Spider-Man : The Darkest Hoursby Jim Butcher

   Chapter 14

"Let me get this straight," Mary Jane said as she sat down across the kitchen table from me. "You went to ask for Doctor Strange's help, and he gave you magic beans?"

"Well. He didn't give them to me. Wong did."

"Wong did."

"And they aren't beans. They're rocks."

"Magic rocks. And he told you they would help?"

"No," I said.

"Wong did?"

"No," I said. "Wong gave me lunch. And rocks. And this. But he didn't tell me anything." I slid her the piece of paper Wong had packed in the lunch bag while I munched on the sandwiches.

The ham was that expensive honey-baked kind that Aunt May can only afford once a year, for Christmas, and it was delicious. The bread was wheat bread, sure enough, but homemade and fresh, and Wong had made it with a splash of Italian dressing and had somehow found a fresh-grown tomato, not one of those Styrofoam imitation tomatoes my grocery store sells. It was good.

Maybe I should think about asking Wong for cooking lessons. If only he wasn't such a wise-acre.

"Alhambran agates," Mary Jane read. "Long used to detain the most savage nonmortal corporeal beings. Touched to the flesh of a willing or insensible entity, they resonate with a static pocket dimension from which there is no simple means of egress." She frowned. "Static pocket dimension?"

"A tiny reality where not much happens, and where time doesn't progress at the same rate as everywhere else," I said. "It's like a combination prison cell and deep freeze."

"But magic," she said.

"Well. There are some quantum theories that indicate that something like this could be possible, but..."

She reached for one of the stones. "So you just touch the Ancient with the magic rock and poof?"

I caught her wrist gently before she could touch it. "I'm not sure exactly what they will and won't do," I said. "But they're evidently powerful and dangerous. I think it's best not to take any chances."

She blinked and drew her hand back. "Oh."

"Here's the thing," I said. "They have to want to go. Or else they've got to be unconscious. Otherwise, the rock doesn't work."

"Oh," Mary Jane said. "Well. That's doable, right? I mean, you can just punch their lights out and stick a rock in their ear. Can't you?"

I grunted. "I blew up a building with Morlun in it. Gas explosion. His clothes got flash-burned and he walked out of it naked as a jaybird and without so much as a bruise. It barely mussed his hair. And I put him through brick walls, smashed him with a telephone pole to the noggin, threw him off the roof of a thirty-story building - nothing."

Mary Jane folded her arms. "So, the magic rocks aren't going to help after all?"

"Not unless I can devise a way to knock out the Ancients," I said through a mouthful of sandwich. "Or else talk them into doing it willingly."

"I see," she said quietly.

One of those tense silences fell.

"How did the test go?" I asked her.

"Hmmm?" She shook her head a little and gave me a false laugh. "Don't worry about it. It's not really important."

"Sure it is," I said quietly.

She frowned at the table for a minute. "I passed the written," she said.

"Uh-oh."

She rolled her eyes and waved her hands in frustration. "It's so stupid.

I got to the driving test and panicked. I couldn't remember anything I was supposed to remember. I mean, in the traffic and everything, and I was worried and it turned into one huge blur. I couldn't get my breath."

"Ah," I said. "What happened?"

"I just tried to figure out what to do by watching the professionals. I mean, I figured they knew what they were doing, right?"

"The professionals?" I asked.

She nodded. "Cabbies."

I choked. I couldn't help it. I bowed my head and tried to cough as if something had gone down the wrong way, to strangle my laughter before it could hurt her feelings. I looked up at her after a moment, with my face turning red from the effort of holding it in.

She sighed and shook her head with a small, rueful smile. "Go ahead."

I laughed.

"I just don't understand it," she said, when I recovered. "Locking up like that. It isn't as though it's particularly difficult."

"The driving test, you mean?" I said.

"Yes."

I thought about it. 'You say you were short of breath?"

"Yes."

"It sounds like a panic attack," I said. "They happen."

Mary Jane's mouth twisted in distaste. "Really? I used to make fun of the models who said they had them before a show. I never thought they might be real." She shook her head. "Maybe I should just check myself into a funny farm."

"Might be a little extreme this early in the game," I said. "I mean, we're talking about a reac-tion to psychological pressure - of which you have had plenty lately. You'd be crazy if you didn't have a twitch or two."

I didn't mention anything specific. No need to bring up the ugly details.

Her abduction and imprisonment following her apparent death. Our split.

Our happy reunion, but always with homicidal madmen, with or without costumes, prancing in and out of the wings. All the while, dashing around the world on planes, trains, and automobiles (admittedly, someone else did the driving) to appear in shows, to be photographed in exotic places, attending openings and soirees and all the other duties expected of a celebrity.

Mix in some pain, some trauma, some terror. Blend well. All of that would be more than enough to rattle anyone's cage.

"Then why do I feel like such a wimp?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said. "Sometimes I feel kinda wimpy myself. Look, MJ, this isn't a big deal. If we have to, I'll drive you down until you can pass the test."

She frowned and then shook her head. "No. I'll do it myself. I'll pass it Monday morning. If you can deal with immortal, unstoppable monsters, I can handle the DMV."

"Easy there, Superchick. If you're working up an archenemy, you don't want to start with the DMV Go with someone a little easier to deal with.

Doctor Doom, Magneto."

She smiled at me - more because I'd gone to the effort to make the joke than because it was funny. She glanced at the stones. "I'm not sure I like this Strange person," she said.

"The doc's okay," I said. "I get the feeling he's doing everything he can. He's got limits."

"I don't care about limits," Mary Jane said, her tone practical. "I care about you. He isn't doing well by you, and you're what matters to me."

I slipped my hand from her wrist, and twined her warm fingers in mine. "I think you might not be totally objective."

"Why would I want to be?" she asked. She leaned down and pressed a soft, warm kiss to my hand.

I pushed my food aside, and went around the table to kiss my wife. She returned the kiss with an ardent sigh, her arms sliding around my neck, holding on as tightly as she could.

She was afraid.

So was I.

So the kiss became our whole world. She became my whole world. I let her warmth, her desire, her love wash over me, and gave it back in kind.

Words would have been a waste of sensation. So I picked her up and carried her toward our bedroom, where the fear, for a while, couldn't touch us.

I hadn't really planned on falling asleep, but I'd pulled an all-nighter after a fairly strenuous round with the Rhino and a follow-up game of Dodge the Ancient, so once I had relaxed body and mind, it was apparently inevitable. I woke to the sound of voices speaking quietly in the living room.

I got out of bed and suited up, put some jeans and a sweatshirt over my colors, and walked into the living room.

"There's nothing going on," Felicia was saying. "Even you must have that one figured out by now."

"Believe me, sweetie," MJ said in a poisonously friendly voice, "I do not regard you as a threat."

I thought about maybe putting on the mask and going out the window.

Nothing I could possibly say or not say, do or not do, would let me avoid a fight. Although it didn't seem very heroic to go running and hiding like that. On the other hand, it didn't seem prudent to go rushing into the conversation, either. So I stayed put for the moment, listening.

"A threat? Now why would I be a threat to you?" Felicia asked. "Just because I can actually do something to help Peter - other than waving pom-poms and baking him cookies, that is."

If the barb scored on MJ, I couldn't tell it from her voice - which meant that it probably had. "Ah, yes, your job skills. I can't count how many times I've wished I knew how to steal cars or sneak around in an outfit from Strippers 'R' Us. It would be so helpful to Peter, in his day-to-day life, if only I could unzip my top a little farther down past my belly button."

Felicia let out a catty little laugh. "That's pretty bold, coming from the girlfriend of Lobsterman. Have I mentioned, by the way, how much I admired your acting in that fine film? I think the scene in the pink bikini was probably the most moving, though it must have been a cold day on the set. Did they get you an acting coach to tell you how to scream in terror, or did they just shove head shots of you on a bad hair day into your face?"

"It was traumatic," MJ said. "Thank goodness there was someone who wanted to share his life with me to help me recover. Does your husband comfort you after a hard day at work, Felicia?"

"If I ever find anyone I can put up with," Felicia said, "at least I'll make up my mind when I marry him, not bounce back and forth like an airy little Ping-Pong ball."

At which point, good sense departed, and I'd heard enough.

I pushed open the bedroom door, and said, in a

very quiet, very even voice, "Felicia. That's my wife."

Felicia pressed her lips together before she could say whatever hasty response had come to her mouth. She folded her arms and turned away from MJ and me, stalking stiff-spined to the window.

"MJ," I said in the same quiet voice. "That's my friend. And yours. You know that."

Mary Jane's face flickered with anger, but then she closed her eyes and shook her head once, and nodded to me. "I just..."

"We're all tense. This isn't the right way to handle it," I said quietly.

"You're both better people than that. I need you to call a cease-fire.

Please."

Felicia rolled her eyes at my reflection in the window. She was back in the Black Cat outfit again, though she'd slung a gauzy peasant skirt and a leather jacket, both dark blue, over it, and it would pass for a clubbing outfit to the casual eye. "Fine," she said. "MJ?"

"Yes," Mary Jane said in a measured tone. "There's no reason we can't be civil."

"Thank you," I said with exaggerated patience. Which was probably asking for trouble, but ye gods and little fishes, they were supposed to be adults.

"Are my leftovers in the fridge?" I asked my wife.

"Yes. Go ahead and eat," Mary Jane said.

I grunted and did, getting what remained of Wong's Shangri-la-level sandwiches out of the fridge. I took them to the table with a glass of milk and asked Felicia, "Did you get the prints?"

"Yes," Felicia said calmly.

"Do I want to know how?" I asked.

"Does it matter?"

I chewed on my sandwich. "It matters to me, I guess."

"Because I might have broken the law?"

"Yes."

"Ah," Felicia said. "You mean, the way the Rhino breaks the law. I mean, that's what you said made him a bad guy. How he broke the law all the time."

"What I said - "

"I mean, logically speaking, if you would have busted him for doing something illegal, I should expect you to treat me the same way. If I tell you that

I broke all kinds of laws getting the prints, are you going to take me in, Peter?"

Mary Jane said nothing, but her lips compressed and her eyes narrowed.

"No," I said. "Don't be ridiculous."

"Ah," Felicia said. "Well. You'll be pleased to know that I broke no laws whatsoever."

That surprised me a bit. I guess it showed on my face, because Felicia laughed. "All I had to do was contact Lamont. I told him what it was about and that I was working with you and he was happy to let me get a copy."

I blinked. "He was? Why?"

Felicia fluttered her eyelashes. "I asked him in person."

I snorted and shook my head. "You're shameless."

"Why, thank you," Felicia said. "I'm told you had some success this afternoon? MJ said something about magic rocks."

"That remains to be seen. I don't see how they're going to be of any help to us - at least not yet." I explained the rocks and showed her the page describing them. "Were you able to turn anything up from the prints?"

"Too soon," she said. "Oliver's good, but it will take several hours, at least, to start comparing them to all the databases."

I nodded. "All right," I said. "Meanwhile, we need more information. I think we should head out and tail these creeps around a little, find out what they're up to, where they're staying."

She nodded firmly. "Way ahead of you. I think we should - "

My spider sense began to stir, a slow tingling that rippled lightly over my spine and scalp.

Mary Jane sat up straight, her eyes widening as she saw my face. "Peter?"

"My spider tracer," I said quietly. "It's close."

"What should - "

"Shhhhh," I said, trying to focus on the sensation. There. The electronic signal the tracer emitted resonated off of whatever it was that made my spider sense work It was south of us, and coming closer, fast.

Just then, Felicia's jacket beeped. She reached in, grabbed her visors, and put them on for a moment. Then she let out a quiet curse. "My tracking paint," she said. "Closer than three hundred meters." She looked up with suddenly wide eyes. "Peter, we need to go now."

My spider sense quivered oddly, and I began to feel the first stirrings of the primal dread the Ancients caused in me.

"It's too late," I murmured. "They're here."

 

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