Sitting quietly and attentively, a room full of intelligent, driven young people listened to their instructor lecture about history. The best students in the city were invited to study at Midtown Science and if you wanted to stay, you studied hard and made good grades. The morass and monotony of a regular public school education, with its athletic programs and unqualified instructors waited for the bright student who wasn’t interested in taking advantage of their opportunities.
Midtown Science didn’t just attract the best students, the best teachers found their way here too. Professor Price, an older woman with silver and grey hair and no-nonsense rectangular glasses riding low on her nose, could tell that not all of her students were on their game today. A skinny kid near the back, Peter Parker, gave every outward appearance that he was listening and taking notes, but his mind was miles away and the words on his notepaper had nothing to do with world history. It wasn’t a certainty she could explain if someone called her on it. If she explained that she was a minor mutant, a perfect detector of lies, she would lose this fancy job, PhD or not. So Professor Price handled the issue another way. “Now, we’ve talked about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and how World War I started. We’ve discussed the major allies of that war and the final outcome. Can anyone tell me how World War II started?”
Hands shot up around the room and she selected two students one after the other. Each gave, good serviceable answers about the invasion of Poland, but Professor Price wanted a bigger picture answer and these students were bright enough to get there if they thought about it. First though, it was time to get everyone plugged back in to the lecture. “Mr. Parker, do you have any thoughts on what started World War II?”
Parker gave no sign that he’d been addressed, his fake-attentive gaze still turned toward her and the white board. One of his little friends kicked his desk and Peter abruptly became aware of the attention he was drawing. “Mr. Parker, glad you’re still with us. Do you have any thoughts about what started World War II? Mr. Thomson and Ms. Jones have already discussed the invasion of Poland thoroughly and it was most definitely the first site of aggressions.”
“I...” Peter looked down at his paper, as though he might find the answer in his off-topic scribblings. “Actually, the Treaty of Versailles, yeah, it started there.”
“Seriously, Parker, have you been paying attention at all?” Flash snorted, “The Treaty of Versailles ended World War I. It didn’t start World War II.”
“Mr. Thomson, please raise your hand if you want to speak. Let Peter make his point,” Professor Price commanded. “Peter, finish your thought.”
Peter took a moment to compose his thoughts, encouraged by Professor Price’s expression. “To the victors go the spoils and the Allied powers were so set on punishing Germany and its allies that they made the peace treaty unnecessarily harsh. It guaranteed that eventually, the punished nations would reject the peace and try to fight back. There were literally starving children. So, maybe they let a really dangerous, malevolent leader take power. The Nazi party didn’t come to power on a platform of genocide and racism and war. They came to power by promising to feed the people and recover their economy. When the German people were asked to choose between Nazis and starving children, they chose Nazis. The first domino was the treaty--no starving children, no Nazis.”
Flash’s hand went into the air. “That’s not true. If the treaty hadn’t been firm, World War II would have just happened sooner. The Treaty of Versailles made it easier to win World War II in the end.”
“Interesting, I wonder if either of you can find sources in the existing literature to support your theories?” Professor Price turned to the board and started writing in big red block letters: What political, social, and military factors led to the start of World War II? “I know this is a science school and you all came for the advanced chemistry lectures and the interesting calculus. If you are worried about your grade in this class, this will be the only optional assignment this semester. Write a five thousand word theme paper with adequate literature support and citations. It will replace one test score if you complete it.”
The bell rang and Professor Price pointed to Peter. “Stick around, Peter.” His classmates exited in a flood, anxious to get out of the building and to their busses and trains.
“Professor, I apologize for not paying attention there. I read the assignment." Peter patted the thick history book.
“I know you did. Everyone in class read the assignment. I’d wager a good portion of the class has already read the entire book. In class we’re learning how to think about the information presented in the book. The book is written from one flawed human’s point of view. If we pull it apart from multiple points of view in discussion, we get closer to the truth with every new point of view. You have a good head for looking beyond the simple surface of things. I intend to keep making you share in class.”
“Thanks, I think. I’ll try not to space out in the future.” Peter met her eyes for a beat before shrugging his backpack higher on his shoulders and leaving.
Not for the first time, Professor Price wished her mutation was a little more useful and specific. She had known that Peter was only pretending to listen to the lecture. Talking to him one on one, she knew he was shrouded in thick complicated layers of lies, but she didn’t know what they were or the truth they disguised. She had sensed similar veils on children of abuse or addiction, children who never moved or spoke without considering their secrets. Over the years she had sniffed out girls hiding unwanted pregnancies and boys planning to run away from abusive homes. She had helped a lot of kids.
Far too many of the children she found cocooned in lies never came clear to her, and sometimes bad things happened to those children. Peter would bear watching. Hopefully his secrets were of the more benign flavor. Maybe he was struggling with his sexuality or having relationship problems? Maybe he was hiding a pet or helping a friend with a crisis?
She never once considered that Peter might be a masked vigilante struggling through a serious setback in the form of his Aunt May and her overprotective, angry anxiety. In Professor Price’s defense, there weren’t many children like Peter in the world, much less her history classes.
Peter plugged a set of ear buds in, turned on his music and hit the pavement walking home. It was a long enough walk that he usually took the bus or just webbed his way there, but Professor Price caused him to miss the bus and he wasn’t allowed to web anywhere at the moment. His most excellent suit and his web shooters were locked in May’s closet. He was grounded, very literally for the next month. No crime fighting, no training, no suit. If he so much as said the word spider in her presence, May had promised to add another month.
Considering her original position had been that he was giving up the vigilante gig forever, he was just glad that Mr. Stark had talked her down to a grounding and a set of rather restrictive ground rules that they were still hammering out. Peter wished that he’d been there for that conversation, heard what Mr. Stark said that had gotten through to her. She hadn’t much wanted to hear anything Peter had to say in his own defense.
The disconcerting tingle of his spider sense crept up on him, a subtle warning that swelled abruptly into a siren that made the hair on the back of his arms and neck stand straight up. Peter yanked the ear buds out of his ears and stepped into the nearest alley scanning the area for the overwhelming danger he was sensing, but the people were just walking along oblivious. Peter pulled out his cell phone which he was only allowed to use to call May or 911 at the moment, but he couldn’t find anything to call either one of them about. He had never actually tried to explain his spider sense to anyone. Usually it was pretty obvious why he’d gone jumpy, bullets or knives or alien ray guns.
If May had installed the grounding software on his phone, Peter was certain he could just hack his way around it and open his phone back up, but Tony had conspired with May to make things more difficult. After a long moment, Peter dialed May. Of his limited options she knew about his abilities and might be convinced to call Happy for him if he could properly explain why she should. The phone rang through to voicemail and Peter sighed. She was at work. Of course she couldn’t answer the phone. “May, hi, um I’m not breaking grounding, but I may have found something bad happening. It’s hard to explain but something is wrong on Benham Street. It doesn’t appear to be visible, but it’s there. I sound like a crazy person, but if you could maybe pass the word along to Happy for me. He’ll tell Mr. Stark and they will probably be able to figure out what it is. I’m going to go home now. See you tonight.”
It went against his instincts to walk away. More than anything he wanted to climb the wall, get a good vantage point and wait for something to happen, but he promised May and Mr. Stark that he would follow the rules unless a life was at risk. Almost a block away, the sensation of impending attack vanished, Peter stumbled forward a step the tension release was so startling. He took a few measured steps back, annoying some fellow pedestrians and found the exact spot where the impending danger registered. Peter found a felt tipped pen in his bag and strode straight over to the nearest building. He made a small mark on the mortar between the bricks. He hurried back until he found the border in the other direction and marked another wall. He wished he could try to find a vertical limit, explore in other directions, but he stopped himself from continuing the investigation. Finding the border on his walk home was one thing. Investigating the anomaly more thoroughly would be breaking his grounding.
Peter sighed, shoved his hands in his pockets and headed home. Maybe his odd, precognition of danger thingie had gone screwy and there wasn’t anything to worry about?
When people thought of hospital work, they thought of doctors and nurses, maybe radiology technicians or orderlies. People didn’t think about certified nursing assistants. CNAs were poorly paid, and expected to do everything from changing bedpans to rolling three hundred pound patients. May didn’t take the job at Queens Hospital Center because changing bedpans was her calling. The CNA course was a quick certification and almost guaranteed her a job. After Ben died, she had to find a steady job that paid well enough to meet the rent and keep her nephew in clothes and food and Legos.
Peter was worth it, a thousand times over he was worth it.
When she came home early, after a hard day of urine and sweat and sickness and found her precious nephew in that damn fancy Spiderman suit her heart had broken. How dare he risk his life so cavalierly? How dare he roam the streets as a vigilante, lying to her every day about where he was and what he was doing? She had barely heard his explanations about a mysterious genetically altered spider bite or Tony Stark’s mentorship. She was too angry, too scared. God, he had fought super humans in Germany. He fought dangerous men with alien technology. She had watched the grainy YouTube videos like everyone else in Queens. How many times had he faced down criminals with guns and knives?
“Bag the suit up, all of it. Bring it to me. You are officially retired Spider-Kid, understand?” She held her hand up when Peter tried to speak. “Do not say anything. Bag it up.”
When Peter returned with a rumpled brown paper bag, May took quick inventory. It had the fancy suit and a small pile of aluminum canisters. “I want the old suit too. The sweats.”
“They got trashed. I threw them out,” Peter mumbled.
“Are you lying?” May almost regretted asking him that when he looked up at her, hurt apparent in his eyes. “You broke trust with me, Peter. I get to ask you if you’re lying now and I get to wonder if you’re telling me the truth whenever you say anything to me.”
“Not lying. You can search my room,” Peter said, his voice catching. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
“No, you didn’t want me to stop this,” May countered. “You’re grounded. Do not leave this apartment unless it’s on fire. Do not call anyone. Give me your phone. If you have an emergency and need to call me, go next door and ask Ms. Mercer to use her phone. I’m returning this to the asshole who built it.”
“May, please no. Mr. Stark, it isn’t his fault. I came up with Spider-man. The suit keeps me safer. He put all kinds of safety measures in the suit.” Peter clasped his hands together, literally begging. “Please don’t do this.”
“He was the adult and he should have told your guardian what was happening. He didn’t tell me because he knew it was wrong. Peter, look at me. Teenagers make mistakes all the time. You never were typical. You didn’t try drugs or join a gang, but this is equally self-destructive. A vigilante is a criminal who thinks he’s morally right. They go to jail too when they get caught. Not allowing you to completely destroy your future before you finish high school is my job.”
Of course, Tony Stark wasn’t at his tower to receive the venting of her anger. She had to leave a message with a secretary. Part of her was impressed that she didn’t quite make it home before she got a visit from the Iron Man himself. Sitting on a bus, crumpled paper sack filled with super hero gear beside her, she saw the man fly past. He landed at the next bus stop and stepped neatly out of his flashy red and gold armor. It folded down into a compact briefcase like some kind of magic trick. He smiled his smarmy grin and boarded the bus. May didn’t protest when he sat beside her.
“So, Peter’s secret is out,” Tony said.
A homeless woman, the only other rider on the bus seemed to be lost in her own world, so May answered with some impunity. “I’m returning this to you. Peter won’t be needing any of it anymore.” She thrust the crumpled bag at him. “If you come anywhere near my family again, I will find a way to make you regret it.”
“Okay, you’re the boss, you’re the guardian.” Tony peeked in the sack then paused and smiled at her, a tentative expression that looked out of place on the billionaire’s face. “You’re making a mistake. If you take it away, he won’t stop and you won’t have any way to control the situation or help him. I tried taking it away. He almost got himself killed fighting an arms dealer in his sweats.”
“If you think I’m going to allow this to continue,” May hissed.
“He told me the day I was trying to recruit his assistance in Germany why he does this. When people who can do what we can do, don’t at least try to help, then when bad things happen it’s our fault. He isn’t going to stop trying to help because you take away his suit or because you’re angry with him. He loves you though and together we have a golden opportunity to make him so much safer right now.”
It sounded like her Ben, looking at the world like it was simple black and white. If you have the power to help in any situation, you ought to try. “I hate you, Stark.”
“I think there’s a club for that.” Tony offered her the sack back. “It was a gift. I don’t want it back. You should keep custody of it until you’re ready to give it back to him.”
“Fine. How are we supposed to keep him safe?” May asked.
“Well, I would wager that he is very nearly distraught with how things went between the two of you and he’d do just about anything to appease you, even agree to some restrictions on what he does and when he engages bad guys. It won’t ever be perfectly safe for him, swinging off buildings and fighting criminals, but he’s a good kid and he’s way tougher than he looks.”
“You don’t get to say that like you know how tough that kid is. You barely know him. He was tough before some mutant spider bit him and he became worthy of your notice.” May accepted a business card from Tony with some scribbled instructions about the best way to contact him.
“When you’re ready to talk about setting some reasonable restrictions and guidelines, call.” He got off at the next stop with a polite wave to May that she met with a glare.
The next two weeks passed with a very polite, cowed Peter, trying hard not to do or say anything that might upset her. On one hand she wanted to hug him and ply him with junk food and tell him everything was forgiven, but he needed to feel the consequences of his decisions and deceptions. She couldn’t just cave and let him think it was okay. Tony was right that Peter’s guilt and desire to make things right between them was a form of leverage and until they had settled his future Spider-Man restrictions, she couldn’t let the cold war end.
“Peter, remember you’re grounded. Straight to school, straight home. No phone. No messenger. No internet. No Ned cannot come over. Tony will know if you break grounding and he will tell me.” May dropped her purse over her neck cross-body and half-smiled. “I’ll see you tonight around seven.”
Peter nodded. “See you.”
She could see that it hurt him every time she repeated his grounding terms and reminded him that he was being monitored to make sure he didn’t go rogue.
At the hospital, May disappeared into her job. In her standard scrubs, working a smelly, difficult, menial job, she felt transparent, a ghost of herself. She got directions from the charge nurses or occasionally from doctors and she never stopped moving. When her afternoon break rolled around, she checked her phone and found a voicemail from Peter. She listened to the message twice before calling Happy Hogan. She relayed Peter’s vague concern to the man’s voicemail then called to check on Peter. “Hey kiddo, thanks for sticking to the plan and letting Stark handle whatever you found today. You want to explain how this invisible thing caught your attention?”
She listened as Peter explained his spider generated early warning system. “And has it ever given you a false alarm before? Should I do anything besides leave a message for that Happy fellow? Thank you Peter, for respecting your grounding. We rebuild trust one day at a time, right? You know I love you. Yeah, I’ll see you in a few hours.”
May took out a small notepad and reviewed the list she had compiled so far.
Spider-man dos and don’ts:
-Do not engage criminals armed with guns or alien technology whenever possible
-Do make every effort to be home by curfew
-Do not perform Spiderman duties before all homework and extracurricular school activities have been completed
-Always give a complete accounting of your patrol to May when you make it home
She wished Peter would give her an excuse to extend his grounding forever, to keep him safe and sound, preferably bubble wrapped and at home. In two weeks, Peter would get his suit back and if she composed adequate rules, maybe he would be safe in it.