Jan 30, 2023 1:30 PM
spidergirl imrainai and genderswapped gwen stacey
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Kiara wonders, sometimes, how the Fantastic Four felt in the immediate aftermath of gaining their powers. Well, after any immediate illness, which isn't really the point. And presumably after skipping the step where you look up information about spider bites and then radiation sickness online and try to figure out whether you're about to drop dead (without telling your sister or your brother-in-law, because the idea that a radioactive spider bit you and conferred serious radiation sickness on you that's going to cause you to drop dead without warning is almost as insane as the idea that it bit you and conferred superpowers on you, and you don't relish the thought of looking any more insane than you already do).

Anyway. She wonders how they felt about their powers, once they realized they had them. Really felt, you know, not what you tell yourself about it later, after you've smoothed out the memories to better fit the path you've decided to walk.

She feels like the superhero thing wouldn't really have been an obvious path to her if someone else hadn't thought of it first. It's, you know, a little crazy. Maybe not quite as crazy as having superpowers in the first place, but pretty crazy. But the Fantastic Four are smart, in addition to being powerful and cool, and they're presumably aware of this, and they concluded that it was the best thing to do with themselves. 

It's not like she hasn't thought about it. She's thought a lot about it. She's catalogued her powers in private - strength, the... wallcrawling thing... and the webs, which come in sticky and non-sticky. She bought a sewing machine and made a costume, and then made a full ski-mask style face covering to go with it, which was maybe a little stupid, because heroes aren't really supposed to wear masks, right? But the idea of being scrutinized the way the Fantastic Four are... she doesn't know if she could do it. She doesn't think she could even write a book under her real name, even under normal circumstances, because if the book was good it'd lead to lots of people looking at her, and she doesn't want anyone to look at her. 

She did put the costume on in private, to see if it fit. She tested whether her wallcrawling still worked through the fabric she picked when it was made into gloves. And she's been keeping it in her backpack, just in case she ever needs it.

She hasn't used it. She's run into situations where she could have. But - serious criminals have guns, and the cops also have guns, and she's not actually Sue Storm, you know, there's nothing in her power set that lets her defend herself from bullets. So the end of the day she's still just Kiara Teller, sixteen-year-old black girl who fades into the background and calls it being sensible, who barely scrapes through her classes even though her family keeps telling her she's so incredibly smart, who wants to be a writer and never finishes anything, who fundamentally floats through life putting the minimum possible effort into everything, because that's the kind of person she is, and it turns out that radioactive spider bites don't change that. So when she runs into violence, or theft, or anything that anyone really ought to do something about, she does nothing.

The option keeps sitting there, the costume and the powers and the knowledge of her potential all weighing much heavier than it feels like they should.

 

Two months into this new brand of navel-gazing about her fundamental inadequacies as a person, her brother-in-law is shot during a robbery. Not even a robbery of their place, a robbery of some random corner store he was shopping at. But her brother-in-law was no coward, not ever, and never one to let a terrifying situation make him back down from doing what he thought was right. You could say a lot of other things about him. He got her sister pregnant when she was only a year older than Kiara is now. He was a musician, the kind that says he's gonna make it big and who actually makes his money working at Taco Bell. He used to quote great thinkers and pretend he'd come up with everything they ever said himself. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." (John Stuart Mill, paraphrased, sometimes more tenuously attributed to Edmund Burke.) "Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do." (Voltaire, in loose translation.) "With great power comes great responsibility." (Winston Churchill, sort of, although versions of the saying date back, again, at least to Voltaire.)

The suspect in her brother-in-law's murder is a man she recognizes; she saw him mugging someone in their area a few weeks before. She didn't do anything about it. Now the bravest person in her family is dead, and she has to live with the weight of that, too, knowing that every time she didn't act there was, actually, some real cost, that the consequences of her actions are hitting her in part because they've come back to hit many people, none of whom realize that she is doing nothing, squandering her power, abandoning her responsibility, guilty of a great many goods left undone.

She wonders why radioactive spiders can't preferentially bite people who are noble and brave and deserving.

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When Max looks at the Fantastic Four, he sees the future. He sees people doing things, shaping the world, who meet aliens and save the planet and discover the secrets of the universe. When he looks at himself - 

He'd rather not look at himself.

So instead he builds the mask. Builds it strong and builds it clear, a thick sheet that covers his face, while he tries to build a life for himself that can at least inhabit the same world as the Fantastic Four. He's captain of the basketball team (football's more prestigious but a head injury would sink his career), not the best player but there's a lot of work to being captain that nobody else wants to do, and he works hard and struggles and understands six percent of the material in school and memorizes the rules and gets As in his classes, he does all the extracurriculars that can get you Harvard (he's shooting for Yale), and he's screaming inside, under his mask. He buries the name his mother gave him - it's not a secret, he can laugh when it comes up, the mask that covers his face and controls his cheeks and from behind which his eyes stare - and goes by his middle name. He's flirting with girls and he's taking them out and he's discovering under the mask they're nothing just like he's nothing, everyone's like him, everyone's just masks over masks over masks, and he plays the petty social games at high school and he does what everyone does and he does it better because he can read people and his father comes home and he listens to him talk about work, about the job of being a cop in a city where aliens might invade or a bird-man can invent a flying suit and run off with corporate documents out of a twelfth-story window, about work and impossible crimes and the shit you need to shovel to get the chance to do it, and he sees the future through a window sees something that matters through a window, and he wants to bang on the glass and SCREAM to be let in - 

- Cops can't actually fix anything, that's what his father told him when he first asked back when he was three, and six, and ten. Well. Maybe a lawyer can. Maybe the Mayor of New York can. Maybe if he's really lucky, the President of the United States can. And so he keeps up the mask and he smiles and he gets good grades and he flirts and he charms and he politicks and he wishes, he wishes more than anything else, that he had something he could actually do with his life.

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It's an ordinary afternoon for Kiara when she gets her chance, an ordinary day waiting for the bus back home after school, when a man in a sparkly costume with a sack slung over his shoulder calmly - like it's a perfectly normal thing to do - walks down the street, enters a bank - 

- And then there's an electric crackle - 

- And metal bursting - 

- And coins bouncing around and papers rustling and people screaming - 

- And gunfire -

And he's walking out of the bank and his pockets are bulging and the sack is now pretty full. He doesn't even seem to be breathing hard.

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Well.

That sure is some evil happening, and she sure is sitting here doing nothing. 

The small and cowardly part of her does note that, while there is a lot of gunfire over there, the guy who's actually robbing the bank doesn't really look like he's - well, not that weaponized electricity isn't potentially just as dangerous - 

- plenty of time to think about this while getting her costume on. She bolts into the school building and - wait, no, that'll associate her with the high school - she bolts into the alley behind one of the nearby buildings and opens her backpack and gets on her costume, and it's probably too late now, and she still doesn't have a good plan for how to protect herself from the electricity, but it's possible that the webs'll stop him if she manages to web him several times before he notices her -

She crawls up the side of the building she changed behind, and tries to figure out where sparkly costume man has gotten off to.

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(Gwion will regret, when he puts the pieces together some time later, that he did not actually connect Kiara running off to any future events that occurred that day, probably because he - to his eternal shame - reacted like a civilian, and spent the opening moments just staring.)

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Sparkly costume man apparently took off flying (???) on some kind of electricity (???) above the power lines next to the street, but he hasn't gotten very far yet, and people (including some of her classmates) are snapping pictures with their phones.

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Of course he did.

She figures, on the forty seconds of thought she's put into this, that her best bet is hoping that the adhesive on her sticky webs is strong enough to tie him to something, even if he's doing something that protects him from the stopping power of a bullet - although, now that she thinks about it, it might be that the bullets are made of metal, something something electromagnetism, and that he isn't immune to the negative effects of being hit by objects in general -

- there's no time to figure this out, not now. The original version of her plan really called for sticking him to the street below and hoping that that slowed him down long enough for the cops to figure something out, and she can't exactly do that if he's in the air, but there's no reason to expect him to stop being in the air any time soon, and sticking him to himself might interfere with the use of his electricity powers. Or, you know, it might do nothing, except for focus his attention back on her, where he can easily electrocute her to death.

So. No pressure.

She aims in sparkly costume man's direction and lets loose a rain of sticky webs, as many and as fast as she can, making sure that none of them connect to her and to him at the same time, because she sure hasn't tested her webs' conductivity, and she doesn't really feel like this is the time to stake her life on any particular guess.

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He is not expecting her to show up! The webs wrap around him and he stumbles, in midair, but he doesn't fall - he's keeping a constant height above the wire, even as he falls, and there's a smell of ozone around him that's growing stronger and stronger -

And then the web burns and bursts simultaneously as his costume crackles with electricity, boiling away from him, and his sack of money bursts and dollar bills begin fluttering to the ground around him, some on fire -

Which, just as Kiara would guess, makes him annoyed, and he snarls and points at her with one finger. He's not a great shot with his lightning bolts (they keep veering off to hit random conductive objects), but he's got a lot of them!

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Oh no.

She gets a burst of horrible anxiety about getting hit with twenty bolts at once. She makes a split-second decision to push off from the wall she's stuck to and just drop, maybe twenty feet of free fall, which probably isn't great, but might allow her to dodge the bulk of the lightning bolts. One of them grazes her shoulder, close enough that she feels something burning but doesn't feel the full force of the electricity; she's not able to see exactly what happened, but she thinks the bulk of it might have gotten sucked into a window frame or something. She sticks the landing somewhat absurdly well, and then darts forward, ignoring the part of her mind that is screaming about the lightning bolts, screaming about how this is insane and she's about to die, how this is stupid stupid stupid, and it's just money, it's not even a person -

She shoots another web at sparkly costume guy. She doesn't sever this one. Instead, as soon as it makes contact, she pulls on it as hard as she can, and prays to God that the webs happen not to be very conductive.

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Unfortunately for Kiara, Webs are very conductive, actually! Also unfortunately, her plan is working - Sparkly Costume Man goes flying towards her, glowing with electricity, sheer shock on his face - 

"Get your own bank!" he says, absurdly.

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Kiara is, in fact, the sort of person who has occasionally wondered what it's like to be struck by lightning, and then looked up the agreed-on guidance for how to avoid being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. None of the lists said not to web electricity-themed supervillains, but that really ought to be covered by common sense, shouldn't it.

Her heart only stops for a second, and then spasms violently and goes right on doing what it was doing before. The costume ignites, flames licking up and down her arms, electrical current presumably flowing from the web into her wrists and into the rest of her body. She's got a definite impulse to put the fire out and run away, because this situation is insane, and she still doesn't want to die of it, only she's afraid the fight would follow her and she wouldn't be prepared. She's also got an impulse to punch him in the face, but, one, that sounds like it would get her electrocuted again, and she doesn't know whether she'll be as lucky a second time, and two, she's afraid of killing him, and in real life, if you punch someone in the face, especially with superhuman strength, this occasionally kills them.

So, possibly insanely, she pulls him all the way to the ground below, and then goes for the original plan of sticking him to the street, distantly hoping that someone else has figured out something else to do about this situation.

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He hits the ground pretty hard, but rolls and comes up afterwards anyway, a little groggy -

Then she webs him back to the street. He is Not Happy, and attempts to repeat his previous performance, burning through the webs with his sheer electrical aura - it isn't being channeled into the asphalt, but it sure is warming it up, and the webs burn and/or melt as he tries to get back to his feet -

- And that is the point when someone turns a hose on him.

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(As he reconstructed his decision tree in retrospect, it was that freezing and then running away was a really out of character move - after all, there were plenty of people taking photographs, and even if it was the sensible thing to do, that his father had told him to do, to run away and wait for the police, whereas getting the very very very long coiled hose used to refill the swimming pool and turning it on Lightning Guy is exactly the correct thing to do for someone who wants to be President one day. Imagining what Johnny Storm would do under these circumstances had nothing at all to do with it.)

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The light show is quite impressive, and Sparky Costume Man does not appear to be dead afterwards! Does not look in great shape, though, or, you know, conscious.

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Kiara manages to put herself out by diving into the path of the hose, once it looks like sparkly costume man is no longer making the water incredibly unsafe. Everything still hurts, lot, but she is no longer literally on fire, which is a step up.

"Thanks," she tells the guy with the hose, at which point she finally registers that the guy with the hose is Max Stacy.

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"Welcome," he says automatically, giving the (superhero? supervillain?) his Number Six Smile.

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Okay, well, she can't think of a non-awkward way to continue this interaction, and the police and the reporters are probably about to question everyone involved, and are going to be very unamused by "hi I would like to not be on the news please", so she's going to run away!

She runs, on foot, into the alley that she came out of, grabs her backpack, and desperately wallcrawls until she's over the next alley over, where she lets herself fall behind a particularly toxic-looking dumpster and tugs her normal clothes on over the charred remains of her costume, without taking the time to assess the damage beneath. Then she forces herself out of the alley and walks in a random direction, in case someone was filming her doing that and is about to drive around to try to take a picture of anyone squatting in that alley.

Eventually the worst of the adrenaline works its way out of her system, and it occurs to her that she should really do something about the burns before they get infected, and she drags herself to the subway station and heads home.

Her sister is still working, thankfully, which means her sister doesn't realize that she's coming home at the wrong time for having caught the bus home. So instead of figuring out what she's going to do about that, she tromps to the bathroom and takes a freezing shower, because cold water is supposed to be good for burns, probably.

They're brutal-looking. She really ought to go to the hospital about them. But that, of course, would mean a hospital bill, and with her brother-in-law recently buried and a newborn on the way, they distinctly don't have money for any unexpected hospital bills. Also, like, what is she going to do, claim a power line fell on her? Tell the truth?

(It's possible that she should tell the truth, actually. But - she should think about it, if that's what she's going to do, and not do it on the spur of the moment while overwhelmed by emotions about the mess she's gotten herself into. Probably.)

She finishes showering, painstakingly applies an entire tube of burn ointment, and changes into a clean long-sleeve shirt and jeans. When her sister comes home, she's doing trig homework. She isn't getting very far, but she looks studious, and she's decided that at the moment that's what matters to her.

Eventually she gets out her phone and pokes around to see whether anybody's released any preliminary reports (or, failing that, any tweets, or other social media posts) about the bank robbery. Just to see how much of a mess she's in.

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Yup! SUPER-VILLAINS DUEL OVER NEW YORK CITY is the headline of the first article released (by the Daily Bugle, as it happens.) Apparently two supervillains robbed a bank, then fought a battle over the spoils, before the intervention of an (unnamed) heroic youth drove off one and allowed the police to capture the other. One of them goes by "Electro", and the other, based on her costume and webbing powers, has been called "the Spider-Girl." There's also quite a lot of handheld camera footage of her being repeatedly electrocuted, and although "Thanks" hasn't appeared in any of the videos, "Rob your own bank!" has. Most of the money has been recovered; the rest has either been destroyed or was picked up by bystanders, it's not quite clear which.

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Of course. Super. Absolutely outstanding. 

But at least the money was mostly recovered, and it looks like nobody got hurt. Except Electro, who is at least still alive.

Voltaire can go... experience some punishment milder than going to hell or dying in a fire. She's not quite in the mood to wish fire on anyone right now. He can step on a lego. Yeah. That's it. Teach her to listen to Voltaire.

The costume is ruined anyway, so Spider-Girl will be out of commission at least until she can fix it. She has at least that long to figure out whether she's ever going to do this again. Maybe she can get a general sense of local public opinion at school tomorrow. It did happen right outside, and Max is the one who stopped it, so she figures it ought to be the major topic of gossip tomorrow.

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Unsurprisingly, that is completely correct! Everyone who was waiting for the bus is gossiping about what they saw, and telling exaggeratedly heroic stories about how they acted (Max is not telling exaggeratedly heroic stories; he's being very humble and letting other people tell them for him.) Sixteen contradictory sequences of events, most of them much more dramatic than anything that happened, have been assembled, and people are arguing about which part of the shaky handheld video footage supports which of the events. People who were near Electro when he first caught fire are selling burnt dollar bills as souvenirs, and also people who weren't, but know where to find one-dollar bills and matches. Nobody is tremendously interested in Kiara, and nobody particularly knows what role she played, if any? But the supervillain faceoff was definitely very dramatic!

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(Max is not being humble, Max is still distracted by the blow-by-blow description his father, who was a homicide detective for a great many years before he made it to captain and knows what an electrocuted corpse look like, gave of how, exactly, he should have died in there, several times, repeatedly, starting with how he could have been hit by a bullet Electro deflected, continuing through that series of lightning bolts, and finally ending when the electric charge traveled up the hose into his hands and there stopped his heart. Max has sworn never to do anything like this ever again on his mother's grave and wishes everyone else would stop bringing it up and "humble" is the strategy he could find most likely to accomplish this task.)

(It was pretty cool though.)

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Kiara reminds herself that it could be worse. She could be dead! Other people could be dead! People could be aware of her insane decisions, and the disapproval for Spider-Girl could be attached to her actual name! This is how she wanted it, really.

She thinks about saying something to Max about how it was very cool how he actually did something, but it really seems like the rest of the school has that covered, and they don't, like, talk. So it would be weird. Also he might recognize her voice after the fact, which would be terrible.

 

After school she buys more fabric so she can fix the stupid costume. Not because she's going to be Spider-Girl again. She's still angry and in pain and upset about not having any homework to turn in. Just, you know, in case.

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The day after that, she has school newspaper. She thinks she really ought to drop it, with Azalea having a baby soon and her grades slipping and everything else that's going on, but she hasn't dropped it yet, so she's at the meeting, which allows the senior editor to assign her the Electro story and a mandatory interview with Max Stacy.

"Why does Kiara get it?" asks one of the sophomore girls, and Kiara is grateful even though it's not meant well, because she'd like to ask the same question, and, as so often happens, she seems to have misplaced her voice.

"Kiara's our best writer," says the senior editor, neglecting to offer the caveat that this only applies to stories she actually turns in. "We are not going to rake in a bunch of new readers on the strength of the most exciting thing that's ever happened here, and then hand everyone an actual story that reads like shit."

"Language," says the adult supervisor.

"Sorry," says the senior editor. "That reads like crap."

This really does nothing for her desire to crawl into a hole and hide for the next thousand years, but hey, at least her story is expected to not be shit.

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Okay. Well. Great.

She goes to get her backpack, and then stares despondently into her locker for about ten minutes while constructing and memorizing the first several lines of what sounds like it might be a normal human interaction. And then eventually she checks whether the basketball team happens to have the gym right now, from as far away as she can possibly be while getting this information.

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Nope! Max is completely available, unfortunately for both of them. 

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Aaaaargh, if she waits she'll forget her normal human sentences and have to spend time reconstructing them later. Also, if she mills around waiting to work up enough courage to talk to him for long enough, then he might leave, and then she'll get to put off doing this but she will, additionally, spend the rest of the day feeling like an idiot.

If he hasn't run off at the end of five minutes of anxious milling around, then she'll eventually head over, internally panic, and launch into the first of her normal human sentences.

("Hi, Max Stacy? I've been assigned to write a story about the Electro incident for the school paper, and I was wondering whether there was a good time to schedule an interview with you.")

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