The Darkness Within
A Shadow/Spider-Man Crossover Novella by Stephensmat and Scarlet
Chapter Twelve: Emergence
The Story So Far: Peter Parker's suspicions that Stephen Cranston and Mary Jane Watson's relationship has moved beyond agent-to-agent have to be pushed aside when he learns that Flint Marko—The Sandman—is alive, and the two have a pointed discussion on how best to destroy Marko, ending with Peter's decision that even though a psychic attack is necessary to keep Marko torn apart, Stephen isn't strong enough to handle it. Not helping Stephen's situation: His increasing suspicion that something is not right about Tony Stark's ambush in Afghanistan is pushed to the breaking point when Cranston Industries exec Sam Bailey reports the news that Obadiah Stane intends to sell off Stark Industries' public interests on Monday, just 72 hours after Stark's disappearance, and he realizes he has to do something to both protect his own company and buy time for someone to find out whether Stark is dead or alive. MJ, haunted by her feelings about manipulating the amnesiac Harry Osborn, spends all night shopping and returns home to find that Harry is no longer amnesiac…and that he is now acting as the Goblin once more. He takes her hostage and tells her that he'll kill everyone around Peter—Gwen, Aunt May, even Stephen—unless MJ attacks Peter's heart directly for him. MJ manages to get off a warning to Stephen through a coded message about the pilot light being out at the condo—which Stephen informs Sarah is definitely a warning because MJ's condo is electrically-powered—but is forced to carry out the first step of Harry's plan: Breaking off her relationship with Peter for good, telling him there's another man. When MJ finishes her deed, Harry steps in with part two: Telling Peter that MJ's other man is none other than Stephen Cranston…
It was a good thing Stephen Cranston had decided to call this meeting at the Manhattan equivalent of dawn, 0900. If he hadn't, he might find himself arguing with his executives until the next dawn.
The board of directors at Cranston Industries was reacting to the news of Obadiah Stane's plan to sell off Stark Industries' public resources pretty much how Stephen thought they would react. Some of them wanted no part of the mess. Some of them could see only darkness. Some could see only opportunities. And none could see the suspicious timing Stephen himself did.
Finally, Stephen lost patience with his 'loyal employees'. "Shut up!" he shouted.
The board quieted. The Cranston Temper was legendary.
"Look, you all are missing the big picture here," he said, wanting to Shadow-blast it into their minds but restraining himself admirably. "Stane is trying to turn Stark Industries into Stane Private Enterprises. He dumps the public resources—essentially, the stock—on the pretext of trying to stop the company's losses in the wake of declaring Stark dead, and voila, the company's his. The trouble is, we don't know Stark is dead. There's been no body, and there's been no ransom demands. We don't know where Stark is…and neither does Stane. That's the problem."
"Sir, he was taken in wartime abduction," one of the board members volunteered. "DoD, State Department, CNN…nobody expects him back."
"If Stane really plans to go through with this," another member pointed out, "then the other Wall Street players are making their plans to move in, and we're getting left behind."
"Doesn't matter—all the patents are in Stark's name already," Sam Bailey countered. "The company's public domain, but the contracts are all US Government, the properties are privately owned."
"Sam makes a point," Stephen continued the previous conversation without missing a beat. "Who inherits all that stuff? Stark has no kids."
"None that he'll admit to," Sam put in quietly, and there was a scattering of laughter.
"People!" Stephen shut them up. "Stark's assets are his own. The bidding war over the equipment and the office furniture will be nothing compared to that. If you can't take Stark Industries whole, then you won't get anything worth having."
"We can't get to any of the personal assets till they know what they are," someone protested. "And we won't know that till he's declared dead, and the will is read."
"His private lawyer won't talk," Sam protested. "Legal firms never leak."
"Can we please all stop talking about this like Stark's obituary is a shopping list?" Stephen demanded. "There are how many thousands of people who will lose out on this? The man is in a cave, probably dead, and all anybody can talk about is what they can buy off his grave."
"So, do you really want to own SI when Stark is declared dead?" a skeptic member put in. "It'll be a black hole of nothingness once that happens."
"I don't want to own SI," Stephen interjected. "I want to stop Stane from letting anybody else own it."
Now the skepticism was hard to stop as it spread across the board. "So what do you want to do?" someone finally asked.
Stephen gave what had been floating in his mind for a couple of hours now one more long consideration. "I want to issue a public guarantee."
Everyone's eyes widened. Cranston was talking about millions of dollars to be invested not in buying something, but in hedging the price to keep others from selling. It was all risk, virtually no gain. The objections got louder.
Stephen finally slammed a portfolio hard on his desk. "May I remind everyone in this room that I don't need your permission to spend my money?"
"If you're spending publicly-accountable CI funds, you do," Bailey stated.
"Which is why I'm going to spend my private funds to do it," Stephen replied sharply.
Silence followed his declaration. No one could believe it. It wasn't that Stephen didn't have enough private funds to do it—if financial reports were to be believed, Stephen Cranston could probably own half of Wall Street out of his own pocket—but to put a public guarantee on stock that was going on a financial roller-coaster ride once Stane put his plan into action was absolutely insane. No one on the board would let him commit company funds to do it. And yet, no one on the board could do anything to stop Stephen spending his personal funds for it.
"CHLOE!" Stephen bellowed, loud enough that everyone in the room winced.
The intercom buzzed. "You have an intercom in there too, you know," Chloe's annoyed voice replied over the loudspeaker.
Stephen counted to 10 in his head. "I want the Stark home in LA. The private residence. Put the call through to my office."
"I think we can safely assume he's not there," Sam said calmly.
"Trust me, somebody is, and they're the one we need to talk to…whoever it is." He turned to the Board members. "That will be all."
The members couldn't get out of the room fast enough, but even their pace was nothing compared to Stephen's rapid-fire hike back to his private office, Sam Bailey hot on his heels. "Kind of hard on them, weren't you?" Bailey cautioned.
"Promise me something, Sam," Stephen said. "When my time comes, have them all shot before you discuss my own belongings."
Chloe looked up as the two men reached Stephen's office. "Call on its way in right now," she told him.
"Thank you," Stephen said and shut the door to close him and Bailey inside.
The phone rang. Stephen hit the speaker. "Who am I speaking to?"
"This is Virginia Potts," A sleepy voice answered.
"Pepper? This is Stephen Cranston."
It took Pepper Potts a minute to figure out the name. "Mr. Cranston, I have no statement to make regard-"
"I'm not calling for that," Stephen said. "Pepper, I don't know if you're in the loop on the financial side of this, but-"
"The finances of Mr. Stark's accounts are all private information, Mr. Cranston. If you have any inquiries regarding the industrial accounts, I would suggest you call Obadiah Stane…"
"Pepper, listen to me," Stephen said sharply, and Pepper fell silent. "Are you O.K.?"
"I'm fine, thank you."
Stephen sent Sam a glance and picked up the phone. "Pepper, when my uncle died, his personal assistant turned in her notice on my first day. You don't work that closely with someone and see him as the office. Not if you haven't quit after a few years. How long have you been with Tony?"
Beat. "Mr. Cranston," Pepper said softly, "I am keeping the hordes of vultures away from Tony's legacy armed with nothing but loyalty and coffee-backed adrenaline. I don't know what you think regarding my relationship with Mr. Stark, but…"
"I think you're his right hand. I think you're the one that takes care of him, even when he doesn't know. And I think you're answering his home phone at six-thirty in the morning Pacific. And I think it's because you haven't left his house since you heard he was missing." Stephen sighed. "I know what helplessness feels like, Pepper. If this was about the money I never would have called you. This isn't CI's CEO talking. This is one orphan, to the other orphan's final friend. When they decide its all fair game, you can't keep them away from anything."
He could hear Pepper thinking. "What are you calling for?"
"You need a liability shield. Something to keep the vultures away. A temporary trust fund, if you will. Something to keep everything you can protect from a mountain of sell orders that are about to hit."
"Mr Stane has already placed Stark industries in a liability contract with the Government."
"The Government is gonna focus on the patents. They don't want his assembly line or his office space, they want the weapons. All that stuff is in Tony's name. Pepper, how many people have legal authority to use Stark's private assets?"
"Just me and Obadiah," Pepper said. "I shouldn't be telling you this."
"The lawyers will plead No Confidence. The tycoons will descend on you, and say you have no right to it all. They'll pry your hands open, and take whatever they can. You need a backer. Someone who can keep everyone calm. If the major players can't get hold of Stark's money, they'll settle for knowing that nobody else can."
"Obadiah," Pepper said instantly. "He's been the main power with the board since Tony's father died. They'll accept him as new CEO."
"Then you'd better get a contract drawn up. Something that certifies that Stane has control over what he needs to, but nothing else. Nothing until you are sure Tony Stark is dead." He paused for a moment. "As for the rest, I'm going to personally put forth a financial guarantee for SI's public stock. I'm going to put in an order to have the stock backed up at the price it was before Tony was taken. It will hold there until we have some sort of closure over Tony's legal status."
Sam jumped out of his seat with his jaw hanging open.
"Why would you do that?" Pepper asked.
"You haven't heard?"
"Obadiah Stane went to the Fed Chair. On Monday, the public assets are going up for sale."
"You didn't know?" Stephen said in surprise.
"I…I've been dealing with the Press Requests and the…" She got silent. "Mr. Cranston," Pepper said slowly. "I don't know what you stand to gain over this, but…thank you for your advice."
"What I stand to gain is stability. The billionaire set isn't what it used to be, Pepper. I want to protect what's left of our little club while I still can. The next step is gonna be having him declared dead, you know that."
"I know," Pepper said quietly. "Mr Cra…Stephen. You should see this place. Nothing but gift baskets and flowers. The world gave up on him. They've already written him off."
Stephen winced. "Yeah, one of those will have my name on it."
Pepper gave a bitter chuckle. "We have a lot to lose, don't we?"
"The bidding is already starting. If—" He caught himself. "When Tony comes back, you can get it all back, but his first eight months back will be spent in lawsuits."
"We've gotta keep the core of the business protected," Pepper said.
"Inheritance Laws will help you there," Stephen said. "But you'll need a heavyweight to back you up." He took a breath. "News will break about the bidding war tomorrow morning. By lunchtime, sellers will go berserk, and the stock will drop through the floorboards. Or, you can call Stane and tell him that he can announce to the world that Cranston Industries will provide Stark shareholders with a guarantee loan for all their stocks, dollar for dollar, and save everybody's hide."
"I'm serious now," Pepper snapped. "Just what do you gain from this?"
"Equity. Stark returns, the market rebounds, the assets are safe, the loan is repaid. If…if he doesn't, the loan defaults, the core business goes to us to pay it off, the Private stuff like the patents, personal accounts and property goes to whoever Tony promised them to; and the whole thing is over in one piece. No bidding war, no upheaval, no lawsuits."
Pepper sighed. "I don't have the authority to do that. Not without talking to the legal inheritors. Which will probably be Obadiah."
"I wouldn't be too sure it's Obadiah. In fact, I'll bet it's you who has that kind of authority."
She sounded surprised. "But I don't."
"Tony will have given it to you. Check his paperwork. Seriously, there are probably emergency instructions somewhere that gives that control to you, probably in that note he gave you in a casual way and told you to never open it unless he didn't answer his phone for more than a couple of days." The gasp he heard was more than enough to confirm his suspicions. "Odds are he won't have told you, but I think you'll be surprised how much of it goes to you."
Beat. "Why do you say that?" Pepper wavered.
"Because you're the only one waiting for him to come home," Stephen said quietly.
Silence. Pepper sounded a little strained. "I have to call Obadiah."
Stephen nodded, though she couldn't see. "Tell him that we stand ready to assist."
Pepper sniffed. "I didn't think you liked him."
"I don't, if 'him' is Obadiah," Stephen said. "But Tony…let's just say I understand him more than he thinks I do. He has a family legacy to uphold, lots of people to keep above water on his shoulders, and he's the last man to carry the name. Speaking as one orphan to another, he's not alone."
"Thank you, Mr. Cranston."
Stephen hung up. He turned to Sam. "Get the loan ready. If Stane calls back, we'll have a deal. Have legal make it ironclad."
"You think it'll work?"
"Stark will be declared dead after a discreet interval. The private money, property and patents will go to whoever Tony willed them to, but the actual tonnage of Stark's holdings will be protected by our loan. Having the guarantee will prevent the stock from collapsing and taking Wall Street with it. No buying craze, and if Stark doesn't come back, we get everything. Nobody loses their job, nobody goes bankrupt."
"It's a good deal."
"Depends on what the people with the most invested in Stark have to lose," Stephen finished. Then he noticed the fire opal on his finger flashing slightly. Hopefully this was news about MJ, and hopefully it was good news. "Have the paperwork on Chloe's desk. I have an appointment."
"When have you ever known me to keep regular hours?" He gestured with his head at the door.
Bailey didn't really need the psychic Get Out signal Stephen was projecting to tell him he'd better get his act in gear before Stephen decided to fire the next person who ticked him off. He raced out of the office.
Stephen gave a hard sigh. Now to deal with MJ. He grabbed his coat and headed out the door, mentally sending for Moe and verbally ordering Chloe to cancel his afternoon appointments almost simultaneously.
"Where to?" Moe asked as Stephen got in the cab.
"The Sanctum, and make it fast," Stephen said, sending a psychic signal back to Burbank to extinguish the glow in his ring. "I'm hoping this is news about MJ, because if it's not, I may go postal if somebody dumps one more thing on my plate…"
And at that moment, his cell phone rang. A glance at its display told him it might not be something new on the plate. "Any news?" he asked Sarah Branson as he answered it.
"If you're heading to The Sanctum to answer a note, don't bother," Sarah told him. "MJ just called me. She's the one trying to get hold of you, but didn't want to call you directly."
Stephen felt his heart skip a beat. "What did he do to her?"
He heard Sarah hesitate. "She's…Stephen, she's inconsolable."
Stephen bit back the anger that Sarah's words provoked in him. If Harry hurt her, he mentally seethed, I swear I'll kill the bastard with my bare hands… "Go to her, and keep her safe," Stephen directed. "Any line on Peter?"
"I found him an hour ago. He was talking to Harry. Harry was telling him that MJ's cheating on him with you."
Now that put a whole new spin on MJ's grief. "What?"
"You heard me." Beat. "Not that I believe him, or anything, but I can't promise that Peter doesn't…"
"Where is Harry now?"
"At home, cackling like an evil mastermind."
"I don't know. He put his costume back on and vanished again."
That statement gave him more pause than even Harry cackling. If Sarah couldn't see Peter in this new costume, what was going on? Clothes had never fooled Sarah's clairvoyance before. "How is he doing that?" Stephen demanded.
"I don't know, but if you figure it out will you let me know?"
There was a loud thump from the roof of the cab. Both Stephen and Moe jumped.
"What was that?" Sarah asked sharply. "I heard something."
"Never mind," Stephen groused. "I found him. See you later." Stephen disconnected the call.
Peter opened the sunroof and let himself into the cab, dropping down into the rear driver's side seat with such smoothness that Stephen would have sworn the man was made of rubber or liquid.
"That was risky," Stephen observed, trying not to let on that Peter's antics were becoming increasingly disturbing. "Broad daylight, you're not masked…"
"Nobody was watching, and we have to talk," Peter interrupted.
"Damn right we do. I have been looking for you since…"
"Oh, I've been looking for you, too, old pal."
Now Stephen really was annoyed with Peter's tone. "Did you know that Sarah can't sense you when you're in costume now? How the Hell did you pull that off? I've been trying to figure that one out for years."
"Why were you looking for me?"
Stephen growled. "Harry remembers."
"Oh, really?" Peter licked his lips. "That's funny, because Harry told me something very interesting." He could see it so clearly. Stephen's head would come straight off his neck, bounce off the glass, maybe hit Moe in the back…this was it. "He told me about you and MJ…"
"Stop the car!" Stephen barked, shifting topics instantly.
Moe did so in a great hurry, screeching to a stop in probably the only on-curb parking available for blocks. "What's up, boss?" he asked, confused.
"Take a walk, Shrevnitz," Stephen ordered sharply.
"Yes, sir." Moe immediately got out of the cab and started walking.
Stephen waited until the cabbie was out of sight, then turned in his seat to face Peter. "So what did Harry tell you? I'm really interested to know, because he's not exactly privy to my social schedule."
"He didn't tell me much. But he didn't have to." Peter's eyes were dark, and his face was showing that snarl he'd been sporting increasingly frequently. "I know you're together every night. And I know you two have been lying to people about what you're doing."
"Lying about what?"
"Look, don't play dumb with me. I've heard you two talking. I know she was upset about lying to me, and I know you've been going out of your way to hide things from Sarah, which is no mean feat these days. I'm getting tired of being the last to know what's going on with the woman who's supposed to be my girlfriend, the woman who's flirting with Harry Osborn because the Master thinks she should, the same woman I've now been told is getting it on with you these days…"
"We're not 'getting it on'! Where in the world did you get that?"
"So what's with all the heartfelt conversations? All of the sneaking around? All of the lingering hugs and meaningful looks? And you came to her side awfully fast at the Constellation when I'm trying to propose—am I supposed to believe that she suddenly turned on me just because she was mad about Gwen Stacy?"
"Yes!" Stephen looked aghast. "Peter…my God, man, I'm not stupid! This is the woman you love! I would never even think of…"
"…stealing her away?"
The two men were now staring at each other, as if neither could believe the other was behaving this way.
Stephen couldn't believe Peter's jealousy was derailing his usually logical train of thought…not to mention overriding his near-worship of MJ. One hint from Harry Osborn, a man Peter knew was insane when he had his memory and insanely jealous of Peter when he was amnesiac, and Peter was off on this kind of tear? What the Hell was going on here?
Peter couldn't believe Stephen thought he was this stupid. Hadn't he said just days earlier that he knew Peter was smarter than him? Maybe Peter had somehow missed the sarcasm in Stephen's words, because the man was still looking at Peter as if he were insane for even implying he was putting the moves on MJ when the facts were in evidence for all to see.
Stephen was the one who got his voice back first. "Peter…there's something you're not getting. You're not getting it because we've tried to keep it under wraps up to now, but it's not what you're thinking. MJ and I are not in any way together. She just barely declared us friends!"
"I remember. You two became actual pals about the time Brackett wiped your memories and you were ready to run off to Italy or something. Right?"
Stephen started to speak, failed. Started to say something else, no luck. "O.K," He almost laughed. "O.K. Um, there's a really good answer to that!" He licked his lips. "And…I will give it to you. Any second now."
"I would be very interested to hear it."
"O.K., um…you know how much of my life has been taken up by the Mission."
"Yes," Peter was content to wait. His spider-sense was silent. Stephen was less than harmless. For once, the All-Seeing, All-Knowing Shadow was struggling to tap dance his way out of a jam, and Peter was content to let him try. It wasn't going to change anything.
"My Uncle commented once that I was effectively a monk. No hobbies, no relationships, no distractions. Just devotion to The Cause. And after…well, a lot of things, I think that maybe I ignored a little too much. So I asked MJ to help me with one of the things that kept coming back over the years."
Now, Peter seemed interested. He was being insecure. Another first. "And that is?"
Stephen looked embarrassed. "dnclessns."
Peter raised an eyebrow. "Come again?"
"Dance lessons. MJ's been teaching me to dance." Stephen still looked uncomfortable.
For almost five full seconds, the two men sat in silence. Then, Peter burst into hysterical laughter.
Stephen looked offended. "It's not that funny."
"Oh, yes, it is." Peter was thrashing back and forth in spastic convulsions from the force of his laughter, tears streaming down his face as howls of mirth came pealing out of him endlessly. And to think he'd only moments earlier been wondering if Stephen and MJ were doing some kind of horizontal gyrations. The absurdity of the entire thing was just incredible. Stephen and his oh-so-scary reputation would never live this down.
Stephen got out of the car, shut the door, and leaned against the side of the car for several minutes while Peter kept cackling. "Let me know when you're done so we can get down to some serious business," he mentally complained.
It took quite a long while; but finally, the noise settled down.
Stephen got back into the cab. "Feel better now?" he asked, his tone annoyed.
"Spidey's very happy," Peter laughed. He felt like he'd lost a hundred pounds. He hadn't felt this good in weeks.
Stephen shook his head wryly. "You really thought MJ was cheating on you with me? Peter, she adores you. Plus, you're my partner. I am nothing if not loyal to my people."
He is. He really is. He'd die for his agents. He'd kill for his agents. So why would he betray one so brutally? And her! MJ. My MJ, she only barely started counting Stephen as a friend…how could I have thought that? Peter got stuck on that thought. No, really…how could I have thought that? Aloud, he started explaining. "Stephen, she's sneaking out to meet you, she won't tell me why…"
"We knew there was a risk to this if you or Sarah found out what was going on, but really, there was no one else I could trust. Gwen doesn't know the secret, and I'm trying like mad not to destroy any future I might still have with Sarah. MJ was the only one I could turn to for this. I'm sorry if it drove a wedge between you two."
There was something about this story that was still incomplete, though. "You can't tell me that you spent all this time learning how to two-step," Peter said suspiciously.
"No. See, that was how it started. But…" He sighed. "My relationship with Diane was a disaster because I was ignorant to the point of stupid of how things worked in relationships. She led me right off a cliff and I never even knew it was there." He rubbed his face. "MJ made the comment that there was more than dance steps missing. And she was right. I was getting somewhere with Sarah, and then when she awakened, I saw how I actually treated her, and I…I really didn't measure up. And then after what happened with Victor, I reacted to her part in it the way The Shadow would. You'll never know how close I came to just…" He snapped his fingers lightly, letting the unspeakable thought go unsaid. "Interactions with other people have always been my weak suit."
"O.K., that is the dumbest thing I have ever heard you say," Peter countered. "Not two weeks ago you had the whole city doing what you wanted; you are not blind to how people work."
"That's not interaction, Pete. That's manipulation. It's me getting people to do what I want because they want to do it. I am very, very good at that. But I didn't want to manipulate Sarah. I wanted…for lack of a better word, I wanted something real," He looked his partner in the eye for the first time. "This guy, Stephen Cranston? He's not real. Nothing real about him. There's nothing real in my life. Not even my name. Not even my face."
Peter suddenly realized how badly he felt for his friend. Stephen had lost more than Peter had on account of the All-Important Mission.
"Remember when we went back, and met my Grandfather?" Stephen continued.
"I remember you giggling like an idiot child."
"Well, after that mission, I realized that for all I idolized my grandfather, I knew nothing about his life with Margo Lane. And after the thing with Gwen…when I said that I couldn't keep sending people away…I realized that I was sick of it. I was sick of losing people. I know it's harder for people like us, but you make it work. My father made it work. My grandfather made it work…MJ is the only one I can talk to about this," He shrugged. "So we made a regular thing of it. And then after a while she made the point that you and I are Night and Day, so any of her advice wouldn't be really helpful. That's when I dug out all of my grandmother's Journals, and while she obviously didn't put anything about The Shadow in them, we could read between the lines, and I had all her husband's mission notes…"
Peter burst into hysterical laughter again. He was thrashing around so much his head was banging against the side of the cab.
"What now?" Stephen roared angrily over him.
"You! You are babbling! I have never heard you say more than two sentences you didn't have to in all the time I've known you. And you are babbling! Spidey finds this most appealing!" He wiped tears out of his eyes. "To say nothing of trying to get dating tips from anyone involved in one of my relationships."
Stephen smirked despite himself. "Pete…It was working."
"That night you tried to propose…I was across the street with Sarah…our fingers were this close to touching. It was…so very real. Peter, a year ago it never would have happened. I would have stuck my foot in my mouth again, like I did that night we discovered Harry was coming back. MJ's been invaluable to me, Peter. She really, really helped."
"O.K., so you're not The Other Guy." Peter grumbled. "But she has been hiding things from me. And she's been going to you about things that she normally would come to me for…"
"Can you blame her? Her personal life has been on a low while yours has been on the high of the decade. I put so much work into making you a public hero that…" Stephen stopped himself before he finished that thought. "And then this thing with Harry…"
The mere mention of his name sent Peter into the same homicidal rage that he'd felt when he got into the cab. "Harry remembers."
Stephen nodded. "Yes, that was what I was trying to say before you got off on the psycho-boyfriend track."
"How did you know?"
"MJ called in, gave me a coded message, saying she was on her way to see you. I can't take Harry alone, and Sarah couldn't find you, which I assure you, is a topic we'll be returning to once this is done."
Peter nodded and took up the narrative. "He forced MJ to break up with me, and convince me that there was somebody else. Then he met me for coffee and told me that the other guy was you."
Stephen's face hardened. "He's putting you against me using MJ as his weapon. The Classic Goblin tactic. Attack not the head, but the heart."
"It wouldn't have worked if MJ and Harry hadn't been so close this week." That thought brought back other darker considerations. "Did you send MJ to Harry?" Peter demanded.
"Her job was to watch him," Stephen reminded him.
"That's not what I asked, and you know it. Did you send MJ to Harry?"
Stephen just glared at his partner. Peter wasn't normally this dense.
"Did you?" Peter demanded. "Answer me!"
"If you had let me kill Harry when we had the chance, this wouldn't have been an issue!" Stephen yelled back.
"You're right," Peter said.
"What?" Stephen said finally.
"Osborn, Khan…all those bad guys only have to win once," Peter said with calm confidence, like he had discovered the meaning of life.
A long beat of silence passed. "Yes," Stephen said finally.
"All my talk about power and responsibility, and I never once decided to play the same game that all our enemies play." Peter was actually chuckling, gesturing around, and looking for the entire world as though he was about the start a song and dance number. "How many times have you said it? A dark and shadowy world. And you keep acting more savage and brutal than me, because you got it, and I didn't."
"What do you mean?"
"Everything I've always done is reactive. I never plan how to take on an opponent; you do that. I just show up and see what happens. What you said yesterday. Power. I've got it, so why the Hell do I keep treating it like an unwanted burden? You keep doing all these dark things, because they need to be done, and you can't win this fight without getting your hands dirty." Peter was laughing gently. "You are the boogeyman that criminals fear, and I'm the spandex circus clown with witty dialogue."
Stephen was once more intrigued by this new Peter who was emerging in the wake of the revelations about Flint Marko. "It's not a clean and wholesome life, Peter, so sue me if I wanted to keep your hands clean."
"'Wanted to'. Past tense?"
"You took a plunge when you killed Marko. Or when you tried to kill Marko. For the first time, you finally seemed to get it. You've always shied away from following the fight against evil to its logical conclusion. You've always stopped just short, showing your enemies a compassion that they would never even consider showing you. Compassion was always your strength."
"You say that word like you don't approve of it."
"I approve of compassion absolutely; if somebody had written off my grandfather as too evil to live once upon a time…"
"We are warriors, Peter, fighting an impossible war that we will never win. We've found enemies that we can kill."
Peter was almost dancing, feeling completely in sync with his partner for the first time. "I found mine, you found yours."
"Did it feel good?" Stephen asked pointedly.
"When you watched him getting washed away, helpless, dying…how did it feel?"
"Felt like justice."
"Did it feel good?" Stephen repeated.
"It did. Now…now I'm not so sure."
Stephen thought about this long and hard. "O.K. What do you want to do now?"
Peter felt something, like a stretching across his chest. The suit was bunching his muscles; it felt powerful. "You offering me permission?"
"I'm not giving permission, and you don't need me to give permission," Stephen stated, cold and deadly. "I am turning you loose. What Khan's family is to me, the Osborns are to you. If ever you had the right to make a choice about your enemy, it's now. Once upon a time…I would have made the choice for you. It's the choices that make us who we are. I chose the dark and ghoulish path, you picked bright red and blue spectacle."
Peter opened his shirt. The black suit was underneath. "Not any more."
Stephen had to smile. The suit really did look better in black. "So…what do you want to do?"
There really was only one answer. "End this," Peter hissed.
Stephen mentally sent for Shrevnitz as he popped open the under-seat drawer.
Sarah set down the phone. She came into the room quietly.
Mary Jane was blubbering into her drink, looking maudlin. "Sarah…I screwed it all up again. What happened with me and Harry brought out the Goblin. I made it happen. It can't be anything else."
"You don't know that," Sarah soothed as she put an arm around her friend.
"Yes I do. I was there. Before I left Harry's…he was just Harry. My…my boyfriend. before Norman told Harry to dump me, before Stephen made me his spy, before Goblin picked me as Spider-bait, before Peter made me the charter member of the Superhero First Wives Club…it was me and Harry." She sniffed. "And then, he was Goblin again. After I rejected him. After I led him on, and shut him down, he was Goblin again. It's all my fault."
"Did you love him?" Sarah asked quietly. "Before all that…"
MJ didn't answer for a long time.
"You did," Sarah answered her own question."
"How? You're not stupid; I know that for a fact. How could you have fallen for somebody like…like him?"
"You didn't know him," MJ snapped, then calmed down. "Before it all went bad, I was just a girl with a rotten father who wanted out, and he was just a boy with a rotten father who knew the feeling. We…we made each other feel good about ourselves. Peter did that too, but he was starting out as Spider-Man…and Harry was the one who seemed to notice me in the room."
"And now I ruined everything. Harry was only Harry because Stephen gave him a telepathic lobotomy. The Harry I liked was dead until…I ruined everything."
"You did all that because Stephen told you to," Sarah consoled her.
"Not all of it," MJ sniffed. "I could have stalled Harry. I could have tipped off Peter at the park. He knows the codes Stephen taught us, too. I could have warned him."
Sarah just stared. "Then why didn't you? You aren't wrong. Peter's beaten back a Goblin four times over by now."
MJ started crying again. "Because…I wanted to hurt him. I wanted to make him hate me, and I wanted him to be miserable. Just for a little while. I wanted him to stop worshiping me when I keep screwing up. I wanted him to stop seeing stars when I wash out. I hated the way he kept…" She sniffed more tears back. "I used to love the way he made me feel, Sarah. That I could just be myself, and Peter loved me for it."
"But not any more?"
"My Dad, he wanted me to…I don't even know what he wanted of me, but he never pulled his punches when I didn't measure up."
Sarah drew in a breath of realization, and hugged her friend tightly.
MJ kept talking. "Harry, he made me feel good about myself, and then he wanted to put me on show for his dad's approval."
Sarah hesitated, but finally spoke. "And Stephen?"
MJ wiped her face, blinking back more tears. "Stephen…is honest. When I screw up he tells me so. When there's something he wants me to do, he's honest about the reasons why it should be me. And he shows that he has faith in me for a reason."
Sarah took that in and felt sad for a reason she couldn't place.
"But Peter…he made me feel special by simply being me. But I'm not like that, Sarah. Peter has faith in me for no reason. Peter thinks I can't possibly screw up at all. And the more Peter told me I was perfect…the more imperfect I feel," She looked helplessly at Sarah. "I wanted him to hate me. I wanted him to be hurt. Stephen too. I wanted him to pay for making me keep secrets. For making me go to Harry."
"Stephen had no right to do that," Sarah said firmly. "To make you go to him that way."
MJ started blubbering again. "That's the problem, Sarah. Are you out of your mind? Stephen didn't tell me to seduce Harry. It turned out that way, because just for a second, Harry was the one that liked me as much as Peter did, with none of the secrets and lies that Stephen puts on me."
Sarah didn't have an answer for that.
"I kissed him," MJ whispered. "Because just for a second I wanted to believe it was real. That Stephen hadn't programmed Harry like a zombie, and Peter wasn't waiting for me…I wanted it to be like it used to be, before Peter and I fell in love, and before I knew The Shadow existed."
Sarah's phone rang. She kept one arm around MJ and answered. "Hello? Yeah, she's right here," She listened for a beat. "O.K. I'll tell her." She listened a lot longer. "WHAT?" She looked at MJ. "Really?"
MJ looked past the bottom of her drink. "What is it?"
"O.K," Sarah whispered into the phone. "Stephen…I just…before you go and…never mind. Just, be careful."
MJ winced and looked back at her glass.
Sarah hung up and took the bottle off MJ, pouring herself a drink. "Well, looks like you succeded in making Peter burn."
Sarah leaned back in her seat and looked squarely at the red head. MJ was about to get her wish, because somebody was about to get hurt. "Peter and Stephen are heading for Osborn Manor."
MJ sighed. "I almost feel sorry for him. God, Sarah, do you have any idea how much Hell they're going to dish out on Harry…" She stopped herself, then used the name that Peter himself was likely using. "…I mean, Goblin, now?"
Sarah kept staring at her, barely restraining herself.
"What?" MJ complained at the scrutiny.
Sarah suddenly broke down laughing. "Dance Lessons?"
The sun was settling as Harry calmly prepared himself a martini, with two olives. "You take two olives, right, Cranston?" he said as he swirled the drink in the glass.
"I never drink on duty," Stephen replied in a cold tone.
Harry smiled easily, in no particular hurry. "How about you, Pete? Would you like a drink?" He turned around again, and this time Peter was there, Stephen at his side, both of them dressed in black, and looking for war. "Oh, what was I thinking? You don't drink the hard stuff. Bad for public image, right, Mr. Key to the City?"
Stephen took stock of Harry. "I wasn't sure what set it off. But when I found out about your coffee with Peter here, I saw the point. MJ's always been his one stupid streak. Well, other than saving your life of course."
"I'm a little surprised you let me get away with a mental remodel," Harry admitted. He still had the martini in his hand, calmly munching on one of the olives. "Seems I'm tougher than that."
"Don't be surprised at all," Stephen said, as a matter of fact. "I wanted to kill you in your sleep."
"And next time, I'll let him," Peter snarled.
Harry observed the two men. Peter wasn't wearing a shirt, just a hoodie, and the black Spider pattern of the costume clearly visible. Stephen had the black clothes, but no hat or cloak. The huge silver guns plainly in sight, and a familiar blade slung across his back, blade handle over one shoulder.
"That's my sword," Harry said evenly, pointing accusingly at Stephen.
"Spoils of war," Stephen calmly settled into a crossed arm pose, keeping his hands tucked out of sight. "MJ actually broke up with him once before, you know. For exactly the reasons she gave him on the bridge. But then, you knew that. That's why you used that particular move. Because as far as we knew, you had no memory of it happening."
"MJ's quite the heartbreaker," Harry agreed. "I should know—I was a guest at her wedding. You remember that one, right, Cranston? The one you showed up for that was over before it started? Yeah, that one."
"So what was the final point, Harry?" Peter demanded.
Harry raised an eyebrow. "Final point?"
"Was he supposed to kill me? Or just divide the team?" Stephen asked. "You had to know that Spider-Man's partner and Peter Parker's were the same."
"I did," Harry said. "I figured you'd have to be the one that made me forget, so if Peter and you were at each other's throats, it'd be nothing but good for me. And if he happened to put you down before he worked it out…well…Peter never could stomach his own decisions. He didn't even have the spine to let me die on my own. Killing you would put him over the edge."
"Attack the heart," Peter said. "Classic Goblin tactic. And it worked too. I bought it, for reasons you don't know about. Except that you were stupid enough to act like you knew things about my family that I didn't. Did you think MJ wouldn't come running to one of us the second you let her go?"
"It was a great piece of work, Harry," Stephen concluded. "But you shouldn't have signed your name."
Harry applauded softly. "Bravo," He mocked. "I salute you, Shadow Detective."
"Last time we stood in this room, I had to leave before I could finish the cleanup, because you were stupid enough to trade the entire city of New York for the chance to kill a man that you let walk away," Stephen said. "We're not leaving it half finished this time."
"Sit down, mortal. This is between the Spider and Me. You have no place in this," Harry dismissed. "Peter, the trick only would have worked if you let it. All I did for MJ was what you failed to do. If you had been there, if you had shown her concern, maybe you would have known she had lost her job, or was spending her time with me and Stephen…but you were just too busy posing for pictures, weren't you?"
Peter growled, stepping forward slowly.
Harry kept his face casual, but both he and Stephen reacted to the movement, stepping in counterpoint, keeping themselves in a relative position. "It was great, Peter. She may have been here on assignment, but she still liked it better than the time she's spent with you lately."
Peter moved again. So did Harry and Stephen. Step, shift, step.
Harry kept twisting the knife. "She and I, we were always a better fit than you. Just because you worshiped her doesn't mean you actually cared enough to spend time with her."
Peter moved again. So did Harry and Stephen. Step, shift, step.
Harry was relentless. "Her family? Mine? We were the same. My father was just hers with money. She and I understand each other very well. That's why laughing boy here picked her to be my keeper."
Peter moved again. So did Harry and Stephen. Step, shift, step.
Harry lowered the coup de grace. "And when she kissed me? It was like time itself just melted away. It was like old times."
Peter's eyes bulged.
Harry closed his eyes, like he was savoring it. "Peter…she tasted just like I remembered her." He sighed lovingly. "Strawberries."
For the first time in all their fights, Peter swung first. It was an absolutely vicious blow.
In fact, it was almost as powerful as Peter's follow-up punch that sent Harry flying back into the staircase support column.
Harry's eyes cleared and held nothing but murder. There was a sound of metal.
Peter's eyes widened. He had moved without even being aware of it. He looked down. One hand was wrapped around Harry's wrist, where he had tried to run him through…
…with the knife. With that knife. The one Harry held the last time Spider-Man was in this room.
Peter forced the hand back a little. The knife had dug in enough to pierce the suit, and draw half an inch of blood. Peter threw the first punch, Harry had drawn first blood.
Harry tried to throw a punch, which Stephen was able to check. Stephen had both hands wrapped around Harry's left arm, struggling to keep it away from Peter's face.
Three wickedly curved blades suddenly snapped out of Harry's sleeved forearm…the Goblin's scallops.
Stephen and Peter both reacted. Harry was better prepared than they'd thought.
Harry took advantage to give them both a savage kick, sending both of them back, Stephen halfway across the room into the couch, Peter in the opposite direction against the side of the staircase.
Harry lunged for Peter, and was sent back against the column again, Harry pressed off against it and started wining hard and fast, slashing at Peter's face with the tri-bladed forearm. Peter moved quick and nimble to dodge.
One swing almost landed, when steel clashed with steel. Harry looked, and saw Stephen, catching the curved blades along the edge of a glowing green sword.
Harry spun the other way, swinging with his forearm to begin, then with his other fist on the follow-through, a move that Peter recognized from his father, and Peter had to jump back against the pillar himself. Harry swung for the head, and managed to bury the blades into the stonework. Peter gave the arm an uppercut, breaking the blades off completely.
The move left him open though, and Peter was sent flying into the bookshelf, bringing the whole thing down on him.
Peter fought to get out of the wreckage, and kept half an eye on Harry, trying madly to land a blow on Stephen. The transformed Shadow was in close combat with Harry, and making tiny shifts in posture that made Harry miss by a fraction of an inch, blow for blow. Harry's face twisted angrily, infuriated by The Shadow's technique at work.
Finally, Harry gave up and threw himself backward, giving himself room, and then throwing forward again, taking Stephen in a full tackle…
Stephen tilted into a bizarre martial arts move, and suddenly Harry was flat on his back. He was unhurt, and raised himself up in fury.
"You think you're the first guy I've fought who's stronger than me?" Stephen taunted, spinning the sword elaborately. "All muscle. Between the ears."
Harry was upright, circling behind the desk in a fighting crouch. Stephen dropped the blade and snap-drew both guns, ready to fire.
Harry up-ended the table and threw it at Stephen.
Stephen dropped both guns and threw up his forearms to cover his face.
Peter was there in the same moment, smashing through the flying desk, heading straight for Harry.
Half of the table still hit Stephen, knocking him down hard.
Harry caught Peter mid-leap and sent him flying into the wall, almost bent double under himself.
Harry smirked, sensing the advantage. "How'd you like that, Spidey?"
Peter got up and the two of them were circling each other coldly, looking for the opening. "That all you got?"
Harry circled till his back was to the fireplace, reaching for the knife on the floor. Stephen was suddenly there with the martini shaker, and he broke it open over Harry's face, sending the clear and flammable liquid into his hair and clothes.
Harry spun to swing on him, and Stephen used it to lever Harry into a throw that tossed Harry into the seven-foot high fireplace.
Harry roared as he emerged from the flame, clothes and hair lit up like a walking funeral pyre, as Harry threw himself at Peter, ignoring Stephen completely.
Peter took his cue from Stephen's last move, hurling Harry through the wrought iron and double glass balcony doors, shattering the whole thing as Harry suddenly rolled head over heels onto the balcony.
Harry patted out the flames as they ate into his clothes and hair and forced himself to stand.
The flames growing higher and menacing behind them, Peter and Stephen closed in for the kill.
"I protected you in high school, now I'm gonna kick your ass," Harry snarled, still on the ground.
"Ooh," Peter shuddered, feigning fear.
Harry lunged through the shattered door, and Peter slung him against the other one, hard enough to bend the metal. Peter got in close and jabbed, Harry dodging his head left and right as glass shattered under Peter's fists.
Peter gave up trying to punch and caught Harry by the shoulders, throwing him clear over the staircase, to the upper level.
Harry could barely gather himself when a wicked laugh rang out and Harry felt something heavy smash into his face, making him flip double as he landed back on the lower level where Peter was waiting.
Harry crouched, staying on hands and feet, lips drawn back over bloodied teeth in an snarl, gathering himself like the feral animal he was.
Spider and Goblin threw each other forward in the same moment, their momentum bouncing off each other and taken them both through the full length mirror, into the hidden room full of Goblin equipment.
Harry was on the floor against the broken glass, with Peter on top of him. He gathered both feet under Peter's gut and shoved him forcefully away, sending him back out into the room.
Stephen was coming in at the same instant, and jumped clear over Peter's flying body, eager to take up the fight, sword flashing.
Harry dove left quickly to avoid the sword and ran across the room, past the glider, past the various armors, past the rows of grenades, to the weapons stand, snatching up the other sword.
Green fire and metal flashed viciously through the air, making the stuffy air sing with steel death. When the swords connected, they lit up the dark spaces with sparks and harsh metallic screams.
Harry swung with savage intensity. Stephen matched him with a dancer's grace, the sword braced along his forearm, letting Harry's slashes and thrusts glance off the edge of his blade, looking for his opening.
One slash came down on the computer next to the gas chamber, and suddenly the Goblin Sky-Stick came alive; its jets going all at once in every direction, out of control spinning like a jet powered boomerang.
The opening came, and Stephen lunged, managing to open up a gash in Harry's stomach, and another across his face, jaw to ear, nearly taking Harry's right eye out and half his ear clean off.
Harry howled and both men ducked as the glider swirled over their heads.
Unable to maneuver, Stephen knew he was finished. The hot spike would go clean through him. This would be a good death. He watched the blade come toward his eyes…
…and suddenly stop.
Peter was suddenly right there, in a crouch with both of them, holding the blade in his fist, grinning maniacally, not at all in pain at the edge in his fingers.
For a beat, Harry just stared at him in disbelief.
Peter planted his other hand on the floor and used it to hold him in place as he swung up with both feet, kicking Harry's jaw a whole two feet higher…high enough that the passing edge of the Glider caught him in a jet-powered chop that sent him flying against the floor-to-ceiling glass case, filled with row after row of pumpkin bombs.
Peter caught the Glider as it spun past, and slammed it hard into Harry's throat.
Harry was against the floor, gasping for air.
Peter and Stephen stood before him, victorious.
Harry felt his heart sink. "You're going to kill me like-"
"-like you killed my father," Peter and Stephen, fed up, said it with him in perfect unison, having heard the song before.
"I'm through trying to convince you," Peter snarled. "Look what room we're in. You made your choice."
"He loved me," Harry croaked. "He loved me and you took him from me."
"Loved you?" Stephen responded derisively. "Where were you when Goblin made his first public attack? Right there on the balcony. Counted among his obstacles to be removed."
"He despised you," Peter agreed. "You were an embarrassment to him."
It was something Harry had long suspected, long denied, but knew in his bones.
Peter could see the thought play out on Harry's features and laughed.
"Look at little Goblin Jr.," Peter laughed to Stephen. He turned back to Harry. "Gonna cry?" he mocked.
Harry moved forward, attacking with nothing but anger making him reach for it. It was a punch that held nothing back.
Every ounce of massive proportionate Spider-Strength hurled itself into Harry's face. It was a blow that Stephen could feel rattling in his molars.
Stephen waved the dust away and checked Harry's pulse. "Still breathing."
Silence from Peter.
"I gave you the reins on this one, Pete," Stephen reminded him, taking a step back.
Harry moved, barely.
Peter marched over, and put a foot on Harry's throat. "Like it down there?"
Harry was trying to breathe.
"It's over. You lost," Peter said, teasing his former friend with stronger and weaker pressure on his neck. "This is your very last chance. With luck you can just be forgotten."
Harry started growling darkly. He had lost the fight. Again.
Peter was already walking out. "Y'know, I'm a little disappointed. Your father put up a much better fight."
Harry chocked inarticulately with rage, and picked up a grenade from the floor, hurled it past Stephen, directly at Peter…
…who dodged to the left without even trying.
Peter gave it a curious look as it came past him and caught it in a web, hurling it back the way it came. All of it seemed to Stephen as though he was mildly interested enough to see what would happen.
Harry couldn't follow the movement, but saw the supernova go off beside his head out of the corner of his eye.
He saw nothing else.
Peter walked out, like Harry didn't matter to him at all any more. And he didn't.
Stephen followed, rubbing his jaw. "Why'd you let him live?"
"What's the challenge of killing him? He's less than unimportant now." Peter pointed out. "Like you said once, people kill too often because it was made too easy. This was too easy."
The two men stood outside Osborn Manor for a few moments, neither saying a word.
After a while, Peter noticed Stephen staring at him. "What?" he asked finally.
"Nothing just…Marko, now Harry…finally getting your hands dirty." Stephen found himself appraising Peter with new respect. "Welcome to the Dark Side."
"If I only knew the power…," Peter quoted playfully under his breath. Respect. Stephen respected nobody, feared nobody.
He fears you now.
Yes. Peter thought deliciously. He does.
Peter found himself glorying in it. Basking in it.
It was like Stephen. Stephen was always thinking like The Shadow, whether he had the cloak on or not. For the first time, Peter Parker was feeling like Spider-Man.
He was Spider-Man redux, Spider-Man unleashed. He felt his movements adapting. His stride was longer, his arms a moving a little faster, his eyes looking up instead of looking away. Everybody glanced at him as he walked, everybody stepped aside. They knew he was powerful. They knew without knowing, that he was a force to be reckoned with. "Dude," he found himself asking Stephen. "This is awesome. Is this how you feel all the time?"
"Pretty much," His cell phone beeped. "And then, of course, my phone starts ringing." Stephen checked it and raised it to his ear.
Peter suddenly froze.
In front of them was a newsstand. On it was the latest edition of The Daily Bugle. And the Bugle had a picture of the black Spider suit. Spider-Man was in his usual 'take-off' pose, but in one outstretched hand was three bags of money.
Stephen wasn't looking as he chatted on his cell-phone. "Chloe?"
"The Mayor's office on line one. His Honor is madder than all hell that you backed him into supporting the Thief of the day."
For the first time Stephen noticed the photo on the newsstand. One look at it told him all he needed to know about it. "Tell me you don't believe that photo on the Bugle's front page."
"Well….no, but it looks real enough, boss. These days, what in print or picture can you trust?"
"What indeed?" Stephen asked rhetorically, when he suddenly noticed Peter staring at the newsstand. "Put the Mayor off for a while. The market upheaval coming with Stark Industries takes precedence."
"Right, I'll hold them off for you."
Stephen came over to Peter quickly. "Oh, good grief. What's Jonah on about this time?" he asked as they read "Spider-Man! THIEF!" on the Bugle's headline.
Peter stared blankly at it. And then looked closer at the credit. "Photo by Eddie Brock," Peter noted aloud, then he seemed to pull himself up even straighter. "I'm going to reach down his throat and take out his lungs with an ice-cream scoop."
Stephen smirked. "You've been hanging around me too long."
"Stephen, I need to use the photo lab in the Sanctum."
"Take it," Stephen said. "Forensic algorithms are on the backup discs in the second drawer. Empire State has a pretty good photo lab if you want to get an objective result. Failing that, my ice-cream scoop is in the top drawer next to the sink at the Manor."
"Took me six years, but you finally cracked a joke," Peter commented, already moving.
"And try not to kill him," Stephen called after him. "Cover-ups are annoying. Killing one annoyance is a day's business. Killing two is just plain careless. Too many stories to keep straight."
"No promises," Peter called back over his shoulder.
Stephen turned to the curb, and noticed the news vendor staring at him, having overheard the whole conversation. "What are you looking at?"
The Bugle was holding an impromptu gathering for their new staff photographer and his scoop. Jameson had funded most of it personally, overjoyed that Brock had brought him the proof he had long demanded.
Robbie Robertson and Betty Brant were absent from the gathering, not really liking the fact that Brock was getting kudos for labeling Spider-Man a crook.
Brock ate it up. He was freely pouring out the champagne to the ladies, and even then, only the ones that hadn't met him yet fawned over how great it was for his career.
"I just got lucky," Brock said modestly. "Right place, right time."
The onlookers nodded sagely at his modesty.
Brock suddenly grinned. "Still, you might want to tell JJ to make a little more wall space," To make the point, he turned, picked up the framed edition of the front page, black Spider-Man on it mid-theft, and hung it up on the wall.
Suddenly the small party went silent. Brock looked in the frame's glass and saw Peter Parker standing there, with an unsettling grin on his face. The entire room had parted for him, suddenly dimming their voices in deference to an unconscious fear than nobody recognized or understood.
"Oh, good morning," Brock said to him brightly. "It is a beautiful day, isn't it?"
"It is," Peter said cheerfully, ever so happy for him. "I am impressed, Brock. I never thought that you'd do it."
"Yeah. No hard feelings?"
"Why would there be hard feelings?" Peter laughed. "I don't work here any more."
"I don't even know why I said that!" Brock agreed, laughing it off. "I know you have faith in the guy, but it's a fact."
Peter nodded, seemingly saddened with himself. "Yeah. Y'know, I've spent so long at the Classic making him out to be a hero. Just got the key to the city and everything…I never thought he'd do something like that."
Brock nodded, happy to share his brilliance with Peter. "There was your mistake. You just assumed he was the good guy. There are no heroes nowadays."
"Guess not," Peter said, penitent in the face of superior wisdom. "Ah, the world will always need them though."
"I guess, but the camera never lies," Brock said.
"No, only photographers do," Peter said darkly, suddenly vicious.
The air changed. Suddenly they were having a whole other conversation. One where Brock suddenly felt endangered. "I don't know what you mean."
Peter was opening and closing a fist. His face suddenly seemed more angular…had he always had that shark-like look? "Well, you see, Brock, I was looking through some of my own old photos."
Brock felt his heart give a heavy thump, then stop, then start again triple-time.
"And it was seeming awfully…familiar," Peter finished, knowing he'd won.
Brock shivered. Can shark-men smell fear?
Peter shook his head, no longer enjoying himself. "You're trash, Brock. You're worse than JJ. He makes up headlines based on actual facts. You make up headlines based on actual lies. You're worse than tabloids, you're worse than JJ, you disgust me."
Brock swiveled on him. "Listen, you-"
"Your photo's a fake," Peter barked.
Brock quickly turned his head back and forth, checking to see if there was anyone within earshot. Peter had spoken just loudly enough to shut him up, just quiet enough to keep others from hearing.
Brock licked his lips. There had to be a way. What did Parker want? Money? Recognition? He was working part time, taking classes, and Brock had nabbed the job that JJ had forever denied Parker…could that be it?
"Parker," he said evenly. "You're such a boy scout. Everybody fudges. Writers lean one way or the other, scientists focus on the facts they need, lawyers twist words, photographers work angles, borders…when you airbrush a photo or digitally age or insert a person, isn't it all a matter of degrees?"
Parker just stared at him.
"So what if JJ uses this photo? You go back to the Classic, run the same shot, write the opposite headline, and make it look like he was delivering the money to the bank. Spider-Man won't care. And even if he did, what could he do? Give a guy a break."
"What could he do?" Peter echoed, and proceeded to give Brock a break immediately. The shove that pout him against the wall and shattered the glass in the framed headline probably broke a shoulder blade.
The sound of shattering glass made heads turn.
Brock groaned. "O.K., you've made your point," he gritted out. "What do you want? A cut? A credit for the photo? A tip when the next headline's coming? Marsh would love to know what JJ was gonna have, I can make it happen. What's your price?"
"I don't have one," Peter said. "Scary, isn't it?"
Betty and Robbie came running out of their respective posts to see the two of them nose to nose and looking for all the world like they were about to start a punch-up. "What's going on?" Robbie demanded from across the room.
"Peter?" Betty asked in concern. "Is everything O.K.?"
Outwardly, Brock started smiling, laughing it off. "Everything's fine, just kidding around." Inwardly, Brock started searching for the new angle. He had pegged Parker wrong. He could always tell the wimps. The ones that would complain, and moan about the unfairness of it all, and then quietly shuffle back into their holes. Peter had seemed the type. How had he read that so wrong? Brock lowered his voice. "Look, I am begging you. If you do this, I will lose everything. There's not a paper in town that'll hire me. So what do you want from me? An apology? What?"
"You want forgiveness?" Peter said back in an equally low voice. "Get religion."
And finally the answer came to Brock. Peter did want something. He wanted to humiliate Brock. He wanted to punish the stolen photograph, and do it dramatically for all to see. He wanted to take everything from Brock. Parker had all the cards, and decided to play them all, destroying Brock completely over a charge that would never stick for a slight that wasn't even personal.
Peter picked up the envelope with the photo evidence and calmly walked away, heading straight past Betty and Robbie, who had to throw themselves out of his way.
"Show this to your editor," Peter said shortly. "Tell him to check his sources next time."
Betty Brant was staring at Peter in open disbelief. Who was the man and what had he done with the dorky kid who hung the camera around his neck every day?
And then she looked at the photo that Robbie pulled out…a picture of Spider-Man, with several circles drawn along the edges of his costume, and recognized his pose from the morning Bugle Front Page.
Brock stared after Peter too, and saw triumph and glee on Betty's face. She was glad to see him destroyed. Robbie went into JJ's office.
"Miss Brant," JJ's eerily calm voice came over the intercom, painfully audible in the unnatural quiet. "Would you get Empire State Photographic Lab on the phone for me please?"
Brock still hadn't moved from the wall where Peter had shoved him, but even he knew. The only thing worse than Jameson when he was loud, was when he was quiet and calm.
And he even said 'please'.
The muted murmuring lapsed into dead silence, every eye boring into Brock, who couldn't move.
The silence reigned for almost three minutes after Betty placed the call.
"Oh, Eddie?" Betty said happily. "Is there any champagne left?"
Dead silence from the room, everyone staring at Brock, knowing full well he was done.
Three minutes and five seconds passed before the one voice Brock dreaded hearing rattled the walls, shattering the deathly quiet.
"BROCK!" Bellowed J. Jonah Jameson, at full boil, his legendary temper back with the force of a hurricane. "GET! IN! HERE!"
Peter could hear everyone in the newsroom jump, even from street level, and grinned savagely. Two enemies down, one to go.
And Stephen simply wasn't strong enough to back him up on this one.
The Sandman couldn't beat him, but Peter had little interest in killing the same man over and over. Even if it was Uncle Ben's killer. This one had to be made dead completely and permanently, and now.
And Stephen's powers were a joke.
"It's a fake, Jonah," Robbie said unnecessarily. "Empire State confirms it."
Jonah compared the latest front page to the archival photo bearing Parker's name. Except for the background and the color of the suit, they were identical.
"Pack your things," Jonah said icily. "Get out of my building."
If looks could kill, Eddie Brock would have been reduced to a smoking spot on the floor. "I was just trying to give you what you wanted…"
"YOU'RE FIRED!" JJ thundered. "GET OUT BEFORE I HAVE YOU THROWN IN JAIL TOO!"
One did not question the orders of The Shadow, though rarely did they come directly from him.
So when the small night shift staff at the private airstrip outside New York received a visitor with a girasol ring, demanding to be flown to Slide Mountain at midnight, they did not hesitate to find a pilot and fuel the jet.
Such unexpected trips were not uncommon. But usually it was Stephen Cranston and not Peter Parker heading up the mountain.
The doors to the Temple of the Cobras were at least fourteen feet tall. Inside, they were opened by a series of pulleys, meant to take the weight. Without that, it would take any five men to open the entrance.
Peter had climbed a mountainside barehanded. He was thousands of feet high. The air was thin enough to give experience mountain climbers grief.
He didn't even blink before pushing the door open.
The Temple initiates quickly scurried into the hallway. The daily routine apparently started at daybreak here. "Halt!"
Peter could feel the mental force behind the command and shook it off. "Take me to your leader."
The Temple guards were stunned that he had pushed past them so fast, and started scrambling to keep up.
Just steps later, Peter shoved the doors to the Central Room open, stalking slowly toward the boy at the altar, incense weaving in gentle trails around him.
"Hello, Peter," The Marpa Tulku greeted him. "I'm surprised to see you here."
"I need you to help me kill someone," Peter said by way of greeting.
Temple students were gathered at the edges of the door, peeking into the room at the two of them in shock.
The Marpa Tulku looked at his visitor for a moment, unsure of what to think for the first time in dozens of years, then looked past him to his students. "You are dismissed," he said to them, then turned to Peter. "Let us take this discussion somewhere more private."
Peter gave a grumble as The Tulku led the way to his chamber.
"Sandman is too much for Stephen's mental abilities. To make sure he never comes back, I need to give him a much harder hit," Peter made his case.
"Does Stephen think I am required personally?" The Marpa Tulku asked, concerned at the unusual nature of this request.
"I don't really care what Stephen thinks. This is my hunt. I'm running it, and I'm making the decisions regarding this particular mission. You're part of that plan. Get your things."
Now The Tulku was really confused. He took a moment to search the young man's mind, getting the distinct impression that something was definitely wrong even in the little bit he'd seen without pushing deeper. "Tell me Peter, does Stephen even know you're here?"
"You aren't listening," Peter growled. "Laughing boy can't handle this. I can handle the physical stuff. You can handle the rest."
"I will not join you in this," The Tulku said, realizing now something very seriously was wrong with this whole situation. Stephen clearly did not know what was going on, and he definitely did not send Peter up here. And the Peter Parker he had met several times would never dare take this tone with him. "I have my own responsibilities here, and I cannot leave my students just to assassinate someone that has hurt you."
Peter got right up in his face. "YOU'RE GONNA DO THIS LITTLE BOY, OR I'M GOING…"
"…to do what?" The Tulku challenged pointedly.
Peter took a breath. "Fine. If I have to go it alone I will. I've done it before."
"Peter, you know I will always help you and your partner…"
Peter spun on the boy violently. "WE DON'T NEED HIM! AND WE DON'T NEED YOU!"
The Tulku's eyes widened. "We?"
End of Part Twelve
AN: What? You didn't think Stephen and MJ were actually a couple did you?
But don't worry, we aren't by any stretch done yet.
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