...to the team
Wednesday nights at Avengers Tower, the support staff was dismissed early, the top five floors were locked down, and Tony Stark hosted a weekly happy hour for his team and a few select friends. It was a chance to socialize outside the official environs of the floors below, away from intelligence reports and mission plans and training sessions and after-action reviews. It was a chance to relax someplace they might still be interrupted by business, but not by curious strangers or dangerous lunatics. It was a chance to form bonds as people, not just as teammates or work friends. Tonight, the lights were at two-thirds brightness and a jazz and soul playlist was set at a non-intrusive volume, creating a relaxed atmosphere.
Bruce Banner lounged in the corner of an expensive couch, a contented look in place of the somewhat pensive expression he usually had. Something happened during his disappearance after the events in Sokovia. Since his return just after the Avengers reconciled, he was different. He wouldn't say why, and the rest of the team didn't push. For now.
Natasha Romanoff lounged against Bruce, holding one of his arms around her shoulder affectionately, her fingers intertwined with his. She had a glass of white wine in her other hand, which she pretended held her interest more than the conversation. Since Bruce came back, their relationship was different as well. Different good so far, but they were easing into it. For now.
Clint Barton sat on the arm of another couch while he held forth about a mission he and Natasha had been on before the Avengers, something to do with an attempted coup in a small Eastern European nation. The fighting threatened to spill over the border into another volatile nation's territory, which might have resulted in up to five countries in the region declaring war on all the others. Clint and Natasha kept that from happening by... eliminating... key figures on both sides, then capturing the ranking survivors. They locked them in a small room with a pad of legal-size paper, several pens, a ticking time bomb, and a sticky-note that read work it out. Ten hours later, the country had a framework for some amendments to its constitution, a few new appointees to the government (pending a special election to be held exactly one month later), and two hours left on the timer. Bruce squeezed Natasha's hand every time Clint mentioned her prowess at "diplomacy by force". He knew she was more or less reconciled with her own history; she knew he meant to comfort her in the present, not judge her for her past.
Scott Lang paid rapt attention to Clint's story, thrilled by the adventure of it but equally fascinated by the espionage details that came up every once in a while. No one on the team realized he was an avid fan of spy novels. Well, no one but Natasha, but she never brought it up. Although some rare English translations of spy novels from other nations had mysteriously appeared in the libraries at Avengers Tower and the compound upstate.
Samuel Wilson paid slightly less attention. He had seen his share of combat, enough that he appreciated Clint's war stories in a different way than Scott did. Besides, he had heard this one before. Sam took a swallow of his beer, savoring the texture as much as the flavor. He half tuned out the conversation to pay better attention to the music. Unlike Clint's stories, Sam's playlists never got old.
Wanda Maximoff sat in a small but comfortable chair across a small table from Vision, a backgammon board open on top of an inlaid chess board. Vision had a strong technical grasp of the game, able to make optimal moves based on the random results of dice rolls, but Wanda had an intuitive feel for the unexpected that blocked the best plays available. Her ability to surprise and even frustrate the android intrigued him no end. His innately calm demeanor and appreciation of the mundane intrigued her.
Colonel James Rhodes stood behind the bar, preparing plates with snacks and refreshing a few of his teammates' drinks. Wanda had offered to help so he wouldn't have to make multiple trips, but he declined on the basis that he wanted to get more steps in. He was determined to exceed all of his physical therapy requirements by at least twenty percent. He had already met his personal goal for the day, but he didn't get where he was — United States Air Force bird colonel, armored power-suit pilot, and card-carrying Avenger — by taking it easy.
Tony Stark kept an eye on his friend Rhodey (less surreptitiously than he thought) while he talked shop with Steve Rogers. They discussed the pros and cons of adding body cameras to the Avengers' mission gear. By mutual agreement, each had to include a possible drawback to their own positives, and each had to include a potential solution or mitigation for their own negatives. The intent was to keep things collaborative rather than adversarial; it also made them consider their own points from multiple angles.
Both men had worked very hard to repair their fractured relationships — both personal and professional — which involved several heart to heart talks, one screaming argument (that the other Avengers knew about), and not a few manly tears (not that any of the other Avengers needed to know about those). They were back on friendly terms, perhaps a bit warier of each other, but also a bit more aware of the other's perspective. Steve was just as committed to saving his best friend as Tony was when Ivan Vanko took over the War Machine armor, but Steve's friend needed more saving. A lot more.
Tony was explaining how an encrypted feed could be recorded and locked so only that Avenger could release the video (or any... he suggested three... other Avengers could override the encryption if there was need) when they heard the elevator ring.
Steve looked toward the sound, then asked, "Is Thor coming tonight? I thought he was still in space."
"He is, but that doesn't mean as much as it might when you have an Einstein-Rosen bridge at your beck and call." Tony sipped his scotch, the last of a bottle Obadiah Stane gave him many years ago. Say what you would about Stane, he knew his scotch. "But this might be..." he trailed off as a young man stepped around the corner, wearing jeans and a button-up shirt neatly tucked in, a backpack over one shoulder.
The young man waved at Tony nervously, staying in the doorway. "Hey, Mr. Stark. Is it okay that I'm here? Is the party still on?"
Tony greeted the newcomer by pointing at him with the index finger of the hand holding his glass of scotch. Then he spun to face the Avengers, who paused at the new and unfamiliar arrival. "May I have your attention, please? Tonight I have a little surprise for you all." He turned back to his young guest. "Little surprise..." he prompted.
"Huh? Oh, um, hey everybody. I'm Peter. Peter Parker. Great to-o-o you-ou-ou are walking!" Looking around the room, his eyes fell on Rhodey, crossing back to the couches with drinks and snacks. "That is so awesome! How are you doing that?"
Rhodey was caught a bit off guard, but not so much he couldn't frame a glib answer. You couldn't be Tony's best friend for that long without picking up certain skills. "One step at a time, like my mama taught me." He distributed the refreshments and took a seat beside Bruce and Natasha.
Bruce put his lips close to Natasha's ear, asked quietly, "Who is this?"
Natasha turned her head slightly, answered just as quietly, "I think it's Spider-Man."
Bruce picked up his glasses from the side table by his elbow and put them on. "Spider-Man from Germany Spider-Man?"
"Well, Spider-Man from Queens, but yeah. He's the same height, same build, same posture, same voice." She took a sip of her wine.
Peter seemed confused by Rhodey's ambulatory status. "The news said your back was broken! In Germany. When —" he glanced at Vision "— you were injured. How did you recover so fast? Was the news wrong?" His eyes widened. "Do you have enhanced regenerative abilities?"
Tony knew he needed to head this off fast. "Hup-up-up! Before we go down that particular rabbit hole... Suffice to say we know some fantastic doctors. With access to even better technology, you're welcome. How about you," he gestured at Peter with his scotch glass, "tell them... the thing." He waved the glass at the assembled Avengers, careful not to spill. It really was very good scotch.
Peter's face scrunched up in confusion. "What thing...?" Then he got it. "Oh, right! The thing." He put his backpack down, took a step forward and a deep breath. "I'm..." he glanced at Tony, who nodded encouragement. "Spider-Man."
Natasha smirked with her lips and her voice, "Told ya."
"That you did," Bruce stated matter-of-factly. Credit where credit was due.
Clint's jaw dropped. "No way!" He put his drink down and stepped around the couches.
Scott turned halfway in his seat so he could stop craning his neck. "You're kidding."
Sam sank back into his own seat and put his hands on his head. "Oh my da-a-amn!" he groaned.
"Ohh." Wanda's face brightened with recognition.
Vision gave Peter a polite, "Greetings."
Rhodey looked from Peter to Tony to Peter and back to Tony again. "What, now?"
A tall, broad-shouldered figure swept around the corner, red cape billowing behind him. "And I am Thor, son of Odin and god of thunder!" He placed Mjolnir gently on the floor by the wall, next to Peter's backpack.
Peter looked over his shoulder, then up. Mustering every scrap of poise and self-confidence he possessed, he said, "Buhh..."
This was not an uncommon reaction from Midgardians, so Thor took it in stride with a kind grin. "I am very pleased to meet you. My fellow Avengers speak of you often." A hand the size of Peter's face clapped him on the shoulder as Thor passed by on the way to the bar.
Tony was pleased to see him. "Thor!" They had also worked some things through, after the Ultron mess. Their reconciliation involved more drinking than Tony's and Steve's, as well as a couple of punches. Tony's was one of his all-time best, while Thor's was a tiny fraction of his actual strength. (Lucky for Tony.) "When did you get here?"
"I am only just arrived from Xandar, by way of Asgard and the Rainbow Bridge." He held a large pitcher (which he liked to call a "sharing mug") under two taps and opened them both. "There may be some... slight... scorching. On your roof." He smiled unapologetically at Tony's exasperated expression.
Steve had not looked away from Peter's face. He compared the boy in front of him to the boys he knew five — no, seventy-five, he reminded himself — years before. Boys far from home, boys with the fate of the world on their shoulders. "He's younger than you'd expect."
Tony grimaced slightly, and bobbed his head to either side. "Well, I was pressed for time, and there aren't a whole lot of people in our business I could approach."
Bruce spoke up from the couch. "What about that guy in Hell's Kitchen?"
"What about that woman in Hell's Kitchen?" Nat countered.
Scott chimed in. "Or that guy in Harlem."
Sam pulled his hands away from his head to gesture. "Or that other billionaire, the one with the glowin' hands."
Tony climbed two steps to stand beside Peter, put an arm — the one that wasn't holding half a glass of fine scotch — around his shoulder. "Hey. Hey! Hey! I stand by my choice. I brought the kid in, and the kid stepped up!"
Peter managed to sound assertive rather than petulant. "I'm not a kid. I'm fifteen."
Tony tilted his head slightly toward the younger hero, spoke through the smile he usually wore when he tried to convince Pepper Potts he hadn't actually done something incredibly insensitive. "Not helping, kid."
Clint crossed his arms. "Not the point, Tony! He should be in school..."
"I am in school," Peter said, but Clint wasn't really listening just then.
"I have a four point two GPA."
"Hanging out with his friends..."
"I hung out with Ned this afternoon."
"I... have a four point two GPA."
"Falling in love..."
"I... like... a girl. Her name is Liz and she's awesome."
"Not... jumping in the middle of combat situations involving highly trained operatives with enhanced biology, weaponized powers, and next-generation military hardware! He could have been killed! Or he could have got one of us killed trying to save him!"
Rhodey was not happy with the situation, but felt like he should try to calm things down a little bit. "Okay, he did keep me from crashing into a plane. Which would have sucked."
"Sorry about that," Scott said to Rhodey, who had become a friend since Germany.
Rhodey made a dismissive gesture. "S'alright, man." They bumped fists and turned their attention back to the larger conversation. "And, by the way, thanks. That said, did I just hear 'fifteen'? Seriously? Tony, what the hell?"
Clint pressed on, clearly agitated. "Did you actually give a weaponized suit to a teenager and throw him in the middle of a full-on fight? What were you thinking, giving enhanced strength and... swing lines... to someone none of us have even met? How did you even pick this kid?"
Peter interrupted Tony, not realizing he did. "He didn't give me strength or webs. I already had those. All he gave me was a much cooler suit and a plane ride to Germany. And back."
Tony nodded in agreement and pointed at his champion.
"So you found a super-strong kid and just, what? Signed him up, no questions asked?" Rhodey also had his arms crossed, his feet set shoulder-width apart, his back ramrod straight. Tony recognized it as the stance he took when dressing down lower ranks and irresponsible friends. He took silent umbrage, but instead of responding verbally he chose to look off to the side at the chess — backgammon — nook.
Wanda looked at Tony, then the other Avengers, and finally at Peter. "Pietro and I were thirteen when we started joining activist and resistance groups in Sokovia. I was seventeen when von Strucker recruited us... me. And I was barely nineteen when I..." she paused while she selected tactful phrasing, "met... all of you." She shrugged and sank back in her seat, as if apologizing for her opinion. "It doesn't seem like that big a difference to me." She looked to Vision for support.
Vision considered briefly before he spoke. "I feel I am in no position to remark on this matter, since I awakened only seven hundred ninety-eight days ago." This remark was met with eye rolls and a few quiet groans.
Clint turned to the only other parent in the room. "Scott, you've got a kid, don't tell me you're okay with this."
"Honestly, I'm still trying to deal with the fact I got knocked on my butt by a kid half my age."
"Less," Natasha offered, hiding quickly behind a sip of her wine.
"Oh my damn!" Sam moaned. He looked up at Peter, Tony, and Steve, still standing by the entrance to the room, three steps up from the main floor. "Guys, I work with grown-ass men and women tryin' to deal with shit they've seen and done in service to their country. You can't expect a..." he gestured as he caught himself about to use the "k" word, "...fifteen year old to have the psychological resilience to handle the kinds of things we get dragged into. No offense, Peter, you got skills—"
Peter's face brightened. "Thanks Mr. Falcon!"
"—but puttin' you in that kind of danger is just plain irresponsible."
Peter's face fell again. "Thanks, Mr. Falcon." Tony covered a chuckle by faking a cough into his hand.
Rhodey nodded. "That, one hundred percent. Tony, this is reckless. You put the kid in harm's way. You opened yourself and the team to all kinds of criminal and civil liability — on two continents. And you made all of us morally culpable to anything that might've happened to the kid."
"My name is Peter, and I'm not a kid," he muttered.
Clint expanded Rhodey's point. "Not to mention anything the kid might do while he's under your so-called guidance. That suit is practically your endorsement for any kind of trouble he might get into. Or start. On purpose or accident."
Tony held up a hand. It did not help that it was the hand holding the glass of scotch. "Okay, hold on just a—"
"If I may," Vision spoke from his seat. Half the eyes in the room turned to the synthetic person. "I am fully conversant with Spider-Man's activities as recorded by the press, law enforcement, and social media." He steepled his fingers. "Over the course of seven months, he has been involved in one hundred seventeen known physical altercations. Every single one was in response to apparent criminal activity in progress. He has inflicted no known lasting injuries." His eyes flicked to Rhodey.
"In addition, he has prevented twenty-seven vehicular collisions, mitigated nine construction site accidents, intervened in three fire emergencies, and otherwise saved at least two hundred thirty-one persons and fifty-two pets from grievous bodily harm.
"In the six weeks since our altercation at Berlin Brandenburg Airport — when Mr. Stark provided Spider-Man with his weaponized suit — there has been no notable change in his recorded methods or behavior, other than a twenty-two percent increase in his activities.
"Other than his forays into vigilantism and emergency rescue, the primary dangers he faces stem from his modes of travel, which include highly aggressive parkour techniques and acrobatic swinging from synthetic adhesive fibers."
The rest of the Avengers (and Peter) stared at Vision until Scott broke the silence. "No position to remark."
Rhodey agreed. "None at all."
"What's it like when he does have somethin' to say?" Sam asked.
"Pack a lunch," Natasha teased.
"And plan to spend the day," Bruce finished, grinning in spite of Wanda's glare at their banter.
Thor finished his beer(s), set down the sharing mug, came out from behind the bar. "On Asgard, a person is judged by actions, not age. If this one has truly performed the deeds we've been told, he is a warrior I would be proud to fight beside. If he was of Asgard, he would already be a member of Odin's armies and the head of his own household, collecting honor and renown, courting and being courted by scions of the noblest families in the realm."
Clint snorted. "But on Asgard, someone would direct his activities and hold him responsible for his actions."
Rhodey watched Thor return to the steps to stand by Peter. "And on Asgard, someone would have taught him how to use his weapons and his power. When to use his weapons and his power. He'd have years of training."
"Indeed he would. None would be so cruel as to throw a babe to bilge-snipe." Thor arched an eyebrow filled with meaning at Tony. "But what child doesn't chase wolves from the flocks growing up, eh?" he asked the other Avengers. There was a momentary lull while they sorted out his metaphors.
Natasha spoke so only Bruce could hear. "I'd already killed a man when I was half his age."
Bruce spoke so only Natasha could hear. "Yes, but horrible people forced you to do horrible things." He pressed his mouth to her hair. "You have nothing to apologize for."
Natasha turned her head so she could give Bruce a quick kiss. It's sweet that you think so. "Watch this," she whispered. Aloud, she noted, "My Red Room mentors would have considered him too old to begin training."
Scott blew through pursed lips. "That doesn't make any sense at all. He's fifteen, not fifty."
Rhodey stroked his chin. "Too old for their psychological conditioning, maybe, but that's not what we're talking about here."
"What are we talkin' about?" Sam asked.
Rhodey turned back to the couches. "Well, we start by finding out what he can do. Bring him into the gym here, maybe the compound, run him through physical trials. When we know his strengths and weaknesses, we can design a program to optimize his potentials." He started pacing. "Then we start instruction. Like the law as it applies to... unofficial rescue activities. Known threats. Tactics. Ethics."
Sam cut in. "And we make sure he has someone to talk to about what's goin' on, make sure he isn't gettin' overwhelmed."
"Action reports would be a good way to keep up with what he's doing as Spider-Man," Rhodey offered, coming around the couch to take his seat.
"But we also have to make sure he isn't neglecting school," Bruce countered. "See to it he gets his homework done and keeps his grades up. And then there's his personal life, social development."
Wanda leaned over to Vision. "We could friend him on Twitter," she whispered.
Vision closed his eyes for a moment, then smiled at her softly. "Done." His smile grew when she laughed. It was a pleasant sound, one it felt good to inspire.
Scott pulled a pen out of his shirt pocket. "Has somebody got a pad? We need to write this down..."
Bruce whispered into Natasha's ear, his breath warm and tickling. "Do you manipulate me this easily?"
Natasha smiled. Without turning her head, she answered, "I could, but I don't have to." She took a sip of her wine, the glass almost empty. "You already do exactly what I want. Especially when you don't."
"That... makes no sense whatsoever."
Her smile turned... playful... as she whispered, "I kno-o-o-ow," still not looking at him.
Peter looked at Tony. "Do I have any say in this?"
Tony gave Peter a pitying look. "No-oh."
Steve smirked briefly at the tone of the denial. He thought he could smell a setup, but he wasn't certain. Not that he minded. Peter seemed like a good kid. Steve had to admit to himself that if he actually knew how to fight, Berlin might have gone very differently. Naturally, he wanted someone like that on their side. Maybe even on the team, eventually.
Clint resumed his perch on the arm of the couch, slightly deflated. "Are we no longer concerned that this is still a fifteen year old kid?"
Steve looked at Peter, but he was really addressing his team. "Before I got into the Army, I'd been on my own since I was sixteen, working part time jobs and finishing school. I saw young men Peter's age at recruitment centers all over the five boroughs. Trying to volunteer for military service, lying about their age like I did about my health.
"After I got into the fighting, I saw men and women younger than him in military units and resistance forces all over the European Theater. They were just as brave, just as capable as anyone else. But they all had training, support, supervision. It was important. It saved them..." he faltered for a moment, "...many of them." His eyes went far away, then snapped back to the present, to Peter. "We have an opportunity to make sure this kid—"
Peter realized he was really only talking to himself at this point. "Still! Not! A kid!" It didn't mean he was going to stop.
"—gets the kind of training—"
"And support..." Sam volunteered.
"And supervision?" Clint requested.
"And gear!" Tony cut in.
"—he needs." Steve stepped up to Peter and extended a hand. Peter shook it, his grip firm. "The kind he deserves."
Tony smiled. This went better than he could have hoped. Not only did he finally get the kid to meet the team, the team collectively adopted the kid as a kind of junior trainee, and Rhodey had a side project that might keep him from getting locked inside his own head while he recovered from his injuries and adapted to his new normal.
"Wonderful!" Thor displaced Tony's arm around Peter's shoulders with his own. "You know, Peter," he led the kid into the room, "I believe my boon companion Volstagg has a daughter or three about your age. I could make some inquiries on your behalf, since you are clearly a worthy suitor."
Peter reddened noticeably at the idea. Almost fully recovered from being star struck at the Asgardian hero's presence, he was able to form the coherent response one would expect from a teenage boy suddenly faced with the prospect of arranged courtship with one or more complete strangers. "Buhh..."
Thor's laugh filled every corner of the large room. "Fellow Avengers, we will have great fun jesting with this one!" He squeezed his new friend's far shoulder, and punched the near shoulder, (very) lightly. "Come, young Parker. You will tell us stories of your great deeds while we partake of Stark's libations!" Thor bypassed the couches, leading Peter toward the bar.
Peter rubbed his arm, sore from the gentle tap. "I'm not old enough to drink," he said, quietly.
Thor looked at him with curiosity. "Truly? Well, then." He thought for a bare second. "I shall have your portions."
Peter considered. "That'll work. Thanks!"
"Think nothing of it." Thor picked up his empty sharing mug, placed it under two different adjacent taps, and poured.
They were joined at the bar by Vision and Wanda, both interested in learning more about the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Wanda offered Peter a bright smile, an empty glass, and the soft drink nozzle from behind the counter. Then she freshened her own drink, peach vodka diluted with mango juice. Vision immediately started asking technical questions about how Peter mixed his web fluid, which had eluded a team of Stark Industries' best chemists for months. (Not that Vision intended to share anything Peter told him, he was just curious.) Thor fussed good-naturedly about "boring science stuff" between swallows of his mixed beers, while Wanda giggled at his comical frustration.
Back at the couches, Scott regarded the group collected at the bar for a moment, turned back to his companions. "Did he really just say 'libations'?"
Rhodey lifted his eyes from a notepad on the coffee table to respond. "Yeah, he said 'Stark's li-'ohh, that is not a good idea."
Clint was already up, headed for the bar. "Wai-ai-ait!"
Tony smiled, shot Steve a grateful look, then finished off the last of the best damn scotch he'd enjoyed in a long time.