on many occasions. Are you afraid that you may turn out like your grandfather did before I found him?"
"I'm not afraid of it. That's the problem. I should be, but I'm not. Khan threw everything he had at me and I didn't even notice, because I let Ying Ko fight for me," He shivered. "And it was so easy, Tulku. In my grandfather's notes, he talks about Ying Ko, but always in the third person, like it's somebody else entirely…and I never thought that odd, because I've got a Ying Ko too. And that night, I stopped caring that Ying Ko was someone I never wanted to be. That night, I let that part of me run free." He looked up. "Tulku…am I insane?"
The Tulku laughed. "No. If you were insane, I would be twenty-three times as insane. I actually have twenty-three different personalities all inhabiting the one mind of the current Marpa Tulku. You are merely a single man with multiple facets of the same personality. Lamont Cranston was no more the dangerous vigilante Master Of Darkness who struck fear in the hearts of lawbreakers everywhere than he was the wealthy young man-about-town swirling through Manhattan's social scene; the real Lamont Cranston was a combination of those personalities and more, and he juggled those facets of his life and featured or hid them as he chose. This is not something just adepts do; everyone views things from different viewpoints and expresses different facets of their personalities as the situation demands. A father with a family to support, a job to work, a marriage to maintain, etc. A superhero who has to juggle a secret identity, a day job, a love life, family relations, friendships, all of them based on secrets not shared with all facets and facets not visible to other facets. Your telepathy makes your mind work so much faster and on such a higher plane that you view this struggle as being larger than it really is. You know how to balance these multiple sides of you better than you think; they're all a part of you, and each gives you a different point of view… "
"'Point of view'? Tulku, this is not a point of view. It's a dragon inside my mind. It's been there for years. I was sixteen the first time I experienced it. It was my first actual gun fight, I was desperately trying to figure out how to protect The Shadow from getting killed by gunmen in a bar, rescue two frightened waitresses, and not get myself killed. I remember starting to argue with myself…and that's the last thing I clearly remember until I woke up hours later back in my own bed. I'd have sworn it was a nightmare until Victor told me what I'd done. I don't mind telling you that losing control in that fashion scared the Hell out of me, particularly since it was the first time I'd ever realized that I could become The Shadow…and in fact, had become The Shadow, in a way. I became Ying Ko." Stephen paused and let his mind settle down again. "After that one night, I vowed to never let myself lose that control again. I grew to hate even the notion that I could be 'Ying Ko', which likely made Kuba Khan use the name all the more. But my vow worked. Not since that first night had I been so overcome with anger and overwhelmed with a desire to make someone pay for his or her actions to even consider unleashing that dragon…until the night Victor died. Khan had to pay. He would pay dearly. I knew he would, because Ying Ko was the most feared of all the Tibetan warlords, and with good reason. Not even Genghis Khan made men tremble the way Ying Ko could make the Kailasa valley people shiver at the mere mention of his name. Kuba Khan was nothing, an easily defeated weak heir to his ancestors' traditions. I was stronger than he was, and I could be more ruthless than he could even imagine. All I had to do was turn Ying Ko loose. And when I did…it was so easy…"
"You are not Ying Ko," The Tulku reminded him.
"Yes I am!" Stephen's mental voice yelled. "That night I was! And if Sarah had been on the boat, she wouldn't have lived either, because dragons do not know friend from foe." And with those words, Stephen could no longer control or hide his emotional reactions. His eyes filled with tears and he turned away, pushing a fist against his mouth and closing his eyes to stem the reaction.
"You love her," Marpa Tulku observed.
"Tulku.." Stephen warned.
"You do." The Tulku inisisted. "Even if only friendship and loylaty. That love stopped Ying Ko's rampage and brought Stephen Cranston back into control. The love your grandfather had for Margo Lane kept him from killing her the night she learned his secret. The love Alexander had for Victor, for Marie, and for you kept him from simply turning his own inner Ying Ko loose on the men who held you captive, wanting only instead to protect his brother from the gunmen who were waiting to assassinate him."
"I cannot depend on love!" Stephen insisted. "Ying Ko knew no love! He ordered the murder of his own bookkeeper, a man he loved like a father figure, to prevent a rival drug lord from escaping! That night, I viewed Sarah as the catalyst for Victor's murder, and she deserved to die as much as Khan's men did…"
"…and yet, you regained control to save her. Ying Ko knows no love. Stephen Cranston does." The Tulku looked Stephen in the eye. "Why have you come here, Stephen? What do you really want?"
There was a long moment of silence before Stephen finally spoke. "A dragon slayer."
Brock tapped on the metal frame of her office door. "Knock-Knock."
Sarah was more than a little annoyed to realize that she had developed a sixth sense impression of the slimy photo hound. "Unless you brought lunch, go away," she said, forcing herself to keep focusing on her mission to find the insane Harry Osborn as a way of ignoring the increasingly insane Eddie Brock.
"Certainly, I'll be right back. What would you like? Or better yet, why not come with me?"
"Marsh shot you down, huh?"
Brock didn't let his face show the sting. "He's still attached to Parker. I don't mind that. Team loyalty is admirable. I just wanted to let you know that sadly, we won't be working together."
"I'll try to contain my disappointment," Sarah said oh-so-insincerely, and then felt a familiar presence tingling her clairvoyance. Oh, good. Maybe I can get rid of two annoyances in one fell swoop…
"Sarah?" Gwen called as she approached the office. "Where can I get copies of papers from my father's…" Then she spotted Brock in the doorway. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said, embarrassed she had interrupted the conversation.
"That's quite all right," Sarah said, much more cheerful. "Eddie, this is my friend Gwen Stacy. Gwen, this is someone you might be interested in talking to. He's a Spiderman photographer. His name is…"
"Brock," Eddie put in, giving Gwen his most charming smile. "Edward Brock, Jr."
No sooner had Stephen finally confessed his real reason for coming to the temple than his cell phone rang for the second time that day. He checked the display. "Duty calls," he remarked.
The Tulku gave him a nod to excuse him.
Stephen got to his feet and left the room, slipping on his Bluetooth earpiece and tapping the "talk" button as soon as he cleared the hallway. "Hel-"
"Where the Hell am I supposed to put this woman?" MJ's voice screeched into his ear before the second syllable had left Stephen's lips. "I mean, she's got a kid, for crying out loud! Her sleazebag ex refuses to make his alimony and child support payments, Starbucks doesn't pay enough, Subway isn't hiring, the Moondance Diner's uniforms are way too embarrassing, and her kid's got an ear infection! She can't work nightshifts or weekends…"
"MJ!" Stephen commanded. "Take a breath!"
She did so, loud enough to be heard.
"Now take another."
She did so, loud enough to be noticeably calmer.
"Good," Stephen told her. "Now. The goal is not to be a temp agency. The goal is to keep the network running. That's your new permanent assignment."
"What?" MJ almost screamed in clear horror.
"Calm down or I'm hanging up," Stephen said, his ears ringing from her screeching. "Keep up the screaming and you'll blow out your voice before you get to your first rehearsal."
"I can't run your network once I start rehearsals! What the Hell is going on with you? Have you gone nuts?"
"Don't make me answer that."
MJ sighed hard into the phone. "O.K., O.K., I get it. Agents don't yell at the boss or question assignments. But…keeping your network running? I wasn't aware Burbank had been fired or otherwise dispatched since your departure."
"Burbank only runs one part of my network--communication. You're running another part--courier duty and insider special assignments. And your first insider special assignment involves getting Kit Ramirez a new job. That's it. Your job is to mesh this woman and a new job into The Shadow's mission."
Again he could practically hear MJ rolling her eyes. "Oh, of course. How easy is that?"
"An agent's life is never easy, and you above practically anyone else in my circle are well acquainted with that truism."
Again the pause for MJ's eyes rolling. "She's a waitress, Stephen. I know from experience that such a noble profession does not lend itself well to clandestine secret army activities."
"New York, the city that never sleeps…except for its national chain stores, which run on suburban time. But did you know that a few chain stores on the West Side stay open a few hours longer than the rest of the city?"
Another pause, but now he was pretty sure he had her attention. "Really? Why?"
"Why do you think?"
"Uh…they get business late at night?"
"Keep going. Why there? Why them?"
"I…I don't know."
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"
"Do I really need to answer that?" she said with a giggle.
"Not if you can tie it into why The Shadow would be so interested in acquiring such esoteric knowledge as chain stores that stay open later in some locations than others."
Again a pause, this one a genuine no-clue hesitation. "I'd like to buy a vowel, Pat."
"Always a waste of money on that show," Stephen noted. "Sleep on it; I'll get back to you."
"Wait! Give me a hint-"
Stephen hung up.
MJ looked at her cell phone's display indicating the call had terminated, then returned her attention to the photo of Kat Ramirez. "What am I supposed to do with you?" she lamented.
The picture didn't answer her. She thought about taking it to Peter, but Peter was knee-deep in studying for midterms when he wasn't saving the world. Terrific. I know two superheroes on intimate terms, and neither one of them has the time of day for me. I know a superhero's girlfriend, and she's still sore at me over that whole memory mix-up thing. Why am I always the one left hanging, in more ways than one?
The picture didn't answer her again. She looked at the leather briefcase that Stephen had given her, the same case with false sides and interior panels to hide Shadow communiqués, weapons, and the like that once was used exclusively by the previous network coordinator, Victor Cranston. She shook her head. Got any ideas for me, Victor?
The briefcase didn't answer, either.
Yep, left hanging again. MJ gave a sigh, then flopped back on her bed and tried to banish the headache this whole day had given her.
After a stressful day of training made all the more raw by emotions and fears being yanked out of their hiding places and thrust into the forefront of his brain, Stephen had spent the time during the evening meal being slightly more social than he'd been earlier in the day. One very young Nepalese boy--who told him in halting English that he was only eight years old--had eventually captured Stephen's imagination by telling stories of life in Nepal as the son of a sherpa mountain climber, always intrigued by a place he'd never been before but a place he could describe to the most minute detail--the peak of Mount Everest. Listening to the boy waxing rhapsodic about his first experience with clairvoyance reminded Stephen of another clairvoyant, one who was back in Manhattan, one who was not likely going to be pleased with him for still keeping her on the outside looking in.
As he reached his sleeping chamber for the evening, he decided it was time he did something about that.
He pulled out his cell phone, scrolled through the list, and dialed.
"Hello?" said a tired feminine voice.
Beat. "Hey. Long time, no see. Or hear. Or do much of anything except read Burbank's notes."
"Yeah." Stephen hadn't felt so stupid in a very long time. "I wanted to tell you that I'll probably be home sometime tomorrow and we're all getting together Friday night…."
"Yeah. Gwen told me."
Stephen winced. "Did she?"
"Well, good. So…you are coming, right?"
"Sure. It's a really big deal for MJ. She's my friend."
Stephen would have preferred a trip to the dentist than to continue this conversation. "Yeah."
"So…how's the weather up the mountain? I didn't know you were going."
"I didn't tell you?"
"No, you didn't."
"Oh. Well, the weather…it's colder than Manhattan because of the altitude. A lot cooler at night."
"Huh. Sounds just like the weather here. Everything feels a lot colder."
A very long moment of silence passed, as if neither knew what they could possibly say at this moment to thaw things out.
A low beeping from his phone made him look at the display. "Sarah, my cell phone's about to go…"
"I should let you go then," Sarah responded, sounding almost relieved.
"Yeah. Good night, Sarah."
"Night, Stephen." The phone clicked in his ear.
Stephen realized the words "I miss you" were in the forefront of his brain and had been just about to signal his physical voice to say them when the call ended. He gave a sigh, then reached down and retrieved his phone charger cord. He could plug it in--his was one of the few rooms in the temple with its own electrical outlets--and continue the conversation. It would be so easy. Just a few more seconds and he'd somehow manage to get words out that he hadn't ever actually said to her.
He plugged the charger cord into the base of the phone and inserted the electrical plug into the wall socket.
The red blinking light on the phone's surface turned amber, indicating it was beginning to charge.
Stephen stared at the phone for a moment. His thumb waved back and forth over the keypad, as if it were demonstrating for him how to push the buttons to continue the conversation. He let his thumb dance over the keys for a moment, then made a selection.
"HANDSET LOCKED -- ENTER PIN TO CONTINUE" appeared on the display.
Stephen nodded, knowing he'd made the right choice to lock the phone for the night. He put the phone on the floor next to him, then pulled the blankets around himself as he curled up on the cot for a well-deserved sleep.
"I know why you want to make yourself more powerful now," The Tulku's voice said inside his head. "You want to have that kind of power without turning your dragon loose…so there will never be a moment of viewing both friend and foe as enemy and prey."
Now Stephen really knew how his grandfather felt at times, because Lamont's diaries were filled with stories from the Temple when The Tulku would invade his mind without him even knowing it, just to push him that much harder to learn and grow. "Yes," he called back quietly.
"You kept your abilities leashed for so long because you vowed you would not go the way your grandfather did when you got older. The whole idea of dying from complications of mental overload has always been so frightening to you that you have deliberately avoided anything that could cause the kind of telepathic growth that could lead to mental overload. But for some reason, that has become less frightening to you in recent weeks. Why?"
Stephen didn't answer.
"Stephen?" The Tulku persisted.
"Why did I frighten you?" Stephen responded.
This time it was The Tulku who hesitated before answering. "I take it you are referring to our encounter during Brackett's memory-wipe."
"I can't think of another time I've ever frightened you. You know I can sense fear, and that fear intensifies my powers. I didn't know that at the time, but I knew you were afraid of me. You've never been afraid of me before. Why were you afraid then?"
The Tulku hesitated once more, then answered. "For the same reason you have always feared facing the depths of your own abilities. When I met your grandfather, I knew I had to break the hold Ying Ko had over Lamont Cranston before his mind awakened any further. Even the partial awakenings Lamont had experienced had given Ying Ko tremendous weapons to use against his enemies. When your mind lashed out against mine without you even being consciously aware you could do it…" Another hesitation. "…I knew then that your mind had undergone a recent growth spurt that you may not have even been aware you were experiencing."
"That's not a complete answer," Stephen challenged.
"Your grandfather used to refer to the tendency for Cranston men to die young, usually of strokes or some other brain disorder, as 'the Cranston Curse'. The Cranston Curse, as you no doubt have already deduced, is the natural consequence of unchecked psychic growth spurts. Most adepts have some late-life changes to their mental energies as they age, but your grandfather was the first adept I had ever met whose psyche continued to grow throughout his life as if he were still a developing adept. In his case I chalked it up to the fact that he got a late start in his own psychic development. But Victor and Alexander had the same expanding psyches, and you yourself have pointed out that Victor's own mind was on the verge of destroying him."
Stephen didn't need the blanks filled in. "And now it's my turn."
"That is what frightened me, Stephen. Not the psychic blow itself…but the fact that I could sense you had more than enough left in reserve to fire again if you had needed to. And what you didn't have, you could conjure up out of your own physical strength to give your mind another boost. The rate of growth of the Cranston psyche never ceases to give me pause, and when I sensed it in you…"
"…you got a glimpse of my own personal fire-breathing dragon, running free while my memory was gone." He thought for a moment. "Tomorrow, I would like to have breakfast with your senior initiates. I want to meet them. See what they can do."
"None of them are dragon-tamers, Stephen."
"I don't need them to be." Stephen took a moment to gather himself before speaking again. "I need to know if any of them have dragons of their own."
Peter woke up to his phone ringing. He answered it almost without opening his eyes. "Hello?"
"Hi Peter, it's me."
And it was indeed her. Just not the "her" Peter normally heard on his phone. "Hey, Gwen."
"Now, I know you've probably got plans for today but I was hoping that I could manipulate you with a variety of cruel and unusual ways to meet me for breakfast," she said. "I need your help desperately with my homework."
For the umpteenth time this quarter, Peter mentally noted. "What on earth made you pick up Connors' class anyway? Theoretical Biophysics isn't exactly Basket Weaving 101."
"I like Physics," Gwen complained. "I do have a Bachelor's in it, for what it's worth."
"Really?" Peter didn't know that; he just figured Gwen was taking the class to make her more attractive to anyone outside of a school system hiring Science grads. "I mean, you could be taking a lot less stressful classes…why this one?"
"Well, it has its advantages. Close to my apartment, interesting subject matter, good career prospects, sexy lab partners…"
Peter smiled. "I think I got the better end of the deal on that one."
"Why, thank you," she purred. "So, what do you say?"
I would say I've always wondered if blondes have more fun, but MJ might just kill me if she finds out I said that… "What kind of unspeakable ways were you considering?"
"Well, I might bat my eyelashes a bit; pull out pictures of my kids…."
"You don't have kids."
"Then I'll bring photos of other people's kids. Cuter people's kids."
Peter smirked. "O.K. I'll meet you for breakfast; we'll head into class together."
"Angel! Absolute angel! You've got wings, baby!" Gwen enthused. "See you in an hour."
An hour later, Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker were at a coffee shop near Columbia having breakfast and going over homework. "The Biology and Biophysics of Viruses," Gwen said in a bad imitation of a pompous professor tone as she read the coversheet of the latest homework packet she'd been struggling with. "Connors has really been on a virus kick lately. What's up with that?"
Peter wasn't sure if he'd had a bit of overreaction to that statement or not, but he felt his stomach do a backflip before reminding himself that not everybody knew his deepest, darkest, weirdest secrets. "Well, viruses and nanotech are all the rage these days. Pretty soon we'll all be treated for diseases with retroviruses and nanospheres."
"Probably engineered by Stark Industries," Gwen added.
Peter rolled his eyes. "No, Stark would have them fighting wars for us, not diseases," he responded, hoping his tone didn't betray his disdain for engineers like Tony Stark, who seemed to care more about how many chicks they could have their pictures taken with in a month and how many government contracts they could milk dry instead of really advancing the scientific frontiers.
Gwen didn't miss it. "Wow, talk about cynicism. Jealous much?"
Peter shrugged. "Not really. I mean, it's not like he has more money than God, or more women than Hefner…"
"Well, it's not like you're hurting for chicks," Gwen pointed out. "And I thought that was Stephen who had more money than God."
"It's neck and neck. You should hear the amount of smack-talking that comes out of billionaires these days."
They both gave a laugh. "So, what's the answer to the first question?" Gwen pressed.
"Whether I'm hurting for chicks?"
Now it was Gwen's turn to roll her eyes. "Seriously, Pete, let's both get our minds back in midterm mode. What's the answer to the first question on the homework packet?"
Peter gave her a wary eye. "I thought you needed help with your homework, not somebody to actually do it for you."
Gwen giggled nervously. "Jeez, I'm an idiot. You can officially mark it as a truism in your biophysics notes: Blondes really are that stupid." She pulled out her heavily scribbled notebook where she'd tried to work out the problems beforehand. "See, I did try to do it. I know what the Law of Mass Action is--see, I even got the arrows for k1 and k-1 going in the right direction--but I couldn't figure out how to prove KD was equal to k-1 divided by k1."
Peter was impressed. That was a lot farther than she'd gotten the last time they sat down to compare homework notes. "Well, see," he began as he shifted his chair slightly to visually walk through her notes to find out where she'd gone astray, "the equilibrium dissociation constant is the ratio of the combination of reactants to the product when the system is at equilibrium…" He took his pen and started making corrections to the equations she'd tried to use to make the proof. "…and since in an equilibrium state you can express combination of reactants as being equal to the product…"
And then conversation stopped when Gwen tried to scoot in closer to read the notes and instead tipped the table and spilled both of their coffees.
Peter had shoved his chair back in a spider-sensed hurry to avoid wearing the coffee on his crotch, but Gwen's sweater wasn't quite so lucky, and she ended up doused in hot beverages and let out a high-pitched squeal to confirm such.
Oops. So not cool to let the lady wear the coffee, Parker. "I'm sorry," Peter said, trying to cover for his duck-and-dodge.
"Not your fault at all," Gwen said, trying to clean the dripping coffee off the edge of the table to keep it from filling up her bookbag and purse. "I told you: Blondes really are that stupid." She looked annoyed with herself. "Here's hoping I don't do this tomorrow on my date."
Peter now looked surprised. "You've got a date?"
"Well, kinda. I got asked out by a photographer at the Classic." She paused. "Well, actually, he's a photographer at the Bugle, but he was at the Classic when I met him, and…" She paused again. "Does this sound as stupid as I think it does?"
Peter wasn't sure how to answer that.
And, in his non-answer, Gwen got her answer. "Thought so." She looked lost again. "I think I might need your help."
Peter puffed himself up slightly. "Peter Parker, science geek and all-around social dork, at your service."
Stephen woke up and groaned at the sound of his cell phone. "Hello?"
"How does your cell even work at the top of a mountain?" MJ asked curiously.
"The Temple's always been on the cutting edge of telecommunication technology," he replied. "Granddaddy had a massive ground satellite dish installed here in the 60s. Victor upgraded it to a microwave tower. I had it upgraded again to the latest satellite phone uplinks."
"Thanks for the engineering lesson," MJ said in a less-than-grateful tone. "Stephen, why did you give me this woman?"
"I didn't give her to you, I gave job-finding for her to you."
"But she'll get the job I pick, and I barely even know her, much less know what she wants to do for a living. I don't have a clue how to do handle that, and I sure don't know how I'm going to handle your whole network!"
"Stop the yelling or I'm hanging up and powering the phone down," Stephen threatened.
He could almost hear MJ contemplating the use of sharp objects to draw his blood, and then she gave a sigh. "I'm not kidding, Stephen, you've gotta give me something to hang onto here or I will be certifiably insane before you get back."
"O.K. With Victor gone, you're one of the few left of the inner circle. That gives you power you never had before, because a number of agents will have to answer to you personally in order to get access to me. You hold a terrific amount of influence, MJ. You've become almost the Godfather."
Silence. "Don MJ Corleone. I like the sound of that!"
"Good." He liked the sound of her happy voice much more than her screeching. "How'd Moe do with Sarah yesterday?"
MJ paused, and he could hear her trying to think of the right answer. "Moe said she was eager to learn."
Now it was his turn to roll his eyes. "That, MJ, is what we in the superhero trade call 'ducking the question'."
"Yeah, I figured you'd catch that." MJ sighed. "She's not a fighter, Stephen. That's Moe's opinion, anyway. She can learn all the moves, she can practice the techniques and she's already learned to fake it pretty well, but…"
"But real fights don't come with gloves and safety words," Stephen nodded. "Well, tell Moe to make sure she knows the movements, but beyond that, it's about attitude."
"I never had that problem," MJ protested.
"You never flinched," Stephen told her very softly.
Stephen was silent a moment before finally filling in the gap for MJ. "Sarah flinches when she thinks a hit's coming. Most people do. It's reactive. It's instinct. You never flinched. You were…used to it."
MJ let out a breath, realizing. Her father had hardened her throughout her whole childhood. "Right."
"I'll be back tomorrow afternoon," Stephen said quietly. "We've got to celebrate your new gig. Track down Peter and Sarah, tell them to join us."
"Already put the plans in motion. I'll call the Cobalt Club and firm up the date." She grumbled. "It'll be easier than tracking down Peter. He's got a new study partner in Connors' class."
"Too busy to spend time with you?" Stephen queried. "I'll have his new study buddy deported for you."
"Remember you said that when I tell you that it's Gwen Stacy."
"You didn't know?"
"She said something about taking a few classes. Didn't know it was going to be any of Peter's classes, though."
"Yeah. He tells me that she's been really busy about mending fences and such."
"Fences are important, you see."
Stephen blinked. "Yeah…?"
"Important to keep them maintained, painted. It can be a costly exercise."
Stephen rolled his eyes. "I'd imagine so."
"So in the event that you'd need to have a good job, able to provide a hardworking woman with a kid with enough money to maintain such things, which one do you think you should get?"
"I am hanging up right now," Stephen said.
"Give me a hint!" MJ begged as her doorbell rang. "I have someone at the door so you better tell me…"
Stephen hung up on her.
"..fast." MJ snapped her phone shut and muttered dire threats as she headed for the door, adding more muttering when she realized that whoever was at the door was someone who already had the penthouse elevator access code, meaning it was either Sarah or Peter, and she wasn't in the mood to deal with either one as she opened the door…
…to find Gwen Stacy standing there. "Um…hi, MJ. Can…can I come in?"
MJ stepped aside.
Gwen came in. "Nice place," she noted.
"Thanks," MJ answered. "It used to be Stephen's. Is that how you knew the access code?"
"Oh," Gwen giggled nervously. "No, Peter gave it to me. We met for breakfast and study time this morning."
MJ lifted one eyebrow. Peter Parker, who was the only person she'd ever met more paranoid about security than Stephen, gave Gwen Stacy the penthouse elevator code to come up to one of only two apartments on the floor…and it wasn't hers.
Gwen seemed to realize that wasn't the best answer she could have given, but it was out now, and so she just stood there, hands folded and eyes darting around.
There was a long awkward silence as the redhead and the blonde considered each other.
"Want some coffee of something?" MJ said finally.
"That would be great," Gwen answered quickly.
MJ went into the kitchen, and Gwen took a seat at the kitchen table and gently moved the pile of papers in front of her to the side. "Kit Ramirez," Gwen read from the stack. "Who's she?"
Uh-oh. Some network coordinator I am. Bet Victor never left Shadow notes lying out for nosy neighbors to read. "Uh…she's somebody I met at one of my acting classes," MJ invented, handing over a filled coffee cup and shifting the papers to the other side of the table. "She asked me for help with finding a job."
"One starving actress to another?"
"Something like that."
Gwen took a sip and licked her lips. "Good coffee. New Orleans?"
"Yep." MJ looked Gwen over. "Hopefully it's better than what you spilled all over yourself."
Gwen looked at her sweater, still showing the coffee stains from this morning. "Yeah, coffee doesn't taste as good once you've spilled it all over your dress. Here's hoping I don't do that tomorrow night."
"Why? What's tomorrow night?"
"Um…I'm getting to that." Gwen had to remind herself that she did come up here to continue the fence-mending she'd started earlier this week. "Since the last time we spoke, Stephen has taken it upon himself to shove a little knowledge down my throat. He's…well…"
"Well?" MJ prompted.
Gwen decided just to blurt it out. "I screwed up, MJ. I screwed up real bad because I didn't want to think that maybe I was wrong. And instead of hurting myself, I hurt everybody else around me. Including my oldest friends, and my own adopted brother. Stephen managed to forgive me…because he blamed himself for not explaining sooner, but I know that Spiderman's Peter's bread and butter, and I know you love Peter. So I need to know, what can I do to make it up to you?"
MJ stared into her mug for a moment. "What you said that day, about holding onto a mistake for so long…."
"I told you that you get past it by trying to make amends," MJ took a deep sip. "Gwen, you've been my friend too long for me to see you as an enemy now. Not that fast. Not because of one night. Not because you were wrong."
Gwen smiled. "Hey, you remember I told you, about how Peter and I broke up forever ago because I realized he was pining for you?"
"He told me once that you were gonna light up Broadway," Gwen said, and held up a copy of the Times Theatre section where upcoming shows received first notice. "He was right."
Then it hit MJ. Really hit her. "He was, wasn't he?" MJ grinned.
"Listen, Peter said something about you, him, Sarah and Stephen going out tomorrow night to celebrate. He asked if I wanted to come, and I told him I wanted to check with you first…"
"Gwen, I would love to have you come and celebrate with us," MJ smiled…and then paused. "Wait. I just got off the phone with him. He just confirmed he'll be back in town tomorrow. I hadn't really invited anybody, much less invited you…how'd he know?"
"It's best not to ask such questions about Stephen," Gwen laughed. "So…we friends again?"
MJ smiled. "Yeah."
"Oh, good, in that case I need a favor."
MJ rolled her eyes good naturedly. "Well, that didn't take long."
"Yeah," Gwen laughed. "I was wondering if I could borrow some makeup. See, I suddenly find myself with a date for tomorrow night."
"A date? With who?"
"New staff photographer at the Bugle. His name is Eddie Brock."
"Ugh," MJ commented.
"You know him then?" Gwen noted.
MJ bit down on the first reaction. "I know of him. He and Peter were…competitors when Peter used to work for the Bugle."
"Ah. Well, don't worry, I promise not to give away any trade secrets. If you like, I won't even mention his name."
MJ led the way into her room. "That would be a good idea. How did this happen anyway?"
"He asked me out when we met at the Classic."
MJ reacted as she opened her makeup case. "Why were you at the Classic?"
"Sarah. I had to repair a few bridges with her too."
MJ chortled. "Oh, to be a fly on that wall," She took out some lipstick for herself and handed over the rest of her makeup case. "Help yourself."
Gwen held up her hands. "Hey, it could have gone worse!"
MJ went over to her closet and started sorting through her clothes. "I'm sure." She tossed a handful of clothes at the bed. "Here, try these on."
Gwen shrugged, then did a quick stripdown and started pairing pieces together.
MJ pulled out a few more things, which Gwen sorted through before donning a sports coat and darker grey dress.
MJ studied the look, which was missing something. She went back to her closet and pulled out a pair of comfortable red high heels.
"I can't believe you still have those," Gwen remarked impishly.
"What?" MJ blinked, surprised.
"Those heels. They're the ones you had in high school."
"I can't believe you remember them." She held them protectively. "I would never toss these. They're my Lucky Heels."
"I know, except back in high school you called them your Getting Lucky Heels."
MJ swatted her. "I did not."
"I'd say 'Did So' again but it's late and I'm beat. See you tomorrow night?"
"You're expecting the date to go badly?"
"No, but it's just coffee so I should be done by dinnertime."
"O.K., see you then. Good luck."
MJ smiled as her friend left, then collapsed with exhaustion onto her bed. Kit Ramirez would have to wait until tomorrow.
Stephen's overworked psyche was just coming down from a weird dream of tangled webs and jealous women when a knock sounded at his door. "Come in," his mind called as he came awake.
A young Tibetan teen came in, wearing a senior initiate's robes. "Good morning, Master Cranston," he greeted as he executed a bow of respect.
"Good morning," Stephen said, surprised that the boy was wearing senior initiate robes but speaking aloud as if still a junior. "You need not bow to me. I have no rank or authority here."
The boy--Stephen wondered as he studied him whether the young man was even old enough to be called a "teen"--looked up nervously. "I am sorry if I offended you."
"Of course not," Stephen said with a casual smile. "I'm not offended at all. I'm just not worthy of bows and homage. Did you need something?"
"The Tulku wishes me to escort you to the dining hall."
It took Stephen a moment to realize it was indeed sunrise already. "I think I can find my way there on my own."
The child monk looked nervous, as if he knew he should be insisting that Stephen accompany him to the dining hall but was too awestruck simply being in the presence of the latest heir of the legendary Cranston projectors to do anything other than stare and stammer.
Stephen decided to relieve the young man of his discomfort. "But I can always use a guide."
The boy looked relieved. "Thank you, Master Cranston."
Stephen got to his feet, dusted off the robes he'd slept in all night, ran a comb through his hair quickly to tame the bed head mess into something resembling a tidy hairstyle, and gave a nod to the young monk before him.
As they walked, Stephen noticed the boy kept stealing glances over his shoulder, only to flick his eyes away when Stephen would make eye contact with him. "I'm right behind you," Stephen reassured with a slight laugh in his voice.
"I know," the boy said, unwilling to speak until he had turned his head forward once more.
"You're new here, aren't you?"
Even though the boy had his back turned to Stephen, he could still tell the young man was blushing with embarrassment. "I only just began my training a few months ago. I awakened not quite a month ago. The Tulku just brought me to America last week."
Stephen blinked. "He came to get you personally?"
"You're just a month into your post-awakening psychic growth."
"You wear the robes of a senior, which means you should at a minimum be able to project your telepathic energies and you absolutely should be using thought-speech around other seniors, yet you still speak aloud on first reflex. Why?"
The boy now sounded nervous and would not look back at Stephen at all. "I can thought-speak--my breakthrough moment was crying out for help as I lost my footing on a flight of stairs--but I have yet to reliably make sound with my projective voice, much less be able to converse in thought-speech without exhausting my psyche…"
"Then you need practice," Stephen's mental voice interrupted. "What is your name?"
The boy turned to face Stephen finally, his eyes wide from the sheer awe of hearing a master projector's mental voice ring through his brain and his ears, seeming to come from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. Then, he took a deep breath and focused his mind to form a response. "My name is Cho."
Stephen gave a reassuring smile. "Very good. Now, shall we continue this conversation on our journey to the dining hall?"
Cho returned the smile, though his was still showing signs of being starstruck. "Yes."
Stephen studied Cho from across the room. Cho had held up his end of their psychic conversation during the trip to the dining hall, but had returned to speaking aloud as he dined with several of the other senior initiate instructors.
"No," The Tulku said. "Cho is not suited to being your successor."
"He speaks aloud," Stephen noted. "I thought all senior students were required to be projective-voice-capable."
"They are, and as you no doubt discovered, Cho is as well. He is merely new at it and is still in the process of strengthening his projective abilities." The Tulku gave a light smile. "You have a tendency to forget that most adepts are not natural projectors and thus need to figure out how to reliably redirect the thought paths that normally pull inward."
The answer didn't satisfy Stephen. "I know for a fact you stress thought-speech over vocalization once the projective side surfaces, especially senior-to-senior. Mind-to-mind thought-speech is pretty basic stuff, even for a projective newbie. There has to be a reason you're letting him slide on this."
The Tulku grimaced slightly. "Sometimes I forget how perceptive your family can be. You are correct; Cho is a special case. Though his powers are newly-awakened and still developing, I want him to become familiar with my senior instructors, as well as one of the temple's most powerful alumni. One day--perhaps sooner than either of us would like--he will have to lead all of them."
That made Stephen's breath catch. "The Dharma heir? So soon?"
"Believe me when I tell you that was my reaction as well," The Tulku admitted. "It has been less than a year since the last passing. Until I met Cho, I have only had one transitional heir in my entire lineage, and that was Kasha. Two generations after Kasha passed the mantle to Marpa Yeshi's true Dharma heir, another has appeared."
"Your twin brother."
"Tenzin Chokyi's twin brother." The Tulku gave a light chuckle. "Like you, I too find it useful to delineate parts of myself--in this case, my previous lifetimes--and speak of them as if they are separate lives rather than a multi-faceted joined lifetime." Then, he grew quiet. "Chokyi's family lived in a very poor village in Tibet. Just a few months before my birth, my mother found out she was having twins. The state-run medical service that came through to check pregnant women discovered it. China has a very strict one-child policy. Twins are often deliberately aborted during pregnancy when they are discovered by health care workers. The Chinese government will deny this to the West, but it is the truth." The Tulku looked angry, one of the few times Stephen had ever seen such an expression in his teacher's face. "By law, the health care workers are supposed to offer the mother a choice of aborting one fetus during the pregnancy, having one child taken away from her after birth, or…" The Tulku's mental voice went silent.
"…or having both babies killed right then and there," Stephen finished, remembering having practically this exact conversation with the Dalai Lama several years ago at a dedication of a Tibetan cultural museum in Manhattan.
The Tulku gave a nod and managed to regain a shaky bit of composure as the memory took hold. "Fortunately, an escape route appeared in the form of a farmer whose ox had just gored him. My mother was rushed off the examination table so that the farmer could be treated. That night, my father and mother packed their horse-drawn wagon full of essential supplies and fled the village under cover of darkness. Neither of them had ever left the Tibet Autonomous Region in their lives. My mother had never been more than two miles from that village. But they risked everything because they could not lose a son, much less two of them." He took a deep, cleansing breath to refocus his mind. "It took months. They could only travel so far in a day, they had almost no money, they spoke Tibetan and knew almost no other Chinese languages. But they were determined to reach safety…for themselves and their unborn children…"
Stephen had never seen this side of The Tulku. It was a reminder that despite his thousand-year-old psyche, the young boy that bore the mantle in this generation was hardly old enough to shave, much less be spiritual leader and teacher to hundreds of adepts who managed to find their way here and allow their gifts to blossom. "How did your brother die?" he asked as a way of helping The Tulku put words to his emotions lest they overwhelm him.
The irony of this momentary reversal of roles was not lost on The Tulku, who gave a subtle smile as he calmed down enough to continue. "Two days before they reached the safety of the Indian border, my mother went into labor. With no doctor around, and still inside China, my mother demanded my father keep going down the road, for if they could not escape China with at least one child alive, all their efforts would be for naught. He did. They abandoned their horse and cart a few miles from the border and hiked the remaining distance on foot, managing to avoid the border patrol and finding a portion of the border fences that had been damaged in a recent storm, enabling them to cross through the dangerous final yards from China to Sikkim. By the time they reached the refugee center at Darjeeling, my mother was seriously ill with infection from laboring for two days. Both of her children were severely compromised because of her infection and a general lack of care for the last three months." The Tulku looked across the room at young Cho, barely two years younger than The Tulku's own current incarnation. "I was born alive. My brother was not. Our mother, now seriously ill with sepsis, got to hold her only surviving child and offered thanks to the gods for bringing me safely into this world. She died shortly after sundown that day." Another moment of hesitation before continuing. "Doctors were shocked that I not only managed to survive, but was well enough to leave the hospital just a week later. My father thanked the doctors for their kindness, turned his only surviving child over to a nearby orphanage run by escaped Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns…and then shot himself in the head."
"My God," Stephen whispered mentally.
The Tulku's very demeanor seemed to transform as the story reached its end. "All things happen for a reason. It was those very monks who discovered my gifts. They were the ones who took me to meet His Holiness, who was able to arrange my safe transport to America. Those same monks realized that the young orphan Dorji Cho, who had been in their care since the deaths of his parents ten years earlier, also had great gifts. Those same monks took Cho to meet His Holiness, who called me personally to come over to Dharamsala and evaluate Cho." The Tulku looked proud and worried at the same time. "He is very strong, though he has no idea the extent of his powers. He awakened while we were in Dharamsala, and inside his mind, I could see that he knew something was different about him--he always believed he was not a whole person because he sensed there was some portion of himself that had been torn away, leaving him feeling alone even when surrounded by others. After his awakening, he told me that he no longer felt that way, but could not understand what had changed."
"And I take it you have not told him," Stephen deduced.
"Cho is not yet ready. He is not yet ready to know the true extent of his powers. He is not yet ready to learn that he has met the part of himself that had been torn away. And he is not yet ready for the passing of the Dharma." The Tulku took one last cleansing breath, and the serene calm he always seemed to possess came to the fore once more. "So, it is my job to make him ready as quickly as possible. But I have no worries. The heir has always been ready, even under rushed or pressure-packed circumstances. All I have to do now is make certain I do not inadvertently hinder his progress with my knowledge of his future rise…and my future demise."
Stephen smirked. "My Grandfather's notes made a point of thinking you mad, being so calm in the face of your impending death."
"My next physical death will be my twenty-third. When you have cheated death twenty-two times, you too can approach the twenty-third with calm and acceptance."
"One can get used to anything, it seems," Stephen noted. "Are you well?"
"I have noticed no symptoms, no sickness…I can only expect it will be unexpected." The Tulku's expression was now more serene and calm now that the worst of his fears had been put to words so that they could be spoken aloud and dealt with.
Stephen wished he could find that kind of serene calmness inside his own psyche. " Trust me, the notion of dying is not something I'd ever like to get used to, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that regard. But most people can't feel the weapon of their own demise bubbling and percolating inside their own psyche, getting just a little bit stronger and deeper with every passing day. I understand why my family's always called it 'the Cranston Curse'. No human being is meant to wield this much psychic power, I'm pretty certain…"
"Your grandfather could."
"Could he?" Stephen asked rhetorically as he followed The Tulku out of the dining room and back to the Throne Room. "Last story I heard, he was about to go out of his mind because a massive heart attack had completely unbalanced his physical and mental strength. He could stop a tank but couldn't lift a teacup. Yeah, that's the kind of 'control' I want."
"Your grandfather was far, far more powerful than you have ever been told. That was done deliberately, and for that, I do take responsibility." The Tulku took a seat on his own altar, then gestured to a spot on the stairs just below him.
Stephen grumbled but took a seat. "Well, you wouldn't be the first adept who tried to hide crucial family truths from me. I'm getting a little tired of the subterfuge, though. It might be nice if I weren't the last to know that this ever-widening reservoir of insanity in my head is supposedly something 'normal'."
"It was never my intent to hide your powers from you," The Tulku said calmly. "It has always been my intent to help you tap into them as they developed throughout your life. The nature of your life mission, however, has made timing such training difficult at best." The Tulku took a deep breath. "And the nature of my life mission has also complicated matters. No matter how many generations I live, no matter how many times I have to learn the hard way about my own human limitations, I still do not seem to learn important lessons at appropriate times. I put off training your grandfather to handle his increasingly strong Shadow self for years after our reunion until his health began to deteriorate and that power began to surge. Had I taken action sooner, it is entirely possible he might not have suffered such a severe shift in energies after his heart attack. I cost him years off his life, and I will have to live with that knowledge forever."
Stephen looked up at his teacher. "You can't blame yourself for that. Cranston men don't tend to be long-lived, for whatever reason. I'm not wild about the notion of 30 being 'middle aged', especially when that life milestone is just up the road for me, but that's the way it is."
The Tulku sighed. "You still do not understand. Which is not unexpected." He allowed his mind to calm down for a moment before speaking again. "The Dharma heir incarnates with all the psychic skills he needs in his non-transitioned state. When our psyches join and the old tulku passes away, the heir's skills are merged into the blended psyche of The Marpa Tulku. From there, each generation is then supposed to have all the psychic skills needed to train that generation's adepts. That is what I always believed, the truths of my mission as I knew them." He looked at Stephen. "And then I met Lamont Cranston. And everything I thought I knew about training adepts was completely and utterly shaken apart. Nothing I knew, nothing I had ever done, nothing I had ever experienced prepared me for the mission I now had before me…to reshape and retrain the most powerful projective adept I had ever encountered. I had no idea where to even begin. The five days that your grandfather spent awakening were five days where I did nothing but pray for the guidance to know how to train him. I did not know what to do. But as his mind developed, the lessons became clear. And that worked well for the year we spent together." The Tulku once more calmed and centered himself. "But eventually, your grandfather learned all I could teach him, and it was time for him to begin his own life mission, which was to fight the evil he had once embraced and expanded, to become the Master of Darkness and Sentinal of Shadows instead of the Butcher of Lhasa. He left." The Tulku gave a wry smile. "I always feel a bit of myself being pulled away as my students mature and move on to their life missions, so I was not surprised to find myself feeling torn when your grandfather left. What surprised me, though, was how much I missed our training sessions, our conversations…everything, really. The temple was so quiet. Even Kasha sensed that something was different after Lamont left, and he was incredibly jealous of your grandfather's skills and afraid that his own position as my number-one instructor was in jeopardy. He knew how much I missed having your grandfather around. And it was true--I did. I missed the challenge of training an 'untrainable' adept, of having to push myself past my own intellectual and psychic limitations, of broadening another adept's mind and feeling my own broaden in the process. It is a feeling I cannot describe with words--even thought-words. But it was a feeling I will never forget. And I longed to have it again. That was why it was so easy for me to let Kasha--the transitional Dharma heir--talk me into training Shiwan Khan."
Stephen felt a shiver. "You chose to train Khan."
"Yes. It was yet another reminder that I still have much to learn in life. I am always reminded as I meet my heir that meeting him means that I have not yet achieved perfection and I will have to go through another lifetime. Such is not always a comforting thought. Meeting Kasha as I did--finding out he was a transitional heir, realizing I would be unable to complete my current life mission before my natural heir was to arrive--perhaps made me more cautious in some ways than I would have been otherwise. But caution is not conducive to learning, and thus I let my guard down. And in doing so, I launched a tri-generational war between two bloodlines that has cost both families dearly."
Stephen felt the shiver turn into a blood-boiling rage as the memory of Victor's death filled his mind.
"You are right to be angry about that," Marpa Tulku reminded him. "It was a lesson for you in letting down your guard as well. That said, neither of us can change the past. We can only hope to learn from it."
"I think I could have done without having to learn that lesson," Stephen snapped, then got himself under control. "But he's gone now. He never got the chance to gain the training he needed to help him balance his own mind. I know that. I know his weapon was about to kill him, the way it killed Granddaddy." Stephen sat quietly for a moment. "And I don't know whether I have the right to even try to accomplish something neither of them could."
"It is not a right, Stephen. It is your right. More specifically, it is your birthright. Your birthright is not something to be feared. It is something to be embraced. That lake of darkness you see inside you is the same darkness that your grandfather saw in himself, that Alexander saw in himself, that Victor saw in himself. You cannot refuse to acknowledge it unless you want to go down the same path to early destruction."
Stephen looked confused. "My father's path to early destruction involved a lunatic mobster and a sense of loyalty to The Shadow."
"Your father could have been The Shadow. He was born with the same powers Victor had. Your grandfather trained them both to take on the role. Your father, however, made a difficult choice, but one he thought he had no choice but to make. By stepping aside to let Victor take on the full duties as The Shadow, he felt he was doing the right thing, allowing Victor to claim the birthright traditionally due the eldest son. But by making that choice, he also sealed his own fate. Your father always felt as if something were missing in his life. Even after you were born, and he realized what your fate would be, he still felt incomplete. He returned to agent work even after promising your mother he would stay retired, because the power he possessed would not let him rest. That is not to say that he would still be alive today had he pursued his own share of the Cranston birthright. But his life--and yours--would have been far different."
It took Stephen what seemed like an eternity to finally find the words to speak again. Was there no end to the amount of shocking secrets from his family's past? Nothing could possibly have prepared him to hear the things spoken of over the past week. "So is our destiny fixed? Or is there no fate but what we make?"
"I wish I knew," The Tulku admitted. "I have incarnated twenty-two times in the last thousand years. I would like to believe that one day I shall achieve perfection and not have to go through another incarnation, but I know that such perfection is still far away. Until I reach that perfection, I have to continue to serve my mission here, and that is my fate. My mission is to help adepts reach their psychic potential. You still have not reached yours, but you are ready to take the next step toward it."
"Say it," The Tulku commanded.
Stephen nodded again. "I am ready to take the next step toward reaching my psychic potential."
The Tulku was not satisfied. "And?"
Stephen understood. He took a deep mental breath and forced out the words. "And that is why I want to learn true telekinesis."
The Tulku nodded. "Much better."
Hours later, Stephen's psyche had never been more stressed, overworked, overwrought, yet immensely powerful in his entire life. There were no words to describe his last training session with Marpa Tulku, and the insanely contradictory sensations of exhaustion and exhilaration weren't even letting his whirlwind intellect find the words, so he elected to just lean back and let the myriad of sensations take control as the horse-drawn wagon brought him back into Frost Valley and dropped him off at the small airstrip.
As Stephen went into the small office and filed a copy of his traditional Frost Valley to Westchester flight plan, his cell phone rang for the first time in hours. He gave a tap to his earpiece. "Hello?" he said as he signed the flight plan and paid for the refueling of his private plane.
"I give up! I don't know! I am officially the stupidest woman in all of creation!"
"Hello, MJ, how's it going?" Stephen answered politely as he walked out to the tarmac.
"Tell me the answer, dammit!" she insisted.
"I'm fine, darling, how are you?" he continued, aware that discussing Shadow mission was best not done with non-agents around.
"I am not calming down, and if you hang up I will personally hunt you down with every weapon from your storeroom at my disposal…"
Stephen tipped the airport's fuel tech and detached the on-field anchors that held his plane in its parked position. "O.K., O.K. Quality journalism lives and dies on six questions. What are they?"
"I didn't go to J-School, Stephen…"
"No, but you hang around with journalists, so you're not catching a break from me on this one. Six questions. Name them."
"Uh…" She sounded like she was pacing furiously. "O.K. Who, what, where, when, why, how."
"Good. Now you have a framework into which I can drop hints. Whose scalps do I usually go in search of when I need to de-stress?"
"I don't know…oh, wait, I do! Drug dealers!"
"Because of…stories from your past."
"Almost. What do drug dealers do?"
"Think narrower. We talked about a section of the city the other night. Where was it?"
"Uh…oh, yeah, the west side, where the chain stores are open late!'
"O.K., 'who' is drug dealers; 'what' is dealing drugs to a certain population, 'where' is the west side, 'when' is late nights. Now, you need 'why' and 'how'."
"How, as in how does this help me get Kit Ramirez a job?"
Stephen unlocked the door to his plane. "How, as in how to place an agent to be able to observe this operation in action. And why, as in why I want her there."
"You lost me again," MJ admitted.
He tossed his bag onto the passenger's seat and climbed inside. "Why would I be so interested in placing a waitress into the middle of this late night population? Where could we fit her in? Who are the dealers targeting?"
"Wait, I thought we had who, what, where, when…"
"Multiple levels, MJ. Think onions. Think layers. Think peeling back layers."
"Why do I have this sudden craving for French Onion Soup?" she asked sarcastically…and then, suddenly, the lightbulb went off. "Cravings! Munchies! College kids with munchies from smoking dope and coming off of meth highs!"
Stephen smiled proudly as he closed the plane's door and snapped his harness into place. "So why do Krispy Kremes and Starbucks' stay open longer around College campuses?"
"College kids with the munchies!" MJ was almost singing the answer. "So you put your new agent as a waitress or a barista in one of those stores and you can get a list of regular customers, and when they come in and how high they are when they do!"
"That's the 'why'. Then I have a path to finding out whose buying and who's selling. That's the 'how'."
MJ laughed. "Stephen, you're amazing."
"Who told you?" Stephen teased.
"When do you get in?"
"I'm doing my flight checks now. I'll be taking off in about twenty minutes and will be back in Westchester within the hour."
"I'll meet you at the airport. Seriously, how do you think of these things?"
"I had a good teacher."
MJ softened. "Yeah. I miss him too."
There was a melancholy silence. "Do you understand why I gave you this, MJ? I can't do it all on my own. I need people I can trust who can take the minutiae off my plate, and if it's somebody outside the secret, then I've got to keep showing up in costume every time something comes up. You I can trust, and I don't need to hide behind a mask."
Nothing but silence met Stephen's ears. "MJ?" he pressed.
"You do trust me, don't you?" MJ's voice was quiet, but he could hear the tears in her eyes that were threatening to stream down her face. "You trust me more than Peter does. I mean, even Peter wouldn't let anybody help Spiderman like you're letting me help you. I had zero clue about how to even begin to handle Kit Ramirez, and yet you never gave up…"
"I didn't give up because I knew you wouldn't, either. You'll get there with this, and you'll get there with Peter. I threw you into the deep end to see how you'd do, and you at least figured out how to tread water. When I get back, we'll be spending time together so that you can learn how to take my paranoid need for justice and translate it into moving troops into position. You'll get there. You'll have to. Eventually, you'll have to teach the next generation."
"Thought you wouldn't wish this on your worst enemy, let alone your son or daughter."
"There are no more Cranstons, MJ," Stephen reminded her. "There is one evil done by one man that Lamont Cranston knew would take three lifetimes to overcome. And I am lifetime #3."
"There's still time," MJ told him gently.
Stephen didn't answer that. "See you in Westchester," he said, then hung up and powered down the phone. He started the engine, ran a quick safety check, then put on his pilot headset and tuned his radio to the local control tower frequency. "Frost Valley Tower, this is Cranston Executive Aviation-347, requesting taxi and ATC clearance."
"CEA-347, this is Frost Valley Tower," responded the lightly accented voice of the Tibetan precognizant clairvoyant Stephen had hired for Frost Valley's control tower. Few knew that Frost Valley Air Field was privately owned by Lamont Cranston--and now, Cranston Industries--and had been since the 1950s. "Taxi to runway 2 heading east and contact tower at Westchester Air Control for further details," the voice in his headset answered. "When you reach Runway 2 east, you are clear for takeoff."
Stephen released the brakes on his plane and rolled it down the runway. "Thank you, Frost Valley--as always, it's been a pleasure."
"Good luck and Godspeed, Mr. Cranston."
Stephen pulled up to the western end of Runway 2, crossed himself and said a quick prayer, then released the brakes and throttled up, breathing a light sigh of relief as his plane lifted into the skies and headed eastward towards home.
Stephen stretched as he came into the Westchester Airport Terminal and checked his plane into its usual hangar. It was good to be home. Well, not home exactly--it was another 30 miles to Manhattan, but it would at least be a relaxing 30 miles in the back of Shrevnitz's cab.
MJ lunged at him from nowhere and dug her nails into his arm. "I did it!"
Stephen gently pried her fingernails from his wrist. "Hello, MJ, my flight was fine, how was your day?"
MJ was almost hopping up and down. "You should have seen me in the manager's office. I was batting my eyes and waxing rhapsodic about the skills of Manhattan's hottest barista, Kit Ramirez. I swear I could have had him donating a kidney if I'd asked him to…"
"Ears all around us," Stephen's Shadow voice hissed in her ears.
MJ shut her mouth with an audible click of her teeth, but that only made her wrap her arms around his left arm even tighter. "I'm so jazzed!"
"I can tell." Stephen gave her an approving smile as they left the terminal and headed to the taxi line.
A familiar Sunshine Radio Cab pulled out of line and sped to the curb just past the line attendant.
"Hey!" the attendant called out. "No line jumping!"
Stephen reached into his pocket and extracted his wallet, then whipped a fifty-dollar bill out of it and handed it to the attendant. "Private hire cab, bud. I'm sure you've heard of it. If not, use this to buy a clue."
The attendant suddenly realized who he was trying to boss around. "Uh…thanks, Mr. Cranston. Have a nice day."
Stephen gave a nod, tossed his suitcase into Moe Shrevnitz's open trunk, held the door for MJ, then climbed in next to her. "Home, Shrevnitz. Hers first, then mine."
Moe gave Stephen a nod and pulled out of the airport. "Welcome home, boss."
"Oh, look at me; I'm not even wearing my seatbelt, that's how mad with power I am!" MJ cackled giddily.
Stephen smiled at her. "So, anything interesting happen while I was gone?"
Marsh tapped on Sarah's office. "Branson," he said in almost a scolding parental tone.
Sarah looked up blearily. "Hey, boss," she replied in an exhausted teen fed-up-to-here tone.
Marsh shook his head. "It's 5 o'clock on a Friday, kid. You've been hunched over that screen for two days now."
"Is that all?" she remarked, rubbing her eyes.
"What are you doing?"
"Catching up on a few things."
Marsh gave a glance behind him to make sure no one was within earshot. "The sun is shining."
Sarah's eyes opened a little wider. "But the ice is slippery. What's up?"
Marsh once more gave a glance over his shoulder. The reporting floor was virtually empty now that the late edition was already off to print, but he'd had it drilled into his head by Sarah, Peter, MJ, and Stephen that you took no unnecessary chances when discussing agent business. "I need to know--are you working on a story or a mission?"
"A little of both," she admitted.
Now she looked surprised. "Yeah. How did you know?"
Marsh came into the office and closed the door. "There was a rumor that Harry Osborn did a deal with Dr. Octopus for Spiderman's head on a platter."
Sarah gave a sarcastic laugh. "A 'rumor'? I openly accused him of it in a front page story when I was at the Post."
"Yeah, I remember. I also remember being glad Stephen beat you to the punch by 90 minutes so we didn't get scooped. Now, of course, I know why the stories looked so similar. So what I'm asking is, are you keeping tabs on him for yourself, or somebody else?"
Sarah's cellphone rang. A glance at its display showed a still-friendly name, at least as far as she knew. She held up a finger to Marsh and answered the phone. "Hey, MJ, what's up?"
"Hey, I know you're probably really busy right now, but I wasn't sure if you'd gotten the news yet…"
Oh, honey, you have no idea how much news I've gotten from the weirdest of sources, Sarah mentally snarked. "I'm elbow-deep in news right now, so clue me in," she answered aloud instead.
"That musical I auditioned for? I got the part!"
Sarah forced cheerfulness. Once more everybody seemed to think of her as an afterthought, because everybody else in the network had more news than she did. "Terrific!"
"So we're all getting together tonight in Stephen's private suite at the Cobalt Club at 7 and I wasn't sure if Stephen had invited you last night…."
"His cell battery died," Sarah said, feeling like she was making excuses, then looked annoyed. "How did you know he called?"
"I drove him insane calling him every few hours this past week, so of course he had to call somebody to vent. He put me on the weirdest assignment ever. I personally think he's lost his mind. Would you believe he made me his new insider assignment coordinator?"
Now Sarah felt her heart fall into her stomach. Yet again others were getting responsibility she'd been more than willing to take on after Victor's death. Was there no end to Stephen's punishment of her? "Maybe we ought to have this conversation in person," Sarah said hesitantly.
"Yeah, you're right. You are coming tonight, right?"
"I'll pull myself out of here in time."
"Great! Well, I've got to go--I've got to touch up my nails and find something to wear tonight. See you then?"
"Sure," Sarah said. "Congratulations."
"Thanks. I can't wait to see everybody! Bye…"
"Bye," Sarah answered, hanging up the phone, then turning back to Marsh. "Now, where were we?"
"You were driving yourself insane researching Harry Osborn's current whereabouts," Marsh responded. "At least, I suspect that's what you've been doing."
Sarah hesitated to answer, then realized that part of returning to trust status was being able to trust agents with mission information. "We…we need to know what side he's on."
"Well, then you might want to know he faked his flight schedule."
Sarah felt her heart do a hard thump, then stop, the take off running again. "What?"
"Your source was set to tell you when he ordered a ticket, but I have another source at Homeland Security that I always use to verify airline information. I got the same automated message you did, and gave him a call to find out what was really up. I wasn't sure who to report it to, because nobody told me to keep an eye out for Osborn."
Good grief. Even Marsh knew more than she did these days. "Where's he really going?"
"I don't know. All I know is, he isn't on the plane he's booked himself on, and there's no reason to change his flight info if he's just going to the same place."
"Which means he was thinking that someone might be watching."
"Right. So, do I call our mutual source and relay all of this, or…"
"I'll take care of it," Sarah interrupted, hoping Marsh wouldn't ask her anything else about it.
So much for that. "Sarah, if there's more to this than…"
"There probably is, but I'll take the ball and run with it. It'll be his choice as to whether he keeps you, or me for that matter, in the loop or handles it all himself."
"O.K." He thought about it. "So, what else is on your agenda tonight?"
"That phone call invited you to a party, and I heard you talking about 'his cell phone', so I guess I'm asking…"
"None of your business."
Marsh smirked. "Nice deflection. Too bad I don't believe it."
"I am not dating Stephen."
"Did I use the words 'dating' or 'Stephen'?"
Sarah seethed. "Look, can I get back to work now?"
Marsh held up his hands, "Hey, no problem. Just promise me you'll keep me in the loop."
"And which loop would that be?"
"You're doing an exclusive search for a disgraced member of New York's power elite, who is smuggling himself back to the States, with rumors of vengeance and conspiracy behind his bankruptcy, and nobody knows his plans for the future. Whatever twisted reason you have for doing it yourself, it's an exclusive. I'm your first call."
She gave a nod, realizing that she had multiple levels of responsibilities here. "Right, boss."
Marsh smiled and left the room.
Sarah grabbed her phone and started dialing, wondering if anybody would answer her calls since everybody else seemed to consider her just an afterthought.
Spiderman cut his webline short and landed neatly on his balcony as he heard the cell phone tucked into his backpack ringing. He pulled off his mask and tapped the Bluetooth earpiece. "Hello?"
"I've been replaced!" Sarah yelled.
Peter was taken aback by the sharpness of the tone in his ear. "Sarah?"
"Sarah? Who's that? Oh, Sarah! The ditzy reporter! I forgot all about her! Everybody else has, too! It's been so long since anybody mentioned her name, much less remembered to actually clue her in on anybody's plans!" Sarah ranted. "Tell me, O great and powerful master of webbing, do you remember Sarah?"
Peter wasn't sure whether this was a ditz act or what, but it sure as Hell was confusing. "O.K., what's going on?"
"MJ's thing tonight…"
"I know--isn't that great?" Peter enthused.
"Yes, it's wonderful. Gwen thought so too when she made sure to tell me Stephen had invited her to your little celebration. MJ made sure to tell me she was welcome to come. Which is great because it's the first I've heard of it from any of you. I've been replaced!"
"You have not been replaced," Peter said soothingly.
"I have. Stephen invited her to the thing tonight, and had MJ invite me. Which she forgot to do, until three hours before the fact. That's not an invitation, that's an afterthought. That's Stephen saying that he's traded up. Get there early tonight; you can meet your new partner before work tomorrow. She'll be the one sitting next to your pal Stephen…"
Peter wasn't sure how to put this, so he finally decided to come out with it. "Actually, Gwen's already my lab partner in class."
"Of course she is! Stephen wants to ease her into your lives slowly and carefully so that there's no disruption when she takes over fully!" Sarah ranted. "Tell MJ to wear something nice, she'll want to make a good impression on her new best friend. Tell MJ to be patient, though, because Stephen will be really busy helping his 'sister' with her clairvoyance!"
"You have not been replaced," Peter stressed.
"He's sending me a message. The message is, 'You screwed up, sister, and you got my uncle killed. I may have said I forgive you, but I've upgraded to the blonde.' I bet this one knows how to cook too!"
"Stephen doesn't need a cook," Peter mocked.
"See you tonight."
"I'll be wearing a bright red scarf so that you can pick me out!"
Peter hung up and hit the polarizing switch on the wall to blacken the patio doors. Then he fetched a nice suit and tie from his closet--dull red shirt to hide the costume, dull blue suit to make himself look halfway presentable in Stephen Cranston's black-tie society. But as he looped his tie around his neck and straightened the Windsor knot, he realized he was late for another important date.
Or rather, someone else's important date.
Peter touched the switch on his earpiece. "Gwen," he said aloud.
The name echoed in his ear to confirm that the voice recognition software would be dialing the right number, and then the call went through.
The call had completed barely one ring before a familiar voice answered it. "Hello?"
"Good evening," Peter said formally. "This is your requested first date emergency escape hatch speaking. How's it going?"
"Whoa, whoa, slow down! Was there much blood?" Gwen said urgently, in a voice filled of concern.
"That bad, huh?" Peter laughed. "Or should I continue babbling for a few more minutes to make it at least look plausible?"
"No, don't be silly! An ambulance will be much faster. I'll meet you at the hospital!" Gwen said quickly.
Peter laughed harder. "Fine, I'll meet you at Stephen's 'bedside'. Drinks are on me. Or, rather, on him."
"Oh, thank you," she said, sounding grateful, then hung up.
Peter tapped his earpiece to terminate the call. Another life saved today. Every superhero should have such days.
"Why can't I find a guy like you, Pete?" Gwen was bemoaning about a half-hour later over her Long Island Iced Tea.
"We are few and far between," Peter said easily. "We're usually busy helping little old ladies across streets, that sort of thing."
Gwen chuckled into her drink. "Aw. You send part of your paycheck to your sweet grey-haired aunt, have an honest job, make straight A's, and even help out damsels in distress in your spare time. Peter Parker, bona fide Boy-Scout all-American dictionary definition of 'nice boy next door'. I want to watch you eat some apple pie."
Peter laughed and took a sip of sangria. "Buck up, Stacy," Peter said warmly, rubbing her back gently. "MJ'll be here soon, we'll get you drunk, and if Sarah takes her time getting here Stephen will be available to pour you into bed."
"You and MJ, Sarah and Stephen…" Gwen said miserably. "Everybody's got somebody," She sighed. "Peter, tell me I'm pretty."
"Were I not with MJ, you would be the first one I'd come running to," Peter said dutifully.
"Thank you," she sighed. "That was most helpful."
Peter smiled. It was nice to have gorgeous women puffing up his ego when he wasn't masked. Though the cute sunbathers on rooftops were fun to watch…
…and then all thoughts of other women were banished as The Most Beautiful Girl In The World came in the room.
Mary Jane Watson looked like a million dollars. Maybe a billion. Or however much it cost to get her breathtakingly beautiful red hair swirled up into a gorgeous chignon with jeweled hair pins studding it, or the Hollywood starlet makeup job on her face, or the designer dress that hugged every curve on her body and looked as if it was enjoying such. She had never looked more perfect.
And she was draped on Stephen Cranston's arm.
That is the only thing wrong with that picture, Peter realized.
With that, he was up and crossing the room to the pair so fast that Gwen would have sworn he could fly. Story of my life, Gwen mentally noted.
Peter tried to gather himself as he stood face-to-face with his partner. "Stephen, I have to dance with this beautiful, graceful, enchanting woman on your arm and if you do not step away immediately so that I can do that, I will be forced to severely hurt you."
Stephen and MJ shared a teasing look, then MJ gracefully released Stephen's arm and took Peter's. "Story of my life," Stephen observed. "I finally get a Broadway star on my arm, and some bona fide Boy Scout steals her away."
"Broadway," Peter whispered, almost afraid to say it aloud. "Fantastic! Finally, a Broadway producer with taste!"
MJ giggled. Peter was just so cute sometimes.
"So, how's my sister over there settling into school these days?" Stephen said
"Good days and bad days," Peter replied without taking his eyes off MJ.
"So, how'd her date with Brock go?"
"Good days and bad days," Peter echoed, still not taking his eyes off MJ.
Stephen waved a hand in front of Peter's eyes, which never moved from their straight-on position of staring at MJ. "Now that's what I call hypnosis," he wisecracked. "MJ, do something with this boy before he's lost in a trance forever."
"Of course," MJ replied, then led the way to the balcony overlooking the dance floor. "A dance with me instead of studying physics with Gwen. I feel so flattered."
"DaVinci's Golden Ratio Equation was not half as perfect as you," Peter told her.
"You're a dork," MJ teased and kissed him.
"You're…stunning," Peter breathed into her ear.
Gwen was still watching the happy couple from a discouraging distance when she suddenly felt something snatch the glass out of her hand. She looked up quickly.
Stephen sniffed the glass. "Long Island Iced Tea, a.k.a. the quickest way to get a college girl smashed," he observed. "That kind of day?"
"You have no idea," Gwen said, snatching the glass back, still wondering how in the world she missed him coming up on her.
Stephen made eye contact with the bartender working their booth, then took a seat opposite Gwen. "So, is Brock really that obnoxious of a date? "
Gwen nearly spat out her next sip. "How do you know about that?"
Stephen gave her that maddening, mysterious smile that said everything and nothing at all at the same time. "I know everything, in case you haven't figured it out by now." The conversation halted only long enough for Stephen to be delivered two wet gin martinis, each with two olives in them, for which Stephen rewarded the bartender with a crisp hundred-dollar bill. Stephen took a sip and gave a satisfied smile before picking up where he'd left off. "You should have worn that blue dress you pull out for practically every occasion. I'll bet he likes blue."
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Look at you. I'm drowning my sorrows and you're gloating."
"I am not gloating," he replied in his best wounded tone as he shook the alcohol off of one skewer of olives from one of his martinis.
"Yeah, but you're deliberately acting like you're not gloating, which means you're being extra smug on the inside."
Stephen considered that for a long moment. "That's tough to argue with," he confessed, punctuating the sentence by popping the olives into his mouth.
Gwen threw a napkin at him, and they both broke out laughing.
Sarah came into the private party and was greeted by the sight of Stephen sitting across from Gwen, each clearly already imbibing unknown quantities of alcohol, giggling like two schoolmates…or drinking buddies…or…
Stop that, she chastised herself, then ran her hand through her hair, straightened her shoulders, and headed over to their table.
Stephen shook his head at Gwen. "Wish I'd known before you made your plans. I would have told you not to go."
"Well, I'm glad I went."
"Well, if I hadn't gone out with Brock I might still find him attractive."
Gwen threw another napkin at him.
"Well, at least some people are having fun tonight," chimed a familiar and not very happy-sounding voice.
Stephen and Gwen looked up and saw Sarah standing over them, looking wilted.
"Ooh," Stephen said sympathetically. "Long day?"
"Long, long, long day." She sat down and sighed. "See, all those reporters who become jaded alcoholics? Today's the reason why."
"Poor girl," Gwen said, genuinely sympathetic. "Have a drink."
Sarah waved her off. "Nah. I'm fine…"
"I'm paying," Stephen interjected.
"Double scotch!" Sarah barked at the bartender with all the urgency of calling for a life preserver.
"Bring the bottle," Stephen added, then gave a nod to the wait staff who had come into the suite with a wide selection of appetizers and finger foods. "Hey, romantics," he called over to the loving couple dancing on the balcony. "Dinner's here."
"Thank God," Sarah whispered as she took a seat at a round table, sipping at her double-scotch as if it were the elixir of life.
"You're welcome," Stephen's mental voice teased.
The meal was dedicated to light topics only. Harry was not mentioned, neither was The Tulku, The Shadow, or anything at all related to the secrets that only four out of five shared. It was hard to do, because pretty much all anyone wanted to talk about was mission data, but for Gwen's sake, they had to keep their conversation clean of anything secret.
Gwen, however, was so happy to be away from Eddie Brock that she was able to keep up the conversation with virtually no prompting. From the great taste of the Cobalt Club's appetizer selection to gratitude that she would have the weekend to recover from the hangover she was sure to get tomorrow morning, conversation topics flowed like the liquor both she and Sarah were downing like there was no tomorrow.
The jazz combo out on the main floor of the Cobalt Club was well into a sassy rendition of "Fever" by the time the occupants at the table had finished their first fill of the noshes on the table. MJ plopped an arm on Peter's shoulder and gave him her best seductive smile. "I love this song," she said in a whisper-like seduction tone.
"Me, too," Peter agreed.
"So, let's do something about it," MJ ordered.
"I love a woman who knows what she wants," Peter practically purred in her ear, and the two were soon swirling across the balcony in each other's arms once more.
Sarah smiled wistfully. There were times she wished she had someone who would dance with her like that.
Gwen gave her a nudge. "Encouragement," she mouthed.
In a pair of moves so slick they almost looked coordinated, Gwen slid her chair back from the table and Sarah slid her chair right up against the edge of Stephen's.
Stephen noticed Gwen's movement and turned his eyes to follow it…
…and then found himself nose to nose with Sarah as he did. The effect wasn't entirely unpleasant, he decided. "Comfortable?" he asked.
"I wish," she responded, then made sure Gwen wasn't paying attention to them. "Harry Osborn left Oxford yesterday."
Stephen felt the news hit him between the eyes like a hard right hook. "Where's he going?"
"Flight plan said LA, but Marsh found a source that said he chartered a plane under an assumed name. I spent all day trying to find where that one was heading…"
"Home," Stephen realized.
Sarah sighed. "Took me five hours burning up cell minutes to prove what took you three seconds to guess."
Stephen gave a hard sigh. "Now I need another drink." He downed the last of his second martini to punctuate the point.
"Fever" ended, and the audience gave the combo light applause.
"Thank you," the pianist responded. "And now, by request, 'This Masquerade'."
The familiar chords of the song filled the air, and Stephen gave a pleasant smile. "I love this song."
"I know," Sarah said. "A sister told me. That's why I requested it."
The pianist began to sing the haunting lyrics.
"Are we really happy here
With this lonely game we play?
Looking for words to say…
Searching but not finding
We're lost in a masquerade."
"So the Osborn brand of crazy's on its way back to Manhattan," Stephen said softly, as much to himself as to anyone else.
"Tomorrow," Sarah responded. "Monday at the latest."
"Wonderful." Stephen dashed down the last drops in his martini glass. "We knew this was coming, that he wouldn't stay gone forever. Go on home and get some sleep."
"Both afraid to say we're just too far away
From being close together from the start
We tried to talk it over, but the words got in the way,
We're lost inside this lonely game we play…"
"Or…we could stay here," Sarah, still close to him, whispered in his ear. "Maybe dance for a while first, have a few more snacks, another drink..."
"I don't know how to dance, remember?"
Sarah's hand crept up to his shoulder, giving it a gentle rub and caress. "That's O.K., 'cause I do."
"Others might get the wrong idea."
The temperature in the room suddenly seemed to drop about ten degrees. "Yeah," Sarah sighed blandly, leaning away from him. "Wouldn't want anybody to get the wrong idea." And with that, she got to her feet and began gathering her shawl and purse.
He'd done it again. Instead of saying the words he wanted to say, he'd let some other emotion take over his speech faculty. "Sarah…," Stephen said awkwardly.
"See you in the morning?" Sarah said. There was no anger, no tension, and no particular annoyance in her voice. She looked resigned to the reality that she'd been replaced in Stephen's life.
Stephen nodded and looked away. Yet another moment of social stupidity from a man who could make criminals tremble in terror but couldn't say a flirtatious word to a gorgeous woman if he had it on a teleprompter in 72-point bold font in front of his face.
"'night, Gwen," Sarah added.
Gwen looked surprised. "'night, Sarah," she said in confusion.
Sarah stalked off.
Stephen smacked his forehead very hard.
MJ and Peter waved to Sarah, then came back to the table.
Stephen, meanwhile, decided that one smack to the head wasn't enough, so he did it again.
"What did you say to Sarah?" Peter said darkly.
"I can't tell, my foot was in my mouth at the time," Stephen complained.
"Again?" MJ gaped. "Good grief."
"Just because the girl storms off, it doesn't mean she doesn't want you to follow her," Gwen told him sharply.
Stephen got the hint and was chasing after Sarah in seconds.
Thoughts of leaving disappear
Every time I see your eyes,
No matter how hard I try
To understand the reasons
Why we carry on this way…
We're lost in a masquerade.
"Sarah!" Stephen called after her.
Sarah was on the edge of the street, trying to flag down a cab. She spun at his voice and her face twisted. "Oh, for crying out loud, you don't know how to take an awkward yes for an answer, do you? Exactly what do I have to do to be forgiven here? Or are you just tolerating me because I'm a loyal workhorse?"
"Sarah, I have forgiven you. I swear, I don't hold any grudge, I don't hate you…and I don't understand what's going on. There's this wall between us and it gets taller and thicker with every passing day."
"I know that," Sarah whined angrily. "I hate that. And I'm doing everything I can to be helpful here…"
"I don't want that!" Stephen finally shouted, trying to get the right part of his brain to speak for once. "I don't want you killing yourself to find out what Harry Osborn ate for breakfast. I don't want you driving yourself to drink because you can't figure out what 'enough' is. That's not what I want, and it's not what I need!"
Sarah looked startled. Was he about to kick her completely out of his life? "Then…what?" she asked.
"I want you!" He punched the air and spun around, then stopped to face her. "I want my friend back. I want the woman who made me take silly vows and eat potato chips. I want the budding clairvoyant who wasn't too scared to tell me how her mind was changing and wanted to tell me everything about what she was learning. I want the person who gives a damn about how I am and not how the mission is going. Where is she? I want her back."
Sarah stood there silently for a long time. "I want my friend back. I want us to be able to talk without having to bring up the weather to have something to talk about. I want to stop wondering if I'm just a nuisance to you now. I want us to be able to get past Victor, and Gwen and the memory wipe. I know he's still there…and I want him back, too."
The two looked at each other for a long moment more.
Stephen came over to her and took her hand gently.
She leaned on his shoulder. "Your brain is buzzing," she noted.
"I'll bet it is," Stephen replied.
"Fun at the Temple?" Sarah pressed.
Stephen thought about that for a moment. "I wouldn't use that word, but it was definitely a learning experience."
They both gave a light giggle. Then, another long period of silence passed, but this time the silence was comforting instead of chilling.
With great uncertainty, Sarah started to speak again. "Eddie Brock asked me out yesterday."
Stephen looked at her. "Oh?"
She nodded. "He had a picture of Spiderman to sell, and since the last one to buy them from him was me, he figured I might be interested. When I told him we already had a Spiderman photographer, he tried to flirt his way through. I shot him down."
Stephen gave her a mischievous smile. "I heard."
"You did? When?"
"Marsh called me. Said after Brock was turned down employment-wise, he started asking for tips on how to get you to say yes."
Sarah's eyes doubled. "You didn't."
"Of course not. I had Marsh do it. He told Brock that you liked pasta alfredo, mystery movies that don't rely on gore, and of course, talking incessantly."
"I take it back. We are no longer friends." Sarah stood upright and pulled her hand away, then once more gestured for a cab.
Stephen was laying it on very thick. "Marsh said that the prospect of dating a ditz put him off for a second, but apparently Eddie thought that there was nothing like some of the old Brock Charm to shut a girl up."
"Looking for a cab now," Sarah said, turning her back on Stephen.
"You'll not find one," Stephen's shadow voice taunted. "The Shadow saw you deflect Brock's advances onto Gwen…"
Sarah whirled. "That wasn't to torment her! That was pure survival instinct, I swear!"
A derisive laugh that had brought criminals to their knees echoed out, though Sarah was pretty sure it was inside her own ears, since no one around her was reacting. "And sending Brock to the Bugle with his pictures?"
"Well, O.K., that was to torment JJ."
Now the laugh was less shadowy. "Oh, please, JJ will be fawned over and flattered and he'll eat it up," Stephen said aloud.
"I guess. They deserve each other; although how you flatter JJ I'll never know."
Moe's cab pulled up to the curb.
"Your ride's here," Sarah remarked.
"No, yours is," Stephen corrected as he opened the door for Sarah. "Take her home, Moe."
Moe noticed the two of them weren't looking tense or nervous as they stood together. Maybe this was good news. "You got it, boss."
Sarah paused at the door and gave Stephen an awkward smile. "I missed you."
Stephen smiled back. "I missed you too."
Sarah got into the cab, and Stephen watched it pull away.
"We tried to talk it over but the words got in the way,
We're lost inside this lonely game we play..."
Gwen noticed he had returned without Sarah and jumped to the obvious conclusion. "Smooth, little brother. Real smooth," she teased from across the table.
"I can't believe you're gloating," Stephen mocked.
"I am not gloating."
"Yeah, but you're deliberately acting like you're not gloating, which means you're being extra smug on the inside," Stephen fired back.
Gwen looked confused for a long moment. "You're right. That is hard to argue with."
Stephen smirked. "Feel better, sis?"
"Uh huh. Misery loves company. But, I'm gonna go. I have homework to do."
"Need a ride home?"
"Nah. You'd just stick me in a cab, anyway, and I can do that myself. Go make up with Sarah."
Stephen gave a derisive snort as he signaled for another round of drinks. "Mind your own business."
"Night," Gwen said in a voice of exasperated and drink-induced tiredness.
As she made her way toward the door, she paused to speak to Peter and MJ. "Hey guys, I'm heading off."
"So soon?" Peter asked.
Gwen nodded. "I'll need this whole weekend to get over the hangover I'll have in the morning."
"Ah," Peter replied. "Well, good night, then."
She turned to MJ. "I'll have your suit cleaned and returned soon."
"You won't need it for another date with Brock?" MJ teased.
Gwen rolled her eyes in reply, then said another good-bye and left.
Peter and MJ waved their good-byes, then just stood there and held each other tightly.
"Team meeting," Stephen's Shadow voice echoed in each of the lovebirds' heads.
Peter and MJ both noticed that the announcement of "Team Meeting" had come after Sarah's departure. "Everything O.K. with Sarah?" Peter pressed as they joined Stephen at the table.
"I think so. We'll see. For now though, we have another issue," Stephen sighed, accepting his pair of wet martinis and leaving a very large tip. He took a sip and stayed silent until the waiter had returned to the bar, then leaned in to speak to his partners. "Harry's on his way back to the States. He'll be here in a day or two."
"Great. Stephen Cranston, master mood-killer," Peter commented, giving what was left of Gwen's drink a sniff before taking a sip, then pushing it away quickly and coughing at its strength.
"He knows about Peter--do you really think he know about you?" MJ said, turning to Stephen.
"We're partners, MJ," Peter pointed out. "If he's got one of us, then he's got us both."
"That's been a hazard we both knew existed when we joined up," Stephen replied. "All the more reason to keep our identities protected. Starting immediately: No one reveals an identity to anyone--even one you're pretty sure already knows. We need to watch our own backs and each others' as closely as possible."
"So, looks like the hunt is on." Peter gave a sigh. "Looks like I'm off on a scan through the city and Long Island, checking in anywhere that Harry might be working on disaster-tech for us."
"That's a pretty big area," MJ noted, then turned to Stephen. "What about you?"
"I've already sent Sarah home, and I've got a search running on his father's…unofficial holdings. I need to know how much Harry knows about them. A few hours till I'm ready to work on that." He took another sip from the pair of martinis and let out a breath. "Beyond that, we really don't know what happens next until he gets here."
Peter sighed and gave MJ a kiss. "Don't wait up for me."
She gave him a kiss on the hand, and Peter headed out.
"I never do any more," murmured MJ before turning to Stephen. "And then there were two. How badly did you screw up?"
"With Sarah? No more than the usual amount," Stephen returned. "I figure searching all those places will take Spiderman at least a few hours…."
"Then let's go."
"Well, it seems that everybody else is busy with other things…"
"You don't think I put into Peter's mind that he should go searching…"
"I put nothing past you."
"Smart girl." He finished the second martini. "Let's go."
"Taxi!" Stephen called.
"Not Moe?" MJ asked curiously.
"Moe and Peter talk, dummy!" Stephen told her.
"Dummy? What happened to Don MJ Corleone? Where's the respect? Where's the love?"
A cab pulled to a stop, and Stephen opened the rear door and let MJ in.
"Where to Mac?" the cabbie called from the Front seat.
"Cranston-Stephens Towers," MJ ordered him.
The cab pulled out into traffic.
Stephen leaned over. "You mispronounced 'Cranston Manor'," he corrected her quietly.
"We're not going to the Manor," MJ murmured back softly.
"No. Thought you'd prefer someplace more…private. Like my place."
"You think Peter won't be looking for you there?"
"Not lately he hasn't."
Stephen raised an eyebrow. "Trouble?"
MJ sighed. "Things have been busy."
Stephen let out a breath as an angry expression crossed his face.
"What?" MJ pressed him.
"I warned him about this. I warned him. Why is it every time he gets busy, time with you is the first thing to get squeezed out? He takes you for granted, MJ, and I cannot believe he still does it after everything that the two of you have been through…"
MJ gave him a look. "Oh, come on!"
Stephen was curious about her tone. "What?"
"You can complain all you want, but let's not pretend that you don't mind his absence at all, because it means we have more time for our own…rendezvous."
He gave her an amused smirk. "Is that what we're calling it these days?"
MJ gave his arm a smack, and the two of them giggled.
The cab pulled to a halt. "32.50," the driver announced.
Stephen had almost forgotten that one had to pay for a real cab ride. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill. "Keep the change," he said, opening his door swiftly and helping MJ out of the cab before the driver could make any comment at all.
MJ pulled out her swipe-key and led the way into the building.
A mental command from Stephen had the night watchman turn his head, and the two of them quickly got into the elevator.
MJ punched the combination for the penthouse floor, then smiled a triumphant smile as the elevator ascended. "Kit Ramirez got a job today. The manager was…surprised at how many recommendations she had."
Stephen smiled slightly. "Was that enough?"
"Marsh tells me that they had some spare advertising room in the Classic this month."
Stephen smiled. "You learned that part fast. Did the manager get suspicious?"
"No, I told him that she was an old friend with a kid to support. He figured it was nothing more than us girls sticking together. And as it happens, he was very grateful," She scratched under her chin slowly. "But I told him that one day, I may ask him to perform a service to his Godmother."
The Shadow's attuned laugh rang out.
MJ grinned as the elevator reached Penthouse level. She led the way to her apartment and opened the door. "You get the lights," she said softly. "I'll get the drinks."
"Drinks?" Stephen reacted as he turned down the lights. "We're making a night of this now?"
"It was your idea," she said, pointing to the bottle of champagne in a tall silver ice chiller. "I was quite surprised to see this downstairs with the rest of the floral deliveries."
"Did you enjoy them as well?"
MJ gestured to the dining room table, covered in vases of flowers. "I feel like a real star."
"That you are." Stephen came into the dining area. "Shall I pour while you set the mood?"
MJ smiled and gestured to the chiller.
Stephen pulled out the bottle, wrapped a kitchen towel around the bottom, then unwrapped the foil around the cork, gave the bottle a twist, and out popped the cork with a quiet but robust "pop". He had just finished pouring two glasses when MJ came back into the room. He handed her a glass and offered a toast. "To my new network Godfather."
"To the man who trusted me to be that person," MJ responded with a grateful smile.
Stephen mirrored her smile as they clinked glasses together and sipped. "I'm glad." He then listened to the music. "I love this song."
"A little birdie told me," MJ teased.
"She's a good little birdie," Stephen remarked. "Perfect champagne…perfect music…"
"Care to make the rest of the night perfect?" MJ whispered.
Stephen smiled warmly. "Anything for the lady with heels like that."
"I wore them tonight with just this in mind," she said. "I'm glad you noticed."
"Hard not to," Stephen responded.
The two of them headed out to the main room balcony, and he slipped an arm around her waist as she leaned into the embrace and hummed along with the soft music as it played.
And we're lost, in this Masquerade…
Stephen sipped his champagne and looked out over the view that used to be his. "Harry is coming back to New York, MJ, and my gut tells me he's bringing the full force of Vendetta with him."
MJ took a sip as well. "Yep."
The two of them were swaying rhythmically as the oh-so-appropriate music seemed to take them over. "Gwen and Sarah are still circling each other, one way or another," Stephen noted, "and for all the things I've been through with them, my loyalties are split by the secrets we keep."
"We all keep secrets," MJ reminded him, her voice barely above a whisper.
And we're lost, in this Masquerade…
"I had The Tulku start looking for someone I can train to become The Shadow, in case I get myself killed soon."
"Not going to happen," MJ declared softly.
"None of us are immortal," Stephen reminded her. "Things change. Spidey's no longer public enemy number one, and Gwen's finally realized that Spiderman's a hero, and wants to know if I can help her get in touch with him. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that hotheaded Eddie Brock, who's now front and center in Jameson's newly-restarted Spidey hunt, took her out on a date and would use her in any way, shape, or form to get at her new hero Spiderman, who just happens to be her lab partner in Connors' class, childhood friend and crush Peter Parker."
"As if I needed reminding about that," MJ said in a harsh tone.
"And now, Marsh has realized that he can use his place as employer of two top agents to get exclusives."
"Joy," MJ sighed.
And we're lost, in this Masquerade…
Stephen gave an ironic chuckle. "And as if all of that weren't enough, we're running around behind the backs of your superhuman boyfriend and my clairvoyant…"
"Girlfriend," MJ finished for him.
Stephen didn't object to the word. "Twilight is upon us, MJ, and there's a bad moon rising."
MJ took Stephen's glass off him, put both glasses down on a balcony table, then turned to face him and slid her arms up around his shoulders. "But that's tomorrow's problem," MJ told him, low and smooth. "None of those things are going to blow up tonight."
Stephen sighed, feeling the tension drain from his shoulders as he put one arm around her waist and took one of her hands of his shoulders, giving another sigh of pleasure as their hands threaded fingers. "Right."
MJ gave him an understanding smile. "Kit has a good job, the mission continues, Gwen's our friend again, Sarah's convinced that you haven't traded her in for a different friend that could be something more, the two of you are still speaking, we've got preparation time for our next encounter with an enemy, and I got the lead in a Broadway show. So tonight was the end to a very good week."
Stephen pressed her body against him. "Yeah, I guess it was."
MJ rested her head on his shoulder. "So, let's have tonight. Tomorrow will come soon enough."
Stephen sighed warmly as she started running her fingers over the back of his neck. "Let's have tonight."
And we're lost, in this Masquerade…
The stage is set, the players are in place, and the readers have demanded it.
Everything is ready for our own version of Spiderman 3.
The Darkness Within.