“There,” she sets down the wrench so that it lies parallel to the edge of the table. There is grease on her fingers and forearms. Stark claps her on the shoulder. It’s a friendly gesture, but these things can be faked. Stark is especially good at projecting the appearance of congeniality, even better at it than Pym.
“Beautiful. Perfection. She’s good as new.” He’s grinning, and the angle of the lines next to his eyes suggests that his pleasure is genuine. He’s not surprised; he knew she could do it. Jeanne watches their reflections carefully in the polished lines of metal.
“Now that we’ve completed repairs to the Quinjet, I am curious as to whether you would allow me to repair your Iron Man suit.”
Stark laughs at her, placing his hands on his hips. For all the friendliness in his face, it’s a warning.
“You’re a pistol, Hank warned me about that. I’ll tell you what; Get the hell out of my workshop, and if you ever get tired of this heroic business, come see me for a job.” He’s still smiling. His outstretched hand is warm and calloused when she shakes it.
“Thanks,” she says, because it’s what he wants to hear.
“I didn’t think-” Julie says, pausing for breath, “that ‘how to like girls’ was something a person could learn.”
Jeanne wipes her mouth on the back of her hand and sits up.
“Maybe I’ll teach Striker,” she says, because any joke about Striker usually pleases Julie, and she’s right about that, because Julie’s stomach muscles contract and expand and she presses her head back against the bed as she laughs.
They “hook up” for another week before Striker himself catches her sneaking out of Julie’s room late at night and insists angrily that he’ll tell Berto if she doesn’t. Jeanne just shrugs, but it doesn’t happen again. It’s not something she’s going to miss, now that she’s committed it to muscle memory.
“You never learned how to fight before you had your powers.” It’s not a question. She twists, and throws a punch at Spiderman, who ducks beneath her fist.
“Nope. I was a scrawny nerd, if you can believe it. Nice move, you learned that one from Cap.” His kick is a capoeira sting ray, but his hands are actually sticking to the floor to support his body, which makes the snap back a little erratic. Jeanne tries to sweep him with her leg, but Spiderman detaches and pushes himself up with more speed and force than would be possible with just super strength.
“You can track my movements without seeing them,” she memorizes the motion of his body as he flips into the air and sticks to the padded ceiling by the soles of his feet. His landing is too clean to be performed by a normal person; not proportionate to the inertia and thrust of the jump. The graceful shape of his somersault, totally off-form for a gymnast but loose in a way that makes it intimidating, that she can use. She doesn’t take her eyes off him as she dodges his strafing web blasts.
“You can track the use of my powers.”
“I’ve read your Avengers dossier.”
“But you didn’t need to.” Jeanne’s not an empathetic person, but she can feel this; how he’s used to standing right in the middle of an explosion without flinching, even as his heart hammers in his chest. She kicks off the wall and backward at him, and he drops to the floor, and before she knows it she’s landing in a net of thick sticky webbing that contracts around her.
“You’ve fought Osborn.” The web hardens into a cage that presses her elbows tightly against her ribs. She can’t move.
“That was in my dossier?”
“Everyone knows that. And yes.” She rolls unsteadily to her feet. It’s not an easy transition, her arms are still bound, and she knows he’s humoring her at this point.
He steps forward, seizes the webs near her shoulder, and pulls, ripping her free. She stares, the fight adrenaline still pulsing. He’s slightly taller than her, by only an inch. His posture is calm, non-threatened when he says, “Ask me.”
A tingle travels down her spine. She breathes. “You don’t carry the mutant gene, and you’re not as strong as a Kree, which makes it improbable that your powers are something you were born with. You don’t have any of the telltale signs of wealth or privilege in your mannerisms, so it’s unlikely that you two were part of the same social circle or that you were involved in some sort of corporate espionage against him. You weren’t born special. But he’s nearly died at least thirty times, and spent billions of dollars trying to kill you specifically. Why does he hate you?”
Spiderman is uncharacteristically still for a long moment. She wishes she knew what his face looked like. There’s a weary and defeated quality to the set of his shoulders. When he speaks, his voice sounds surprisingly young and clear and certain.
“You’re not wrong, Finesse. I wasn’t born special. That’s exactly why he hates me.”
She doesn’t sleep that night, the thought coursing through her mind like an electric charge.
Jeanne watches all the Avengers footage she can find in the tape library. Sometimes she catches subtle nuances that other people would miss.
There’s a video that she replays six times in her head during breakfast on the day she first watches it. It’s shaky and a little out of focus, taken on a cell phone and uploaded to Youtube directly from the scene of the crime where the Masters of Evil had attempted to assassinate an ambassador en route to JFK in the middle of Manhattan. Miss Marvel is locked into combat with Tiger Shark, and Hawkeye is slinging arrows from off screen to keep Scorpion at bay. The clip is three and a half minutes in before Black Widow arrives, scrambling across a rooftop and brandishing knives from her impossibly tiny belt, slender legs and arms in stark black against the blue grey of the smoky sky. Klaw fires sound blasts from a canon mounted on his arm, and Widow dodges them with effortless grace in a form that’s all her own, drawing his fire until he has to recharge. As soon as he hesitates, she lunges, and in a few precise strokes her knife slices right through the metal casing of his gun. Klaw whimpers and Widow kicks him to the ground, and shoves a second, smaller knife into the tender area above his brachial plexus (a painful, bleeding wound. Easy to patch.) She’s obviously a more inventive combatant than Jeanne would have guessed of someone so well known for her ruthlessly professional methodology.
Jeanne scans the comments on the video on her lunch break, and everyone else seems to have missed the hesitation, the conscious defiance of muscle memory, as the knife went for the shoulder instead of the windpipe. It’s the first time she really thinks about what Osborn wanted her to do, and how well she would have done it.
“Bottom line, every day you’re getting better. And that’s what life’s all about.”
There’s no pleasure or warmth in his voice. He won’t face her, and she can’t read the lines of his body through the cape. .
“Is it?” she asks, expression stoic. Emotionlessness is her rest position, her default. It’s hers.
“It is for us. Take care’a yerself.” He walks like no one she’s met yet. Maybe the gait is his own.
She lets him go.