When I posted the first version of this story, people complained because I opted to do the majority of my Avengers' origin stories in one stretch, which took the focus off Michelle and the Sunnydale crew for too long. Since said Avengers actually are important to the overall plot of the story - and no, I'm not going to reveal a few dozen chapters' worth of plots just to justify my statement - I've decided to spread those scenes out over the course of the story. This way, you won't be scratching your head when the Avengers finally do appear but you won't be asked to concentrate on non-Michelle stuff for more than three thousand words or so at a time.
November 8, 2011
Stark Industries Private Airfield
Los Angeles, California
"Are you sure you can't find someone better for this?"
"Not really, no. There are exactly three people alive that I trust to wear my armor, and only two that I would trust my company with. Guess who the only person on both lists is?"
Scowling at the decidedly unwelcome answer, Virginia 'Pepper' Potts took the red and silver helmet that Tony Stark was holding out to her. "Fine. But as long as you have me putting together my own C&B plan for when I take over as CEO? Paul Otellini, Tim Cook, and John Rishton don't get stuffed into rocket-powered tin cans. There's going to be substantial hazard pay for my new side job as our… what, premiere test pilot? Corporate mascot?" Tony opened his mouth to complain and she pointed one red-armored finger at him. "If you'd just followed instructions, you wouldn't be in this mess. Consider the added expense to be a valuable reminder as to why it's not smart to piss off the government."
Her - former - employer's problems of his own making had started the day after the battle between Tony and Obadiah Stane in their respective suits of armor, a duel that had culminated with the destruction of the arc reactor at Stark Industries' headquarters and Obadiah's death. SHIELD had - quite generously, in Pepper's opinion - provided Tony with an airtight alibi for the previous night in an effort to nip speculation about his connection to 'Iron Man' in the bud: paperwork stating he'd been aboard his private yacht just off the shore of Avalon, along with the testimony of fifty guests who claimed they'd been there with him all night partying. The government was even prepared to handle the matter of Obadiah's death for them. After all, he liked to go on vacation and fly his own small plane to his destination and, in the words of Agent Coulson, 'small aircraft have such a poor safety record…'. And then Tony had gone and thrown it all back in their faces.
'The truth is… I am Iron Man.'
And now she was too.
Well, in a way.
The cue cards had been something so simple and yet so complex: a test administered by Agent Coulson on behalf of the higher ups at SHIELD to see if Tony Stark - the man whose picture was next to the word 'maverick' in the dictionary - could follow orders he didn't understand. They'd wanted him for their new superhuman team but hadn't been sure whether he could be trusted to operate without direct oversight. So they'd tested him. And Tony had failed his test. Miserably.
But the government was never without contingency plans - and contingency plans in case those contingency plans fell through - and SHIELD was no exception in that regard. With Tony having conclusively proven that they couldn't afford to leave him to his own devices, they'd quickly moved on to their Plan B: making him an offer they knew he couldn't refuse. If he was willing to relocate to relocate both his residence and primary laboratory from California to New York City and turn over control of the company to someone else, they were prepared to utilize sole source contracting to funnel billions into the same legal loophole as the previous administration and sign a large number of sole source contracts with Stark Industries, funneling billions into the company for projects ranging from non-lethal weaponry and armor for their conventional soldiers to something called a 'helicarrier'.
Tony had been… shockingly amenable to the idea. In hindsight, though, perhaps it shouldn't have been so shocking. After all, Tony had never been particularly enamored with the work that came with running a company, while he did enjoy experimenting and showing off. A less explicable shocker had been his choice of replacement: Pepper herself. Evidently he'd been hoping to convince her to take up the CEO position anyway so he could devote more time to 'certain projects' and SHIELD's offer had merely given him an excuse to accelerate things. After taking a few days to ponder what she wanted for the future of both her life and career, Pepper had hesitantly accepted… and then been stupid enough to make an off-hand joke about whether or not she should take up drinking, womanizing, and flying around in armor to project the proper image of a Stark Industries executive.
Because evidently while the drinking and womanizing were optional, the armor was not.
After sharing some choice words with Tony about what she thought of his idea and where he could stick it, Pepper had calmed enough to listen to the reasoning behind his request and unfortunately found it hard to disagree with him. All he wanted was someone who wasn't directly under the government's thumb in an Iron Man suit so they could react to any situations that might arise as their morals guided them to, instead of reacting as per the orders of a military superior. But understanding the logic behind the request didn't make her any happier about being the one he wanted in that position… although it did make it a lot harder to tell him no, she soon found out.
Pulling herself from her thoughts, Pepper gingerly lowered the helmet onto her head, doing her best to fight off the instinctive wave of claustrophobia that the small, dark helmet brought on. It would only be dark until… "Morning, Cass."
"Hiya, Pepper! One sec." A flash of white light chased away the darkness as the operating system for the Mark IV-R armor began loading. "POST completed; all hardware functional. Loading preferences from last session. Engaging heads up display. Insert a bunch of technical jargon I know you don't care about here, blah blah blah. What's up?"
Just like every time JOCASTA booted up, Pepper found herself wondering what had prompted Tony to create a second AI that was so different from JARVIS. She knew that the AI from his suit - and house and anything else electronic that Tony could cram a network interface into - was based on a butler who had served the Starks during his childhood; a way of immortalizing the man who had helped raise him when his father had been too busy to pay attention to him. But given that little tidbit of information… it made Pepper wonder who the giggly, flirty young woman behind JOCASTA might be. A former flame from his college days that he'd never truly gotten over? An employee at Stark Industries that she'd never met, but who had caught his attention at some point? One of the many starlets he used and discarded as the mood struck him? Or perhaps JOCASTA was nobody in particular, Pepper mused, but rather a composite of bits and pieces of assorted women from Tony's past?
Did it really matter? Tony's past - and present, now that Pepper had graduated from PA to CEO - wasn't her problem. Given his age, Tony should have been Tony's problem, but Pepper knew him far too well and so she'd worked with Agent Coulson to find just the right person to take over for her while Tony was in New York. She would have wished Barbara 'Call Me Bobbi' Morse luck, but had a feeling that they were a match made in heaven: Bobbi was a curvaceous young blonde who dotted her 'I's with hearts and Tony was… Tony. Speaking of Tony, though… Pepper gestured to the red and gold helmet he still held in his hands before turning to stare straight ahead once more. Might as well get this over with, she decided. The sooner she was done flying into things, the sooner the armor could be peeled off her and sent to be repaired while she did real work. "Same crap, different day. Flight training today. And by flight training, I mean me screaming at the top of my lungs again while Tony shouts instructions and you try to keep me from hitting things."
"Oh. So Tuesday, in other words."
"Yeah, pretty much. Let's do this by the book, though. Start by running a diagnostic on all control services, followed by my thrusters, and then finish off with the repulsors." Keeping her feet about a shoulder's width apart and her arms outstretched, Pepper waited as various pieces of the armor clicked and whined, testing each of the vital flaps that would keep her flight stable when she was cruising and allow her to pull off insanely complex maneuvers when she wasn't. Well, once she learned how to pull off insanely complex maneuvers with the suit. Or fly in a straight line. Then came a soft whine from her feet and each palm emitted a second, higher-pitched whine accompanied by more whirring. "Well, Cass? How do we look?"
"We look sleek, sexy, red and silver, and best of all… fully operational. And hey, JARVIS and the house bots finally got rid of the point zero two millisecond reaction time delay on one of the flaps on your right calf. Cool beans." The HUD continued to flick through diagnostic screens; Pepper recognized some of her weapons systems followed by something about communications. "We're good to go. Up up and away?"
Considering the suit couldn't tunnel through the earth and she had no desire to go rocketing along a few feet above the pavement weaving in and out of traffic… up sounded like a perfectly reasonable idea to her. "All right. Sooner I do this, sooner I can get back into a real suit." Getting a bit of a running start to put some distance between her and Tony, Pepper used a hard downward blast of the repulsors to launch her up into the air before engaging the main boot thrusters. "Here's to hoping we don't hit anything this time."
There was a soft chuckle and then Tony's voice filled her helmet as a red and gold streak raced past, causing Pepper to flinch and send herself into an uncontrolled roll. "Don't worry, Pepper, I found someone to underwrite insurance coverage for the suits. Both collision and comprehensive, just in case you have another close encounter with a seagull."
Spreading her arms wide, Pepper let JOCASTA take over and stabilize her flight before narrowing her eyes and jetting after her… boss? Former boss? Partner? One of these days, they'd need to sit down and clearly define where Tony now stood relative to her within Stark Industries. For now… "Just out of curiosity, Tony, how much did your suit's insurance cost? You know, with that whole 'took out an F-22' thing you have on your record?"
"Hey! That wasn't my fault. I was doing perfectly well until that one pilot threw me off his plane and into the other."
November 10, 2011
Spider-Clan Central - Women's Changing Area
New York, New York
"You know, I'm surprised Astrid hasn't realized whose fault it is that she's stuck with a horrible codename."
"Wait, what? Are you seriously trying to blame me for the fact that she's stuck as Chelicera? I can't even spell Chelicera!"
Letting out a soft hum, Jessica leaned forward to check her reflection in the changing room's mirror. Spirit gum was still a strange and fascinating thing to her, but tonight's application seemed more successful than her last try. As best she could tell, her mask was firmly attached to her face and… she ran her finger gently along the edges. Nope, no random sticky patches of skin poking out that her hair or assorted junk might end up stuck to. Not bad, considering her lack of experience with painting stuff onto her own face. "Yes. Think about it. She was Arachnia and happy with that name when our little group came together. Then you had a tantrum because you finally picked up a newspaper and realized the Daily Globe
was calling me Spider-Woman when you wanted to be Spider-Girl-"
Julia snorted as she leaned to her left, grabbing the bottle of spirit gum sitting on the counter in front of Jessica. "Yes, because I want to sound like the sidekick of a younger girl. Who got into the superhero business after me. Not."
"Is it my fault you're horrible at PR? I sat down for an interview and even let them take a few decent pictures of me to use as file photos. Got paid for it, even." Leaning forward, Jessica picked up her phone, swiping her thumb across the screen to unlock it. "Wanna compare that to how you handle the public? Ooh, let's watch that debut video of yours on YouTube. You know, where someone gave you an opening right out of the comics by shouting 'who are you?' and you just swung away without answering?"
Pausing in mid-swipe, Julia turned and pointed the brush in her hand at Jessica. "First of all, I didn't hear him. It's New York. There were sirens, honking horns, music, people… not all of us have Superman's ears. Second of all…" Leaning over again, she eyed the phone in Jessica's hand. "We need to get you a real phone on a real network. An HTC Amaze? On T-Mobile? How the hell did you get stuck with that thing, lose a game of cell phone roulette?"
Jessica sighed at that, placing her phone on the counter in front of her before stuffing her hand into Julia's purse, digging around in search of the strawberry blonde's phone before pulling it free. "Let's compare, shall we? Your screen is three and a half inches. Mine is four point three. Your phone is 3G, which… when was that new? Back when we were in first grade? My phone is 4G. I'm… not exactly sure how my phone is the loser here. Unless you're just unhappy that I'm not an iPhone-toting drone like you and your friends."
"Yes, and hating iPhones because commercials tell you to make you such a rebel. Ah, hipsters. You're so adorable." Silence reigned as Julia went back to applying the spirit gum so her mask would adhere properly, leaving Jessica to ponder what she wanted to do with her hair. Not that she had many options, given its le- "Hey, Jess, how many superheroes does it take to bring down a mugger?" Sighing, the dark-haired girl turned to Julia and raised an eyebrow as she made a beckoning gesture. Might as well get it over with, she figured. "It's a really obscure number, you've probably never heard of it before."
"I know, right? Oh, here's another good one. Hey, Jess, I bet I know how much you weigh." Julia waited a beat, snickered softly, and then delivered her punchline. "An Instagram."
Turning to face her teammate, Jessica let out a groan of annoyance as she ran a hand through her black hair. "That doesn't even make sense. They don't make Instagram for Android. That's an iPhone thing. You know, that overpriced lump of crap you're so proud of owni-"
A faint whistling noise was just enough of a warning to let Jessica lean back in time, avoiding the red plaid jumper that went whipping past between her and Julia. "Will you two just fuck already and get it over with? Hva i svarte helvete! Why can't my life be more like a bad femslash fic?" While the flying garment was enough to disrupt things, Astrid's exclamation brought the argument to a screeching halt as both Jessica and Julia turned to stare at the blonde. "What? It'd be so much cooler if instead of constant personality conflicts, this was all just unresolved sexual between between the two of you. You're both pretty hot. I totally wouldn't mind if you ended up like, throwing yourselves at each other and then costumes would get torn off and-"
Holding up her hands in the shape of a T, Julia shook her head frantically. "Woah. Timeout. Way too much information about what goes on inside your head, Astrid. Way, way too much information."
"…definitely." Suddenly, something occurred to Jessica and she turned her attention back to Julia… if for no other reason than to avoid looking at Astrid's undressed self. No need to give the team's resident lesbian fodder for innuendo or teasing. "Although we are kinda famous. Sorta. We're getting there. Do you think there's fanfic about us yet?"
Julia pondered that for a few seconds before grimacing. "Think about some of stuff Astrid's shown us on FanFiction.Net. If there is, do you really want to read it?"
Forget Astrid's taste in reading, Jessica thought, she'd turned up plenty of disturbing stuff during her own wanderings on the site. At the ripe old age of fourteen, she already knew enough about human anatomy and physiology to know that men did not in fact have a uterus, much less one located… there. Why didn't girls two or three times her age? "Probably not, no."
"Hell yeah I would. Or you know what'd be even better? A fan comic." There was a squeal of metal as Astrid opened her locker, the faint rustle of fabric brushing against fabric, another squeal, and then the blonde threw herself down into the third chair at the counter. "Although I'd settle for some one-shot art. Maybe when we're done tonight, I'll go home and see if there's anyone on DeviantArt I can commission to draw some. There's this one girl I like, jaggyd. She drew this really hot piece with Power Girl and Supergirl where they're sharing a glowing pink kryptonite dild-"
"Enough." Just like it had many times in the past, the word cracked through the air like a whip and all conversation in the changing room came to an abrupt halt. Stalking over to where they were sitting in a neat row at the counter, Felicia grabbed each girl by the shoulders and spun them around to face her before going up and down the line. "Subway, you're a hipster. If you don't want people making fun of you for being a hipster? Don't be a hipster." Jessica sulked at that - why should she have to change who she was just because her teammate was immature? - but before she could reply, Felicia was moving on. "Charlotte, we all know Subway's a hipster. Three choices: start spinning a new web, shut up, or take Subway out on a date to see whether or not Legs is right about the two of you." Jessica shot a glance over at Julia before grimacing. Yeah, she'd take the constant teasing, thank you very much. She didn't have a problem with lesbians per se, as long as they didn't want to be lesbian with her. "Legs? What you do with your free time is your business. Keep it out of our time. It's inappropriate."
Snorting, Astrid twisted her hips, spinning her chair back around to face the mirror. "This from the woman who runs around New York City in a PVC catsuit she bought at a sex shop."
Felicia leaned in, putting her hands on the back of Astrid's chair and tipping it back so she could stare down into the blonde's eyes. "Yes, and when the woman who runs around New York City in a PVC catsuit she bought at a sex shop tells you that you're behaving inappropriately? It's probably time to take a step back and look at your life." Letting out a quiet huff, Astrid rose from her chair and began wiggling into her costume, leaving Felicia to stomp off to her end of the changing room. Jessica looked back and forth before shrugging; she was done and had no real desire to sit around chatting with the others. She could restart her… discussion… with Julia over whose fault it was that Astrid had such a horrible codename, but that might get messy now that the girl in question was present. Might as well be on her way.
As she wandered through the converted warehouse, a destination in mind but in no particular rush to reach it, Jessica pondered the rather interesting contradiction that was her position within the Spider-Clan. To the others - especially Felicia - she was the youngster… the naïve and innocent one… the quiet one. Except she wasn't. Well, okay, at fourteen she was the group's youngest member: Julia and Astrid were both sixteen, Felicia was twenty-one, and Peter and the others were all nineteen. As for the rest? Her teammates didn't really know her at all.
Just because she was the youngest didn't make her innocent or naïve. Being the daughter - and crowning achievement - of Madame Hydra didn't exactly allow for that. Her intellect was second to only Peter's, at least among the Spider-Clan's field team. As for her innocence… when had it officially died? The first time she'd allowed herself to be dolled up to attract the attention of a corrupt politician HYDRA needed blackmail material on? Or the first time she'd killed a man? Her passport had more stamps in it than a post office. She could speak eight languages, knew six different combat styles, and was even decent with a sword. Granted she doubted she'd ever use the latter, but it was there in her head if she needed it. At her mother's side, she'd dined with business leaders and political leaders, and she'd learned to move easily among teenage girls at the mall under the watchful eyes of her handlers. It wasn't that she didn't know things. It wasn't that she couldn't socialize.
She just didn't want to socialize.
At least with the people here. After all, Jessica wasn't a member of the Spider-Clan to make friends, or technically even because she wanted to fight crime. Although she did tend to emphasize that part of their night heavily, if for no other reason than to shut the others up and keep them busy. No, Jessica was here to keep an eye on the other three individuals who'd gained their powers from Columbia University's 'super-spiders', compare them to her own, and report back to HYDRA's scientists with her observations to help further their experiments.
Scowling, Jessica reached up to rub the back of her neck. Hopefully between their ongoing experiments and the information they were taking from similar projects at AIM, The Commission, and the World Security Council, they could come up with a better way to empower people in the future. Because as someone who had gone through the current process? It sucked. A lot. A week and a half of seizures, projectile vomiting, accidentally blowing stuff up as her body adapted to being able to channel and focus bioelectricity, randomly bursting into flight indoors and slamming into the walls and ceiling… that was the kind of thing people fight to get in line for.
Emerging into the Spider-Clan's 'operations center' - which basically amounted to all of the space left over in the center of the warehouse after various bits around the edges had been partitioned off for specific usage - Jessica came to a stop and tilted her head to one side as she stared at the unusual sight before her. "Should I come back later?"
Mary Jane Watson shot an odd look over at Jessica before glancing down at the hands on her leg and snorting. "I suppose it could be worse. If Astrid had walked in on something like this, she'd be on her third or fourth joke by now. Probably something like…" Clearing her throat, Mary Jane adopted her best impression of Astrid's voice. "I go to Hooters for the wings and breasts, but I bet Gwen goes for the thighs." Gwendolyn Stacy chuckled at that before giving Mary Jane a pat on the knee, slowly rolling her wheelchair back until the redhead's foot slipped out from between her legs and dropped to the ground. Pivoting, she rolled off towards her computer desk, leaving Mary Jane to deal with Jessica. "It's the webbing on these stockings. I needed some help getting the vertical lines straight. Gwen obliged."
"Oh. That… makes sense." Looking the redhead up and down slowly, Jessica took in her outfit. A black and white tube dress that shared a definite design lineage with Astrid's current costume, a white spider design wrapping around Mary Jane's bust and defining the neckline, paired with black opera gloves, black stockings decorated with a white spiderweb design, and low black heels. It was… an enigma. Too classy for anything Jessica could think of, but too obviously connected to the Spider-Clan for Mary Jane to just wear out and about. So… "What's the outfit for?"
Wandering over to stand next to Gwen, Mary Jane held up a copy of the Daily Bugle
. "Well, I was thinking… whenever something happens involving the police, there's always the same guy who shows up to answer questions for the television cameras. We need one of those. I'm guessing you don't want to be the official spokesperson for the group. Julia probably doesn't want to either. Astrid and Felicia… I think we can all agree that we don't want them representing us?" Jessica shuddered at the thought. "Right there with you. Gwen's out because she's too distinctive and Peter's pretty much that 'Socially Awkward Penguin' meme come to life. Which leaves me. So I'm taking Effective Professional Writing and Public Speaking this semester, made this outfit… as soon as I get my mask finished, I'm going to be a lean, mean, question answering machine."
Huh. Well that was just… handy. Especially since she doubted her mother would approve of her putting herself out there on television regularly. Even that one interview and photo session had been pushing it. And so Jessica just nodded and offered a small smile. "Cool. Speaking of making things… Gwen?" The blonde didn't bother to look back at her, but one of the cameras mounted atop the impressive array of computer monitors at the blonde's desk pivoted to look at her and so Jessica assumed she had the woman's attention. "I know Astrid was planning to ask but I don't know if she ever did… is there any way you could make something like Peter's webs for us? I don't know why Astrid wants them, but my only way of subduing a criminal is to knock them out with my venom blasts. Unconscious bodies are kinda hard to question."
Silence descended for a long, awkward stretch, and then there was a faint squeak as Gwen abruptly rolled herself backwards before turning and heading for one of her workbenches. "You know… I think I have just the thing."