“Shut up, get down there and take out those cannons!” White Tiger barked at him (heh – barking from a cat). She back flipped off the wall of the training room and sliced through a pair of LMD's that resembled Agent Coulson. The LMD's shuddered, the holographic interfaces fritzing and then dying completely, revealing the plain metal android bodies that they were. “Stick to the plan!”
“I hate this plan,” Sam grimaced. He landed by the computer system console. “Like, really, really hate it with a capital 'H'. Why can't I just blow it up? I like blowing things up.”
“Because at some point, we all have to learn different skill sets,” Power Man grunted the last word. An LMD slammed into him from behind, pushing him across the floor and crushing his face into the glass wall. Safe behind the thick, reinforced glass, the real Coulson gave them all a congenial wave. Luke peeled his face off the glass and coughed. “Get on with it!”
“Yeah, yeah.” Sam scowled and reluctantly removed the panel that was helpfully labelled 'this one dummy'. “Not funny, Webs.”
“I thought it was.” Spider-Man was grinning behind his mask. Sam couldn't see it – hence the mask – but he could tell in the tone of the web slinger's voice. Spider-Man was cartwheeling along the ceiling, alternating between web blasts and punches to take out the targeting cameras for the machine guns. “C'mon Sparky, let's light that bad boy up!”
Ignoring his team leader, Sam peered down at the wires and tried to remember what he'd been told. “Cross the green wire with the red wire and plug the black into the opposite port,” he recited to himself. The red wire shot sparks out when he touched it and he yelped, feeling the electrical sting travel through his hand. “Ow!”
There was a smothered laugh behind him. “Do you require assistance?” Iron Fist asked, sounding as casual as though they were lounging around the Parker home. His fists lit up with twin Chi bursts, blowing up a second pair of incoming LMD's; these ones happened to be disguised as Director Fury and Maria Hill, respectively.
Maria exploded into a thousand pieces of shrapnel and a handful of it struck Sam in the face. He spit out a chunk of metal and glared daggers at his team mate. “No. That kind of help, I really don't need.”
“As you wish.” And Iron Fist was gone, flowing among the remaining LMD's with the grace of a seasoned dancer. It made Sam want to stick his tongue out at him. He heroically restrained himself.
“Plug the black into the opposite port, and then push the reset button,” Sam mumbled, trying to remember the sequence he'd been forced to memorize for this particular console model. He pressed the button – and suddenly gas sprayed from canisters that dropped from the ceiling. Everyone started coughing – except for him. Nova Corps helmets. Accept no substitutes. White Tiger suddenly appeared at his side and stabbed her finger into the console – at the correct button to reset. Sam blinked as he realized his mistake. “Ah... oops?”
“I'll oops you!” Tiger threatened as she doubled over, still coughing. Suddenly the room was being vented, strong winds being sucked through the grates in the ceiling. Eventually they would be safely released into the upper atmosphere for dispersal.
Nova watched sheepishly as his team stumbled to a halt in the training room, still coughing. “Sorry guys,” he blurted out, one hand reaching to rub the back of his head. “I guess I hit the wrong button.”
“No kidding,” Power Man snapped in between sucking deep breaths of fresh air that was being pumped up through the vents in the floor.
“It was a good try though,” Spider-Man said encouragingly. Sam blinked as Spidey clapped him on the shoulder. “You got through two of the three steps to disable the canons electronically. Not bad for a first try.”
“Yeah, but there were only three steps in total,” Tiger growled, her voice sounding raspy from the smoke inhalation. “I mean, seriously - you couldn't hit the big button helpfully marked 'RESET'?”
Sam flushed, feeling his ears burn with embarrassment. Computers were not his thing. Playing games on them, yes. Surfing the internet, yes. Downloading music for free with a Stark-coded VPN so Coulson didn't immediately know about it, yes. He even knew how to pilot airships under pressure. But disabling canons on a system he was unfamiliar with? “All the buttons looked alike,” he shouted defensively, crossing his arms. “It was a simple mistake.”
“Yeah – one a rookie would make,” she sneered back at him.
Sam clenched his fists and growled, but then Danny was stepping in front of Tiger, and the web head was facing him. “It's okay, Sam,” Spider-Man said, holding his hands up in an attempt to be placating. On the other side of him, Sam could hear Danny murmuring something to Tiger, soothing her anger as she whirled around, apparently giving up on a fight with Sam, and leaving the training room. “You know she hates being gas attacked.”
“Yeah, man,” Power Man added, joining in. “You and me, we're used to blowing things up - me by hand and you with your cosmic rays. My turn will come, right Webs?”
“You got it.” Spider-Man lifted his mask to his forehead, revealing the relaxed and smiling face of Peter Parker. Sam was still having trouble adjusting to the new and more mellow Peter. Ever since they'd cleared the air about why he did his patrolling, and subsequently joined him on patrols through a schedule they had worked out, Peter was getting more sleep, and more time to let injuries heal. He was smiling more often, and while he never gave up the quips, they were lighter in nature these days. All of them were doing much better.
Except for Sam. He hung his head, still embarrassed. Everyone was supposed to work on their weaknesses. His was technology. Ava and Danny, while not the brainiac Peter was, were still able to reprogram basic systems with ease. Power Man had surprised them all by adapting quickly to the idea of computer reprogramming as opposed to smashing – apparently his parents had spent some time teaching him basic coding when he was younger, long before they'd been captured by Zodiac. But Sam? While he was fine following commands and being walked through things, he still had trouble remembering sequences and trying to apply them by himself. “What are you being trained for again?” Sam asked Luke, wanting to change the subject off his most recent humiliation.
Luke shook his head, planting his fists on his waist. “Welding and system repair,” he sighed. “Can we just say, not gonna happen?”
“Delicate welding training for a guy who crushes steel with his index fingers?” Peter giggled – yeah, that was an honest-to-goodness giggle. Sam was still too depressed to mock him over it, though. “Yeah, that's gonna be interesting to watch.” He lowered his mask again and then high-fived Luke – and winced, because for some reason, Spidey kept forgetting Power Man's, well, power.
Nova gave a weak smile at the interaction and pulled off his helmet, letting himself power down. His costume reverted back into his layered t-shirts and jeans that was his every day uniform. He stood there for a minute, poking the red star on the crest, and shooting a glum look at the console he'd failed to shut down properly.
He wasn't used to be feeling powerless. He had the power of the Nova Corps flowing through him – he could fly through space by himself, glow brighter than the stars and burn through steel in less time then it took Fury to strap on his eye patch, but when it came to using his brains... well, it wasn't a secret that Sam Alexander trailed behind the rest of the team when it came to report cards.
Peter wasn’t a fair comparison. As much as Sam hated to admit it, the web head was frighteningly intelligent, both in school and in battle situations. His mental agility easily leaped from one plan to another and saw scenarios play out faster than Nova could even begin to contemplate. Ava, well, she was kinda the same. Not quite on Pete's level, but she maintained a 4.0 grade point average in between SHIELD missions, while Sam was stuck in remedial English.
With Danny, it was different. He was smart yeah, but he was also the heir to a billion dollar technological empire and the future ruler of the mystical city of Kun L'on. That took a different set of abilities and brain skills, including diplomacy – something Nova was well aware he didn't have. Then you had Luke, who was the son of two of SHIELD's top scientists. When you had genius like that breeding, something had to get passed down, and Sam knew that as well. Note that Power Man's alternate skills training involved trying to be gentle – not trying to follow simple instructions.
A hand tapped Nova on the shoulder and he looked up quickly, shocked out of his thoughts, to see Peter watching him with concern. “Are you okay, Sam?” Peter pulled his hand back, but kept watching him, like he was looking for something. “Anything wrong?”
“Nothing's wrong,” Sam snapped, pulling away from his team leader and scowling at the floor. “I'm fine.”
“I'm not gonna fall for that,” Peter said, his voice still calm and easy. He stepped around to bring Nova's face back into sight. “Seriously, Sam – what's wrong?” He stopped for a second. “Was it the sign? It was just a joke, I didn't mean anything.” Peter reached up and pulled off his mask entirely this time, meeting Sam's eyes evenly. “I'm sorry about that. I promise I won't do that again.”
“It's not that,” Nova barked. “Actually, it was accurate.”
“What do you mean--”
“I am a dummy. The team idiot screwed up again, is that what you want to hear?” Sam squeezed his helmet between his hands. He was tempted to put it back on, skip the debrief, power up, and shoot himself right through the roof, out the top level of the Tri-Carrier and on into space. A nice trip to the moon and back to calm down sounded good. But then he'd be in trouble for busting holes in the brand new Tri-Carrier and breaking out without permission and every other infraction Coulson and Fury could smack him with and then he'd be back on toilet-scrubbing duty.
A red-gloved hand suddenly latched on to his forearm, as though Spider-Man knew what Nova was contemplating. “You're not the team idiot,” Peter insisted. Sam turned to look at him and see if he could detect any traces of amusement in his leader's face. There wasn't any.
“Why would you say that Sam?” Peter asked, sounding upset.
Sam rolled his eyes and (gently) shook off Peter's grip. “Come on Webs, you can't tell me that that wasn't kids stuff for you or anyone else here. Three simple steps to follow and I couldn't even do that.”
“Memorizing ways to electronically disable a dozen different consoles isn't easy,” Peter told him firmly. His eyes bore into Sam's, as though trying to change Sam's opinion about what happened through sheer force of will. “Like anything else, it's a skill that needs to be learned and practised. You've never had the opportunity before – you've always been placed in a 'point and shoot' kind of position. You'll get it. I promise.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Sam didn't really want to argue with Pete at that moment. Shocking, but seriously, he was already bummed out, and all Webs had to do was zing him with a comment about his smarts and lack thereof and Sam would lose it completely.
...Not that he really expected Pete to do that. Spider-Man was sarcastic but he wasn't cruel, and he never hit someone when they were already down, not even Nova. Stupid, perfect Spider-leader. He really was irritating. “I'm gonna go for a flight.” He put his helmet under his arm and began walking to the training room exit.
“Mind if I join you?” A jump and a flip and Peter was walking next to him, still looking oddly worried.
Sam frowned, shooting a side-look. “Um, flying, web head. Not swinging. There's no buildings where I'm going.”
Peter grinned, a sharp change from his previous expression and Sam couldn't help but be amused by the pure mischief suddenly shining in the Spider's eyes. “I know.”
Sam bit his lip, looked down – but then his curiosity was revved up, and he couldn't help but be drawn in by his team leaders cheerfully infections attitude. “Whatcha got in mind?”
Spider-Man pulled his mask back on but left his mouth free so Sam could see the grin. “Follow me!”
Nova laughed out loud, genuinely amused at Spider-Man's sheer and utter glee at being strapped to a mini-rocket. They were going to be in so much trouble when they returned to the Tri-Carrier – Fury had specifically forbidden Spidey to access the weaponry in Dr Connor's Spider-themed gallery unless he himself authorized it, but until then, he planned on enjoying the time away. It had been child's play to use his Nova powers to burn through the outer locks, and Spidey had shown him how to disable the second lock that kept the Spider-shaped jet pack inside its storage container.
Part of him knew that that was Peter's way of getting him to try again after failing in the training sequence, but since he had been successful, he decided to let Pete off the hook. When Peter had commented on how fast he'd rewired the internal lock, Nova just rolled his eyes (again – seriously, he seemed to do that a lot around Pete) and gave him a friendly shoulder shove. In the stomach. Okay, so he didn't quite let him off the hook. Dude had super strength though. He could handle it.
Nova grinned. “You are such a child!” he shouted at his team leader, who was trying to rotate as he flew, but not quite being able to. Nova reached out and shoved his shoulder just hard enough – Spidey began rolling and rotating as he spun towards the horizon. “Happy now?”
Nova gave up trying to be cool and broke down in laughter, holding his stomach. “Did I say child? I meant you're a dork!”
“It's a bird, it's a plane! It's Super-Spider!” he shrieked ecstatically. Spider-man managed to straighten himself out and pulled himself into a giant loop. He shot Nova a glance from above and Nova wasn't surprised that he could tell Peter was grinning like a fool under the mask – his eye plates looked more like dinner plates, as wide as they were.
Sam snickered and waved at his team leader. “Catch me if you can, Webs!” He then let out a burst of cosmic energy, taking the lead in their two-man race, before angling straight-up. Behind him, he could hear Spidey howl in panic as he tried to change directions at high speed before finally getting the hang of it.
After that, it was an all-out battle for air supremacy. Sam whooped as he cut sharply from side to side, diving down and then pulling up in time to skim the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Peter followed behind, apparently not minding the spray in his face, arms waving excitedly. Sam snorted with amusement – Spidey looked like he was trying to speed up by flapping his arms. He pulled out his cell-phone – this was a selfie moment if ever there was one. “Smile, Webs!” Like he needed to say that. His dork of a leader was still chortling like an idiot, legs kicking as though he were trying to swim through the air.
Then Sam turned and blasted straight up again. It was a sunny day with a beautiful blue sky, but there were still cloud banks gathering along the Eastern seaboard. Sam took them high, mindful of the lack of an external breathing apparatus on Spidey's usual costume. He kept them low enough to breathe, but high enough to go cloud surfing – something he hadn't done in a long time. Nova sped along the edge of a thick bank of clouds, watching the vapours disperse at his presence, his own contrail blending in behind him. Spider-Man followed his lead eagerly, fingers plucking at the white wisps as though he were trying to collect a sample. Actually, Nova realized, that probably was what he was doing. The dork. He decided to call Peter out on it.
“You can't catch clouds, dork!” he shouted slowing just enough to match Spidey's speed.
Spider-Man looked at him as they flew side-by-side. “Can't stop me from trying!” he shouted gleefully, hands flapping like the wings of a tiny bird.
Nova felt a giggle well up inside him, and he coughed out an attempted chuckle instead. “Man, we should have given you a jet pack a long time ago,” he laughed. “You're a lot more fun like this.”
He was a lot more fun period, since they all started acting like the heroes they claimed to be. Before they'd ever met Peter Parker, the team had been shown files SHIELD had of the wall crawler, and Nova had always thought having Spidey on the team would be awesome. Someone else to make jokes with – what? He'd thought a lot of Spidey's jokes were funny! Kinda. He wasn't ashamed to admit (back then, at least) that he was a Spidey-fan. He may or may not have accidentally taken out a few of the Bugle's television screens in Midtown. Accidentally. At least, that was what he had told Coulson.
Then they'd been officially introduced and Nova had been disappointed that not only was Spidey a rule-quoting killjoy, he was also a jerk. He was always going off on his own, like he was better then them and didn't need or want their help. Nova sighed as he recalled those early days of their team forming. They'd all gotten it wrong.
Spider-Man wasn't a killjoy or a jerk. He was actually one of the most compassionate and understanding people Sam had ever met in his entire life – and he'd met hundreds of other species and cultures out in space. Peter Parker had responsibility beaten in to him so thoroughly that he was terrified – absolutely panic-stricken – at the thought of anyone getting hurt under his watch. His denial of a team had been an attempt at keeping them safe from the dangers of his life. Not, as they had thought, a stuck up hero not wanting to be a babysitter to a bunch of super-powered teens. As they had come to learn that, they had also learned that Spider-Man wasn't ever going to be a SHIELD operative.
SHIELD operatives took down time. They had holidays. Spider-Man was barely able to contemplate taking time off from being a hero despite all his claims to wanting 'me' time. His 'me' time was usually spent saving even more people, just not always from super-villains. It had taken Danny catching Spider-Man collapsing after a late night battle with the Juggernaut (and seriously? No matter how Sam wanted to deny it, Pete deserved ultimate props for taking that monster down by himself. Seriously), revealing a painful collection of injuries, and a heart-to-heart with them all about the nature of being a hero to realize that they still weren't a team. Not yet.
Peter was still taking the lion's share of the work, holding himself responsible for the entire city of New York, and driving himself into the ground to do it. Since then, since divvying up the patrol time and ensuring their leader – as well as the rest of them – had sufficient time to rest, to heal, and to spend with each other just being actual teenagers, it was like seeing a brand new Spider-Man.
This Spidey was rested, relaxed, and smiled more. Sarcasm had always been a defence for him against a harsh world, but his quips were softer now, and more reserved for battle instead of downtime. He was honouring his promise to be more open with them, to really trust them, and the team found themselves responding in turn. Sam wasn't really a mushy kind of guy (okay he was, but he wasn't going to admit that to his team, okay? They had enough black mail on him) but he had to admit, this web head was easier to get along with than the old one.
Case in point – the old Webs would have been trying to beat him in a competition, or shouting out sarcastic jokes. Maybe he'd even be trying to convince them that they'd had enough and they needed to go back. This Webs – whooping, waving his arms and generally acting like a sugar-silly ten year old on a roller coaster – was capable of coaxing him out of the bad mood he'd been determined to be in ever since he'd failed his training exercise. Before, they would have argued or shouted or something. Now they were just playing.
And it was fun. Really, really fun.
Suddenly his communicator beeped at him. “Uh oh.” Nova pressed the answer button and saw Ava, still clad in her White Tiger costume, glaring at him through the yellow eye slits of her mask. “Hey kitty-cat!”
“You guys are going to be in so much trouble,” she fumed over the link. “Fury will blame us for letting you two escape with that jet pack. You know we're not authorized to use any of Doc Connors tech without Fury's approval!”
Nova glared at the screen, all the joy and relaxation he'd managed to build up suddenly escaping him like air from a leaky tire. “Wow. Always the life of the party, you are.”
“I am trying to keep us all from getting in trouble,” she hissed. “Get back here before--”
“Hey, Fury!” Sam heard Spidey say in a jovial tone. He looked over and saw Spider-Man watching his own communicator, tension starting to fill the previously-relaxed muscles. The open and wide smile that had been there all afternoon, had reduced itself into the more common smirk of the old Spider-Man. Aw, damn. So much for the fun and laid-back Spidey.
“Oh man, he knows, we're dead--” Sam growled and cut Ava off in mid-sentence, shutting his communicator off. He then flew in close to Spider-Man. He could see Fury's angry face on screen, but before he could comment on Sam's proximity, Nova reached out and shut off Pete's communicator too.
Pete looked at him, surprise radiating from him. “Nova?”
Nova folded his arms, staring down at the ocean waves passing beneath them. “We're not doing anything wrong,” he snapped glumly, watching sunlight glint off the surface. “We're just playing, for God's sakes. When's the last time we just had fun instead of training all the time?”
Spider's eye plates blinked a few times – Nova still wasn't sure how they did that – and then Spidey was laughing at him once again. “You know... when we eventually do go back, we're going to be scrubbing the Tri-Carrier floor with our toothbrushes, right?”
“No, I will,” Nova pouted. Then he grinned. “'Cause you'll be scrubbing the ceilings. C'mon, let's go do loops around that flock of ducks!”
Peter whooped again and followed right behind him.
Nova grinned. Later, there would be yelling and threats but for now, it was just him, his leader, and the wide open skies. That was enough for him.
Peter suddenly swept past him, on his back, staring up at the sun. His feet kicked ineffectually at Nova as he did. “Oh my gosh, I love me some JET PAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK!” Afterburners seemed to jump-start as he shouted, and then the shout turned into a shriek as Spidey was speed-boosted without his apparent knowledge or permission. “AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”
Nova gave in to the giggle he'd suppressed before, laughing hard instead, and took off through the clouds again, chasing his leader in a vague attempt to either catch him, slow him down – or take a video. Something like that. After all, Spider-Man was always there with his team mates, whether it was trouncing LMD's or catching clouds with his fingers. He was there. So Nova would be there for him.