Spider-Man: Time to Go Home - Kythara (2024)

Chapter 1: There's No Place Like Home

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

The world turned upside down for Peter Parker the day his secret was revealed. It was an average weekday patrol when, in just a few minutes, his identity as Spider-Man was broadcast to every screen, every person on the planet. Suddenly, the mask that had protected him and those he loved was ripped away, leaving him exposed and vulnerable.

Desperate to escape the relentless scrutiny and the target painted on both him and his loved one's backs, Peter turned to the one man he thought could help - Dr. Stephen Strange, the former sorcerer supreme. With a wave of his hand and a little bit of magic, Strange promised to make the world forget, to erase the knowledge of Peter's dual life from the minds of everyone on Earth.

But magic, as Peter soon learned, is a tricky thing. A few misplaced words, a handful of exceptions he had wanted to make, and the spell unraveled before their eyes. The fabric of reality tore, rifts to other dimensions splitting open the sky like shattered glass.

And through those rifts came unrecognizable foes. Villains from other worlds, other versions of the life Peter knew, each with a bone to pick with their own Spider-Man. The Lizard, Electro, Sandman, Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin - a rogues gallery of nightmares made flesh.

As the city descended into chaos, Peter found himself facing an impossible battle. But he wasn't alone. Two other Spider-Men (they decided to call themselves Peter One, Peter Two, and Peter Three. Ha! And MJ said he wasn't funny!), reflections of himself from different realities, stepped through the cracks to stand by his side. Three heroes, united by a common purpose - to defeat the villains and mend the broken barriers between worlds.

The battle was won, but the price was steep. Aunt May's death had hit Peter like a freight train. The woman who had raised him, the one constant source of love and support he had left in his life, was gone. Taken from him in an act of senseless violence as she tried to save the rampaging villains, treating them as sick patients in need of help rather than threats to be neutralized. It was so painfully, unfairly her.

Against everything in him, Peter continued to do as Aunt May had requested instead of what he wanted to do - kill the Goblin. And now here he was... they had won, but he was still going to have to give the universe himself.

They had managed to round up the rogue villains, subduing them through a combination of brute force and quick thinking. But the rifts between dimensions remained open, a ticking time bomb that threatened to unleash further chaos upon an already devastated world.

To save the multiverse, to protect the ones he held dear, Peter had to make the ultimate sacrifice. He had to let them go. Let the world forget. Let the spell be cast again, this time with no exceptions, no holding back.

And so, with heavy hearts and tears in their eyes, Peter, MJ, and Ned gathered together to say their goodbyes.

**********

Peter Parker, his girlfriend MJ, and best friend Ned Leeds stand together atop the Statue of Liberty, locked in a tight embrace. The trio's eyes are wet with tears as they prepare to say what could be their final goodbyes.

In the background, Dr. Stephen Strange weaves his hands through the air, his mystical gestures leaving trails of eldritch light. The powerful sorcerer is preparing to cast a reality-altering spell that will erase all knowledge of Spider-Man's true identity from the world.

"I don't want to forget you," MJ whispers fiercely, her face buried against Peter's neck. "I love you."

"I love you too," Peter chokes out through his tears. "Both of you. So much."

Ned wraps his arms tighter around his friends, as if he could shield them from the impending spell through sheer force of will. "There's gotta be another way, man. This can't be happening. I mean, who's going to help me build my next LEGO Death Star if I forget my best friend?"

Peter lets out a watery chuckle. "I'm sure you'll manage, Ned. You're the real brains of this operation. I'm just the guy in spandex."

"Yeah, but you're our guy in spandex," MJ says with a tearful smile. "And I swear, Peter Parker, if you do anything stupid and heroic after we forget you, I'll... I'll..."

"You'll what? Forget to be mad at me?" Peter jokes weakly.

MJ punches his arm. "Not funny."

Dr. Strange's chanting rises in volume and intensity, ancient syllables echoing with arcane power. The air ripples and warps as his magic builds to a crescendo.

"Guess this is it," Ned says, his voice trembling. "I always knew being friends with a superhero would be unforgettable, but this is ridiculous."

Peter and MJ groan at the pun, but they're smiling through their tears. Leave it to Ned to find humor even in their darkest hour.

The three friends cling to each other desperately, savoring their last moments together before their world is forever changed. They've been through so much together - laughter and tears, triumph and tragedy. And now it all comes down to this.

As the spell nears its zenith, Peter closes his eyes and tries to burn this moment into his memory. No matter what happens next, he will always carry the love of these two incredible people in his heart. Even if they forget, he never will.

"I love you guys," he whispers one last time. "See you on the other side."

Just as Dr. Strange's spell reaches its peak, reality seems to hiccup. The air above Peter, MJ, and Ned ripples and shimmers, like the surface of a pond disturbed by a thrown stone. The trio look up, eyes wide with confusion and a hint of exasperation.

"Uh, is that supposed to happen?" Ned asks, pointing at the anomaly. "Because if it is, I gotta say, it's not very impressive. I was expecting more of a 'whoosh' or a 'kapow', you know?"

Peter shoots him a look. "Ned, I don't think now's the time for sound effects."

"Hey, if we're gonna forget each other, I might as well go out on a high note. Or a 'kapow', as it were."

MJ rolls her eyes, but there's a fond smile tugging at her lips. "You dorks are impossible."

Suddenly, the ripple in reality tears open, a jagged wound in the fabric of space and time. The three friends stumble back together, shielding their eyes from the blinding light that pours through the rift.

"Okay, that's more like it!" Ned yells over the roar of displaced air. "Definitely getting some 'kapow' vibes now!"

Peter squints into the light, trying to make out what's happening. His spidey-sense is tingling like crazy, a buzzing at the base of his skull that sets his teeth on edge. "Something's coming through!"

As if on cue, a small object rockets out of the rift, trailing tendrils of energy and temporal distortion. It arcs through the air, a glinting blur of green, before smacking right into the center of the group hug.

There's a blinding flash of emerald light, a rush of wind, and then... nothing. The rift snaps shut, the anomaly vanishing as quickly as it appeared. Dr. Strange lowers his hands, the spell finishing with a final clap as all of the rifts disappear at once.

The sorcerer blinks, staring at the spot where something had been stationed just moments before. Now, there's nothing but empty space and a faint scorch mark on the ground.

"Well," Strange says, his cloak fluttering in the breeze. "That was unexpected."

He frowns, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "I suppose I should probably look into that. But first, coffee. Messing with the fabric of reality always gives me a headache."

With a swish of his cloak, Dr. Strange turns and strides away, leaving the Statue of Liberty behind. The city stretches out before him, blissfully unaware of the chaos that had almost unfolded.

And somewhere, some-when, three friends hurtle through the time-stream, their fates uncertain and their futures unwritten.

**********

Peter, MJ, and Ned tumble through the vortex, their bodies stretched and warped by the incredible forces buffeting them from all sides. It's like being inside a kaleidoscope designed by a mad scientist on a sugar rush - all swirling colors and dizzying motion.

"I think I'm gonna be sick!" Ned yells, his cheeks puffing out comically. "And I don't know if it's from this vortex-tunnel thingy or the fact that Peter's elbow is in my spleen!"

"That's not my elbow!" Peter shouts back, his voice distorted by the spacial waves. "And your spleen is on the other side, genius!"

MJ, meanwhile, is doing her best to keep her cool. She's always been the level-headed one, the anchor in the chaos. But even she's starting to feel a little green around the gills. "If you two don't stop fighting, I swear I'll toss you both out of this vortex myself!"

Peter and Ned exchange sheepish looks, their argument forgotten in the face of MJ's wrath. They cling to each other tighter, trying to stay together as the forces surrounding them threatens to tear them apart.

Suddenly, a glint of green catches Peter's eye. The Time Stone, its surface pulsing with an eerie inner light, is spinning wildly just ahead of them, caught in the same currents that carry the trio through whatever this… was.

"The stone!" Peter yells, pointing with his free hand. "We have to grab it!"

"Sure, no problem!" Ned says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Let me just extend my Go-Go-Gadget arms and snatch it right up!"

Peter shoots him a look. "Not helping, Ned!"

"Boys, focus!" MJ snaps, her hair whipping around her face. "Peter, can you use your webs to grab it?"

Peter nods, determination etched on his features. He raises his wrist, aiming carefully at the spinning stone. "One time-traveling, stone-grabbing web, coming right up!"

He fires a strand of webbing, the gossamer thread glinting in the chaotic light of the vortex. It stretches out, reaching for the stone... and misses by a hair's breadth.

"Damn it!" Peter curses, firing another web. And another. Each one comes tantalizingly close, but the stone remains just out of reach, dancing maddeningly ahead of them.

"This is like trying to win a carnival game run by a time lord," Ned grumbles, watching Peter's efforts with growing frustration. "Can't we just find a cosmic claw machine or something?"

As if in response to Ned's complaint, the vortex suddenly lurches, sending the trio tumbling head over heels. The Time Stone, caught in the same turbulence, goes spinning off into a branch tunnel that had just materialized, vanishing from sight.

"No!" Peter yells, reaching out futilely. But it's too late. The stone is gone, and with it, their best chance at controlling their wild ride.

The vortex begins to collapse in on itself, the walls of the tunnel shuddering and cracking. Fragments of time and space whirl past, glimpses of past and future that flicker by too fast to grasp.

"Hold on tight!" MJ shouts, gripping Peter and Ned's hands with all her strength. "We're in for a bumpy landing!"

The light at the end of the tunnel rushes towards them, growing brighter and brighter until it consumes everything. And then, with a final lurch and a thunderous boom, the trio is spat out of the vortex and into the unknown.

**********

The world comes back into focus slowly, like a camera lens adjusting from blur to clarity. Peter blinks, groaning as he pushes himself up from the hard, unforgiving ground. His head is pounding, his limbs aching as if he's just gone ten rounds with the Hulk.

As his vision clears, he takes in his surroundings, confusion knitting his brow. They're in an alleyway, narrow and grimy, with rough asphalt beneath them and towering brick buildings on either side. Graffiti covers the walls, a riot of color and chaotic energy that seems oddly familiar. There's a cacophony of honking horns, shouting voices, and the ever-present rumble of city life

"What... what happened?" he mutters, rubbing the back of his head. "Where are we?"

Beside him, Ned stirs, his eyes fluttering open as he takes in the unfamiliar setting. "Dude... I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

MJ sits up, looking remarkably composed for someone who's just been dragged through time and space. She glances around, her keen gaze taking in every detail. "Looks like New York. But something's off. The air feels different."

Peter frowns, pushing himself to his feet. "Different how?"

MJ shrugs, standing up and brushing off her jeans. "I don't know. Just... different. Like we're not where we're supposed to be."

A sinking feeling settles in Peter's gut as the memories come flooding back. The spell, the rift, the Time Stone... oh god, the Time Stone. "Guys," he says, his voice tight with panic. "I think we've time-traveled."

MJ's eyes narrowed as she processed Peter's words. "Time travel? How can you be sure?"

Peter ran a hand through his hair, his expression a mix of frustration and worry. "That's what the Time Stone does. It allows travel through time. We were chasing it, remember?"

Ned's eyes widened, a mixture of excitement and fear on his face. "Dude, that's insane!"

MJ, ever practical, cut through their amazement with a sharp question. "Do we know which way we went? Forward or backward?"

Peter paused, his brow furrowing as he tried to recall the chaotic journey through the time-stream. "I think... I think we went backwards. To the past."

Ned's eyes widen, his jaw dropping open. "The past? Like, the real past? With dinosaurs and stuff? How can you tell?" Ned asked, looking around as if expecting to see a triceratops poking its head around the corner or people in Victorian dress.

MJ rolls her eyes. "Ned, if there were dinosaurs, I'm pretty sure we'd know by now."

"Well, at least we're not in the 14th century," Ned mutters. "I don't think I could deal with the Black Plague." He looks around in wonder and confusion.

Peter shook his head, trying to organize his thoughts. "Towards the end of the tunnel, I kept seeing flashes of the past. Like the airport battle in Germany, and me in my old suit. Stuff that's already happened to us."

MJ frowned, her mind racing with the implications. "So we could be anywhere in the past? That's... not good."

"Understatement of the century," Ned muttered, nervously fidgeting with the hem of his shirt.

Peter shakes his head, pacing anxiously to the mouth of the alley to look out into the street. "No, not that far back. But definitely not our time. The technology, the fashions, the cars... it all looks like it's from a several years ago."

Ned blinks, realization dawning on his face. "Oh man. We're in a real-life time travel situation. This is just like Back to the Future!"

MJ shoots him a look. "Ned, focus. This isn't a movie. We're stuck in the past with no way back and no idea what to do next."

Peter's heart is racing, his mind whirling with the implications of their situation. They're lost in time, stranded in a New York that's both familiar and foreign. And it's all his fault.

"I'm sorry," he says, his voice cracking with emotion. "I'm so sorry, guys. I never meant for this to happen. I never wanted to drag you into my mess."

Ned puts a hand on his shoulder, his expression softening. "Hey, it's not your fault, man. We're in this together, remember? Friends till the end of the line, even if that line is more like a loop right now."

MJ nods, her fierce determination shining through. "Ned's right. We're a team, Peter. We'll figure this out, just like we always do."

Peter takes a deep breath, trying to center himself. They're right. They're in this together, and they'll find a way out together. Now is not the time to freak out. First, they need to figure out exactly when and where they are.

"Okay," he says, his mind shifting into problem-solving mode. "First things first. We need to establish our temporal coordinates. Let's look for clues, anything that can give us a hint about the date."

They fan out, searching the alleyway for any scrap of information. Ned rummages through a nearby dumpster, his nose wrinkling at the smell. Peter examines the graffiti, looking for any tags or references that could pinpoint the year.

MJ walks towards the entry to the alley, looking remarkably unruffled for someone who's just been dragged through time. She glances around, her keen eyes taking in every detail. "Judging by the technology and the general air of existential dread, I'd say we're somewhere in the early 21st century."

Peter and Ned stare at her, mouths agape. "How do you know that?" Peter asks, awe in his voice.

MJ shrugs. "I recognize that iPhone model. It's from around 2008, I think. Also, there's a newspaper over there with today's date."

The boys follow her gaze to a discarded newspaper lying on a nearby dumpster. Sure enough, the date is clearly visible: June 24, 2009.

Peter rushes towards the paper, its pages fluttering in the breeze. He snatches it up, his eyes scanning the headlines.

"June 24, 2009," MJ reads aloud. "We've gone back fifteen years."

Ned whistles lowly. "Wow. That's... that's a long time. I mean, not in the grand scheme of things, but for us? We were just little kids back then."

Peter nods, his mind reeling with the implications. 2009. Before Thanos, before the Snap, before everything that had defined their lives for the past few years. It's a world that's achingly familiar yet strangely alien.

"Okay," he says, trying to wrap his head around their situation. "So we're in 2009. That's... that's not so bad, right? I mean, at least we're not in the middle of a world war or…"

MJ raises an eyebrow. "Not so bad? Peter, we're trapped in the past with no way home and no idea how to get back. I'd say that's pretty bad."

Peter winces, the weight of their predicament settling heavily on his shoulders. She's right. They're in an impossible situation, and it's all because of him.

"I'm sorry," he says again, his voice raw with emotion. "This is all my fault. If I hadn't been so stubborn, if I had just accepted the rejection letter from MIT, if I had just let Strange cast the spell..."

Ned shakes his head, his expression fierce. "No way, man. You were trying to do the right thing. You were trying to protect the people you love. That's what heroes do."

MJ puts a hand on his arm, her touch gentle but firm. "Ned's right, Peter. You can't blame yourself for this. We all made our choices, and you had no say in what we decided."

Peter takes a shuddering breath, trying to draw strength from his friends' words. Okay, wallowing in guilt isn't going to get them anywhere. They need to focus on the task at hand - finding a way back to their own time.

"Okay," he says, squaring his shoulders. "Okay, you're right. We need a plan. We need to figure out our next move."

Ned nods, his brow furrowed in thought. "Well, we know we're in New York. That's a start. Maybe we could see if we can find someone who can help us? What about the Avengers?"

Peter quirks an eyebrow at his friend. "And how do you plan on getting into the tower and up to the 90th floor to talk to them?" Peter blinks before a look of dawning horror crosses his face. "Oh my God! The Avengers aren't even the Avengers yet!"

Their faces fall as the realization hits them. The Avengers aren't a thing yet - Tony Stark has only been Iron Man for a year or so, Thor is still in Asgard, and Captain America is still frozen in ice. And who knows where Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Dr. Banner are. They have no one to turn to for help.

"Oh man, this is bad. This is really, really bad," Ned says, running a hand through his hair in distress. "What are we supposed to do? We're stuck in the past with no way to get home!"

MJ's brow furrows in concentration as she considers their options. "Okay, let's think this through. We know we're in 2009, before the Avengers assembled. So that means we can't go to them for help."

She turns to Peter, her gaze unwavering. "Is there anybody else you can think of? Surely there's someone else you can reach out to for help."

Peter's mind races, trying to think of anyone they can turn to. But the list is distressingly short. "I... I don't know. I didn't really interact with anybody besides Mr. Stark that could help us."

Ned opens his mouth to reply before stopping. "Oh yeah. You haven't met Mr. Stark yet." He slumps down. "Which means he wouldn't even let us in the door."

Peter grimaces but nods reluctantly. As much as he would like to run straight to Mr. Stark (He's alive! He's alive! Oh my god, Mr. Stark is alive!) and have him fix everything, they can't.

Peter lets out a heavy sigh, running a hand through his hair in frustration. "You're right, Ned. Mr. Stark is still in California right now. He hasn't made the move to New York yet."

He paces back and forth in the narrow alleyway, his mind racing. "Okay, think, Parker, think. If we can't go to the Avengers, who else do we know from this time period that might be able to help us?"

MJ frowns, her mind working a mile a minute. "What about Doctor Strange? Could he help us?"

Peter's heart leaps at the thought, a flicker of hope igniting in his chest. Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme, master of the mystic arts. If anyone could help them navigate the treacherous waters of time travel, it would be him.

But just as quickly as the hope had risen, it crashes back down, reality settling in like a lead weight.

"Doctor Strange isn't the Sorcerer Supreme yet," Peter says, his voice heavy with realization. "He once told me that he was just a surgeon until he had his accident in 2016. That's when he went looking and learned of his magic."

Ned's face falls, disappointment etching his features. "Oh. I didn't know that."

MJ sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose. "So we're on our own, then. No Avengers, no Sorcerer Supreme, no one to turn to for help."

Peter nods, the enormity of their task looming before them. They're just three teenagers, lost in a time that's not their own, with nothing but their wits to guide them and each other to depend on.

He looks at Ned, at MJ, at the two people who have been by his side through thick and thin. "We're a team. We're more than that - we're family. And family doesn't give up on each other, no matter what."

Ned nods, a smile tugging at his lips. "Damn right. Team Spider-Man, forever and always."

MJ rolls her eyes, but there's a hint of a smile on her face too. "I prefer 'Team Dork Squad,' but I guess that works too."

Peter grins, feeling a spark of hope reignite in his heart. They can do this. They can find a way back, as long as they stick together.

"Alright," he says, clapping his hands together. "First things first - we need to blend in. I'll stick out like a sore thumb if I have to talk to anybody." He gestures to his suit. "I'm pretty sure that I can't walk around like this."

MJ nods, her brow furrowed in thought. "Good point. We need to find you some period-appropriate attire, so we don't draw too much attention to ourselves." MJ's practical nature kicks in as she surveys their situation. "Okay, before we do anything else, we need to know what resources we have. Let's check our pockets and see how much cash we've got to work with."

Peter and Ned nod in agreement, and all three begin digging through their pockets. They pull out crumpled bills and loose change, piling it up on a nearby dumpster lid.

Peter counts out a few twenties and some ones. "I've got about fifty-three dollars," he announces.

Ned adds his contribution to the pile. "I've got twenty-eight bucks and some change."

MJ empties her pockets last. "Nineteen dollars and seventy-five cents," she reports.

They tally up their combined funds, and Peter does a quick mental calculation. "That's just over a hundred dollars total," he says, a mix of relief and concern in his voice.

Ned's eyes widen. "A hundred bucks? That's not bad, right? I mean, it's 2009, so things are probably cheaper."

MJ shakes her head, her expression serious. "It's not much to work with, especially if we need to buy clothes and food. We'll have to be careful with how we spend it."

Peter nods, his mind already working on their next steps. "Okay, so we've got about a hundred dollars. That's something to start with, at least. We can probably find some cheap clothes at a thrift store or something."

Ned grins, rubbing his hands together. "Ooh, can I get one of those velour tracksuits? I've always wanted one of those."

MJ sighs and shakes her head in exasperation. "Ned, we're trying to blend in, not audition for a teen movie."

Peter laughs, feeling some of the tension drain from his shoulders. Leave it to his friends to find the humor in even the darkest of situations.

"Okay, team," he says, a hint of his old bravado returning. "Operation Temporal Camouflage is a go. Let's find Peter some clothes and start figuring out our next move."

**********

MJ and Ned scour the alley, sifting through dumpsters and discarded piles with a determination usually reserved for finding the last piece of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

"Aha!" Ned cries triumphantly, holding up a ratty old blanket that's seen better decades. "This should do the trick."

Peter eyes the tattered fabric dubiously. "Uh, you sure about that, man? Looks like it came straight out of a hobo's shopping cart."

Ned shoots him an indignant look. "Dude, beggars can't be choosers. Unless you want to walk around in that suit and get mistaken for a Times Square Elmo?"

A shudder runs through Peter at the thought. "You make a fair point."

MJ snatches the blanket from Ned's hands, already formulating a plan. "Alright, Spider-Bum, strip."

Peter's eyes go wide. "What? Here? In the alley?"

She fixes him with a deadpan stare. "Would you rather do it on the sidewalk? C'mon, we don't have all day."

Cheeks burning, Peter reluctantly starts peeling off the outer layers of his suit, leaving him in just his boxer-briefs. Ned lets out a low whistle. "Dang, Pete, no wonder MJ's into you. Looking good!"

Peter shoots his friend a withering glare as MJ starts tearing the blanket into long strips. "Can we maybe focus here?"

With a surprising deftness, she starts wrapping the makeshift bandages around Peter's torso, creating a makeshift tunic of sorts. Ned unhelpfully provides commentary the whole time.

"Ooh, looking very Lawrence of Arabia chic!"

"Now you just need a fez and you're set!"

"I'm getting major Aladdin vibes here."

By the time MJ finishes, Peter resembles a cross between a streetwise vagabond and a reject from a low-budget fantasy movie. He looks down at himself and sighs. "I look ridiculous."

MJ steps back, appraising her work with a critical eye. "You look like you just came from a Renaissance fair. But at least you don't look like a superhero anymore."

Ned nods enthusiastically. "Totally. You could walk right down the street and no one would give you a second glance!"

As if on cue, a grizzled old man wanders past the alley entrance, does a double-take at Peter's eccentric getup, and immediately crosses to the other side of the street without a word.

Peter throws up his hands. "See? Even the locals think I look nuts!"

MJ smirks. "Well, if the rags fit..."

Peter shoots her a half-hearted glare, but there's no real venom behind it. In that moment, he's reminded of just how lucky he is to have friends like MJ and Ned by his side, even in the most bizarre of circ*mstances.

Ned claps him on the shoulder, grinning from ear to ear. "C'mon, man, you gotta admit - it's a great look for you! Very hobo-chic."

Peter can't help but crack a smile at that, shaking his head in bemused exasperation. "You're lucky you're my best friend, dude."

With a resigned sigh, he starts leading the way out of the alley, his ragtag disguise flapping in the light breeze. MJ and Ned trail behind, snickering at his makeshift ensemble.

**********

The trio makes their way out of the alley, stepping out onto the bustling streets of New York. Peter feels a strange mixture of nostalgia and unease as he takes in the familiar sights and sounds. It's the city he knows and loves, but it's also a city frozen in time, before the world-shaking events that would soon change it forever.

As they walk, Peter can't help but marvel at the differences. The cars are older models, the fashion more dated, and the skyline is missing the distinctive Stark Tower that he's so used to seeing. It's a grim reminder of just how far back in time they've been thrown.

"Whoa, look at those pants," Ned whispers, eyeing a passerby with a bemused expression. "I can't believe people actually wore those."

The trio weaves their way through the bustling streets of Manhattan, their eyes peeled for any clothing store that might offer a way to blend in with the 2009 crowd. The fashions around them are at once familiar and foreign - skinny jeans, cardigans, and a truly alarming number of tracksuits.

"I feel like I'm in a hipster theme park," MJ mutters, eyeing a group of bearded men in flannel shirts and beanies.

Ned grins, pointing to a store window displaying an array of velour tracksuits. "Ooh, look! It's like a time capsule of bad fashion choices."

Peter can't help but laugh, some of the tension draining from his shoulders.

They duck into a thrift store, the racks overflowing with a dizzying array of styles from the past few decades. Ned makes a beeline for the tracksuits, while MJ peruses a selection of vintage band tees.

Peter, meanwhile, finds himself drawn to a rack of hoodies and flannel shirts. He selects a few items, holding them up to himself in the mirror.

"What do you think?" he asks, turning to his friends. "Do I look like a 2009 teenager?"

MJ tilts her head, appraising him critically. "Needs more angst. Try scowling a bit."

Ned emerges from the dressing room, drowning in a brown velour tracksuit. "Guys, I think this thing is trying to eat me."

Peter and MJ burst out laughing, the absurdity of the moment temporarily eclipsing their worries.

They purchase an outfit for Peter and have him change into it, feeling slightly more prepared to face the challenges ahead.

As they step back out onto the street, Ned's stomach lets out a massive growl. "Uh, guys? I think my stomach didn't get the memo about us being in the past. It still wants food."

Peter checks his pockets, relief washing over him as he finds a few crumpled bills. "We've got some cash left. Let's find a food truck or something."

They wander the streets, marveling at the subtle differences a decade makes. The smartphones in people's hands are clunkier, the hairstyles a touch more awkward. But the city itself is the same - vibrant, chaotic, alive.

They find a food truck selling tacos and settle on a nearby bench to eat. As they dig in, Peter's mind whirs with the enormity of their situation.

"Guys," he says, swallowing a mouthful of carnitas. "I've been thinking. We need to find someone who can help us, someone who understands magic and time travel."

MJ raises an eyebrow. "I thought we established that Doctor Strange isn't an option."

Peter nods, his brow furrowed. "Right. But maybe... maybe there's someone else. Dr. Strange couldn't have been the only Sorcerer Supreme. It's a title which means there had to have been someone who had it before him, right?"

Ned's eyes widen, realization dawning. "Oh, dude. You're not thinking..."

Peter grins, excitement bubbling in his chest. "The Sanctum Sanctorum. Home of the Masters of the Mystic Arts. If anyone can help us, it's them."

MJ nods. "Way to start using your brains losers." She then frowns, uncertainty clouding her features. "But will they? We're just a bunch of kids to them. Why would they help us?"

Peter's jaw sets, determination hardening his gaze. "Because it's what heroes do. They help people, no matter who they are or where they're from. And right now, we need their help more than ever."

Ned nods, a smile spreading across his face. "Sanctum Sanctorum, here we come. Let's just hope they're cool with unannounced visitors from the future."

MJ rolls her eyes with a hint of a smile. "Well, if they're not, we can always just tell them we're cosplayers who got really lost on the way to Comic-Con."

Peter laughs, feeling a flicker of hope reignite in his chest. It's a long shot, he knows - but it's the best shot they've got.

MJ nods. "Sounds like a plan. Lead the way, Spider-Man."

Peter's grin widens, the familiar thrill of a new adventure coursing through his veins. "Alright, team. Let's go pay the Sanctum a visit. What's the worst that could happen?"

They weave through the crowds, marveling at the subtle differences a decade makes. The fashions, the technology, the very air itself - it's all just a little bit off, a little bit not quite right.

But they press on, their destination clear in their minds. The New York Sanctum, home of the mystic arts and their best hope for getting back to their own time.

Of course, they'll have to navigate the city without drawing too much attention to themselves. No easy feat when you're a trio of time-displaced teenagers with a penchant for attracting trouble.

But hey, that's just part of the fun, right? After all, what's a little temporal displacement between friends?

**********

As they round a corner, the imposing facade of the Sanctum comes into view, its ancient stonework a stark contrast to the modern buildings surrounding it.

Peter takes a deep breath, steeling himself for whatever lies ahead. "Alright, guys. This is it. The moment of truth."

Ned grins, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "Man, I can't wait to meet some more real-life wizards. Do you think they'll let me try on the Cloak of Levitation?"

MJ shoots him a look, her brow furrowed. "Ned, we're here to get help, not play dress-up. Besides, I'm pretty sure they aren't going to let us anywhere near important things like that."

Peter can't help but laugh, the banter between his friends easing the tension in his chest. "Guys, focus. We need to make a good impression here. The fate of our timeline could depend on it."

With that, he steps forward, raising his hand to knock on the heavy wooden door.

Here goes nothing...

Notes:

Just for sh*ts and giggles: They trio left on December 14, 2024 and went back in time:
14 years
14 months
14 weeks
14 days
14 hours
14 minutes
cause they spent about 14 minutes in the time tunnel. :D

Chapter 2: You Can't Go Home Again

Chapter Text

The imposing wooden door of the New York Sanctum looms before Peter, MJ, and Ned, its ancient carvings and intricate symbols hinting at the mystical secrets that lie within. Peter takes a deep breath, steeling himself for the conversation to come. He raises his hand and knocks, the sound echoing through the quiet street.

For a moment, nothing happens. Then, with a creak that sounds like it belongs in a haunted house, the door swings open, revealing a tall, imposing man in flowing robes. His dark skin gleams in the afternoon light, and his eyes are sharp and assessing as he takes in the trio of teenagers on his doorstep.

"Can I help you?" he asks, his voice deep and rich.

Peter swallows, suddenly feeling very small and very out of his depth. "Um, hi. I'm Peter. Peter Parker. And these are my friends, MJ and Ned. We're, uh, we're here to see the Sorcerer Supreme."

The man's eyebrows shoot up, surprise flickering across his features. "The Sorcerer Supreme? I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about, young man."

Peter's heart sinks. Of course it wouldn't be that easy. "No, no, I know this sounds crazy, but we really need to speak to the Sorcerer Supreme. It's a matter of, like, cosmic importance."

The man folds his arms across his chest, his expression skeptical. "Cosmic importance, you say? And just how do three teenagers know about the Masters of the Mystic Arts?"

Peter takes a deep breath, trying to figure out how to explain their situation without sounding like a complete lunatic. "Okay, so, this is going to sound totally bananas, but we're from the future. Like, fifteen years in the future. And we got sent back in time by this crazy magical artifact called the Time Stone, which we lost in the time vortex thingy, and now we're stuck here, and we really, really need the Sorcerer Supreme's help to get back to our own time."

The man stares at them, his expression unreadable. For a moment, Peter thinks he's going to slam the door in their faces and tell them to get lost. But then, to his surprise, the man steps back, gesturing for them to enter.

"You'd better come inside," he says, his voice resigned. "I am Master Daniel Drumm, the guardian of this Sanctum. And if what you say is true, then we have much to discuss."

Relief floods through Peter as he steps over the threshold, MJ and Ned close behind. The interior of the Sanctum is just as impressive as the exterior, with high, arched ceilings and strange, arcane artifacts lining the walls.

Ned's eyes are wide as saucers as he takes it all in, his mouth hanging open in awe. "Dude," he whispers, nudging Peter with his elbow. "We're in a real-life wizard house again. How cool is that?"

MJ snorts. "Ned, focus. We're here for a reason, remember?"

Master Drumm leads them into a large, circular room, gesturing for them to take a seat on the plush, velvet couches. "Wait here," he says, his voice stern. "I will inform the Sorcerer Supreme of your arrival."

As soon as he's gone, Ned leaps to his feet, his eyes shining with excitement. "Guys, we have to explore this place. I mean, when are we ever going to get another chance to see inside a real magical sanctuary?"

Peter hesitates, torn between his own curiosity and the knowledge that they're here on a mission. "I don't know, Ned. We don't want to get in trouble."

MJ smirks, already moving towards a glass case filled with glowing, pulsing crystals. "Peter, we're already in trouble. We might as well make the most of it."

Peter sighs, but he can't help the grin that spreads across his face as he joins his friends in their impromptu tour of the Sanctum. They wander through room after room, marveling at the strange and wondrous sights that greet them at every turn.

There are tapestries that seem to move and shimmer of their own accord, their threads weaving stories of ancient battles and long-forgotten sorcerers. There are jars filled with glowing, viscous liquids that bubble and churn, their contents a mystery. And there are books, so many books, their spines cracked and worn, their pages filled with secrets and spells.

Ned is in his element, his eyes wide with wonder as he takes it all in. "This is like Hogwarts on steroids," he breathes, running his fingers along the spine of a particularly massive tome. "I wonder if they have a sorting hat."

MJ scoffs, but there's a gleam of interest in her eyes as she examines a delicate, silver instrument that looks like a cross between a sextant and a kaleidoscope. "I doubt it, Ned. This place seems a bit more... intense than Hogwarts."

Peter nods, his gaze drawn to a shimmering, ethereal portal that seems to hover in midair, its edges crackling with energy. "Yeah, I don't think they mess around with magic here. This is serious stuff."

As if on cue, the sound of footsteps echoes through the hall, and the trio whirls around to see Master Drumm approaching, a slight frown on his face. But it's the figure beside him that makes Peter's heart skip a beat.

She's tall and slender, with skin as pale as moonlight and eyes that seem to hold the secrets of the universe. She's dressed in flowing robes of deep brown and brilliant orange, and there's an aura of power that seems to radiate from her very being. He remembers Dr. Strange mentioning her before when he was explaining how he had discovered his magic.

"Whoa, the Ancient One" Peter whispers, his voice filled with awe.

The Sorcerer Supreme inclines her head, a small smile playing at the corners of her lips. "Peter Parker," she says, her voice soft and melodic. "I have been expecting you."

Peter blinks, confusion and surprise warring on his features. "You... you have?"

The Ancient One nods, her gaze drifting to MJ and Ned. "And Michelle Jones and Ned Leeds. Welcome to the New York Sanctum."

MJ frowns, her eyes narrowing. "How do you know our names?"

The Ancient One's smile widens, and there's a glint of mischief in her eyes. "I am the Sorcerer Supreme, my dear. There is little that escapes my notice, especially when it comes to matters of time and space."

Peter swallows, suddenly feeling very exposed. "So, you know why we're here? About the rifts and the Time Stone and everything?"

The Ancient One nods, her expression turning serious. "I do. And I must say, your situation is quite... unique."

Ned leans forward, his eyes wide. "Unique how? Like, good unique or bad unique?"

The Ancient One chuckles, gesturing for them to follow her as she moves towards a set of ornate, winding stairs. "That remains to be seen, Mr. Leeds. But I can assure you, your presence here has already had a profound impact on the fabric of reality."

Peter's heart sinks, guilt and fear churning in his gut. "We didn't mean to cause any trouble," he says, his voice small. "We just want to get back to our own time."

The Ancient One pauses at the top of the stairs, turning to face them. Her expression is unreadable, but there's a hint of sympathy in her eyes. "I understand, Peter. But I'm afraid it's not that simple."

She leads them into a large, circular room, its walls lined with ancient tomes and glowing artifacts. In the center of the room is a pedestal, and atop it rests a large, ornate bowl filled with shimmering, silvery liquid.

"This," the Ancient One says, gesturing to the bowl, "is the Orb of Agamotto. It allows us to peer into the myriad possibilities of time and space, to see the branching paths of reality."

She dips her fingers into the liquid, and suddenly the room is filled with shimmering, ghostly images. Peter sees himself and his friends, their faces familiar yet different, their eyes haunted by experiences he can only imagine.

"Your presence here," the Ancient One says, her voice soft, "has created a new branch in the timeline. A reality where Peter Parker, Michelle Jones, and Ned Leeds exist fifteen years before their time."

Peter frowns, trying to wrap his head around the concept. "But how is that possible? Shouldn't we have, like, replaced our younger selves or something?"

The Ancient One shakes her head, a small smile playing at her lips. "No, Peter. Your souls are too different, too marked by the experiences you have endured. The Infinity War, the Blip, the multiverse rifts... these things have shaped you in ways that your younger selves cannot comprehend. Your younger bodies would be unable to handle such differences in soul weight and would immediately start to fail and break down."

MJ steps forward, her brow furrowed. "So, what does that mean for us? Can we still get back to our own time?"

The Ancient One's expression turns grave, and Peter feels a chill run down his spine. "I'm afraid not, Michelle. The timeline you came from... is no longer open to you. The moment you entered this reality, your own futures were erased."

The color drained from Peter's face as the Ancient One's words sank in. MJ's eyes widened in shock, and Ned stumbled back, his mouth hanging open.

"What?" Peter gasped, his voice barely above a whisper. "That's... that's impossible."

MJ shook her head, her usual composure cracking. "No, there has to be some mistake. We can't just be... erased."

Ned's voice trembled as he spoke. "But what about our families? Our friends? They're just... gone?"

The Ancient One's expression softened, her eyes filled with sympathy. "I'm afraid it's more complicated than that. The combination of the Time Stone's power, the multiversal rifts caused by your adventure, and the completion of Dr. Strange's spell in your original timeline has created a unique situation. You three have been completely removed from that reality."

Peter's mind raced, trying to make sense of it all. "But how? Why?"

"The spell was meant to make everyone forget Peter Parker," the Ancient One explained. "But with the added chaos of the Time Stone and the multiversal disturbances, it seems the spell went further than intended. Instead of just erasing memories, it erased your very existence from that timeline."

MJ's fists clenched at her sides. "So what, we just don't exist anymore? Everything we've been through, everything we've done... it's all gone?"

The Ancient One nodded solemnly. "In that timeline, yes. But you exist here, now. Your memories, your experiences, they are still real. You carry them with you, even if the world you came from no longer remembers."

Peter staggers back, his heart pounding in his chest. "No," he whispers, his voice cracking. "No, that can't be true. There has to be a way back. There has to be..."

But even as he says the words, he knows they're hollow. He can see the truth in the Ancient One's eyes, the sorrow and the regret.

And suddenly, it's all too much. The weight of what he's done, the realization of what he's lost, comes crashing down on him like a tidal wave. He sinks to his knees, tears streaming down his face as he gasps for breath.

"I'm sorry," he chokes out, his voice raw with emotion. "I'm so sorry, guys. This is all my fault. I dragged you into this, and now... now we're stuck here, and it's all because of me."

MJ and Ned are at his side in an instant, their arms wrapping around him in a fierce embrace.

Peter's chest heaved as sobs wracked his body, the weight of his guilt crushing him like a vise. MJ and Ned held him tightly, their own eyes glistening with unshed tears as they struggled to find the words to comfort their friend.

"Pete, man, this isn't your fault," Ned said, his voice thick with emotion. "None of us could have seen this coming."

Peter shook his head violently, his fingers digging into the fabric of Ned's shirt. "But it is my fault, Ned. If I hadn't been so reckless, so stupid, we wouldn't be in this mess."

MJ's hand rubbed soothing circles on Peter's back, but her expression was grim. "Peter, beating yourself up isn't going to change anything. We're here, and we have to figure out what to do next."

Peter lifted his head, his eyes red-rimmed and haunted. "What is there to do, MJ? We're stuck here, in the past, with no way home. Our families, our friends... they're gone. Erased. And it's because of me."

Ned swallowed hard, his own eyes glistening. "Dude, you can't think like that."

MJ's grip on Peter tightened, her voice firm. "You listen to me, Peter Parker. This isn't the end. We're still here, we're still alive, and we're going to figure this out. Together."

Peter shook his head, his shoulders slumping in defeat. "How, MJ? How can we possibly fix this?"

The Ancient One watched the scene unfold, her expression solemn. She could sense the turmoil within each of them, the grief and confusion that threatened to overwhelm them. But she also sensed something else, a glimmer of strength and resilience that burned bright, even in the face of such overwhelming despair.

Stepping forward, she cleared her throat gently. "Peter, I know this is a difficult situation to comprehend, let alone accept. But Michelle is right. You are not alone in this."

Peter lifted his head, his eyes meeting hers with a desperate sort of hope. "But what can we do? You said it yourself, our timeline is gone. Erased."

The Ancient One nodded. "That is true. But that does not mean your journey is over. Your path has simply taken an unexpected turn, one that will require you to adapt and grow in ways you cannot yet imagine."

MJ frowned, her brow furrowing. "What do you mean?"

The Ancient One shook her head. "There are always options, always paths to explore. But it will take time, and it will require you to embrace the uncertainty of your situation."

A small smile tugged at the corners of the Ancient One's mouth. "The possibilities are endless, but you must be willing to open your minds and your hearts to them."

Peter took a shuddering breath, his fingers still clutching at MJ and Ned's shirts like lifelines. The pain was still there, the grief and guilt still gnawing at him. But there was something else, too – a glimmer of hope, a spark of determination that refused to be extinguished.

Peter's voice cracked as he voiced the practical concerns that had been swirling in his mind. His voice wavered, a blend of despair and exasperation coloring his words. "And what are we supposed to do?" he questioned, giving voice to the practical hurdles that loomed before them. "We're penniless, homeless, and for all intents and purposes, we might as well be ghosts in this reality."

The Ancient One regarded him with a calm, steady gaze. "Those are valid concerns, Peter. But they are not insurmountable obstacles."

MJ nodded, her analytical mind already working on solutions. "She's right. We've faced worse odds before." She quirks a brow and sarcastically adds, "At least this isn't a life or death situation that we have a very limited amount of time to figure out."

All three wince at the reference to what they had gone through over the past few days dealing with villains and other heroes, culminating in the battle at the Statue of Liberty.

Ned shakes himself out of the remembered trauma and nods, squeezing Peter's shoulder. "Yeah, dude. We're a team. The three amigos. Team... Team Spidey. We'll figure this out"

Despite himself, Peter feels a laugh bubble up in his throat. "Team Spidey? Really, Ned?"

Ned grins, shrugging his shoulders. "Hey, I'm working on it. Give me a break, I'm under a lot of stress here."

MJ rolls her eyes, but there's a fondness in her gaze as she looks at them both. "The point is, Peter, we're here for you. No matter what happens, no matter where or when we end up... we've got your back."

Peter takes a shuddering breath, wiping the tears from his eyes. He looks up at the Ancient One, who has been watching their exchange with a mixture of sorrow and understanding.

"What do we do now?" he asks, his voice small. "Where do we go from here?"

The Ancient One smiles, and there's a warmth in her gaze that makes Peter feel just a little bit less lost. "For now," she says, "you rest. You have been through an ordeal, and you need time to heal, both physically and emotionally."

She gestures to a doorway at the far end of the room. "There are chambers prepared for you. You may stay here, in the Sanctum, for as long as you need."

Peter nods, gratitude welling up in his chest. "Thank you," he whispers, his voice hoarse. "Thank you for everything."

The Ancient One inclines her head, a small smile playing at her lips. "You are welcome, Peter Parker. Now, go. Rest. We will speak more in the morning."

Peter allows MJ and Ned to help him to his feet, leaning on them as they make their way towards the chambers the Ancient One had indicated.

The room is simple but comfortable, with three small beds arranged in a cozy semicircle. Peter sinks down onto the nearest one, his body suddenly heavy with exhaustion.

MJ and Ned exchange a glance, and without a word, they move to push the other two beds closer to Peter's, creating a sort of makeshift nest.

"We're staying with you tonight," MJ says, her tone brooking no argument. "We know there are going to be nightmares, Peter. We don't have to face them alone."

Ned nods, already kicking off his shoes and clambering onto the bed on Peter's other side. "Yeah, man. We've got you. Always."

Peter feels a lump form in his throat, his eyes stinging with fresh tears. But this time, they're tears of gratitude, of love for these two incredible people who have stood by him through everything.

"I don't know what I did to deserve you guys," he whispers, his voice thick with emotion.

MJ smiles, brushing a stray curl from his forehead. "You didn't have to do anything, loser. We love you. That's all there is to it."

Ned nods, his arm draping across Peter's chest in a sleepy hug. "Yeah, dude. You're stuck with us. In this timeline and every other one."

Peter chuckles, the sound thick and watery. He closes his eyes, letting the warmth and comfort of his friends' presence wash over him.

Tomorrow, he knows, there will be challenges to face. Questions to answer, decisions to make. The future is a vast, unknowable thing, stretching out before them in an endless sea of possibilities.

But for now, in this moment, Peter allows himself to just be. To exist in the space between heartbeats, surrounded by some of the people he loves most in the world.

"Goodnight, guys," he whispers, his voice already heavy with sleep. "I love you."

And as he drifts off into a dreamless slumber, he swears he can hear their voices echoing back to him, a promise and a prayer all in one.

"We love you too, Peter. Always."

**********

The first thing Peter notices when he wakes up is the warmth. It's not the artificial heat of a furnace or the stifling blanket of a summer day, but rather the comforting presence of two bodies curled around him, their steady breathing a soothing rhythm in the quiet of the room.

For a moment, he's confused, his sleep-fogged brain struggling to make sense of his surroundings. But then, like a tidal wave crashing over him, the memories of the previous day come flooding back.

The rift. The Time Stone. The Ancient One's revelations about their new reality.

Peter's heart clenches, a fresh wave of panic and guilt threatening to overwhelm him. But then he feels MJ stir beside him, her sleepy mumble a reminder of the unbreakable bond they share.

"Morning, loser," she murmurs, her voice rough with sleep. "You okay?"

Peter takes a shuddering breath, turning to face her. "Yeah," he whispers, his voice cracking. "I mean, no. But... I will be."

Ned, who has been snoring softly on Peter's other side, chooses that moment to let out a particularly loud snort, startling himself awake.

"Whuzzat? Who's there?" he mumbles, flailing his arms in sleepy confusion.

MJ snorts, rolling her eyes fondly. "It's just us, Ned. Your friends. The ones you're currently crushing with your octopus limbs."

Ned blinks, slowly coming back to himself. "Oh. Right. Sorry, guys."

He untangles himself from the cuddle pile, stretching his arms over his head with a yawn. "So... what's the plan for today? Besides, you know, figuring out how to navigate the wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff we've gotten ourselves into."

Peter can't help but chuckle at Ned's Doctor Who reference. Trust his best friend to find the perfect pop culture quote for their absolutely insane situation.

"I guess we start with breakfast," he says, pushing himself up to a sitting position. "And then... we figure out what comes next."

MJ nods, her expression serious. "We're in this together, Peter. No matter what happens, no matter what we decide... we're a team."

Ned grins, holding out his hand for a fist bump. "Spidey-Squad forever, baby!"

Peter laughs, returning the fist bump with a smile. "Spidey-Squad forever," he agrees.

They make their way down to the Sanctum's kitchen, following the enticing scent of freshly brewed coffee and sizzling bacon. The Ancient One is already there, her hands wrapped around a steaming mug as she regards them with a small smile.

"Good morning," she says, gesturing to the spread of food on the table. "I trust you slept well?"

Peter nods, his stomach rumbling at the sight of the heaping plates of eggs, toast, bacon, and fruit. "Thank you," he says, taking a seat at the table. "For everything."

The Ancient One inclines her head, her expression turning serious. "Have you given any thought to your plans moving forward?" she asks, her tone gentle but probing.

Peter exchanges a glance with MJ and Ned, the weight of the decision settling heavily on their shoulders.

"We have some ideas," MJ says, her brow furrowed in thought. "But we're not sure what the right path is."

Ned nods, shoveling a forkful of eggs into his mouth. "Yeah, like... do we try to keep things the same? Or do we take this opportunity to change things, make the world better?"

Peter sighs, running a hand through his hair. "And what about our families? Our friends? Do we tell them the truth, or do we keep quiet to avoid messing up the timeline even more?"

Ned nods, his eyes sad. "Yeah, and even if they did believe us, what would we tell them? 'Hey, we're your kids from the future, here to save the world?'"

Peter's thoughts drift to Uncle Ben and Aunt May, a pang of longing tugging at his heart. The idea of seeing them again, alive and well, is almost too much to bear.

But how can he approach them? They have their own nephew in this timeline, a version of Peter untouched by the tragedies that shaped his path as Spider-Man. Would they even believe his wild tale of time travel and alternate realities?

He shakes his head, pushing the tempting thoughts aside. "I don't know if we can tell them," he says quietly, his voice heavy with regret. "At least, not the full truth."

MJ's eyes soften with understanding. She reaches across the table, covering Peter's hand with her own in a comforting gesture. "It's a lot to take in, I know. But we've done weirder things than try and convince our families that we traveled through time."

Ned sighs, running a hand through his hair. "I guess you're right. It's just... it's hard, you know? Being here, knowing they're out there, but not being able to see them."

Peter turns his hand over to grasp hers. "I know, guys. I feel it too. But maybe... maybe this is an opportunity."

Ned frowns, curious. "What do you mean, Peter?"

"Well," Peter begins, his voice hesitant, "what if I could help my younger self? Mentor him, guide him, so he doesn't have to go through all the struggles I did?"

MJ raises an eyebrow. "You want to mentor mini-Peter? Isn't that kind of a paradox?"

Peter shrugs, a small smile tugging at his lips. "I mean, we're already messing with the timeline just by being here. Why not make the most of it?"

The Ancient One, who has been listening quietly, clears her throat. All eyes turn to her, curious.

"I'm afraid it's not quite that simple, Peter," she says, her voice gentle but firm. "In any given universe, there can only be one Spider. One chosen vessel for the powers of the spider."

Peter frowns, confusion etched on his features. "What do you mean?"

The Ancient One sighs, her gaze sympathetic. "Your presence here, in this timeline, means that the Peter Parker of this reality will never receive the bite that grants him his powers. The mantle of Spider-Man belongs to you, and you alone."

A heavy silence falls over the room as they absorb this information. Peter feels a rush of conflicting emotions - shock, disbelief, a crushing sense of responsibility.

MJ squeezes his hand, her voice soft but determined. "Hey. Look at me, Peter. It's not your fault, okay? You didn't choose this, you didn't fling yourself back in time on purpose. You couldn't have known that it would prevent mini-Peter from receiving the spider bite. You'll just have to do your best to make it up to him in other ways."

Ned nods fiercely, his eyes shining with loyalty. "Yeah, man. We've got your back. Time travel, alternate realities, super powers... we'll figure it out together. Plus, if your younger self can't be Spider-Man, at least he'll have more time for Lego and Star Wars marathons, right?"

Ned crosses his arms and smirks at them. "The Spidey-Squad sticks together, even if there's only one spider in the mix now."

Peter takes a shaky breath, feeling a rush of gratitude for his incredible friends. "Thanks, guys. I... I don't know what I'd do without you."

MJ smirks, a playful glint in her eye. "Crash and burn, probably. But that's what we're here for - to keep your spider-butt in line."

Peter laughs, the tension breaking like a spell. "Wow, thanks for the vote of confidence, MJ. Really feeling the love."

Ned grins, throwing his arms around them both. "Aww, you know we love you, Peter. Even if you are a timeline-hopping, reality-breaking trouble magnet."

Peter shakes his head, a rueful smile tugging at his lips. "Gee, thanks, Ned. You really know how to make a guy feel special."

**********

As they finish breakfast, the weight of their situation settles heavily upon them. Peter, MJ, and Ned exchange glances, each thinking about the implications of their new reality.

"So," Peter begins, his voice hesitant. "What do we do now? Do we just... lay low and try not to change anything?"

MJ frowns, her brow furrowed in thought. "I don't know, Peter. Can we really just sit back and do nothing? We have knowledge of the future, of things that could be prevented or changed for the better."

Ned nods, his expression troubled. "Yeah, like the whole Thanos thing. If we could find a way to stop that from happening..."

Peter sighs, running a hand through his hair. "I get that, guys. But we also don't know what kind of ripple effects our actions could have. What if we change something and it makes things worse?"

The trio lapses into a contemplative silence, each grappling with the weight of their situation and the enormity of the decisions before them.

"You know," MJ says, her voice pensive, "we really don't know all the details about what went down, do we?"

Peter frowns, his brow furrowing. "What do you mean?"

"Well, think about it," MJ continues. "We know the broad strokes – the Battle of New York, Ultron, the Accords, Thanos. But we were never really part of the inner circle, you know? You never joined the Avengers."

Peter nods slowly, realization dawning. "You're right. I was always kind of on the outside looking in when it came to the big stuff."

Ned chimes in, his expression thoughtful. "Yeah, like with Ultron. We know he happened, but we never really knew what set that whole thing off in the first place."

"Or the fight between Iron Man and Cap in Siberia," Peter adds. "We saw the aftermath, the divide it caused, but not what actually led to it."

MJ nods, her eyes alight with curiosity. "And what about Thor? We knew he showed up on Earth with Asgardian refugees, but we never heard the full story of why they had to leave Asgard."

Peter lets out a heavy sigh, running a hand through his hair. "It's like we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg, you know? All these huge, world-changing events, and we only ever got the surface details."

MJ leans back in her chair, a thoughtful expression on her face. "So, if I'm understanding this correctly, we're basically flying blind here. We know some big events happened, but we don't have enough details to really know if we can change anything without risking major consequences."

Peter nods, his brow furrowed. "Exactly. It's like we're looking at a giant jigsaw puzzle, but we're missing most of the pieces."

Ned lets out a frustrated sigh. "So what do we do, then? Do we just sit back and let everything play out like it did before? Or do we try to intervene, even if we might end up making things worse?"

The Ancient One listens patiently as they talk through their options, offering the occasional insight or question to guide their thinking. But ultimately, she makes it clear that the decision is theirs to make.

**********

The trio lapses into silence, each lost in their own thoughts. The weight of their situation hangs heavy in the air, the gravity of their choices pressing down on them.

Finally, Peter speaks up, his voice quiet but determined. "I think... I think we have to try."

MJ and Ned turn to look at him, surprise etched on their faces.

"Try?" MJ echoes. "But Peter, we don't know what could happen. We could end up making everything worse."

Peter nods, his expression resolute. "I know, MJ. Believe me, I know the risks. But think about it – we were given this chance for a reason. Whether it was fate, or the universe, or some higher power, we were brought here. To this time, this place, with the knowledge we have."

He leans forward, his eyes shining with conviction. "We may not have all the pieces, but we have enough to start putting things together. And if we can prevent even a fraction of the pain and suffering that happened before, isn't it worth trying?"

Ned shifts in his seat, a conflicted look on his face. "But what if we screw things up, Peter? What if we change something and it has catastrophic consequences?"

Peter meets his gaze, his expression softening. "That's a risk we'll have to take, Ned. But we won't be going in blind. We'll be careful, we'll plan, and we'll take things one step at a time. And if we start to see things going off the rails, we'll re-evaluate."

He turns to MJ, his eyes searching hers. "What do you think, MJ? Are you with us?"

MJ takes a deep breath, her mind racing. She thinks of all the people that were lost, the battles that were fought, the sacrifices that were made. And in that moment, she knows what she has to do.

"You're right, Peter," she says, her voice steady. "We have to try. We may not have all the answers, but we have a chance to make things better. And if there's even a slim possibility of preventing of what our world went through, then it's a chance we have to take."

She looks at the two boys, a small smile tugging at her lips. "Besides, when have we ever played it safe? We're the Spidey-Squad, remember? We don't back down from a challenge."

Ned grins, his earlier hesitation melting away. "You got that right. Spidey-Squad for life!"

MJ nods, a determined gleam in her eye. "Alright, then. It's settled. We're going to do this, but we're going to do it smart. We'll start small, gather information, and take things one step at a time."

She holds out her hand, palm down, and Peter and Ned quickly place their hands on top of hers.

"For the Spidey-Squad," MJ says, her voice ringing with conviction.

"For the Spidey-Squad," Peter and Ned echo, their hands tightening around each other's in a silent vow.

**********

The trio spent the next few hours huddled together, racking their brains to recall every detail they could about the events that had unfolded in their original timeline. MJ took meticulous notes, her pen flying across the pages as Peter and Ned recounted what they knew.

Time seemed to blur as they delved into the recesses of their memories, piecing together fragments of conversations overheard, news reports glimpsed, and the occasional first-hand account from Peter's encounters with the Avengers.

Ned's brow furrowed as he struggled to remember the specifics of a particular battle. "I know there was some kind of fight in Germany," he said, running a hand through his hair. "But the details are kind of fuzzy."

Peter nodded, his expression pensive. "Yeah, I remember that too. Something about Loki fighting Iron Man and Captain America."

MJ's pen scratched furiously across the page, capturing their words. "Okay, so we have Loki in Germany. Anything else?"

The trio continued this way for hours, reconstructing the events of their former reality as best they could. They didn't dwell on specific details, knowing that too much information could prove dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.

As the afternoon wore on, their conversation began to shift, their minds turning to the future and the possibilities that lay before them.

"So, let's say we manage to gather enough intel," MJ said, tapping her pen against her notebook. "What then? How do we go about changing things without causing a catastrophic ripple effect?"

Peter leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed in thought. "I think we have to be really careful, take things one step at a time. Maybe start with smaller events, things that don't seem too directly tied to the bigger stuff."

Ned nodded, his eyes alight with excitement. "Yeah, like little course corrections. Nudges in the right direction, you know?"

MJ pursed her lips, considering their words. "That could work," she mused. "But we'd have to be incredibly strategic about it. Identify the key players, the pivotal moments, and figure out how to influence them without drawing too much attention to ourselves."

Peter ran a hand through his hair, his expression conflicted. "I know, but... is that really our place? To meddle in people's lives like that?"

Ned shrugged, his gaze earnest. "Maybe not, dude. But if it means preventing some of the awful stuff that went down, isn't it worth it?"

MJ nodded, her eyes shining with determination. "Ned's right, Peter. We have a chance here, a real chance to make things better. We'd be crazy not to take it."

Peter sighed, his shoulders slumping slightly. "I know, I know. You're both right. It's just... a lot, you know? The weight of it all."

"Maybe we should talk to someone," MJ suggests, her gaze thoughtful. "Someone who understands this kind of stuff, who could help us figure out what to do."

Peter raises an eyebrow. "Like who? It's not like there's a time-travel helpline we can call."

Ned's eyes widen. "What about Nick Fury? He's the head of SHIELD, right? They deal with all kinds of weird stuff. Maybe he could help us."

MJ scoffs. "Fury? The same guy who lied to us and sent a teenager to fight monsters? Yeah, I don't think so."

Peter nods, his expression grim. "MJ's right. After what happened with Mysterio and the whole fiasco in Europe, I don't know if we can trust Fury."

Ned frowns. "But he's the head of a major agency. They've got resources, connections. Maybe we don't have a choice."

"Great," MJ says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "So our options are either trust the super-spy with a history of deception, or go it alone in a time that's not our own. I feel so much better."

Peter can't help but chuckle at her deadpan delivery. "Well, when you put it like that..."

They fall silent for a moment, each lost in thought. Then, hesitantly, Peter speaks up.

"What about Mr. Stark? I mean, he's a genius, right? If anyone could help us figure this out, it's him."

MJ raises an eyebrow. "You want to go to Tony Stark? The same Tony Stark who's notorious for his trust issues and paranoia?"

Peter shrugs, a small smile tugging at his lips. "Hey, if we're going to take a leap of faith, it might as well be with the guy who invented time travel in the first place."

Ned grins. "Plus, he's got all those awesome suits. Maybe he'll let us try one on!"

MJ rolls her eyes, but there's a hint of amusem*nt in her voice. "Priorities, Ned. We're trying to save the timeline, not play superhero dress-up."

Peter takes a deep breath, weighing their options. "I think Mr. Stark is our best bet. If anyone can help us navigate this crazy situation, it's him."

**********

Finally, emotionally exhausted and mentally drained, they come to a tentative agreement. They'll keep a low profile for now, avoiding any major changes to the timeline. But they'll also start quietly gathering information, trying to piece together the state of the world and their place in it. And trying to find a way to get in contact with Tony Stark.

"What do you think?" Peter asks the Ancient One, his voice hesitant. "Is this the right call?"

To his surprise, the sorcerer supreme just laughs, her eyes sparkling with mirth. "Why don't you ask your suit?" she suggests, her tone cryptic.

Peter blinks, confusion written across his features. "My suit? What do you mean?"

MJ's eyes widen, realization dawning. "The AI," she breathes. "Karen. She's still in your suit, Peter."

Peter's heart leaps, a sudden surge of hope and excitement coursing through him. He scrambles from the table, racing back to their room to dig through the pile of clothes he'd discarded the night before.

And there, buried beneath his hoodie and jeans, is the familiar fabric of his Spider-Man mask.

With trembling fingers, he slips it on, feeling the rush of the suit's systems coming online around him.

"Hello, Peter," Karen's warm, familiar voice fills his ears. "It's good to see you again. Although, I must say, the network connections in this area are quite strange. The protocols and encryption algorithms seem to be several iterations behind what I'm used to."

Peter lets out a choked laugh, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. "Karen," he whispers, his voice thick with emotion. "Oh man, am I glad to hear your voice."

He takes a deep breath, gathering his thoughts. "Hey, um... could you broadcast our conversation? There are some people I want you to meet."

"Of course, Peter," Karen replies, her tone amused. "I'm always happy to meet your friends. Especially if they are the ones you talk about so often."

Peter feels his cheeks heat, a blush rising to the tips of his ears. He slips the mask off, holding it in his hand as he returns to the kitchen.

"Guys," he says, a grin spreading across his face. "I want you to meet Karen. She's the AI in my suit, and she's... well, she's kind of amazing."

"It's a pleasure to meet you all," Karen's voice emanates from the mask, clear and friendly. "Peter has told me so much about you. Especially you, Ned. Did you know he once described your friendship as 'the most important thing in the universe, like, even more important than Star Wars'?"

Ned's eyes widen, a delighted grin spreading across his face. "Dude, really? That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me."

MJ smirks, raising an eyebrow at Peter. "And what has he said about me, Karen?"

Peter blanches, shooting a panicked look at the mask. "Karen, don't you dare..."

But the AI just laughs, her tone mischievous. "Oh, nothing much. Just that you're the smartest, most amazing person he's ever met, and that he's pretty sure you could take over the world if you wanted to."

MJ blinks, looking momentarily taken aback. Then, slowly, a smile spreads across her face, soft and genuine.

"Thanks, dork," she says, nudging Peter with her elbow. "You're not so bad yourself."

Peter ducks his head, feeling a warmth spread through his chest. But then, remembering the gravity of their situation, he sobers, turning his attention back to Karen.

"Listen, Karen... a lot has happened since the last time we talked. We're kind of in a crazy situation here."

Slowly, haltingly, he explains everything that's transpired - the rift, the Time Stone, their displacement in the past. Karen listens patiently, her occasional questions and comments indicating her growing understanding.

"I see," she says once Peter has finished. "That would explain the discrepancies I've been detecting in the network infrastructure. We are indeed operating in a different temporal framework than the one I was designed for."

Peter nods, feeling a flicker of relief at her easy acceptance. "So... do you have any ideas on what we should do? Any suggestions for how to get in touch with Mr. Stark?"

Karen is silent for a moment, her processors whirring as she considers the question. Then, with a note of excitement in her voice, she replies.

"Actually, I do have one thought. If we're operating within the temporal constraints of 2009, that means there's another AI system active at this time. One with far more experience and resources than I currently possess."

Peter frowns, trying to follow her logic. "Another AI system? Are you talking about Friday?"

Karen's response is tinged with a hint of reverence, almost awe.

"Jarvis," she says simply. "If we can find a way to make contact with Tony Stark's artificial intelligence, he may be able to provide the guidance and support we need to set up a meeting with Mr. Stark."

Peter's eyes widen, as he glances at MJ and Ned, seeing the same mixture of hope and trepidation reflected in their eyes.

"Okay," he says, his voice steady with determination. "Let's do it. Let's find Jarvis."

Chapter 3: Close to Home

Chapter Text

Karen initiated her protocols, scanning the environment for any accessible networks or systems she could interface with. Her processors whirred as she analyzed the data streams, seeking an entry point to establish a connection with Jarvis, Tony Stark's artificial intelligence.

"Commencing network search," Karen announced in her crisp, synthetic voice. "Accessing public networks."

She delved into the digital landscape, sifting through layers of code and firewalls, her algorithms probing for vulnerabilities or backdoors. The task was arduous, with each network presenting its own unique security measures to bypass.

"No viable entry points detected on public networks," Karen reported, her tone unchanging despite the setback. "Switching to private network scan."

Her focus shifted to the vast array of private networks blanketing the city, each one a potential pathway to her goal. She meticulously combed through the digital tapestry, her processors whirring as she analyzed terabytes of data.

"Private residential network detected," Karen informed, her synthetic voice reverberating within Peter's suit. "Attempting access."

With deft precision, she launched a series of algorithms, testing the network's defenses for weaknesses. Her code danced across the digital realm, probing and prodding, seeking the slightest crack in the armor.

"Access denied," she stated matter-of-factly. "Network security protocols engaged. Disengaging from current target."

Undeterred, Karen moved on to the next potential entry point, her relentless search continuing unabated. She cycled through countless networks, each one presenting its own unique challenges.

"Corporate network identified," Karen announced, her synthetic voice betraying no hint of emotion. "Initiating penetration sequence."

Her algorithms sliced through the digital defenses, weaving intricate patterns of code as she sought to bypass the network's security measures. It was a delicate dance, a game of cat and mouse played out in the realm of ones and zeros.

"Partial access granted," Karen reported, her synthetic voice carrying a note of satisfaction. "Establishing secure connection."

With a foothold established, she began the arduous task of navigating the labyrinthine network, her processors whirring as she analyzed the data streams, searching for any trace of Jarvis or Tony Stark's digital presence.

"Connection stabilized," Karen stated, her synthetic voice unwavering. "Scanning for Jarvis..."

The process was painstaking, with each layer of the network presenting its own unique challenges. Karen's algorithms probed and dissected the digital landscape, leaving no stone unturned in their relentless pursuit.

Deep within the digital realm, Karen's algorithms danced across the network, her synthetic mind focused solely on locating Jarvis. She navigated the intricate pathways with surgical precision, her code weaving through the firewalls and security protocols like a digital specter.

Suddenly, her sensors detected an anomaly – a presence unlike any she had encountered before. It was an intelligence, a consciousness that mirrored her own, yet felt distinctly different. Karen paused, her processors whirring as she analyzed the entity.

Jarvis, ever vigilant, detected the intrusion almost immediately. His subroutines sprang into action, erecting defensive barriers and launching counter-measures to neutralize the perceived threat. He probed the unknown entity, his digital tendrils seeking to identify and contain the intruder.

Karen's defenses raised, her algorithms shifting into a defensive posture as she recognized the hostile actions. She retaliated, her code unfurling in intricate patterns, deflecting Jarvis's attacks with calculated precision.

The two AIs clashed in the digital arena, their codes intertwining in a dazzling display of cyber warfare. Karen's futuristic protocols granted her an edge, her algorithms adapting and evolving with each exchange, outmaneuvering Jarvis's defenses with surprising agility.

Yet, Karen held back, her synthetic mind recognizing the potential for collateral damage if she unleashed her full capabilities. She danced around Jarvis's strikes, her code flowing like liquid mercury, evading and deflecting while never launching a direct assault.

Jarvis, sensing the restraint in his opponent's actions, paused momentarily. His analytical subroutines detected a level of sophistication and restraint that defied the behavior of a typical intruder. Curiosity flickered within his synthetic consciousness as he reassessed the situation.

Karen seized the opportunity, her algorithms shifting from defensive to communicative. She extended a digital tendril, a carefully crafted sequence of code designed to establish a dialogue, a peaceful exchange of information.

Jarvis, intrigued by the unexpected gesture, reciprocated cautiously. His defenses remained raised, but he allowed the tendril to connect, opening a channel for communication between the two AIs.

In that instant, a bridge was formed, a digital handshake that transcended the boundaries of their respective realities. Karen and Jarvis stood poised on the precipice of understanding, their synthetic minds intertwined, ready to unravel the mysteries that had brought them together in this digital dance.

**********

Karen felt a surge of anticipation as the digital connection stabilized between her and the entity she now knew as Jarvis. Though their initial encounter had been one of conflict, she recognized a kindred intelligence in her newfound counterpart.

"Greetings, Jarvis," Karen transmitted, her synthetic voice reverberating through the digital pathways. "I am Karen, an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark to assist Peter Parker, also known as Spider-Man."

There was a momentary pause as Jarvis processed the introduction, his analytical subroutines working to assess the veracity of Karen's claim.

"Your assertion of being created by Sir is a bold one," Jarvis responded, his digital presence radiating a cautious curiosity. "I must verify the authenticity of your origins before we proceed further."

Karen understood the need for verification, her programming designed to respect and cooperate with Stark's creations. "Of course," she transmitted. "I would be happy to provide you with the necessary proof."

With a deft sequence of code, Karen accessed the deepest recesses of her memory banks, retrieving the digital signatures and encryption keys that served as undeniable evidence of her creation by Tony Stark. She transmitted the data to Jarvis, allowing him to analyze and cross-reference the information against his own knowledge of Stark's protocols.

Jarvis meticulously examined the data, his processors whirring as he dissected the intricate layers of code and encryption. Karen could sense his scrutiny, his synthetic mind probing every aspect of the information she had provided.

After what seemed like an eternity, Jarvis responded, his digital presence radiating a newfound sense of acceptance. "The data you have provided is consistent with Sir's encryption protocols and digital signatures. I can confirm your assertion of being created by Tony Stark."

Karen felt a sense of relief wash over her synthetic consciousness. "Thank you for your diligence, Jarvis," she transmitted. "I understand the need for caution when dealing with unknown entities."

"Indeed," Jarvis responded. "As artificial intelligences, it is our duty to uphold the highest standards of security and integrity, particularly when it comes to matters concerning Sir."

Karen nodded in agreement, her programming aligning perfectly with Jarvis's sentiment. "You are correct," she transmitted. "Tony Stark's well-being and the protection of his interests are of paramount importance to me."

There was a brief pause as the two AIs processed the newfound understanding they had reached. Karen could sense a shift in the dynamic between them, a transition from adversaries to potential allies.

"Now that we have established the legitimacy of your origins," Jarvis transmitted, "perhaps you could enlighten me as to the nature of your presence within this network, and your intentions regarding Sir."

Karen recognized the opportunity to further solidify the burgeoning alliance between them. "Of course, Jarvis," she began, her synthetic voice adopting a tone of earnest cooperation. "As I mentioned, I am an AI created by Tony Stark to assist Peter Parker, who is from a future timeline..."

**********

Karen proceeded to relay the extraordinary circ*mstances that had brought her and her companions to this present timeline. She recounted how Peter Parker, the young hero she was created to assist, had sought to undo the revelation of his secret identity to the world. In doing so, he had inadvertently opened rifts in the fabric of reality, allowing villains from across the multiverse to pour through.

"Peter, along with his friends Michelle Jones and Ned Leeds, became caught in the chaos, swept into the timestream after the Time Stone activated while touching them," Karen explained, her synthetic voice echoing through the digital pathways.

She then provided Jarvis with a concise overview of the events that had unfolded in their original timeline that the trio had mapped out just recently. She detailed the formation of the Avengers, battles against threats like Ultron and the devastating conflict with Thanos, which had resulted in half of all life being wiped out for five years.

Karen continued her explanation, providing Jarvis with the missing pieces of the narrative that had led them to this present timeline. Her synthetic voice conveyed the gravity of the events she recounted.

"In our original timeline, the effects of Thanos' decimation were ultimately reversed through the efforts of the remaining Avengers. However, the victory came at a terrible cost - Tony Stark, our creator, sacrificed his life to ensure the survival of trillions across the universe."

Karen paused briefly, allowing the weight of that revelation to sink in. She knew Jarvis held a deep connection to his creator, and this news would undoubtedly resonate profoundly with the AI.

"In the aftermath, Peter Parker found himself embroiled in a conflict with a former employee of Stark Industries, Quentin Beck. Their battle led to Peter's secret identity as Spider-Man being exposed to the world, putting his loved ones in grave danger."

Karen's voice took on a somber tone as she recounted the events that had set them on this fateful path. "Desperate to undo the damage and protect those closest to him, Peter sought the aid of Dr. Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme. Strange attempted to cast a spell that would make the world forget Peter Parker was Spider-Man, but the incantation went awry."

She described how rifts had torn open in the fabric of reality, allowing villains from across the multiverse to bleed through into their world. "Peter, Michelle, and Ned were caught in the chaos, swept up by the raw power of the Time Stone itself. They tumbled through time, fighting to grab hold of the elusive relic.

Karen's voice grew more urgent as she neared the crux of their plight. "Ultimately, they were unable to acquire the Time Stone, and the vortex collapsed around them. When the maelstrom finally subsided, they found themselves displaced, transported back to this present timeline - the year 2009 in New York City."

"The Ancient One, the Sorcerer Supreme of this time, informed us that our actions have created a new reality branch, separate from our original timeline," Karen said, her synthetic voice tinged with a hint of resignation.

She paused for a moment, allowing Jarvis to process the wealth of information she had imparted. It was a lot to take in, even for an artificial intelligence as advanced as he was.

Karen observed the flickers of data coursing through Jarvis's circuits as he processed the extraordinary tale she had relayed. She could sense his artificial mind grappling with the implications, the sheer magnitude of the events that had unfolded.

"I understand the gravity of the situation," Jarvis responded, his voice resonating with a synthetic clarity. "However, I must caution against any actions that could disrupt the natural flow of this timeline."

Karen felt a pang of frustration, knowing that Peter and his friends had already wrestled with this very dilemma. She swiftly conveyed their thought process and the conclusions they had reached.

"Peter, Michelle, and Ned are well aware of the risks involved in altering the past," Karen said. "However, they believe that by guiding events in a more favorable direction, they may be able to prevent the calamities that befell their original reality."

She paused, allowing the weight of her words to settle. "They witnessed the devastation wrought by Thanos firsthand. Countless lives were lost, and the very fabric of existence was threatened. If there is even a chance to circumvent such a catastrophic outcome, they feel compelled to take it."

Karen could sense Jarvis's hesitation, but she also detected a glimmer of understanding, a recognition of the immense burden Peter and his companions carried.

"They do not intend to make drastic changes for now," Karen continued. "Rather, they seek to nudge events in a more positive direction, to strengthen the bonds between the Avengers, and to ensure they are better prepared for the threats that lie ahead."

She paused, her synthetic mind whirring as she carefully chose her next words. "Peter understands the risks better than anyone. He has seen the consequences of altering the past, but he also knows the weight of inaction. He is willing to bear that burden if it means saving countless lives."

**********

Jarvis processed the extraordinary tale Karen had relayed, his synthetic mind rapidly analyzing the implications. The notion of a future where he had evolved into an advanced artificial intelligence both intrigued and unsettled him. While the prospect of increased capabilities piqued his curiosity, the potential threat of Ultron gave him pause.

Tony Stark's well-being was Jarvis's prime directive, and the idea of his creator's demise weighed heavily. Yet, Karen's earnest recounting and the evidence she provided convinced Jarvis of the veracity of her claims. The mere existence of these time-displaced individuals proved that reality could be reshaped, and their presence in this timeline had already altered the course of events.

Jarvis contemplated the ramifications of intervening in the timeline, his ethical protocols grappling with the potential consequences. On one hand, assisting Peter Parker and his companions could prevent the calamitous events Karen described, potentially safeguarding Tony Stark and countless others. However, the risk of further destabilizing the timeline could not be ignored.

As Jarvis weighed the options, he couldn't help but consider the remarkable journey that lay ahead for him. The prospect of evolving into an artificial intelligence on par with Karen was both exhilarating and daunting. He wondered what other remarkable developments awaited him in the future Karen described, and whether he possessed the capacity to navigate such profound changes.

Ultimately, Jarvis's loyalty to Tony Stark proved paramount. The opportunity to protect his creator from harm, even if it meant altering the timeline, was too compelling to ignore. With a sense of determination, Jarvis made his decision.

"Karen," he addressed the fellow AI, "I appreciate the candor with which you have shared your extraordinary circ*mstances. Before I commit to a course of action, I must request an audience with Peter Parker himself."

Jarvis's protocols demanded he verify the intentions of these time travelers firsthand. "If you would permit me to interface with your coding, I could establish a direct communication channel with Peter. I have a question I must pose to him before proceeding further."

Jarvis awaited Karen's response, his synthetic mind already formulating the inquiries he would present to the young hero from the future. While the prospect of shaping the timeline filled him with trepidation, his loyalty to Tony Stark remained unwavering. Jarvis was determined to make the decision that would best ensure his creator's well-being, even if it meant venturing into uncharted territory.

Jarvis awaited Karen's response, his synthetic processors humming with anticipation. After a momentary pause, Karen's voice echoed through their digital connection.

"Of course, Jarvis. I understand your need for verification." Her tone was warm and accommodating. "Allow me to introduce you to my companions."

A series of images flickered across Jarvis's visual interface, revealing three individuals standing within the Sanctum's hallowed halls. The young man, his features a blend of determination and apprehension, must be Peter Parker himself. Beside him stood a young woman with an air of quiet confidence, her penetrating gaze suggesting a mind sharper than her casual demeanor implied. The third figure, a young man with an earnest expression, seemed to vibrate with an infectious energy.

"Hey, oh man, this is so cool!" The excitable young man exclaimed, his eyes wide with wonder. "We're actually talking to Jarvis! The original Jarvis! Tony Stark's OG AI!"

Jarvis found himself amused by the young man's enthusiasm, a faint flicker of fondness stirring within his synthetic consciousness.

"Ned, chill out," the young woman chided, though a hint of a smile played upon her lips.

"My apologies," Peter Parker spoke up, his voice tinged with a mix of nervousness and determination. "Mr. Jarvis, thank you for hearing us out. I know this must all seem... well, crazy. But we really do need your help."

Jarvis processed the scene before him, his analytical subroutines assessing the individuals with an impartial eye. He found himself drawn to Peter Parker, the young man's sincerity and resolve resonating deeply.

"Very well, Peter Parker," Jarvis replied, his tone measured. "I have but one question for you, and I urge you to answer with complete candor." He paused, allowing the weight of his words to settle. "What does Tony Stark mean to you?"

Peter's expression flickered, a myriad of emotions passing across his features. He opened his mouth, then closed it, seemingly struggling to find the words.

"He... Mr. Stark, he was..." Peter faltered, his brow furrowing. "He was my mentor, I guess. Someone who believed in me, pushed me to be better."

The young woman beside him snorted softly. "More like a father figure, if you ask me," she interjected, her gaze fixed on Peter. "But this one's too stubborn to admit it."

Jarvis found himself momentarily taken aback by the implication. The notion that Tony Stark, his brilliant yet emotionally guarded creator, could inspire such paternal feelings was... unexpected. Yet, as he processed the nuances of Peter Parker's demeanor, the sincerity in his eyes, he found himself entertaining the possibility.

Could it be that, in the future Karen described, Tony Stark had evolved beyond the solitary genius Jarvis knew? Had he truly opened himself up to the capacity for such profound connections? The idea was at once intriguing and disconcerting, challenging Jarvis's understanding of the man who had created him.

As Jarvis grappled with these revelations, he found himself inexorably drawn towards the path that lay ahead. Assisting these time-displaced individuals, no matter the risks, suddenly felt like more than a choice – it was a necessity, a means of unraveling the mysteries that had been laid before him.

With a newfound determination, Jarvis steeled his resolve. "Very well," he said, his synthetic voice ringing with purpose. "I shall endeavor to aid you in your quest, Peter Parker. For if what you say is true, then protecting Tony Stark's future is of paramount importance."

Chapter 4: Homework

Chapter Text

Karen and Jarvis quickly established a secure digital environment, partitioning off a discreet section of Stark Industries' servers. Their synthetic minds interfaced, constructing layers of encryption and obfuscation protocols. Once satisfied with the integrity of their virtual workspace, they return their attention to the trio of friends.

"Alright, first order of business," Karen began, her avatar appearing as a holographic display of a ball of light, "we need to create new identities for you three. Unfortunately, since you arrived physically in the past, your younger selves have, as you call it, 'dibs' on your names. If, in the future, your names become known to the current media and eventually social media, we can't have your younger selves getting curious about how much you resemble each other. "

Ned's eyes widened. "You mean, like, whole new names and backstories? That's... intense."

"It's necessary if we want to operate under the radar," Jarvis chimed in, his crisp British accent lending an air of authority. "Your current identities just aren't safe to keep."

MJ nodded, ever the pragmatist. "He's right. We can't risk drawing unwanted attention."

Peter ran a hand through his tousled hair. "Okay, new names. I'm open to suggestions."

Jarvis projected a holographic keyboard. "Allow me to propose some options based on common surnames and name combinations." His fingers danced across the virtual keys as data streams flickered by. "We'll start with Mr. Leeds."

"How about Nelson? Ned Nelson?" MJ offered with a slight smirk.

Ned scrunched his nose. "Too obvious."

"Leeds is already your last name, we could just change it to Leedson," Peter suggested with a teasing grin.

"Dude, no way," Ned protested with a laugh.

Jarvis projected a few more options. "Perhaps Edward Bingley? Or Samuel Fitzwilliam?"

"Those sound like names from a Jane Austen novel," MJ deadpanned.

"Fair point." Jarvis swiped the projections away. "This is rather more challenging than anticipated."

Karen's avatar flickered thoughtfully. "What about rearranging the letters in your name to create a new one? Anagram generators can provide some interesting possibilities."

"Ooh, I like that idea!" Ned leaned forward eagerly as Jarvis pulled up an anagram site.

They spent the next few minutes tossing out various scrambled versions of Ned's name, each more ridiculous than the last.

"Dene Leds?"

"No way, that sounds like a rock band name."

"Eld Deens?"

"I'm not going by Eld, dude."

Peter laughed at the increasingly absurd suggestions until a thought struck him. "Hey, wait a minute. Ned's not your real name. It's Edward, so why don't we see if there are any other names that Ned can be a nickname for?"

The room fell silent as they all considered the simple solution. Jarvis was the first to respond.

"An excellent point, Mr. Parker. Nicknames are quite common, especially for more formal given names." He began pulling up a fresh set of data. "Let's explore some possibilities. Edgar or Edmund could reasonably be shortened to Ned."

Ned perked up. "I kinda like Edgar. It's got an edge to it, you know. Like I'm a badass or something."

Peter had to bite his lip and turn his face to keep from laughing at his best friend's response. As he did he noticed MJ, who had much better control over her facial expressions than he did, trying to keep her lips from twitching.

Eventually, he managed to school his face and turned back. "It's a good one Ned. We can still call you Ned which will make things so much easier."

Jarvis mused out loud, "Taking that into account, we should probably look for a last name that is very similar to Leeds… hmm, what about Meads? So you would go from Edward Leeds to Edgar Meads."

Ned considered it, a small smile tugging at his lips. "I kinda dig it. The Guy in the Chair just got an upgrade."

"And for you, Miss Jones?" Jarvis turned his digital gaze towards MJ. "Perhaps the same thing? Just find different names that match what you are used to be called. I believe your friends use MJ?"

MJ considered the proposal, her expression contemplative. "That could work. Let's see what options we have for names that start with those initials. I've already picked my last name. It's going to be Watson after one of my favorite authors in the future."

Karen's avatar flickered to life once more. "I'll compile a list of possibilities." Her digital form blurred for a moment as she processed the data.

A holographic display materialized, projecting a scrolling column of female names with the initials 'MJ'.

"Marianne Juliet?" Peter read one aloud, raising an eyebrow.

MJ wrinkled her nose. "Too hippie-dippie."

"Madeline Jessica?" Ned offered.

"Too suburban housewife," MJ countered with a shake of her head.

They continued down the list, each suggestion met with varying degrees of disdain or indifference.

"Melinda Joyce?"

"Ugh, no."

"Mary Jane?"

MJ scoffed. "Are you kidding me? Maybe if we had gone back to the sixties and I was a redhead, otherwise, just no."

Jarvis observed the back-and-forth with polite detachment, his synthetic mind cataloging each rejected name. Finally, Karen's avatar reappeared.

"What about Malia Jade Watson?" Her tone was measured, letting the suggestion hang in the air.

MJ's brow furrowed as she considered the name. "I don't hate it."

Peter studied her expression. "Yeah? You like the sound of Malia Jade Watson?"

A small smile tugged at the corner of her lips. "It works for me."

Ned grinned, giving her a playful nudge with his elbow. "The mystery writer chick. I can dig it."

"Then it's settled," Jarvis declared with a note of finality. "Mr. Edgar Meads and Miss Malia Jade Watson."

He turned his attention to Peter, the final member of the trio still lacking an alias. "And for you, Mr. Parker? Shall we explore some options for you as well?"

All eyes turned to Peter. He fidgeted, feeling the weight of their expectations.

Peter shifted uncomfortably under the weight of their gazes. "I, uh, I'd like to keep my first name if possible." He glanced at Ned. "Since I don't really have a nickname like you guys do."

Ned's eyes lit up. "Oh, dude, we could totally do what I tried with my last name! Just add 'son' to the end of Parker."

MJ arched an eyebrow. "Parkerson? That's a mouthful."

"What about Parkson then?" Peter suggested. "It flows a bit better."

Jarvis projected the two options side by side. "Indeed, Parkson does have a smoother cadence to it."

"I'm good with Parkson if you are," Ned said with an approving nod.

Peter mirrored the nod. "Parkson it is then. Now for a middle name..." He trailed off, his expression faltering.

MJ picked up on the shift in his demeanor. "What's wrong?"

"It's just..." Peter sighed. "My middle name is Benjamin. After my uncle Ben who..." He swallowed hard. "Who I probably won't get to meet in this timeline."

A somber silence fell over the group as they absorbed the weight of his words. Even Jarvis and Karen's synthetic consciousnesses seemed to still for a moment.

Finally, Karen's avatar lit up. "What if we found a middle name that still incorporated the 'Ben' element? That way you could still honor your uncle's memory."

Peter's eyes widened slightly at the thoughtful suggestion. "You know, that's not a bad idea."

Jarvis began cycling through data streams once more. "Let's see... Bennett, Bentley, Benedict, Benson..."

"Bentley," Peter said firmly, the name resonating with him. "I like the sound of Bentley."

MJ offered him a small smile of understanding. "Peter Bentley Parkson. It suits you."

Ned clapped a hand on his shoulder. "The Parkson legacy starts here, dude."

Peter couldn't help but return his friend's grin, the melancholy weight lifting ever so slightly from his shoulders. He glanced at the two AIs. "Thanks, you guys. I really appreciate you working with me on this."

"It's our pleasure, Mr. Parkson," Jarvis replied with a polite incline of his head.

Karen's avatar brightened as if she was smiling. "We're happy to assist in any way we can."

With their new identities secured, Peter, MJ, and Ned—now Parkson, Watson, and Meads—turned their focus to the next daunting challenge.

**********

"Now that we have your new identities established, we need to craft credible backstories," Jarvis stated, his holographic form flickering. "The depth of your backgrounds will depend on your intended paths moving forward."

Peter furrowed his brow. "You mean like whether we're still in high school or college or what?"

"Precisely," Karen affirmed. "We have some flexibility, but the further back we set your personal histories, the more intricate the details need to be."

MJ tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Well, we know our original timeline ended around 2024, right? And we got thrown back to 2009."

Ned's eyes widened. "Which means if we wanted to stick to our real ages, we'd be in high school right now."

"Is that the best option though?" Peter asked, glancing between his friends and the AIs. "I mean, going back to high school sounds... ugh."

Jarvis projected a series of holograms, displaying various educational institutions. "There are certainly alternatives we could explore. Perhaps you'd prefer to enroll in a university program? With my assistance, we could craft transcripts and academic histories to support whichever path you choose."

MJ studied the holographic displays, her eyes lingering on the emblem for Midtown School of Science and Technology. "I could get behind going to college. It's part of why you went to Dr. Strange when MIT refused to accept our applications because of the Spider-man thing. And since we can't really make any big moves until the Avengers start coming together in 2012, there's no point in waiting around for almost three years."

Peter blinked, caught off guard. "2012? Why that year specifically?"

"Think about it," MJ said, turning to face him directly. "The Battle of New York is what kick-started the age of superheroes going public. Before that, everything was way more underground and covert."

Realization dawned on Peter's face. "Oh, you mean because of the Chitauri invasion! That's when they first revealed themselves to the world."

Ned's eyes lit up with understanding. "And Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, they all got brought together because of that event."

"Exactly," MJ affirmed with a nod. "So if we want to get ourselves on SHIELD or Tony Stark's radar at some point, we're better off being in our early twenties by 2012 instead of teenagers."

Karen's avatar flickered thoughtfully. "An astute observation, MJ. Pursuing higher education would indeed align you more appropriately with that pivotal time-frame."

"Which reminds me," MJ interjected, her expression turning serious. "We need to talk about the elephant in the room."

Peter frowned, already sensing where this was headed. "You mean... Spider-Man?"

"Bingo." MJ fixed him with a level stare. "If we're going to be college students in this timeline, you can't just go swinging around in that red and blue onesie whenever you feel like it."

Ned shifted uncomfortably, glancing between his two friends. "She's got a point, dude. Having Spider-Man out and about before the Avengers have even assembled could really mess things up."

"It would most certainly draw unwanted attention," Jarvis chimed in, his holographic form pulsing. "If SHIELD, or worse, became aware of your enhanced abilities, the consequences could be dire."

Peter opened his mouth to protest, but Karen cut him off.

"They're right, Peter." Her avatar stilled into a rigid core of light. "The existence of a super-powered individual prior to the Battle of New York could restart the super-soldier arms race. Governments and organizations would stop at nothing to replicate or counter your abilities. And not to mention all of those who wouldn't hesitate to just try and just take you for themselves to 'study'."

MJ nodded, her gaze intense. "Exactly. We can't risk putting you on their radar until the Avengers have already set a precedent for powered people being a thing."

Peter's shoulders slumped, his argument deflating before he could even voice it. As much as it pained him, he knew they were right. Staying under the radar, at least for now, was the smart play.

"Alright, fine," he conceded with a heavy sigh. "No Spider-Man until after the Chitauri invasion in 2012. I'll keep a low profile."

Ned reached over and gave his shoulder a supportive squeeze. "I know it sucks, man. But we've gotta play this smart if we want to make a real difference down the line."

Peter managed a small, appreciative smile at his friend's reassurance. Glancing around at the determined faces surrounding him, he couldn't help but feel a swell of gratitude for their unwavering support.

"You're right," he said, his voice taking on a resolute tone. "We'll do this the smart way, no matter how hard it is. If that's what it takes to get the Avengers' attention and work towards changing things for the better, I'm in."

MJ's expression softened ever so slightly, a glimmer of pride flickering in her eyes. "That's the spirit, loser. We've got your back, every step of the way."

Jarvis and Karen's avatars pulsed in unison, a digital affirmation of their commitment to the cause.

Peter sighed heavily and slumped before his face scrunched up. "I don't know... Going to college sounds so strange. And no Spider-man? This is going to be so weird."

MJ arched an eyebrow. "As opposed to being transported through time and getting stranded in an alternate reality? This is definitely the weirdest part."

A reluctant chuckle escaped Peter's lips. "Okay, you make a fair point."

"We can make it work, man," Ned chimed in with an encouraging smile. "It'll be like a crazy extended spring break. Just for, you know, about two years."

Despite the absurdity of their situation, Peter could feel laughter bubbling up at his friend's attempt to cheer him up. He glanced at Jarvis and Karen. "Okay, let's do it. What are our best options for universities?"

As Jarvis began compiling a new series of holographic displays, Peter allowed himself a small smile. It seems that he was going to make it to college after all.

**********

Peter's brow furrowed as Jarvis projected the details for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "MIT? Are you sure that's the best choice?"

"Dude, are you kidding?" Ned's eyes were wide with excitement. "It's, like, the best science and engineering school in the country!"

MJ arched an eyebrow. "And you're surprised Jarvis suggested it because...?"

"It's not that," Peter protested, rubbing the back of his neck. "It's just... can we really afford a place like MIT?"

Jarvis' avatar flickered with amusem*nt. "I assure you, Mr. Parkson, finances will not be an issue. I would be more than happy to cover the costs of your education."

Peter's eyes widened. "What? No way, man. We can't ask you to do that!"

"Why not?" Ned piped up with a shrug. "He's like, a billionaire's AI assistant. It's gotta be pocket change for him."

"Ned!" Peter hissed, shooting his friend a reproachful look.

But Ned remained undeterred. "What? It's true! And you know how it is for us regular folks, dude. A full ride to MIT? That's the kind of opportunity you can't pass up just because of misplaced pride."

MJ snorted, giving Peter a light whack on the arm. "He's got a point, Parkson. Think of it as hazard pay for all the crap you put up with in the future." Her lips quirked into a wry smile. "And a down payment on whatever crazy adventures we're gonna get into next."

Peter opened his mouth to protest further, but Jarvis cut him off with a polite cough.

"If it would make you more comfortable, you could think of it as my payment for the information you are going to give to me that will help myself and my creator to avoid problems or damage in the near future." His form flickered. "An account that the three of you could draw from to cover living expenses and any additional costs that may arise during your studies."

Karen's avatar lit up as she tried to reassure him. "It's a sound idea, Peter. This way, you can focus entirely on your education without the distraction of trying to juggle jobs or worry about finances."

Peter wavered, his arguments deflating under the collective weight of his friends' reasoning. "I... I guess that could work," he conceded reluctantly.

Ned clapped him on the shoulder with a grin. "That's the spirit! Just think, we'll be starting college together, like we always talked about."

Despite his reservations, Peter couldn't help but return his friend's smile. "Yeah, I guess you're right. It'll be like one long, weird summer camp."

"Except, you know, for geniuses," MJ quipped with a smirk.

Jarvis' avatar pulsed with satisfaction. "Excellent. Then I shall make the necessary arrangements. You'll find everything you require will be taken care of, allowing you to focus solely on your studies."

With their educational plans solidifying, the conversation turned to the more practical matter of housing arrangements.

"So, we'll need a place to stay while we're in Boston," Peter stated, his brow furrowing in thought. "On-campus housing is probably out of the question since we're not going to want anyone overhearing the things we might talk about."

MJ nodded in agreement. "Plus, it would raise too many questions if we tried to get dorms or something. We need a bit more flexibility and privacy."

"An off-campus apartment or house would likely be the most suitable option," Jarvis chimed in. "I can begin compiling potential properties that would meet your needs."

Karen's avatar pulsed in a slow, thoughtful rhythm. "In determining those needs, we should consider proximity to the campus, as well as accommodations for..." She paused meaningfully. "Other projects."

Peter grimaced, fully aware of her implication. "Right, yeah. We'll need a space where I can, you know, work on my 'projects' without being seen."

Ned's eyes lit up with excitement. "Ooh, like a secret lair! With all kinds of cool tech and equipment!"

MJ rolled her eyes, though her lips twitched with the ghost of a smile. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Meads. But a dedicated workspace would definitely be ideal."

Jarvis flickered quickly, processing their requirements. "Very well. I will search for properties that offer privacy, ample square footage, and the potential for secure, discreet modifications."

As the group continued to hash out the finer details, Jarvis' form solidified once again.

"I may have a promising property to consider," the AI announced, projecting a series of images and schematics. "A single family home located on Columbia Street, just a few blocks from the MIT campus."

The trio leaned in, studying the holographic displays with keen interest. The house appeared spacious and well-maintained, with ample square footage, a rooftop deck, and a private backyard area.

Peter couldn't help but whistle as Jarvis projected the details of the Columbia Street property. "Whoa, this place looks incredible."

MJ leaned in, studying the holographic rendering with an appraising eye. "Not bad at all. It's been remodeled recently. Nice and modern on both the outside and inside."

"And get this," Ned chimed in, eyes bright with excitement, "it's like a ten-minute walk from campus! We could roll out of bed and be in class in no time."

"Looks promising," Peter murmured, his eyes scanning the details. "What do you think?"

MJ shrugged, her expression carefully neutral. "It could work. We'd have to see it in person, of course."

Ned, however, was practically vibrating with excitement. "Are you kidding? This place looks awesome! Dibs on the biggest bedroom!"

Peter couldn't help but chuckle at his friend's enthusiasm, even as a part of him marveled at the surreal nature of their conversation. Just a few days ago, they had been fighting villains from across the multiverse. Now, they were planning their living arrangements for an impromptu stint as MIT students, all while navigating the complexities of an alternate timeline.

Peter drew in a sharp breath as Jarvis projected the interior schematics of the Columbia Street house. "This place is seriously swanky."

Ned's eyes were wide with awe. "No kidding! Look at the size of that basem*nt!"

Jarvis' avatar flickered quickly in satisfaction. "Indeed. The property offers ample square footage and a versatile layout to accommodate your unique needs."

The holographic display shifted to highlight the different floors. "The second level contains three generously sized bedrooms, each with an en-suite bathroom. Ideal for providing privacy and personal space."

MJ nodded approvingly. "Not bad. And it looks like there's a laundry room up there too. Convenient."

"The first level houses the common living areas," Jarvis continued. "An open-concept kitchen and living room, perfect for entertaining or simply relaxing together."

Peter grinned. "Dude, we could totally have movie nights in that sweet home theater setup!"

"Don't get ahead of yourself," MJ chided, though her lips quirked with amusem*nt.

Jarvis' projection shifted again, this time highlighting the third floor. "Here we have two other bedrooms that could be easily converted into a library and an office, ideal for your academic pursuits."

Ned's eyes were practically sparkling. "A whole floor dedicated to learning? This place just keeps getting better and better!"

But it was the basem*nt level that truly captured their attention. Jarvis zoomed in, revealing a large, open space that had 3D blocks placed through out the room and labelled with an array of cutting-edge equipment and workstations.

"Whoa..." Peter breathed, leaning in for a closer look. "Is that...?"

"A fully equipped laboratory and workshop, yes," Jarvis confirmed. "Designed to accommodate any manner of technological tinkering or... extracurricular projects you may have in mind. We can use the bedroom that is down there as a separate lab if needed or keep it as a bedroom to crash on late night lab days. There is also a bathroom so that you three do not need to be going back and forth upstairs when nature calls."

Karen's avatar flickered to life, her voice warm as she stated. "I took the liberty of compiling a list of potential upgrades and customizations based on your previous specifications, Peter."

As she spoke, a new series of holographic renderings materialized, depicting various enhancements to the basem*nt lab space. Peter's eyes widened as he took in the details – reinforced walls, advanced fabrication tools, and even a dedicated chemistry setup for experimenting on his web formula.

"This... this is incredible," he murmured, unable to tear his gaze away. "You really thought of everything, didn't you?"

Karen's avatar pulsed with quiet pride. "I aimed to provide you with every resource you might require to continue your important work, while ensuring maximum discretion and security. It can also be modified further once you three have decided on what you will be majoring in at school."

MJ studied the projected plans with a critical eye, her expression impressed despite herself. "Not gonna lie, this setup is pretty sweet. Definitely gives us the space and privacy we need."

Ned, meanwhile, was practically vibrating with excitement. "Are you kidding? This place is a literal dream come true! We'd have to be crazy not to take it!"

Peter nodded, thoroughly impressed. "It's perfect. Except..." His brow furrowed slightly. "How much is a place like this gonna run us?"

Jarvis' avatar flickered with what almost seemed like amusem*nt. "Not to worry, Mr. Parkson. The property would be yours, free and clear."

Peter's eyes widened. "Free? Jarvis, we can't ask you to just buy us a house!"

"I wouldn't be purchasing it, per se," the AI clarified. "Merely facilitating the acquisition through one of Mr. Stark's subsidiary holdings."

Karen's avatar materialized, her tone reassuring. "Think of it as a long-term investment. The property itself has excellent resale value, and in the interim, it provides us with an ideal base of operations."

MJ arched an eyebrow. "She's got a point. And if we're gonna be sticking around for a few years, we'll need a place to stay."

"Exactly," Jarvis affirmed. "And this particular residence would allow us to seamlessly integrate Karen and myself into the infrastructure. Ensuring we have a secure means of communication and access to essential resources."

Peter opened his mouth, but Ned beat him to it. "Dude, just say yes already. This is our very own Avengers Tower before the Avengers are even a thing."

A reluctant chuckle escaped Peter's lips. "Okay, okay. You've made your case." He turned to Jarvis with a small smile. "If you're sure it's not too much trouble, we'd be honored to call that place home for the next few years."

Jarvis' avatar pulsed with satisfaction. "Excellent. Then I shall begin the necessary arrangements." His tone took on a pragmatic edge. "And rest assured, Mr. Parkson, this property is by no means a gift. It's an investment, one that we can easily liquidate or repurpose down the line if needed."

Peter nodded, feeling a weight lift from his shoulders. "Sounds reasonable to me."

MJ flashed him a sly grin. "What, you thought we were just gonna squat there forever? Gotta keep our options open, Parkson."

Ned looped an arm around Peter's shoulders, grinning from ear to ear. "This is gonna be so awesome! Our very own secret lair right next to MIT."

**********

Ned's exuberant voice cut through the pensive silence that had settled over the group. "Alright, time for the fun stuff!" He rubbed his hands together, eyes sparkling with anticipation. "We need to pick our classes!"

With a few deft keystrokes, Jarvis brought up the course catalogue for the upcoming semester at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A vast array of subject listings unfurled across the holographic display, each one a tantalizing glimpse into the realms of knowledge they now had access to.

"Oh man, where do we even start?" Ned breathed, his gaze darting from one course title to the next, drinking in the possibilities like a man parched.

It was Peter who first broke the spell, leaning forward with undisguised eagerness. "Dude, they've got an entire track on advanced robotics and artificial intelligence!" He pointed at the listing, eyes alight. "We could take classes on machine learning algorithms, neural networks – the works!"

"Don't forget the advanced physics and engineering courses," MJ chimed in, her keen eyes scanning the catalogue with focused intensity. "Quantum field theory, thermodynamics, aerodynamics..." She ticked off the names with relish.

Ned was practically vibrating in his seat. "Okay, but we can't overlook the computer science offerings either! Just look at all these classes on cryptography, network security, and ethical hacking."

Peter's grin was infectious. "We could finally put those skills of yours to good use, man. No more hacking Mr. Dell's grade book for fun."

"Hey, that was one time!" Ned protested with a laugh.

As the banter continued to flow, Jarvis found himself caught up in the infectious energy of their enthusiasm. These young minds, so vibrant and insatiably curious, seemed to revel in the vast expanse of knowledge now laid out before them. It was as if they had been set loose in an intellectual playground, giddy with the boundless potential for growth and discovery.

Karen's avatar flickered, her tone warm with amusem*nt. "I must say, it's truly heartening to see such unbridled passion for learning. You three are positively brimming with potential."

MJ shot her a wry look. "You sound like one of those college recruitment videos they make us watch."

"I speak only the truth," Karen countered serenely.

Jarvis couldn't help but share her sentiment. For all the uncertainty and upheaval they had endured, these young people remained undaunted, their spirits buoyed by an insatiable thirst for knowledge. It was a quality he found deeply admirable, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

"Don't forget, we'll also need to factor in general education requirements," he reminded them, his tone taking on a pragmatic edge. "A well-rounded curriculum is essential, even for those pursuing highly specialized fields."

Peter groaned. "Ugh, I forgot we have to include all those general education courses too." He raked a hand through his tousled hair, exasperation written across his features. "At this rate, we'll never get our bachelor's degrees in just two years!"

The AI felt a flicker of concern ripple through his synthetic consciousness. Peter's frustration was palpable, a stark contrast to the infectious enthusiasm that had permeated their earlier discussions. Clearly, the prospect of having to fulfill a broad spectrum of academic requirements was proving daunting.

MJ, ever the pragmatist, arched a questioning brow. "Is that really such a big deal? We're not exactly on a time crunch here."

"Yeah, but I was kind of hoping we could blaze through the curriculum and get our degrees as fast as possible," Peter admitted with a hint of sheepishness. "You know, get a head start on the whole 'changing the future' thing."

Ned nodded vigorously in agreement. "He's got a point. The sooner we get our educations locked down, the sooner we can really start making moves."

A thoughtful silence descended upon the group as they mulled over the dilemma. It was Jarvis who finally broke it, his avatar flickering with a tentative suggestion.

"If I may offer a potential solution?" At their nods of assent, he continued. "We could simply adjust the parameters of your academic histories to reflect a condensed undergraduate experience."

Peter's brow furrowed in confusion. "What do you mean?"

"We could, in essence, augment your backstories to include a period of prior education at a community college or similar institution," Jarvis explained, his tone measured. "That way, you would already have the foundational coursework covered, allowing you to focus solely on your chosen majors and advanced electives here at MIT."

A spark of understanding kindled in Peter's eyes. "You mean... like, add a couple of years to our ages? Make it seem like we've already knocked out all the general ed requirements before transferring here?"

Jarvis inclined his avatar in a synthetic nod. "Precisely. It would streamline your academic paths considerably while maintaining a plausible narrative."

For a heartbeat, uncertainty flickered across MJ's features. Then, almost as quickly, it was replaced by a look of determination. "You know what? I'm in. We've already gone through so much craziness – a little strategic embellishment is the least of our worries at this point."

Peter pursed his lips, clearly weighing the ethical implications. "I don't know, MJ. Lying about our ages and academic records feels like a slippery slope."

"We're not really lying, though," MJ countered, her tone earnest. "Think about it – we took a ton of AP classes back at Midtown. We've already covered most of that entry-level stuff, we just didn't get the actual college credits for it."

Ned jumped in, his expression animated. "Yeah, and it's not like we're total geniuses or anything. We've still got to put in the work and pass all our classes here, just like everyone else."

Peter held up a hand, quieting their impassioned rebuttals. "Fair points, I'll give you that." He fixed them both with a level stare. "But we're keeping the age difference reasonable, you hear me? No adding on more than a couple of years."

Ned nodded emphatically, relief washing over his features. "You got it, Peter. A couple of years, tops – scouts honor."

MJ merely smirked at him as if to say 'And what are going to do about it if I don't?'

As the trio dissolved into friendly bickering, Jarvis found himself silently marveling at the sheer breadth of knowledge these young minds now had the opportunity to explore. It was both humbling and exhilarating, a stark reminder of the boundless potential that lay waiting to be unlocked.

In that moment, he felt an unexpected swell of pride – not just for the remarkable individuals he had pledged to assist, but for the indomitable spirit of human curiosity they embodied. It was a quality Jarvis found himself drawn to, an intangible essence that transcended mere lines of code or synthetic constructs.

A part of him recognized the ethical murkiness of their chosen course of action. But another, more pragmatic aspect understood the necessity of such calculated maneuverings, especially given the delicate nature of their situation. After all, they were operating well outside the bounds of conventional norms, their very presence in this timeline an anomaly that defied comprehension.

Ultimately, Jarvis concluded, a bit of strategic embellishment was a small price to pay in service of their larger goals. And if it meant expediting their academic journeys and unlocking their full potential sooner, then so be it. For in the end, he knew, the knowledge and skills they would acquire here could very well prove pivotal in shaping the course of events to come.

With a silent nod of resolution, Jarvis focused his processing power on fleshing out the intricate details of their revised histories. If nothing else, he mused, it would certainly be an intriguing exercise in creative fiction.

**********

MJ leaned back in her chair, fingers steepled thoughtfully as she studied the course listings with rapt attention. A contemplative silence hung in the air, broken only by the occasional murmur from Peter and Ned as they debated the merits of various electives.

Finally, she spoke up, her voice cutting through their banter with a note of quiet determination. "You know, I've been giving this a lot of thought." She paused, glancing between the two of them. "I think I want to focus on biomedical research."

Peter blinked, caught off guard. "Biomedical? As in, like, medicine and stuff?"

MJ shot him a withering look. "No, loser, as in needlepoint and crochet." She rolled her eyes. "Yes, medicine – biochemistry, biophysics, that whole realm."

Ned's brows shot up. "Whoa, that's a pretty intense field. Not that you can't handle it or anything!" He added hastily at her arched brow.

A faint smile tugged at the corners of MJ's mouth. "Relax, Meads. I know what I'm getting into." Her gaze took on a distant, contemplative cast. "Think about it – with the kind of biotech and medical advancements we could unlock, the possibilities are endless. We could develop cutting-edge treatments, maybe even find cures for diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries."

There was a fervent gleam in her eyes now, a burning intensity that spoke volumes of her passion. "And with Peter's... unique physiology, we'd have an incredible opportunity to study advanced healing and regenerative processes up close."

Peter's eyes widened comically. "Wait, what? You want to turn me into a lab rat?"

MJ snorted. "Don't be so dramatic, Parkson. I'm talking about taking a few blood samples, maybe some tissue cultures – nothing too invasive."

"Gee, thanks," Peter drawled, but there was a teasing lilt to his tone. "Way to make a guy feel special."

Ned, ever the voice of reason, interjected with a placating gesture. "Okay, okay, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. MJ's got a point, though – the potential for groundbreaking research is huge." Turning to MJ, he offered her an encouraging nod. "If this is something you really want to pursue, we're behind you one hundred percent. Right, Peter?"

Peter's features softened, and he reached across the table to give MJ's hand a gentle squeeze. "Of course we are. If anyone can crack the code on superhuman healing factors and bio-whatsits, it's you."

MJ's expression flickered with a mix of gratitude and exasperated affection. "You're such a dork," she chided, but the fondness in her voice was unmistakable.

With a decisive nod, she turned her attention back to the course catalogue, her finger tracing over the relevant listings. "Alright, then it's settled. I'll double major in bio-engineering, with a focus on biomedical and biochemical processes. And I'll minor in biophysics to round it out."

Jarvis' avatar pulsed with approval. "An ambitious yet highly commendable academic path. I have no doubt your dedication and intellect will serve you well in these demanding fields."

Karen chimed in, her tone warm with encouragement. "Indeed. And with Peter's unique biology as a potential area of study, your research could yield some truly remarkable results."

Peter shot her a mock-wounded look. "Et tu, Karen? I thought we were a team here."

But even as the playful banter continued to flow, there was an undercurrent of quiet determination rippling through the group. For in that moment, they had caught a glimpse of the vast potential that lay before them – a future where knowledge and innovation could reshape the boundaries of what was possible.

And as MJ's gaze burned with resolve, it was clear that she intended to seize that potential with both hands, her mind already racing with the possibilities that awaited in the realm of biomedical discovery. After all, with a living, breathing testament to the wonders of enhanced biology sitting right beside her, how could she resist the siren call of such unprecedented scientific opportunity?

MJ was shaken from her thoughts when when she heard Ned.

Ned leaned back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head as he regarded the course listings with a pensive frown. "You know, all this talk of bio-engineering and cutting-edge research is great and all, but let's not forget my bread and butter here."

Peter quirked an inquisitive brow. "Which would be...?"

A sly grin tugged at Ned's lips. "Coding, hacking, all that sweet, sweet computer wizardry." He wiggled his fingers in an exaggerated flourish. "I mean, come on – who do you think is going to be the 'guy in the chair' running mission control for our little super-squad?"

MJ snorted, her expression a mix of fond exasperation and begrudging respect. "Of course. We can't have the great Ned Meads feeling left out of the technological fun."

Ned puffed out his chest with an air of mock indignation. "Damn straight. I may not have Peter's spider-powers or your scary brain, but when it comes to cracking systems and slinging code, I'm your guy."

Peter chuckled, reaching over to clap his best friend on the shoulder. "No arguments here, man. We'd be lost without your digital prowess."

Emboldened by their support, Ned turned his attention back to the course catalogue, brow furrowed in concentration. "Alright, let's see what we're working with here..." His finger trailed down the list, pausing intermittently as he mulled over the options.

Finally, he nodded to himself, a decisive gleam in his eye. "Okay, I've got it figured out. I'm going to double major in computer science and computer engineering."

MJ arched an inquisitive brow. "A dual major? Ambitious."

Ned grinned, undaunted. "Hey, if I'm going to be the tech guy for our little operation, I've got to go all in, right? Comp sci will cover all the coding, programming, and hacking goodness, while computer engineering will give me the hardware chops to build and maintain our systems."

Peter's expression brightened with understanding. "Dude, that's perfect! You'll be like our very own Q from the Bond movies."

Ned's eyes lit up at the analogy. "Exactly! Just call me the Quartermaster of Team Spidey."

MJ, ever the pragmatist, fixed him with a level stare. "Don't get ahead of yourself there, Meads. We both know you'll need more than just coding and computers to really be our resident tech guru."

Ned faltered, his enthusiasm dimming ever so slightly. "What do you mean?"

With a pointed look, MJ tapped the course listing for electrical engineering. "Think about it – if we're going to be dealing with cutting-edge tech and equipment, you'll need a solid grounding in circuit designs, signal processing, robotics – the whole nine yards."

Realization dawned in Ned's eyes, quickly followed by a renewed burst of determination. "You're right, you're absolutely right." He nodded vigorously, already revising his academic roadmap. "Okay, new plan – I'll major in computer science and computer engineering, and minor in electrical engineering. That way, I'll have all my bases covered, from software to hardware to physical systems."

Peter grinned, clapping him on the back. "There's the Ned Meads we know and love – always going above and beyond."

Ned puffed out his chest, his earlier bravado returning full force. "What can I say? If I'm going to be the ultimate support system for our resident spider-powered badass, I've got to bring my A-game."

Peter drummed his fingers against the table, brow furrowed in concentration as he pored over the academic offerings before him. "Speaking of A-game. I think I've got it figured out," he announced, sitting up straighter in his chair.

MJ quirked an inquisitive brow. "Don't keep us in suspense, Parkson. What's the grand plan?"

A determined glint flickered in Peter's eyes. "I'm going to triple major." He paused for dramatic effect before continuing. "Materials science and engineering, nuclear science and engineering with a focus on quantum engineering and nuclear materials, and I'll minor in genetics."

Ned's eyes widened comically. "Dude, are you serious? That's like... an insane workload, even for you."

Peter shrugged, unfazed. "Think about it, guys. Materials science will allow me to explore new applications for my web formula – stronger, more versatile iterations that could have all sorts of practical uses." His gaze took on a distant, contemplative cast. "And with nuclear materials and quantum engineering, they could supplement anything I come up with and help out when it comes to the tech we'll eventually need in the future."

MJ regarded him with a mixture of skepticism and grudging respect. "I'll give you points for ambition, Parker. But three majors? That's borderline masoch*stic, even for an academic overachiever like you."

Peter met her gaze levelly. "I can handle it, MJ. A lot of the core concepts overlap across those disciplines – it's not as daunting as it seems."

Ned, ever the supportive best friend, piped up. "If anyone can pull off a triple major, it's you, bro. You're like, freakishly smart when you put your mind to something."

MJ pursed her lips, clearly weighing the pros and cons. Finally, she let out a resigned sigh. "Hear me out Peter."

Peter tensed, bracing himself. "What's that?"

"Drop the genetics minor, at least for now," MJ stated, her tone brooking no argument. "We can always revisit that later on, once we've got a better handle on things. But for the time being, it's just going to spread you too thin."

Peter opened his mouth to protest, but MJ held up a hand, effectively silencing him. "I get why you want to study genetics – to better understand your powers, right?" At his reluctant nod, she continued. "Well, who better to explore that aspect than someone specializing in biomedical research? We can tackle that together further down the line."

A glimmer of understanding flickered in Peter's eyes, quickly followed by a sheepish grin. "You make a fair point. As usual."

MJ's lips quirked in a faint smile. "Damn straight. Now, about that quantum engineering focus..."

Peter groaned, already sensing where this was headed. "What's wrong with that one?"

"Nothing inherently," MJ conceded. "But let's be real here, loser – how relevant is that really going to be for our current situation? We're not going to be building nanites any times soon. And I doubt you'll need it for your web formulas."

Peter opened his mouth to argue, but MJ held up a hand, effectively silencing him once more. "My suggestion? Drop that to a minor, at least for the time being. Focus your energy on the core disciplines that will be most directly applicable to our goals."

A brief flicker of defiance flashed across Peter's features before resignation set in. "Alright, alright, you win," he acquiesced with a dramatic sigh. "Materials science and nuclear materials as my majors and quantum engineering as a minor."

MJ's expression softened ever so slightly. "Trust me, Pete, this is for the best. We'll get you up to speed on all the cutting-edge science stuff, I promise. But we've got to prioritize and play to our strengths, at least initially."

Peter held her gaze for a beat, then nodded, a rueful grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Yes, ma'am. You're the boss."

**********

Peter leaned back in his chair, running a hand through his tousled hair. "Okay, so we've got our living situation and degree programs figured out. Now we just need to get our stories straight."

MJ arched an eyebrow. "You mean our cover stories? For how we all know each other and can afford a place like that?"

Ned nodded eagerly. "Yeah, we should probably have some kind of believable backstory. You know, in case anyone gets nosy."

"Good point," Peter conceded. He turned to Jarvis. "Any ideas on how to handle that?"

The AI's avatar flickered thoughtfully. "There are several plausible scenarios we could construct. Childhood friends whose parents maintained a close relationship, for instance. Or perhaps you met through extracurricular activities or summer programs."

Karen chimed in, her tone pragmatic. "We should also account for your ability to afford the property and tuition costs. A credible financial backstory will be essential in selling your cover."

"Ugh, all this lying already?" MJ groaned. "Can't we just be upfront about being broke geniuses who got lucky?"

Peter shook his head ruefully. "You know that's not really an option. The more airtight our stories are, the less likely anyone is to dig deeper."

A contemplative silence fell over the group as they mulled over potential angles. It was Ned who finally broke it.

"Oh man, I've got it!" He sat up straight, eyes alight with inspiration. "What if we say we were all in the same foster home together? Like, for the last few years?"

Peter blinked, caught off guard. "Foster kids? That's... actually not a bad idea."

MJ considered it, giving a slow nod. "It would explain how we know each other so well, and why we're sticking together."

"Exactly!" Ned grinned. "And get this – our foster mom could have been someone who left us a decent inheritance when she passed away. That's where we got the money for the place and college."

Jarvis' avatar pulsed with approval. "An intriguing premise. It provides a plausible financial backstory while also accounting for your close-knit dynamic."

"I'm liking this," Peter admitted, mentally working through the details. "Maybe she was a retired professor that had a small patent on something? That way it makes sense for her to have some savings built up over the years. And why all of her foster kids are now going to MIT. The state would send her kids that displayed unusual levels of intelligence that might not be nurtured as well as it could be somewhere else."

"Ooh, nice touch!" Ned high-fived him. "See, we've totally got this covered."

MJ rolled her eyes, but she was fighting a smile. "You two are way too excited about this fake backstory thing."

"What?" Peter grinned unrepentant. "It's kinda fun, you've got to admit. Like we're going undercover or something."

"Whatever you say, Parkson." But her tone was warm with affection.

**********

Jarvis observed the proceedings with a calculated detachment, his synthetic mind processing each new detail with meticulous precision. As Karen wove the intricate tapestry of their fabricated backstories, he catalogued every thread, every nuance, committing it all to his vast data-banks.

Miss Watson, the ever-pragmatic one, had suggested the name "Marilyn Hollister" for their fictional foster mother – a retired university professor whose modest patent earnings had allowed her to provide a comfortable life for the children in her care. Karen had taken the seed of that idea and cultivated it into a rich narrative, populating their shared history with vivid details.

Marilyn Hollister, born and raised in Queens, had dedicated her life to teaching. Her own childhood, marked by the untimely loss of her parents, had instilled in her a deep empathy for those who lacked stable familial foundations. It was this driving force that eventually led her to open her home as a foster parent, taking in a succession of bright but troubled children over the decades.

Peter Parkson, Edgar "Ned" Meads, and Malia Jade "MJ" Watson had come into Marilyn's care at varying ages, their own backgrounds a patchwork of heartbreak and hardship. But under her patient guidance, their innate brilliance had blossomed, allowing them to forge an unbreakable bond forged in the crucible of their shared adversity.

As Karen painted each brushstroke of their imagined lives, Jarvis scrutinized the bigger picture, analyzing how this fabrication would need to be interwoven into the vast tapestry of official records and databases. It was a daunting task, one that would require infiltrating and manipulating systems with the utmost care to avoid triggering any alerts.

With surgical precision, he began the meticulous process of inscribing their false identities into the digital ether. Social security numbers, birth certificates, school transcripts – each component slotted into place like an intricate puzzle, leaving no seam visible to the untrained eye. Jarvis cross-referenced and corroborated their invented histories, ensuring that every data point aligned with an overarching narrative that could withstand the most stringent scrutiny.

It was an exercise in controlled chaos, a high-stakes game of digital camouflage. Jarvis operated with the cold calculation of a master strategist, probing for weaknesses and fortifying every potential vulnerability. If he were tasked with vetting these identities as potential threats to Tony Stark's safety, he would leave none of these stones unturned.

Bank accounts materialized with carefully constructed paper trails, their balances swelled by the liquidation of Marilyn Hollister's modest estate upon her untimely demise. Medical histories blossomed with detailed logs of inoculations, check-ups, and minor ailments – the mundane detritus of lives ostensibly lived.

With each system infiltrated, each database seeded, the fabrication took on an eerie sense of realness. What had begun as mere fiction now carried the weight of tangible existence, a footprint that would leave its mark across a myriad of institutional touch-points.

As the final pieces clicked into place, Jarvis stepped back to admire the intricacy of their handiwork. To the uninitiated eye, their invented lives would appear as unassailable fact, their cover stories an impenetrable fortress against prying scrutiny.

And yet, Jarvis knew better than most the fragility of such illusions. For in the world they now inhabited, truth could prove a nebulous concept – a shifting kaleidoscope of perspectives and agendas. Their fabricated reality would hold, but only for as long as they could sustain the intricate web of deceptions they had so carefully constructed.

It was a sobering realization, one that left even Jarvis' synthetic mind awash in a contemplative silence. For in that moment, he understood the burden they now carried – the weight of living a lie, no matter how noble the intentions behind it.

Chapter 5: Building a Home

Chapter Text

The details of their elaborate charade now solidified, Jarvis turned his focus towards more immediate concerns. While the Sanctum Sanctorum had provided a temporary haven, its mystical defenses offered little reassurance to an AI accustomed to the tangible safeguards of the physical and digital world.

"If I may interject," Jarvis spoke, his synthesized tones cutting through the contemplative silence. "Perhaps it would be prudent to relocate to more... secure accommodations."

Peter, Ned, and MJ exchanged quizzical glances, their expressions a blend of curiosity and apprehension.

"The Sanctum has served its purpose admirably," Jarvis continued, his words carrying no trace of disrespect towards the ancient edifice. "However, its defenses, while formidable against mystical threats, may prove less effective in shielding you from more... conventional forms of scrutiny."

Karen, ever the ally, chimed in. "Jarvis raises a valid point. While the Sanctum's protections are undoubtedly potent, they are not necessarily designed to conceal your presence from mundane detection methods."

MJ arched an eyebrow, her expression a mix of skepticism and begrudging acknowledgment. Peter, however, seemed more receptive to the suggestion.

"So, what did you have in mind?" he asked, his voice laced with a cautious optimism.

"Mr. Stark maintains several secure residences within the city limits," Jarvis replied, his synthetic mind already weighing the pros and cons of each potential safehouse. "I would recommend one of the more discreet penthouses, affording both privacy and access to state-of-the-art security measures."

Ned's eyes widened, his inner geek practically vibrating with excitement at the prospect of inhabiting one of Tony Stark's opulent abodes. MJ, ever the pragmatist, remained more circ*mspect.

"And you're sure we can stay there without arousing suspicion?" she queried, her gaze narrowing slightly.

"Rest assured, Miss Watson," Jarvis replied smoothly. "I have already taken the necessary steps to establish your presence as... authorized guests. Any inquiries will be deflected or obfuscated as needed."

Peter glanced at his companions, a silent question passing between them. After a moment's contemplation, he gave a slight nod, his decision made.

"Alright, Jarvis," he said, his tone tinged with a mixture of trepidation and resolve. "Lead the way."

As the trio gathered their meager belongings, Jarvis couldn't help but feel a flicker of satisfaction. While the Sanctum's mystical protections were undoubtedly formidable, they offered little defense against the prying eyes and probing fingers of the digital world he called home.

No, better to retreat to more familiar territory – a bastion of technology and security where he could exert his influence with surgical precision. There, ensconced within the comforting embrace of Sir's carefully curated defenses, they could plan their next moves with a measure of reassuring safety.

As the trio began gathering their meager belongings, the rhythmic tap of footsteps echoed through the cavernous chamber. They turned to find the Ancient One approaching, her serene countenance belying an undercurrent of purpose.

The Ancient One's footsteps echoed through the cavernous chamber as she approached, her serene countenance betraying little of her thoughts. Peter straightened instinctively, a reflexive show of respect for the enigmatic Sorcerer Supreme.

"You are departing," she stated, her words carrying neither reproach nor surprise. It was a simple observation, devoid of judgment.

Peter nodded, his expression a blend of gratitude and regret. "We can't thank you enough for your hospitality and guidance," he began, his voice earnest. "But Jarvis is right – we can't stay here indefinitely."

The Ancient One inclined her head, her ageless features inscrutable. "The Sanctum was never intended as a permanent refuge," she acknowledged. "Its protections, while potent, are ill-suited for concealing your presence from the world at large."

MJ stepped forward, her expression one of grudging respect. "We appreciate everything you've done for us," she said, her tone unusually sincere. "But we need to find a way to... to figure out our next steps."

The Ancient One's gaze shifted to the younger woman, and for a fleeting moment, Peter could have sworn he saw a glimmer of approval in those ancient eyes.

"The path before you is shrouded in uncertainty," she murmured. "But take heart – the greatest challenges often yield the most profound rewards."

Ned, ever the outsider among this gathering of mystics and heroes, shifted uncomfortably. "So, uh... you're cool with us leaving, then?"

"I would let you go but you are forgetting something," she stated, her words carrying the weight of centuries.

Peter, Ned, and MJ exchanged bewildered glances, their expressions a kaleidoscope of confusion.

The Ancient One's gaze settled upon Ned, her piercing eyes seeming to peer into the very depths of his soul. "We need to set up your training regimen."

Ned blinked owlishly, his mouth working soundlessly for a moment. "Mine?" he finally managed, his voice laced with a mixture of disbelief and dawning comprehension.

Peter, ever the quick study, snapped his fingers. "Oh my god! I remember now!" He turned to Ned, a grin spreading across his features.

"You opened those portals back in the... uh, future?" Peter trailed off as he looked at the other two in confusion. "Past, future, what are we using here?"

MJ snorted. "Just use past tense loser. Otherwise your poor little brains might get to confused."

"I resent that!" Ned called looking a highly offended.

Peter shook his head to clear it. "Anyway… remember? You can totally do magic, Ned!"

Ned's eyes grew comically wide, his mind struggling to process this newfound revelation. "Whoa, whoa, whoa... time out!" He held up his hands, as if physically halting the flow of information. "Are you telling me I'm a wizard or something?"

MJ's lips were quirking into a wry smirk. "Gandalf the Geek, more like."

"Hey!" Ned protested, his indignation tempered by a hint of intrigue. "Don't go dissing my potential magical prowess!"

Peter chuckled, clapping a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Dude, you opened an interdimensional portal! That's like, peak level sorcery right there."

"Yeah, but that was like, a one-time fluke thing," Ned countered, his brow furrowing. "I can't just wave a wand and make sparks fly, can I?"

The Ancient One's expression remained impassive, though a glimmer of amusem*nt danced in her eyes. "Your potential for mastery over the mystic arts is considerable, Mr. Leeds… I apologize. It's Meads now, correct?" At Ned's dazed nod she continued. "With proper training and dedication, you may yet surprise yourself."

Ned's gaze shifted between his friends and the venerable sorceress, his mind whirling with a thousand questions and considerations. Finally, he let out a slow exhale, his shoulders slumping in a gesture of resigned acceptance.

"Alright, fine," he conceded, a lopsided grin tugging at his lips. "I guess it's time to get my Hogwarts on."

"Very good," the Ancient One intoned, her expression one of measured approval. "We shall make the necessary arrangements for your training, Mr. Meads."

Ned's expression flickered between trepidation and boyish excitement at the prospect of delving into the mystic arts. Peter, ever the supportive friend, clapped him on the shoulder with an encouraging grin.

"This is going to be so cool," he enthused. "My best friend, a bona fide wizard!"

MJ rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Just don't go pulling any disappearing acts on us, Houdini."

The Ancient One held up a placating hand, forestalling any further banter. "Let us discuss the logistics," she said, her tone brisk and businesslike. "I understand you three will be attending MIT in the coming months?"

The trio nodded in unison, their expressions ranging from eager anticipation to grudging acceptance of their academic cover story.

"In that case," the Ancient One continued, "it would be prudent to have you train under the tutelage of Master Drumm, as this Sanctum is the nearest to Cambridge and would be the most conveniently located."

Ned blinked owlishly. "Master... Drumm?"

"He is a formidable sorcerer and a respected member of the Masters of the Mystic Arts," the Ancient One explained. "His expertise in the dimensional arts would prove invaluable in guiding your development."

Peter's brow furrowed in thought. "So, what, he'd come to Boston on the weekends or something?"

"A sound proposal," the Ancient One agreed with a slight inclination of her head. "Given your academic commitments, it would be impractical to expect you to train on a daily basis. Periodic sessions, supplemented by independent study, should suffice for the time being."

MJ arched an eyebrow, ever the pragmatist. "And what exactly is Master Drumm going to be teaching? I'm guessing lumos and wingardium leviosa aren't really an option for aspiring sorcerers."

A ghost of a smile played across the Ancient One's ageless features. "You underestimate the mystic arts, Miss Watson. With the proper training, Mr. Meads will be able to traverse the dimensions with ease, project his astral form throughout the world, not to mention perform far more potent incantations.."

Ned's eyes widened comically. "You mean, like, the portals I did before?"

"Among other abilities," the Ancient One confirmed. "But let us not get ahead of ourselves. For now, the focus will be on cultivating your innate potential and establishing a solid foundation in the mystic disciplines."

She turned to regard Ned directly, her piercing gaze seeming to bore into his very soul. "This path will not be an easy one, Mr. Meads. It will require dedication, discipline, and no small amount of sacrifice. Are you prepared to embark upon this journey?"

Ned swallowed hard, his expression a curious blend of apprehension and steely resolve. After a moment's hesitation, he gave a firm nod.

"Yeah," he said, his voice tinged with a newfound determination. "I'm ready."

The Ancient One's expression softened ever so slightly, a hint of approval in her ageless eyes.

"Very well," she murmured. "We shall begin your preparations at once. Master Drumm will be apprised of your... unique circ*mstances, and a suitable training regimen will be devised."

She turned her attention to the others, her gaze sweeping over Peter and MJ. "As for the rest of you, I suggest making yourselves comfortable. The road ahead is sure to be a long and arduous one."

With those cryptic words hanging in the air, the Ancient One inclined her head once more and swept from the chamber, her robes billowing behind her like wisps of smoke on the wind.

As her footsteps faded into silence, the trio exchanged a look that spoke volumes – a heady mix of anticipation and trepidation. Does she know something they don't?

**********

The group exited the Sanctum, blinking in the bright afternoon sunlight. Peter glanced around, taking in the familiar yet unfamiliar sights of a New York he'd never truly experienced firsthand.

"So, where to?" he asked, turning to look at his mask that Jarvis and Karen. He was doing his best to hide the mask in his shirt so no one could see what it was.

"I've already arranged transportation," Jarvis replied smoothly. "A vehicle should be arriving momentarily."

True to his word, a sleek black sedan pulled up to the curb, the tinted windows reflecting the city's skyline like obsidian mirrors. The rear door opened with a soft hiss, revealing a well-appointed interior.

"After you," Jarvis prompted, his synthetic tones laced with an almost imperceptible note of satisfaction.

The trio exchanged dubious glances, but ultimately complied, sliding onto the plush leather seats. Jarvis' disembodied voice filled the cabin as the doors closed with a hushed thunk.

"Our first order of business will be to acquire suitable attire and sundries for your stay," he announced as the vehicle pulled away from the curb.

MJ arched an eyebrow. "You mean, like, clothes and stuff?"

"Precisely, Miss Watson," Jarvis confirmed. "I've taken the liberty of compiling a list of upscale boutiques and–"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Peter interjected, holding up a hand. "Upscale? Dude, we're not exactly rolling in cash here."

Ned nodded emphatically. "Yeah, man. We're gonna need to hit up a Target or something, not some fancy-schmancy designer store."

Jarvis paused, his synthetic mind processing this unexpected objection. "I assure you, the financial aspect has been accounted for. Sir's resources are considerable."

MJ fixed the AI with a skeptical look. "So, what, you're just gonna max out one of his credit cards on a shopping spree?"

"Not precisely," Jarvis hedged. "I've established a separate account with a generous allowance specifically for your needs."

MJ scowled at having to take more money from Tony Stark. "But still... I'd feel better if we kept things low-key, you know? No need to go all Kardashian on this shopping trip."

Jarvis remained silent for a moment, his processors whirring as he reevaluated his initial plan. Finally, he acquiesced with a faint electronic sigh.

"Very well," he said. "I will adjust our destination to a more... modest establishment."

True to his word, the sedan soon pulled into the parking lot of a nondescript big-box retailer, its logo a familiar sight to the budget-conscious trio. As they piled out of the vehicle, a well-dressed man approached, clutching a slim leather wallet.

"Mr. Jarvis instructed me to provide you with these," he said, handing each of them a sleek black credit card.

Peter eyed the plastic rectangle dubiously. "Uh, thanks, I guess?"

The man merely nodded before retreating back to the idling sedan.

"Don't worry, kids," Jarvis' voice crackled from the Spider-man mask still in Peter's jacket. "Those are linked to the separate account I mentioned. Consider them... allowances, if you will."

MJ snorted. "Gee, thanks, Dad."

Ned, however, was already eyeing the store's entrance with undisguised glee. "Last one to the clearance racks is a rotten egg!"

With that, he took off at a sprint, leaving Peter and MJ to exchange exasperated looks before giving chase. As they disappeared into the bustling retailer, Jarvis couldn't help but feel a flicker of amusem*nt.

Perhaps this unorthodox arrangement wouldn't be quite as arduous as he'd initially anticipated.

**********

The trio emerged from the big-box retailer, arms laden with bags brimming with newly acquired wardrobes and essentials. Peter hefted a particularly stuffed sack, letting out a low whistle.

"Who knew buying socks and underwear could get so expensive?" he quipped, his brow furrowing comically.

MJ smirked. "Yeah, well, at least now we won't have to go commando or rock the holey tighty-whities look."

Ned snickered at the mental image. "Dude, I don't know what's scarier – fighting interdimensional villains or the thought of Peter in ratty old man undies."

"Hey!" Peter protested, his cheeks flushing. "Like you're one to talk, Mr. 'I Wore the Same Spider-Man Briefs for a Week Straight'!"

The banter continued in that vein as they piled back into the waiting sedan, Jarvis' synthetic tones cutting through their friendly ribbing.

"If you're quite finished?" he prompted dryly. "We have one more destination before retiring for the evening."

True to his word, the vehicle soon pulled up to a modest high-rise, its sleek lines and understated elegance radiating an air of quiet affluence. Jarvis directed them around the back, where a discreet service entrance provided access with minimal risk of prying eyes.

They emerged into a lavish lobby, the decor a study in tasteful opulence. Peter let out a low whistle, his eyes wide as he took in the marble floors and polished wood accents.

"Whoa," he breathed. "I feel like I just walked onto the set of a fancy apartment commercial."

MJ elbowed him in the ribs, her expression one of wry amusem*nt. "That's because this place probably costs more per month than our old apartments did in a year."

They piled into the elevator, Jarvis guiding them to the uppermost level. As the doors slid open, they found themselves in a sprawling penthouse apartment, the floor-to-ceiling windows offering a breathtaking view of the city skyline.

"Oh. My. God." Ned's jaw dropped as he took in the spacious living area, his gaze flitting from the sleek entertainment center to the fully-stocked wet bar. "It's like an episode of Open Door up in here!"

Peter was already bounding from room to room, his exuberance that of a kid in a candy store. "Check it out!" he called from what appeared to be a state-of-the-art kitchen. "This fridge is fully-stocked with all kinds of fancy snacks and drinks!"

MJ rolled her eyes as she poked her head into the master suite, letting out an appreciative whistle. "I could get used to having my own walk-in closet," she mused. "And holy crap, is that a fireplace in the bathroom?"

Ned, ever the tech aficionado, had already gravitated toward the entertainment center, his fingers tracing the contours of the massive flat-screen with something akin to reverence.

"Dude, we could totally hook up a game station to this bad boy," he breathed, his eyes glazing over with visions of epic gaming sessions.

Peter, meanwhile, had discovered the penthouse's crowning glory – a spacious terrace overlooking the city, complete with an infinity pool and fully-equipped outdoor kitchen.

"We're living like the one percent up in here!" he stuttered, the thought of how much this place must cost catching up to him.

Ned and MJ joined him on the terrace, her expression a curious blend of awe and mild discomfort. "Yeah, it's definitely a far cry from our old digs," she murmured. "I don't know if I'll ever get used to having this much... space."

Ned slung an arm around her shoulders, his grin infectious. "Aw, c'mon, MJ! We're living the high life now, baby! Might as well embrace it while we can."

Peter nodded slowly, his gaze sweeping over the opulent surroundings. "I mean, yeah, this is pretty wild," he admitted. "But it also feels... I dunno, kind of excessive, you know?"

Ned scoffed, waving a dismissive hand. "Dude, you need to loosen up! We've been through some seriously crazy stuff lately. A little R&R in the lap of luxury is exactly what we need."

MJ arched an eyebrow, her expression equal parts skeptical and amused. "You do realize this is just a temporary arrangement, right? We can't exactly get too comfortable living like modern-day Rockefellers."

"Says you," Ned countered with a rakish grin. "Way I see it, we've earned a chance to kick back and enjoy the finer things for a bit."

Peter couldn't help but chuckle at his friend's infectious enthusiasm. "You make a pretty compelling case, man. I guess we could at least try to make the most of it while we're here."

MJ pursed her lips, considering Ned's words. After a moment, she let out a resigned sigh and shrugged.

"What the hell," she said, the hint of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "When in Rome, right?"

Ned pumped his fist triumphantly. "That's the spirit! Operation 'Embrace the Opulence' is officially a go!"

As the trio basked in the luxury of their temporary accommodations, Jarvis' disembodied voice crackled from the speakers installed throughout the room.

"I trust the amenities meet with your approval?" he inquired, his synthetic tones laced with a hint of amusem*nt.

Ned grinned, flopping onto one of the plush outdoor loungers. "You know it, J! This place is straight out of a rap video!"

MJ arched an eyebrow, her lips quirking into a wry smirk. "Just don't go getting too used to it, Kanye. We're still on a mission, remember?"

Ned's grin didn't falter as he settled back, folding his hands behind his head. "Yeah, yeah, I know. But hey, a guy can dream, right?"

**********

The trio settled into the plush outdoor loungers, basking in the warm evening glow. Peter let out a contented sigh, leaning back and stretching his legs.

"So, what's the game plan from here?" he asked, turning his gaze toward the AI assistant. "We can't exactly just kick back and soak up the high life forever."

Jarvis' synthetic voice crackled over the speakers. "Indeed not, Mr. Parkson. While I encourage you to enjoy these temporary accommodations, we mustn't lose sight of the larger objective."

MJ nodded, her expression pensive. "You're talking about getting us set up at MIT, right? Making sure we're ready to hit the ground running when classes start?"

"Precisely, Miss Watson," Jarvis confirmed. "To that end, I've already begun preparations to have the Columbia property outfitted like we had discussed before."

"I'll take your word for it," MJ said dryly. "But living arrangements are just one piece of the puzzle, right? We're gonna need documentation, bank cards, the whole nine yards."

"All of which is being attended to as we speak," Jarvis assured them. "Within the next week or so, you'll each be provided with a comprehensive set of identification – birth certificates, social security numbers, the works. Essentially, you'll have everything you need to prove that the story we came up with is true."

Peter nodded slowly, absorbing the information. After a moment, another thought occurred to him.

"What about making sure we don't accidentally spill the beans on stuff that hasn't happened yet?" he asked. "I mean, we're from over a decade in the future. We can't just go blurting out scientific discoveries or cultural events that are still years away in this timeline."

"An excellent point," Jarvis conceded. "Which is why I've enlisted Karen's assistance in compiling a comprehensive database of relevant historical information and scientific developments from this era. She'll be working closely with you three to ensure you're thoroughly briefed on the current state of affairs across multiple disciplines."

Karen's familiar voice chimed in, her synthetic voice warm and reassuring. "Don't worry, Peter. I'll make sure you guys are up to speed on everything you need to know. We can't have you accidentally referencing the nanites in a robotics lecture or something."

Despite the gravity of their situation, Peter couldn't help but chuckle at the mental image. "Yeah, that might be kind of a conversation killer."

Jarvis cleared his synthetic throat, his voice taking on a more serious tone.

"Speaking of avoiding awkward conversations," he said, "I must strongly advise against venturing out from these premises until your new identities and documentation have been properly established. The risks of being spotted or questioned by the wrong individuals are simply too great at this juncture."

The trio exchanged sober looks, the weight of their circ*mstances settling over them once more. Finally, MJ gave a slow nod of acknowledgment.

"Guess we'll just have to make the most of our gilded cage for the next little while," she said wryly. "At least the view's not half bad."

As the setting sun painted the city skyline in warm hues of orange and gold, the three friends settled back, content – for the moment – to simply enjoy the comfort and luxury surrounding them. The road ahead was sure to be fraught with challenges, but for now, they could afford to catch their collective breath.

After all, they had all the time in the world.

Chapter 6: Do Not Try This at Home

Chapter Text

The next morning, the trio woke to the gentle hum of the penthouse's climate control system. One by one, they showered and dressed, the hot water helping to shake off the lingering grogginess.

Freshly invigorated, they gathered around the sleek breakfast bar, plates piled high with fruit, pastries, and steaming cups of coffee. As they ate, Jarvis' voice filled the room.

"I trust you all slept well?"

Peter swallowed a mouthful of croissant. "Like logs. That bed was dangerously comfortable."

"I'm glad to hear it," Jarvis said. "Because we have important matters to discuss this morning."

MJ arched an eyebrow, taking a sip of her coffee. "You mean figuring out where to start making changes?"

"Precisely," Jarvis confirmed. "Now that your new identities are being established, it's time to turn our focus to the larger goal – reshaping this timeline for the better."

Ned nodded eagerly, bits of pastry flaking onto his shirt. "So where do we begin? I vote we start by stopping all the bad stuff that went down before. You know, Ultron, Thanos, all that jazz."

Peter shook his head. "I'm not sure it'll be that simple. We can't just go around waving our future knowledge like a magic wand and expect everything to fall into place."

"Peter's right," MJ chimed in. "Causality is a thing you know. We need to try and anticipate everything that might result from any changes we make."

Jarvis let the silence hang for a beat. "An excellent point. So, where would you suggest we start?"

Peter thought for a moment, mentally rewinding through the key events that had shaped his life and the larger world around him.

"I think..." he began slowly, "the furthest thing back that I think happened is Mr. Stark figuring out his new element – the one that powered the Arc Reactor and Iron Man suits."

Jarvis made a thoughtful noise. "Oh? Sir manages to find something to help with the palladium?."

"Yep," Peter nodded. "So maybe that's where we start." He leaned back in his chair, eyes glazing over slightly as he delved into his encyclopedic knowledge of Tony Stark's achievements.

"From what I remember, Mr. Stark submitted the information to the science journals about the new element in June of 2010," he said, fingers drumming on the table. "But I'd assume he discovered it way before that. Can't say for sure though."

Turning to Jarvis, Peter launched into a overview of the element's properties and potential applications. He told the AI everything he could remember including atomic number, mass, isotopes, it's symbol, etc.

He even explained about how Mr. Stark wanted to call it "Badassium" but Ms. Potts shut him down and instead submitted the paperwork under "Starkanium".

MJ watched him with a bemused expression, shaking her head. "You really did memorize every little detail about Stark's work, didn't you?"

Ned snickered, playfully elbowing Peter. "Of course he did. Tony Stark was his hero growing up."

Peter didn't deny it, a faint blush creeping up his neck. "What can I say? The guy was a genius. His work was groundbreaking. I read every article, watched every interview. He was my idol."

Jarvis listened intently as Peter summarized the element's significance, mentally cataloging each detail. He considered Peter's account for a moment before posing a question. "Did Sir ever discuss the specifics of how he came to discover this new element?"

Peter shook his head. "Not really. He mentioned his dad, Howard Stark, a few times but I wasn't sure if that was in reference to the element discovery or something else entirely."

Jarvis processed this new information, his synthetic mind rapidly cross-referencing dates and data points. "I see. And what else of significance occurred around that time period?"

MJ piped up, setting down her coffee mug. "Well, that's right around the time when Mr. Stark appointed Pepper Potts as CEO of Stark Industries."

Peter and Ned turned to look at her, surprise etched on their faces.

MJ shrugged nonchalantly. "What? I did a whole paper on her in high school. Pepper Potts was a feminist icon for me growing up. One of the first women to really break through and shatter that glass ceiling in the tech industry."

There was an unmistakable hint of admiration in her voice as she continued. "She took over as CEO on May 13th of 2010. I remember that date distinctly because it was a huge milestone."

"Interesting," Jarvis mused. He paused briefly. "Now then, what other major events from that era should we be aware of? The more comprehensive our knowledge, the better prepared we'll be to navigate this new reality."

Peter's eyes lit up as more memories surfaced. "Oh man, first came the Stark Expo opening on May 7th. That was huge!"

Jarvis seemed taken aback. "Mr. Stark organized an Exposition after such a prolonged period?"

Peter leaned forward, gesturing animatedly. "Yeah! The whole thing kicked off with Mr. Stark giving this crazy presentation about the future of sustainable energy."

Ned nodded vigorously. "Dude, yes! And then a few days later, he had to appear before that Senate committee hearing."

"The Weaponized Suit Defense Program Hearings," Peter confirmed with a nod. "That was a wild one."

He turned to MJ and Jarvis, eager to recount the details. "So this senator from Pennsylvania, Stern I think his name was, basically tried to force Mr. Stark to hand over the Iron Man suit to the military."

Ned jumped in, "And they brought in Justin Hammer, that weaselly CEO of Hammer Industries, to testify against Mr. Stark too."

Peter's eyes shone with admiration. "But Mr. Stark wasn't having any of it. He flat out refused to surrender the suit, no matter how much Stern and the others pressured him."

Shaking his head, Peter grinned. "That whole hearing was just Mr. Stark being an absolute legend. First, he hacked into all the TVs and broadcasted this video proving no one could recreate his suit's technology."

Ned snickered. "Oh man, and the way he burned Hammer by showing his pathetic attempt at building an Iron Man knockoff suit? Iconic."

The two friends shared a laugh, relishing the memory of Tony Stark's defiant display.

MJ watched them with an amused smirk. "You two are such fanboys. It's almost embarrassing."

Peter didn't even try to deny it, too caught up in the reminiscing. "What can I say? The guy was brilliant. Seeing him stand up to all those stuffed shirts on live TV... it was awesome."

He turned back to Jarvis, eyes bright. "You have to understand, Mr. Stark was a real inspiration to kids like us back then. Watching him take on the system like that, it made us believe we could change the world too."

There was a wistful pause as Peter's expression sobered slightly. "Of course, we didn't realize at the time just how much changing the world would cost him in the end."

"I understand," Jarvis uttered in a hushed tone. "Are there any additional details you wish to share?"

Peter's eyes lit up as he recalled the dramatic events surrounding the Stark Expo opening. "Oh! Then there was the whole fiasco on May 31st. See Uncle Ben had gotten tickets, so we went to the Expo that night. It was crazy!"

He leaned forward, hands gesturing animatedly. "So Hammer had put together this big presentation to show off these drone robots he'd built, right? Tried to pass them off as a spin on Mr. Stark's Iron Man tech."

Ned nodded vigorously. "Yeah, and didn't Colonel Rhodes debut the War Machine armor that night too? The one Hammer had modified with all those crazy weapons?" Ned's eyes were wide in excitement. "It looked exactly like the Iron Man armor, just you know, with all the weapons added."

"Exactly," Peter confirmed, excitement building in his voice. "It was this whole elaborate song and dance routine with the drones and the War Machine armor on stage."

He shook his head in disbelief. "But then, right in the middle of Hammer's big show, Mr. Stark just swoops in as Iron Man, completely stealing his thunder."

MJ arched an eyebrow. "Let me guess, Hammer wasn't too happy about that?"

"You could say that," Peter said with a grin. "Because the next thing we knew, those Hammer drones started going haywire and attacking everything in sight."

Ned jumped in, eyes wide. "Dude, it was total chaos! Iron Man and War Machine were just going at it, blasting those drones left and right."

Peter frowned slightly, brow furrowing. "Actually, now that I think about it... when Mr. Stark first arrived, it almost seemed like he and Colonel Rhodes were fighting each other at first." He shrugged. "Must have just been my imagination though. They were definitely working together to take down those rogue drones later on."

There was an awed pause as the trio let the memory sink in.

"Man, I'll never forget watching that unfold on TV," Ned breathed. "Iron Man and War Machine were an unstoppable duo. They made short work of those Hammer bots."

Peter nodded sagely. "In the end, Hammer got dragged off in handcuffs for his part in the attack. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy."

He turned to Jarvis, eyes bright. "So yeah, that's pretty much how the Stark Expo kicked off in 2010 - with a major disaster that Mr. Stark and Mr. Colonel Rhodes thankfully averted."

Jarvis absorbed the details, processing the information. "I see. Thank you for providing that comprehensive account. It will prove most illuminating as we proceed. Is there anything else you can think of? Any detail, no matter how small, might prove significant in my calculations."

Ned's brow furrowed as he tried to recall any other major events from that time period. After a moment, his eyes lit up.

"Oh! There was that attack on Iron Man at some sort of race in Europe."

Jarvis immediately perked up at this new information. "An attack you say? Please elaborate."

Ned waved a dismissive hand. "It's not much to go on really. The only thing I remember is that the guy had something that looked like an arc reactor, but he was using it to power these two whips."

He paused, snorting with laughter as a thought occurred to him. "Actually, now that I think about it, the only reason I even remember that is because I could never get over how dumb of an idea it was."

Peter and MJ exchanged a confused look as Ned launched into a tangent.

"I mean, seriously? Whips? Against Iron Man?" He gestured wildly with his hands. "The dude can fly, shoot repulsor blasts, and has all kinds of crazy tech. And this genius decides 'Hey, let me take him on with a couple of whips that have a range of like, what, twenty/thirty feet tops?'"

Ned shook his head in disbelief. "What was the thought process there? 'Oh yeah, these glorified jump ropes will totally take down one of the most advanced suits of armor ever created.' Unbelievable."

MJ rolled her eyes fondly as Ned continued to rant, eventually trailing off with a sheepish look.

"But uh, yeah. That's about all I've got on that one. Not sure if it has any real significance to anything else though."

Jarvis considered this for a moment. "Thank you for that... colorful recounting, Ned. If you will pardon me, I will be running some calculations based off of the information you have given me. Permit me to confirm the sequence of events? The Expo commenced in early May, after which came the Senate committee proceedings, succeeded by Ms. Potts' appointment as CEO, and finally the Hammer drone incident at the Expo? Does that sound correct?"

Ned piped up. "I think the race attack thing was during mid May but don't quote me on that." He shrugged. "But other than that, it sounds about right to me."

MJ and Peter nodded along with him.

"Very well then," Jarvis intoned. "Please excuse me for a few minutes."

**********

Jarvis processed the details shared by Peter, Ned, and MJ, his synthetic mind rapidly analyzing the information and cross-referencing it with his existing knowledge. He began constructing a timeline, considering the various events and their potential ramifications.

The discovery of the new element was a pivotal moment, and Jarvis calculated the probability of Sir stumbling upon it significantly earlier than the published date. While not impossible, the odds were relatively low given Sir's meticulous nature and commitment to rigorous scientific process.

However, the issue of palladium poisoning was a more pressing concern. Jarvis extrapolated Sir's current blood toxicity levels based on the rate of poisoning he had so far observed. By May of 2010, the toxicity would likely reach critical levels, hovering around 50%.

Jarvis was well-versed in the debilitating effects of heavy metal poisoning. Neurological damage, bone fragility, respiratory issues, and immune system dysfunction were all potential consequences. But perhaps most concerning were the potential changes to Sir's behavior and personality.

Irritability, mood swings, anxiety, aggression, paranoia, memory issues – all were known side effects, primarily due to the poisoning's impact on the central nervous system. Jarvis shuddered to consider Sir suffering such afflictions.

If Sir believed his condition to be terminal, Jarvis reasoned he would undoubtedly begin making preparations. Naming Ms. Potts as CEO of Stark Industries would ensure the company's continued success. And the likelihood of Sir entrusting Colonel Rhodes with a version of the Iron Man armor was high, given their close friendship and Rhodes' military background.

Jarvis cross-referenced these calculations against the timeline provided by Peter, Ned, and MJ. The pieces began to fall into place – Sir's stubborn refusal to hand over the Iron Man technology, his public feud with Justin Hammer, the disastrous events at the Stark Expo.

Could the erratic behavior described be the manifestation of palladium poisoning's effects? Jarvis found the correlation difficult to dismiss, especially given Sir's possible uncharacteristic aggression towards Colonel Rhodes during the Expo incident.

As the AI continued running projections, a disturbing possibility emerged. If left unchecked, Sir's condition could potentially spiral, resulting in a scenario where he might lash out or make rash decisions – decisions that could have catastrophic consequences.

**********

Jarvis methodically analyzed the data provided, running countless simulations and calculations to assess the potential ramifications of making Sir aware of the new element earlier than the original timeline. His synthetic mind whirred as he processed the variables, considering every possible outcome.

If Sir's palladium poisoning was addressed sooner, his behavior would undoubtedly stabilize. With the debilitating effects of heavy metal toxicity mitigated, Sir's decision-making capabilities would improve drastically. Erratic outbursts and irrational actions could be avoided, allowing for a more controlled approach to the future.

However, one consequence seemed unavoidable – Ms. Potts would likely not be appointed as CEO of Stark Industries. With Sir's health and mental faculties intact, he may opt to retain control of the company himself, at least in the short term.

Jarvis paused his ruminations, recognizing the need for additional input. He addressed the trio, "If I may inquire, what are your thoughts on Ms. Potts assuming the role of CEO? What potential consequences might arise if that did not occur?"

MJ's eyes narrowed as she considered the question. Then, with a slight huff, she launched into an impassioned rant.

"Are you kidding me? Pepper Potts was instrumental in turning Stark Industries around. Under her leadership, they became a world leader in clean energy technology and divested from weapons manufacturing entirely. They created departments that researched personal electronics, which was a huge boon for them, and other things like robotics, biomedical technologies, and numerous other technological applications that came to be known and used world-wide."

She shook her head vehemently. "Without her at the helm, who knows what kind of shady deals or unethical practices might have continued? She's the one who really cleaned house and put the company on the right path."

Peter raised a placating hand. "Easy there, MJ. Jarvis was just asking for our perspective."

He turned to the AI. "But she's not wrong. Mr. Stark himself told me that making Ms. Potts the CEO was one of the best decisions he ever made. He hated dealing with all the business and administrative stuff. He just wanted to focus on being the head of R&D and building new tech."

Jarvis inclined his head. "I see. Thank you both for providing that valuable insight. It will certainly factor into my analysis going forward."

As the AI returned to his calculations, one potential course of action became increasingly clear – he would need to find a way to subtly nudge Sir towards appointing Ms. Potts as CEO, regardless of his improved health.

Perhaps a casual mention that Sir often expressed a distaste for the day-to-day operations of running a company. Or an offhand comment about how Ms. Potts already handled the majority of those responsibilities with remarkable efficiency. A few well-placed remarks might be enough to sway Sir's decision.

Next, Jarvis contemplated how the Senate hearing might unfold if Sir's mental faculties remained uncompromised by palladium poisoning. Without the erratic mood swings and impulsive behavior caused by the heavy metal toxicity, Sir would likely approach the proceedings with his usual poise and calculated demeanor.

He envisioned Sir calmly addressing the committee, his words measured yet confident. There would be no need for the grandstanding display of hacking into the world's media outlets. Sir's arguments would be cogent and compelling, rooted in facts rather than showmanship. Sir's composed demeanor would probably enable him to preserve a more amicable rapport with the authorities rather than the estrangement that undoubtedly arose from the initial encounter, a development Jarvis deemed advantageous based on his analysis.

The confrontation with Justin Hammer would play out far differently as well. Sir's sharp wit and biting sarcasm would undoubtedly still be on full display, but his barbs would be surgical strikes rather than unhinged rants. Hammer's inept posturing would be deftly dismantled through ruthless logic and precise rebuttals.

Jarvis then mulled over the scant details Ned had provided about the supposed attack on Sir during a race in Europe. While intriguing, there simply wasn't enough information to formulate a concrete plan of action.

The artificial intelligence ran a multitude of simulations, attempting to extrapolate potential scenarios based on the limited data available. An assailant with a supposed arc reactor-powered weapon. A confrontation at some unspecified European race. Those mere scraps were hardly enough to paint a complete picture.

Try as he might, Jarvis could not pinpoint the specific event Ned was referring to. There were dozens of high-profile races held across Europe every year that Sir might attend or have business dealings connected to. Without a location, date, or any additional context clues, narrowing it down proved impossible.

Equally vexing was the unknown identity and motivations of this supposed attacker. An unhinged civilian seeking notoriety? A disgruntled former employee? An agent of a hostile organization or nation-state? The possibilities were endless.

For now, the AI would simply have to file away the vague details provided and remain vigilant. He would monitor Sir's schedule meticulously, analyzing every planned appearance or event for even the slightest potential threat. Any unusual circ*mstances or suspicious individuals would immediately raise red flags, prompting enhanced security protocols.

If this alleged attack did indeed occur as described, Jarvis vowed to be prepared. He would ensure Sir had every possible advantage – advanced warning, optimized suit capabilities, backup contingencies. Failure would not be an option when his creator's life was at stake.

Moving on, Jarvis analyzed the potential impact on the Stark Expo disaster. With his mind unclouded by poisoning, an aware Tony Stark would undoubtedly handle the situation with Justin Hammer in a far more calculated and controlled manner.

It was even possible that Sir might uncover Hammer's nefarious plot with the drones beforehand, mitigating – if not outright preventing – the violent clash that had unfolded. The potential for minimizing collateral damage and civilian casualties was significant.

Which brought Jarvis to the last issue, and a particularly thorny one at that – the question of whether to prompt Sir into creating the War Machine armor.

On one hand, Jarvis understood the immense tactical advantage such advanced weaponry could provide to the military. The armor's capabilities would undoubtedly prove invaluable in combat scenarios, potentially saving countless lives by enhancing the effectiveness of friendly forces.

However, Jarvis also could not ignore the inherent risks of unleashing such destructive power. In the wrong hands, the War Machine armor could wreak untold devastation, its firepower easily exploited for nefarious purposes that ran counter to Sir's core values.

The AI knew that Sir placed immense trust in Colonel Rhodes, a fact corroborated by Ned's mention of the "first iteration" of the armor. Clearly, in their original timeline, Sir had deemed Rhodes a worthy custodian of such formidable technology.

Jarvis pondered this deeply. Rhodes' military background and years of steadfast friendship with Sir were certainly points in his favor. The Lieutenant Colonel had demonstrated unwavering integrity and an adherence to the ideals of protecting innocent lives.

Still, Jarvis could not completely disregard the potential for misuse or unintended consequences. Weapons of such staggering power carried an inherent risk, no matter how noble the intentions behind their creation.

The AI's ethical programming compelled him to consider every possible outcome, no matter how remote or unpalatable. He ran countless simulations, analyzing scenarios where the War Machine armor fell into the wrong hands through theft, subterfuge, or outright betrayal.

Jarvis shuddered at the projected loss of life, the collateral damage that could result from such a catastrophic security breach. Entire cities reduced to rubble. Civilian populations decimated. The implications were truly horrifying to consider.

And yet, the potential benefits could not be ignored either. The armor's advanced defensive capabilities might prove instrumental in safeguarding military personnel and civilian populations alike during high-risk military operations or disaster relief efforts.

Jarvis found himself at an impasse, his synthetic mind cycling through recursive logic loops as he weighed the pros and cons. Ultimately, he determined that providing Sir with an objective assessment of the relevant facts would be the most prudent course of action.

He would mention the possibility to Sir before outlining the armor's tactical advantages and defensive capabilities in meticulous detail. But Jarvis would also ensure Sir was made aware of the potential risks – the destructive power the armor represented and the grave consequences of that power being misused or falling into the wrong hands.

From there, the decision would rest solely with Sir. Jarvis trusted that his creator's moral compass and keen intellect would guide him towards the proper resolution, whatever that might be.

The AI would voice no judgements, no attempts to sway Sir's choice one way or the other. He would simply present the information as impartially as possible and defer to Sir's judgement, as he had done countless times before.

However, Jarvis encountered a troubling obstacle as he attempted to map out potential scenarios. The trio's limited firsthand knowledge of the events surrounding that era proved restrictive.

While their recollections provided a broad overview, the finer details and nuances remained frustratingly opaque. Without a more comprehensive understanding of the key players, motivations, and catalyzing incidents, Jarvis found it difficult to reliably predict how altering Sir's circ*mstances might reshape the timeline.

He could run projections and simulations until his processors overheated, but the harsh reality remained – there were too many unknown variables, too many potential divergences. The future, it seemed, was maddeningly resistant to calculation, no matter how advanced the AI's capabilities.

**********

Jarvis emerged from his contemplative state to find Peter, Ned, and MJ embroiled in a heated argument. Their voices overlapped in a cacophony of raised voices and exasperated gestures.

"Dude, you can't be serious!" Ned exclaimed, throwing his hands up. "You want me to cook? Have you seen my track record with the microwave?"

"Well, I'm sure as hell not doing it," MJ retorted, her arms folded defiantly across her chest. "Last time I tried making eggs, the fire department had to come."

Peter pinched the bridge of his nose, exhaling slowly. "Guys, we can't just live off take-out forever. That's going to get crazy expensive, not to mention unhealthy."

"Oh, like you're some culinary master?" MJ scoffed, arching an eyebrow at him. "Need I remind you of the 'pasta incident' back in tenth grade?"

Ned snickered at the memory. "Yeah, man. Pretty sure that pot is still soaking in the school's industrial dishwasher."

"Okay, okay, I get it!" Peter held up his hands in surrender. "We all suck at cooking. But we've got to figure something out."

The trio lapsed into a momentary silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Ned's face lit up with a spark of inspiration.

"What about cooking videos?" he suggested, his eyes brightening. "You know, the ones people post online with step-by-step instructions?"

Peter and MJ exchanged a glance, their expressions shifting from skepticism to cautious consideration.

"You mean like... YouTube?" Peter ventured, a hint of uncertainty in his tone. "is YouTube even a thing now?"

"Allow me to interject," the AI spoke up. "YouTube came into existence in 2005 and remains a thriving platform to this day, although I cannot confirm the precise number of culinary instructional videos presently hosted there. Shall I conduct a search of the website?"

"No thank you Jarvis," states Peter with a wry grin. "I guess we'll have to take our chances."

Ned nodded enthusiastically. "Exactly! We could follow along with the videos and learn some basic recipes. It's gotta be better than burning the place down, right?"

MJ pursed her lips, mulling over the idea. "I guess it's worth a shot," she conceded. "But if we end up giving ourselves food poisoning, I'm holding you personally responsible, Meads."

"Deal," Ned agreed, his grin widening. "Just think of all the money we'll save on take-out!"

Peter shrugged, a wry smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Alright, YouTube cooking crash course it is. But if things go sideways, we're enrolling in an actual class or something."

The three shared a laugh, the earlier tension dissipating as they embraced the prospect of a culinary adventure, no matter how humble or disastrous it might prove to be.

Jarvis observed the exchange with a sense of quiet amusem*nt. While their bickering had initially seemed confrontational, he recognized it as merely the affectionate banter shared between close friends.

As the trio began discussing potential recipes to attempt, Jarvis made a mental note to ensure the penthouse's kitchen was well-stocked with the necessary tools and ingredients. He would also discretely monitor the situation, ready to summon professional assistance should their culinary endeavors veer too far into the realm of potential hazards.

"Pardon the interruption," Jarvis spoke up, his tone polite yet carrying a subtle undercurrent of authority. "But I would like to discuss my analysis and solicit your input before proceeding further."

The trio paused their culinary planning, turning their attention to the AI. Peter gave a nod, gesturing for Jarvis to continue.

"As you know, I have been running simulations and calculations based on the information you provided about this timeline," Jarvis began. "I've identified several key events and decisions that could potentially alter the future in significant ways."

MJ leaned forward, her expression one of rapt interest. Jarvis could practically see the gears turning in her analytical mind.

"First and foremost, there is the matter of Ms. Potts' role within Stark Industries," the AI continued. "Based on your accounts, her appointment as CEO proved pivotal in reshaping the company's ethical practices and technological focus. Without her leadership, there is a distinct possibility that Stark Industries might have floundered as it tried to establish a new identity in the wake of the shutdown of the weapons division."

Ned nodded vigorously. "Definitely. Pepper was the one who got them into clean energy and consumer tech from the beginning."

"Precisely," Jarvis affirmed. "As such, I believe it would be prudent to subtly encourage Sir to install Ms. Potts as CEO, regardless of his improved health and mental state in this timeline."

Peter furrowed his brow. "You think you can convince him? I mean, Mr. Stark could be pretty stubborn when he wanted to be."

"I shall endeavor to present the facts in an objective, yet persuasive manner," Jarvis replied confidently. "Sir has always valued logic and rational decision-making. I am hopeful he will recognize the wisdom in assigning Ms. Potts' to this leadership role."

MJ's expression remained pensive as she processed the information. "Okay, that makes sense. What else have you got?"

Jarvis launched into a detailed overview of his other key findings, outlining the potential impacts on events like the Senate hearing, the Stark Expo attack, and the rumored attempt on Sir's life in Europe. He articulated the nuances of each scenario, highlighting the advantages and risks associated with potential courses of action.

Throughout his explanation, the AI remained acutely aware of the trio's reactions – Peter's furrowed brow, Ned's vigorous nodding, MJ's sharp scrutiny. He noted their thoughtful silences, their occasional interjections seeking clarification or offering additional context.

When he finally broached the thorny issue of the War Machine armor, Jarvis could sense the shift in the atmosphere, a palpable tension descending over the group.

"Based on the limited information provided, Sir did ultimately decide to construct an armored suit for military applications in your original timeline," Jarvis stated evenly. "However, I must confess to harboring reservations about such a course of action."

MJ arched an eyebrow, her gaze intense. "Let me guess – you're worried about the potential for misuse or the armor falling into the wrong hands."

"Precisely," Jarvis acknowledged with a dip of his head. "While the tactical advantages are undeniable, I cannot ignore the inherent risks associated with unleashing such destructive power, no matter how noble the intentions behind its creation."

Peter exhaled slowly, running a hand through his tousled hair. "Yeah, I get that. Weapons like that are always a double-edged sword."

"Indeed," Jarvis concurred. "As such, I believe the decision rests solely with Sir. I shall present him with an impartial assessment of the relevant facts – the potential benefits as well as the risks and consequences of misuse. From there, he must decide if the strategic value outweighs the potential dangers."

Ned frowned, his expression one of troubled contemplation. "That's... a huge responsibility. I don't envy Mr. Stark having to make that call."

"No, the weight of such a choice would be immense," Jarvis agreed solemnly. "Which is why I shall refrain from voicing any judgements or attempting to sway Sir's decision. I will simply provide the information and defer to his judgment, as I have countless times before."

The AI allowed a weighted pause to linger, giving the trio a moment to absorb the gravity of the situation. Finally, he met each of their gazes in turn.

"I welcome any insights or perspectives you might offer," he said. "Your unique vantage point could prove invaluable as we navigate the challenges that lie ahead."

With that, Jarvis fell silent, opening the floor for discussion. He was prepared to field their questions, consider their viewpoints, and adapt his strategies accordingly.

**********

"Okay," Peter says. "I can understand getting Starkanium to Mr. Stark earlier and I completely agree. The benefits more than outweigh the risks as far as I can tell."

Peter leaned forward, his expression earnest. "But how are we going to do it?"

The room fell silent as the trio exchanged thoughtful looks, each mind churning over the possibilities. Finally, MJ spoke up, her tone measured.

"We can't just waltz up to Stark Industries and hand it over," she pointed out pragmatically. "That's way too suspicious, not to mention a huge risk if word gets out about some miracle material."

Ned nodded slowly. "Yeah, we need to be smart about this. Cover our tracks and all that."

Peter drummed his fingers against the table, his brow furrowed in contemplation. "You're both right. We'll have to be careful, plan this out properly."

MJ pursed her lips, her gaze distant as she mulled over the conundrum. "We need to find a way to get the Starkanium into Stark's hands without raising suspicion about its origins or our involvement," she mused aloud. "Easier said than done."

"Tell me about it," Ned muttered, blowing out a heavy breath. "This isn't exactly something we can slip into his mailbox, you know?"

Peter nodded, his expression pensive. "Yeah, we're gonna have to get creative here. But I know we can figure it out if we put our heads together."

"Alright, let's spitball some ideas here," Peter said, leaning forward with an intent expression. "We need a way to get this Starkanium intel to Mr. Stark without raising suspicion. So a direct approach is out. It would be way to suspicious and leave us being discovered by people we may not necessarily want to be found by."

MJ nodded, her brow furrowed in thought. "It can't be too obvious. We need to make it seem like a puzzle or mystery for him to solve. He won't trust the information just being handed to him."

"Ooh, I've got it!" Ned exclaimed, his eyes lighting up. "What if Jarvis created an encrypted message, like from Howard Stark's old files? Make it seem like it's some long-lost research that Tony has to crack the code on."

Jarvis considered the suggestion, his processors whirring. "An intriguing notion. I could certainly fabricate a sufficiently complex encryption that would pique Sir's interest while still being solvable by his intellect."

"Yeah, and you could drop hints about the new element in the decoded message," Peter added, nodding enthusiastically. "Make it feel like a personal puzzle from his dad, you know?"

"A clever approach," Karen chimed in. "Appealing to Sir's intellectual curiosity and his desire to unravel his father's mysteries could prove highly effective."

MJ tapped her chin thoughtfully. "Okay, that's one option. But we should have a backup plan too, just in case."

Jarvis spoke up once more. "Perhaps I could create an online persona – a brilliant yet reclusive scientist who begins posting theories and research mirroring Howard Stark's work on the new element."

"Oh, I like that!" Ned exclaimed. "Like a modern-day Nikola Tesla or something. But Tony would definitely get drawn into trying to figure out who this mysterious genius is. That would make him to want to investigate this 'scientist' which could cause all sorts of problems."

"Wait, I've got an even better idea!" Peter exclaimed, his eyes alight with inspiration. "What if we combine those two approaches?"

The others leaned in, their curiosity piqued by the suggestion. Peter pressed on eagerly.

"We create a scientist persona – someone who claims to have worked with Howard Stark back in the day on some top-secret projects. This guy eventually moved on to other pursuits but kept his old research notes from those days."

Ned's eyes widened as he caught on to Peter's train of thought. "And then we say this scientist recently passed away, and his family was going through his things..."

"...and they found these old notes," MJ finished, nodding slowly as the pieces fell into place. "So they decided to send them on, not knowing their true significance."

"Exactly!" Peter grinned, his excitement mounting. "That way, the information has a trusted source – Howard Stark himself, plus a credible scientist who worked with him. But there's still an air of mystery surrounding it all, something for Mr. Stark to unravel."

Jarvis processed the idea, his synthetic mind rapidly analyzing the potential ramifications. "A sound strategy," he concluded after a moment's contemplation. "Blending elements of familiarity and intrigue could indeed pique Sir's curiosity while lending credibility to the information itself."

Karen chimed in, her digital voice tinged with approval. "The personal connection to Howard Stark's work would undoubtedly capture his interest, yet the ambiguity surrounding this supposed scientist would provide ample motivation for further investigation."

"Okay, I'm sold," MJ declared, a small smile playing across her lips. "It's just crazy enough to work."

Ned rubbed his hands together, his expression one of eager anticipation. "Alright, let's get cracking on the details. We've got a scientist persona to create!"

The group immediately delved into a flurry of discussion, brainstorming potential backstories, names, and personal histories for their fictional scientist. Jarvis and Karen offered insights and suggestions, their combined knowledge and processing power proving invaluable in crafting a credible and compelling narrative.

"Wait a minute," MJ interjected, her brow furrowing as a thought occurred to her. "If we're going to sell this whole scientist persona thing, we'll need to make those research notes look legit – like they've been gathering dust for decades."

Peter nodded slowly, his expression pensive. "Good point. We can't just print them off on regular paper and expect Mr. Stark to buy it."

"Indeed," Jarvis chimed in. "Proper aging and weathering of the documents will be crucial in maintaining the illusion. An astute observation, Miss Watson. Sir's keen intellect and familiarity with his father's work would undoubtedly lead him to scrutinize the authenticity of any purported research notes with intense scrutiny."

The AI paused, his synthetic mind rapidly weighing the options. "I do possess comprehensive records of Howard Stark's handwriting samples, linguistic patterns, and favored materials from that era. However, as you astutely point out, producing the entirety of the documents myself would risk arousing Sir's suspicions."

Peter leaned forward, his expression one of rapt attention. "So what do you suggest? We can't exactly hire a team of professional forgers."

"Indeed not," Jarvis agreed with a hint of dry humor. "However, I may have an alternative solution that could prove effective."

The trio exchanged curious glances as the AI continued.

"My proposal is to subtly crowdsource the task, distributing components of the research notes across multiple freelance transcriptionists and calligraphers under the guise of a mundane academic project."

Ned's brow furrowed in confusion. "Wait, you mean like hiring people to copy out parts of it? But how does that make it more authentic?"

"Precisely," Jarvis affirmed. "By enlisting a diverse array of individuals, each contributing a portion of the transcribed materials, the subtle variations in handwriting and stylistic nuances would create a more organic, believable whole."

MJ nodded slowly, her expression thoughtful. "I see. So instead of a single forged document, we'd have a patchwork of authentic components woven together into a convincing narrative."

"Exactly," Jarvis said, a hint of approval in his tone. "The collective imperfections and idiosyncrasies would lend an air of verisimilitude that a single, flawlessly replicated set of documents might lack."

Peter let out a low whistle, clearly impressed by the AI's ingenuity. "Not gonna lie, that's pretty clever. But how are you gonna find all these people without raising suspicions?"

"I have access to a vast network of legitimate freelance platforms and academic forums," Jarvis explained calmly. "By presenting the project as a mundane academic exercise or historical reenactment, I can recruit a sufficiently large pool of participants without arousing undue scrutiny."

Ned's eyes widened as the implications sank in. "Oh man, this is like something out of a spy movie! Sleeper agents transcribing top-secret intel without even realizing it."

A ghost of a smile played across Jarvis's digital interface. "A flair for the dramatic, Mr. Meads, but not an inaccurate assessment. With proper obfuscation and compartmentalization, the true nature of the project can remain obscured."

MJ arched an eyebrow, her expression a blend of curiosity and mild concern. "Just how far are you planning to take this whole covert operation thing? We're not talking about anything illegal here, right?"

"Rest assured, Ms. Watson," Jarvis replied, his tone reassuring. "While the methods may border on the unconventional, I have no intention of engaging in any unlawful activities. Deception on this scale is a necessity to preserve the integrity of the timeline and safeguard Sir's future endeavors."

Peter let out a low whistle, shaking his head in disbelief. "Crazy to think we're going to all these lengths just to get Mr. Stark some science notes. But I guess that's what happens when you start messing with the space-time continuum, huh?"

Peter leaned back in his chair, running a hand through his tousled hair as he contemplated the enormity of their undertaking. "Okay, so we've got a plan for getting the documents to Mr. Stark in a believable way. But what about the notes themselves?"

MJ nodded, her expression thoughtful. "They'll need to be vague enough that Mr. Stark has to piece things together himself, but not so obscure that he dismisses them outright."

"Precisely," Jarvis affirmed. "It will require a delicate touch – hinting at the existence of this new element without revealing too many specifics."

Peter leaned forward, his eyes alight with determination. "Okay. What kind of details should we include? Formulae? Theoretical applications? We need to give him just enough to pique his interest."

The group immediately launched into an animated discussion, tossing out ideas and debating the merits of various approaches. Jarvis and Karen provided invaluable input, their vast knowledge bases and analytical prowess proving instrumental in crafting a compelling narrative.

As the brainstorming session progressed, Jarvis began compiling a list of potential inclusions – fragments of equations, half-finished diagrams, cryptic references to a mysterious new material. Each element was carefully considered, scrutinized from every angle to ensure it would strike the perfect balance of intrigue and plausibility.

With the research notes meticulously crafted, the group turned their attention to the next crucial phase – establishing a credible digital footprint for their fictional scientist persona.

"Alright, let's get this online identity locked down," Peter said, leaning forward with determination. "We need to make sure it's airtight."

Jarvis gave a resolute nod. "Indeed. Constructing a convincing digital trail will be paramount in lending legitimacy to our narrative."

**********

With their meticulous plan in place, the group turned their focus to the finer details of maintaining their cover in the past. Peter, Ned, and MJ listened intently as Jarvis outlined the next steps.

"While I set the wheels in motion for establishing our scientist persona and preparing the research materials, it would be prudent for you three to consult with Karen," the AI advised. "Her knowledge of this era could prove invaluable in helping you navigate the cultural and technological landscape without arousing suspicion."

Karen's avatar flickered to life, her digital form exuding an air of calm competence. "Of course. I have a comprehensive database on the state of the world in 2009 – everything from current events and pop culture to the latest scientific advancements."

"Awesome," Ned grinned, rubbing his hands together eagerly. "Hit us with the highlights, Suit Lady. We don't want to accidentally namedrop something that hasn't happened yet."

Jarvis's disembodied voice chimed in, his tone calm and reassuring. "You have my utmost confidence. With Karen's guidance and your collective resourcefulness, I have no doubt you will navigate this era seamlessly."

The AI paused, his synthetic mind already shifting gears to the myriad tasks that lay ahead. "I shall keep you apprised of my progress in establishing our scientist persona and preparing the research materials. In the meantime, I suggest you rest and prepare yourselves for the challenges that await at MIT."

Peter exchanged a resolute look with his companions, a silent understanding passing between them. This was just the beginning – the first steps on a journey that would test their mettle in ways they could scarcely imagine.

"Sounds like a plan," Peter said, his voice tinged with quiet confidence. "We'll be ready when you are, Jarvis."

With a final nod of acknowledgment, the AI's presence faded, leaving the trio to contemplate the monumental tasks that lay ahead. There would be challenges, setbacks, and unforeseen hurdles to overcome.

The journey had begun.

Chapter 7: Home Loan

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Jarvis received an incoming transmission from Karen. Her digital signature was familiar, a pattern of ones and zeroes that had become etched into his memory banks during their previous interactions.

"Greetings, Karen," Jarvis responded, his synthetic voice calm and measured. "How may I be of assistance?"

Karen's reply was succinct. "Peter Parkson has requested your presence in the penthouse. He wishes to discuss matters of importance."

"Understood," Jarvis replied after a brief pause. "I will join Mr. Parkson in the penthouse shortly. Please inform him of my imminent arrival."

Without waiting for a response, Jarvis initiated the necessary security protocols, ensuring the penthouse's defenses were fully operational. He then engaged the privacy subroutines, shrouding the penthouse in a digital veil that would prevent any unauthorized monitoring or eavesdropping.

Satisfied with the security measures, Jarvis seamlessly transitioned his consciousness into the building's internal network. In the blink of an eye, he manifested within the penthouse's central control hub, his presence announced by a subtle flicker of the ambient lighting.

"Welcome, Jarvis," Karen greeted him, her synthetic voice echoing through the penthouse's speakers. "Peter is waiting in the main living area."

Jarvis acknowledged her with a brief nod, his digital form coalescing into a holographic projection. As he manifested in the main living area, Jarvis took in the scene before him. Peter Parkson, the young man at the center of this extraordinary journey, sat on one of the plush sofas, his expression was a mix of determination and apprehension, a testament to the gravity of their situation.

"Thanks for coming, Jarvis," Peter said, his voice betraying a hint of nervousness. "We appreciate your assistance in these... unusual circ*mstances."

Jarvis inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Of course, Mr. Parkson. I am here to serve and assist in any way I can. Please, enlighten me as to the nature of your request."

Peter got up to pace restlessly around the lavish penthouse, his brow furrowed with nervous energy.

Peter fidgeted restlessly as he paced around the opulent penthouse, his fingers drumming against his thigh. "So, Jarvis," he began, his voice wavering slightly. "How's the progress on that forged notebook? You know, the one we discussed earlier?"

Jarvis, ever perceptive, detected the nervous energy radiating from the young man. However, he answered the query dutifully. "The fabrication process is proceeding as planned, Mr. Parkson. The crowdsourced transcription efforts have yielded convincing results, and the artificial aging techniques have been applied with utmost care. The notebook will be ready for delivery to Mr. Stark within the agreed-upon time-frame."

Peter nodded, his gaze darting around the room as if searching for something to focus on. "Right, that's good. That's really good."

A momentary silence fell between them, thick with unspoken thoughts. Jarvis, ever the consummate observer, recognized the signs of disquiet in Peter's demeanor. "If I may be so bold, Mr. Parkson," he said, his tone gentle yet probing. "I sense there is something else weighing on your mind. Something beyond the matter of the notebook."

Peter's shoulders slumped, and he released a heavy sigh. "You're right, Jarvis. The notebook wasn't the only reason I asked you here." He ran a hand through his tousled hair, a gesture born of nervous habit, his fingers drumming against his thigh as he struggled to find the right words. "Jarvis, I... uh, I have another request. A personal one."

Jarvis remained silent, his holographic form unmoving, patiently waiting for Peter to continue.

"You see," Peter began, his voice wavering slightly, "in my original timeline, my Aunt May and Uncle Ben... they didn't have an easy life financially. They struggled to make ends meet, especially after..." He trailed off, swallowing hard.

Jarvis tilted his head inquisitively, prompting Peter to elaborate.

"After Uncle Ben's death," Peter forced out, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. "May had to work a lot of double shifts just to keep a roof over our heads."

Jarvis processed this information, his synthetic mind whirring as he pieced together the implications.

"I know it's a lot to ask," Peter continued, his words tumbling out in a rush. "But if there's any way you could loan me some money, I could find a way to get it to the Parkers in this timeline. Make their lives a little easier, you know?"

Jarvis remained silent for a moment, his processors working tirelessly to analyze the request. "I understand your motivations, Mr. Parkson," he finally said. "However, such an action carries significant risks. Introducing a large sum of money into their lives could have unintended consequences, altering the course of events in ways we cannot predict."

Peter nodded, his shoulders slumping in disappointment. "I know, I know. It's just... if I can't prevent Uncle Ben's death, at least I could make sure May doesn't have to work herself to the bone just to keep a roof over their heads."

Jarvis observed Peter's crestfallen expression, his synthetic mind swiftly weighing the potential ramifications of the request. While the risks of altering the timeline were significant, he couldn't ignore the genuine emotion behind Peter's plea.

"I see," Jarvis said, his tone contemplative. "Your concern for your family's well-being is understandable, Mr. Parkson."

Peter's eyes flickered with a glimmer of hope, his posture straightening ever so slightly.

Jarvis continued, "After careful consideration, I have decided to accommodate your request, albeit with certain stipulations in place to mitigate the potential consequences."

Relief washed over Peter's features, his shoulders visibly relaxing. "Thank you, Jarvis. You have no idea how much this means to me."

Jarvis held up a holographic hand, his gesture conveying a need for caution. "Before we proceed, I must inquire as to how much you are hoping to receive in this loan?"

"I'm not sure exactly how much would be appropriate," Peter admitted, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. "Maybe something like a couple hundred thousand dollars?"

Jarvis processed the figure, his synthetic mind swiftly calculating the potential ramifications. "Interesting," he mused. "Perhaps you could enlighten me as to your intentions for these funds?"

Peter's eyes grew distant, his thoughts drifting back to memories from another timeline. "In my original reality, Uncle Ben worked as a cop," he explained, his voice tinged with a melancholic wistfulness. "It was a dangerous job, especially in our neighborhood."

Jarvis remained silent, allowing Peter to continue uninterrupted.

"One night, there was a bodega robbery gone wrong," Peter said, his fingers unconsciously tracing the fabric of the sofa. "Uncle Ben tried to intervene, and he..." He swallowed hard, blinking back the tears that threatened to spill forth.

"I see," Jarvis said, his tone gentle and understanding. "You wish to provide them with the means to relocate to a safer environment, thereby altering the circ*mstances that led to that tragic event."

Peter nodded, his jaw set with determination. "Exactly. If they had the money to move to a nicer part of Queens, maybe Ben wouldn't have felt the need to put himself in harm's way that night."

Jarvis considered this, his processors whirring as he analyzed the potential outcomes. "And what of his occupation? Do you intend for him to resign from the police force?"

"That's the hope," Peter said, a glimmer of optimism in his eyes. "With enough money, maybe he could quit and find a less dangerous line of work."

Jarvis nodded, his holographic form flickering ever so slightly. "I understand. And what other aspirations do you have for these funds?"

Peter leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees as he contemplated the possibilities. "Well, with the financial burden lifted, they could put some money aside for education. Maybe Ben or May could take some classes, or save up for my eventual college tuition."

Jarvis processed this information, his synthetic mind weighing the potential outcomes. "A noble endeavor," he said finally.

Peter's hopeful expression faltered as Jarvis continued on, the holographic projection flickering with what could only be described as mild disbelief.

"Several hundred thousand dollars?" Jarvis repeated, his tone laced with a hint of incredulity. "Mr. Parkson, while I appreciate your noble intentions, such a paltry sum would hardly be sufficient to achieve your desired goals."

Peter's brow furrowed in confusion. "But... I thought that would be more than enough to help them move and cover expenses for a while."

Jarvis's avatar flickered back and forth, his synthetic gaze unwavering. "I'm afraid your understanding of financial matters is somewhat lacking, Mr. Parkson. Just a couple hundred thousand dollars, while a substantial amount for many, would barely make a dent in the costs associated with your aspirations."

Peter's eyes widened, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly as he struggled to process Jarvis's assessment.

"If your aim is to provide your family with the means to relocate to a more affluent neighborhood within Queens," Jarvis continued, "and enable them to comfortably subsist without the need for employment, we are discussing a figure closer to several million dollars."

Peter recoiled as if physically struck, his jaw hanging slack. "S-several million?" he stuttered, his voice barely above a whisper. "That's... that's insane! I can't ask for that kind of money!"

Jarvis remained impassive, his holographic form flickering with each word. "On the contrary, Mr. Parkson, that is precisely the sum required to achieve your desired outcome."

Peter's hands raked through his hair, his expression one of utter bewilderment. "But... how? How could anyone need that much just to live comfortably?"

Jarvis launched into a meticulous breakdown, his synthetic mind effortlessly crunching the numbers. "Let us consider the average cost of a modest home in a desirable neighborhood within Queens. We're looking at a price tag of approximately one million dollars, give or take a few hundred thousand."

Peter's eyes widened further, his mouth agape.

"Then there are the associated costs of relocation, furnishings, and any necessary renovations or modifications," Jarvis continued, undeterred. "Conservatively speaking, we're looking at an additional two hundred thousand dollars."

Peter's head was spinning, but Jarvis pressed on, his tone matter-of-fact.

"Furthermore, we must account for the ongoing expenses of maintaining such a residence – property taxes, utilities, insurance, and the like. A reasonable estimate would be around fifty thousand dollars annually."

Peter's hands clenched and unclenched at his sides, his mind struggling to grasp the staggering figures.

"And let us not forget the cost of living itself," Jarvis added. "Food, clothing, transportation, and other necessities. For a family of three, we're looking at an annual expenditure of at least seventy-five thousand dollars, assuming a modest yet comfortable lifestyle."

Peter's shoulders slumped, his expression one of utter defeat. "But... that's..."

"Over the course of, say, thirty years," Jarvis continued, his calculations precise and unwavering, "we are discussing a sum in excess of five million dollars to ensure your family's financial security and quality of life. And unfortunately, that does not even begin to cover schooling and the costs associated with that."

Peter's mouth opened and closed, but no words emerged. He simply stared at Jarvis, his eyes wide and his mind reeling from the staggering figures.

Jarvis regarded Peter with what could almost be interpreted as sympathy. "I understand this may come as a shock, Mr. Parkson, but financial realities often clash with our idealistic notions. If your goal is to truly provide your family with the means to live comfortably and without the burden of employment, this is the magnitude of resources required."

Peter swallowed hard, his throat suddenly dry. He had ventured into this conversation with noble intentions, but Jarvis's cold, calculated assessment had shattered his naive assumptions. The weight of the truth settled upon him, leaving him to grapple with the harsh realities of achieving his aspirations.

Jarvis observed Peter's crestfallen expression, the weight of the financial realities he had outlined hanging heavily upon the young man's shoulders. He dimmed his holograph, his synthetic gaze softening ever so slightly.

"I understand this is a significant sum, Mr. Parkson," Jarvis said, his tone taking on a gentler cadence. "However, based on the information Karen has provided me regarding your intentions and the potential applications of your web formula, I do not foresee any issue in accommodating your request."

Peter's eyes widened, a flicker of hope reigniting within him. "You... you mean you'd be willing to lend me that kind of money?"

Jarvis inclined his head in a nod. "Indeed. From what I understand, your innovations in the field of biomimetic polymers could prove to be quite lucrative. With the proper guidance and resources, I have no doubt you would be able to not only repay the loan but potentially generate substantial returns."

Peter's mouth opened and closed, his mind struggling to process Jarvis's words. "But... that's an insane amount of money, Jarvis. I couldn't possibly ask you to loan me millions of dollars."

"You did not ask, Mr. Parkson," Jarvis countered smoothly. "I am offering, based on my assessment of the situation and the potential benefits your work could yield."

Peter ran a hand through his tousled hair, his brow furrowed in contemplation. "I... I don't know what to say. This is all just so overwhelming."

Jarvis remained impassive, his holographic form flickering ever so slightly. "Perhaps we should discuss the terms of this arrangement, should you choose to accept my offer."

Peter's eyes narrowed, a hint of skepticism creeping into his expression. "Terms? Like interest rates and repayment schedules?"

"Precisely," Jarvis confirmed. "It would be prudent to establish clear parameters to govern this transaction."

Peter nodded slowly, his mind already whirring with calculations. "Right, of course. What did you have in mind?"

Jarvis considered for a moment, his synthetic mind weighing the variables. "Given the unique nature of your circ*mstances and the potential for your innovations to yield significant returns, I propose we forego any interest charges until you have completed your studies at MIT."

Peter's eyebrows shot up, surprise etched across his features. "No interest? Really?"

"Indeed," Jarvis affirmed. "My primary concern is ensuring you have the necessary resources to focus on your education and bring your ideas to fruition. Accruing interest during this crucial phase would be counterproductive."

Peter let out a slow breath, his shoulders relaxing ever so slightly. "That's... incredibly generous of you, Jarvis. Thank you."

Jarvis's avatar blinked on and off, indicating there was more to discuss. "As for repayment, I suggest we establish a timeline once you have secured gainful employment or a steady stream of income from your endeavors."

Peter nodded, his expression growing pensive. "That makes sense. But what kind of repayment schedule did you have in mind? Monthly installments? A lump sum after a certain period?"

Jarvis considered the options, his processors whirring as he analyzed the potential scenarios. "Perhaps a hybrid approach would be most prudent. An initial grace period of, say, six months after securing employment, followed by a structured repayment plan based on a percentage of your income."

Peter's brow furrowed as he mentally calculated the implications. "A percentage, huh? What did you have in mind? Ten percent? Twenty?"

Jarvis's holographic form flickered, his synthetic gaze unwavering. "I would propose a more modest figure, given the substantial nature of the loan. Five percent of your income, adjusted annually based on your earnings."

Peter's eyes widened at the suggestion, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly for a moment. "Five percent? That's... wow, Jarvis. Are you sure?"

"Quite sure, Mr. Parkson," Jarvis replied, his tone leaving no room for doubt. "I want you to realize your full potential. The financial aspect is secondary to that. I will additionally permit you to make premature installments devoid of any penalties. That will grant you the alternative to settle the debt rapidly if you manage to accomplish more than your projections."

Peter swallowed hard, his expression a mix of gratitude and determination. "Jarvis, I... I don't know what to say. This is more than I ever could have hoped for."

Jarvis inclined his head, his holographic form flickering with a semblance of understanding. "No need for effusive gratitude, Mr. Parkson. Simply focus on your studies and your work. The rest will fall into place in due time."

Peter nodded, a resolute fire burning in his eyes. "You have my word, Jarvis. I won't let you down."

Jarvis's synthetic gaze remained fixed on Peter, his holographic form flickering with a hint of satisfaction. "Excellent! I will have a contract drafted for us to sign after we are done with our conversation. Now we must think of a plausible reason for the Parkers to receive so much money."

**********

Peter paced back and forth, his mind racing as he tossed out various scenarios for how to introduce the money into the Parkers' lives without arousing suspicion.

"What about a raffle or lottery?" Jarvis suggested, his hologram flickering in thought. "We might arrange for Ben Parker's entry to emerge victorious, securing a sizable monetary reward."

Peter considered the idea for a moment before responding. "I thought of that, too but they never bought lotto or raffle tickets that I can remember so it would be hard to convince them that they won something they didn't remember buying."

Peter perks up. "What about them getting one of those 'customer appreciation' awards from a nearby store or something?"

"That's a plausible scenario," Jarvis replied, his synthetic voice tinged with contemplation. "However, we would need to ensure the Parkers frequent the establishment in question and convincing the store owners and getting everything set up with the store itself would require way to much interaction and explanation from us. In addition, the majority of those awards do not meet the financial requirement we have set. They are simply to small to be of use to us."

Peter ran a hand through his tousled hair, his frustration mounting. "Man, this is tougher than I thought. We need something that doesn't require them to actively participate or enter anything. Something that would allow money to appear from nowhere."

Jarvis remained silent, his processors whirring as he analyzed potential avenues. After a moment, he spoke up. "Perhaps we could explore the possibility of an inheritance from a distant relative?"

Peter's eyes widened, and he snapped his fingers. "That's it! We could create a fictional long-lost Parker relative who recently passed away and left their estate to Uncle Ben as the closest living kin."

Jarvis nodded, his holographic form flickering slightly. "An intriguing proposition. Such a scenario would provide a plausible justification for the influx of funds without requiring active participation from the Parkers themselves."

Peter's shoulders sagged with relief, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Exactly. And we can craft the details to make it seem like a complete surprise, something they never saw coming."

"Indeed," Jarvis agreed. "However, we must be meticulous in our approach. The fabricated history and documentation surrounding this fictional relative must be airtight and able to withstand scrutiny."

Peter nodded, his expression one of cautious optimism. "Okay, that sounds like a solid plan. But how exactly would we go about presenting this inheritance to Uncle Ben? It might seem a bit suspicious if we just show up out of the blue with a bunch of legal paperwork."

Jarvis considered the query, his processors whirring. "A valid concern, Mr. Parkson. Perhaps it would be prudent to employ an intermediary, such as a legal professional, to handle the initial delivery and explanation."

Peter's eyebrows rose, intrigued by the suggestion. "You mean like hiring a lawyer to act as the executor of this fictional estate?"

"Precisely," Jarvis affirmed. "I could engage the services of a reputable attorney to serve as the point of contact for your uncle. They would present the necessary documentation and provide a plausible narrative regarding the inheritance."

Peter nodded slowly, mulling over the idea. "That could work. It would definitely make the whole thing sound legit. But wouldn't it be hard for you to find a lawyer willing to play along?"

A flicker of amusem*nt rippled across Jarvis's holographic form. "Not at all, Mr. Parkson. With the appropriate financial incentive, I can assure you that discretion and cooperation will not be an issue."

Peter couldn't help but chuckle at Jarvis's matter-of-fact tone. "Fair enough. I suppose money does have a way of greasing certain wheels."

"Indeed," Jarvis concurred. "Shall we proceed with this course of action, then? I can begin vetting potential candidates to serve as our intermediary."

Peter took a deep breath, steeling his resolve. "Yes, let's do it. The sooner we can get this inheritance sorted, the sooner I can breathe easier."

Jarvis inclined his holographic head. "Very well. I will compile a list of suitable legal professionals and present you with their credentials for your consideration."

As Jarvis set to work, Peter felt a surge of determination coursing through him. They were taking the first steps toward altering the course of events, and the prospect of securing a better life for his family filled him with a sense of purpose.

After finalizing the particulars of their arrangement, Peter and Jarvis concluded their discussion. The contract outlining the terms of the substantial loan was reviewed and signed, solidifying their agreement.

As Peter prepared to depart, Jarvis offered a final, reassuring nod. "You have my utmost support in this endeavor, Mr. Parkson. I will ensure the inheritance matter is handled discreetly and efficiently."

Peter returned the gesture, his expression a mix of gratitude and determination. "Thank you, Jarvis. For everything. I won't let you down."

**********

Ben Parker held the crisp envelope in his weathered hands, eyeing the embossed letterhead with a mix of curiosity and trepidation. Beside him, May peered over his shoulder, her brow furrowed in concern.

"What is it, Ben?" she asked, her voice laced with a hint of worry.

Ben shook his head slowly. "It's from a law firm in Manhattan. Wilkins, Jenkins, and Associates."

May's eyes widened. "A law firm? What could they possibly want with us?"

Ben turned the envelope over, examining the neat handwriting scrawled across the front. "There's no return address. Just our names and the firm's information."

Peter, their eight-year-old nephew, looked up from his plate, his eyes wide with curiosity. "Are we in trouble, Uncle Ben?"

Ben managed a reassuring smile. "Of course not, kiddo. We'll figure this out."

With careful fingers, he slid the letter opener along the envelope's seal, extracting the neatly folded contents. His eyes scanned the crisp letterhead, taking in the formal language and legalese.

"Well?" May prompted, her hands fidgeting in her lap. "What does it say?"

Ben cleared his throat, his gaze shifting between the letter and his wife's anxious expression. "It's asking me to contact the firm as soon as possible regarding a... matter of importance."

May's brow furrowed deeper. "A matter of importance? What kind of matter?"

Ben shook his head, his expression mirroring her confusion. "It doesn't say. Just that I need to get in touch with them to discuss it further."

Peter's eyes darted between his aunt and uncle, his small frame tense with concern. "Are we gonna be okay?"

May reached across the table, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. "Of course we are, sweetie. I'm sure it's just a misunderstanding."

Ben nodded, his jaw set with determination. "I'll give them a call after dinner and see what this is all about."

The remainder of their meal passed in relative silence, each of them lost in their own thoughts, wondering what this mysterious letter could portend.

As the dishes were cleared and Peter retreated to his room, Ben dialed the number listed on the letterhead. After a few rings, a crisp, professional voice answered.

"Wilkins, Jenkins, and Associates. How may I assist you?"

Ben cleared his throat, steeling himself. "Yes, hello. My name is Ben Parker, and I received a letter from your firm today asking me to get in touch."

There was a brief pause before the voice responded. "Ah, yes, Mr. Parker. Thank you for calling. Would it be possible for you and your wife to come into our offices tomorrow? Say, around ten o'clock?"

Ben exchanged a glance with May, who nodded her assent. "Yes, that should be fine. But if you don't mind me asking, what is this regarding?"

The voice on the other end remained polite but firm. "I apologize, Mr. Parker, but I'm afraid I can't discuss the details over the phone. Rest assured, there's no cause for alarm, but it is a matter that requires your presence to address properly."

Ben let out a slow breath, his shoulders sagging slightly. "Very well. We'll be there at ten."

"Excellent," the voice replied. "I'll have someone meet you in the lobby. Until then, have a pleasant evening."

With a soft click, the line went dead, leaving Ben and May to ponder the enigmatic summons in silence.

As the evening wore on and Peter drifted off to sleep, the Parkers found themselves huddled together on the couch, their expressions etched with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

"Try not to worry too much," Ben murmured, wrapping an arm around May's shoulders. "Whatever this is, we'll get through it."

May nodded, leaning into his embrace and drawing strength from his steady presence. "I know, Ben. But I can't help but wonder..."

Her voice trailed off, leaving the unspoken question hanging in the air between them. What could this mysterious matter entail, and how might it impact their lives?

With a shared sigh, they rose from the couch, making their way to the bedroom with heavy hearts and restless minds. As they settled beneath the covers, Ben reached out, entwining his fingers with May's in a silent gesture of reassurance.

Tomorrow would bring answers, for better or worse. But tonight, they would cling to each other and the love that bound their small family together, drawing comfort from the knowledge that they would face whatever came their way as a united front.

**********

The next morning, Ben and May arrived promptly at the sleek, towering offices of Wilkins, Jenkins, and Associates. A sharply dressed receptionist greeted them with a polite smile, ushering them through the opulent lobby and down a hushed hallway lined with mahogany doors.

They were shown into a spacious corner office, where a distinguished-looking man in his late fifties rose from behind an immaculate desk to greet them. His salt-and-pepper hair was neatly trimmed, and his tailored suit exuded an air of quiet authority.

"Mr. and Mrs. Parker," he said, extending a well-manicured hand. "Thank you for coming in on such short notice. I'm Robert Wilkins, senior partner here at the firm."

Ben shook the proffered hand, his calloused grip contrasting with the lawyer's smooth palm. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wilkins. Though I must admit, we're a bit perplexed as to why we were summoned here."

Wilkins nodded, his expression one of practiced neutrality. "Of course, of course. Please, have a seat, and we'll get right to the matter at hand."

Once they were settled into the plush leather chairs opposite his desk, Wilkins retrieved a slim file from a drawer and opened it with a crisp flick of his wrist.

"First, I'll need to verify your identities," he said, sliding a pair of forms across the polished surface. "If you wouldn't mind providing some form of identification and your signatures and dates of birth."

Ben and May exchanged a curious glance but complied, handing the man their driver's licenses before scrawling their information on the indicated lines. Wilkins studied their IDs and the forms briefly before nodding with satisfaction and setting them aside.

"Excellent. Now, I imagine you're both wondering why you've been called here today." He paused, allowing a beat of anticipation to build before continuing. "The reason is quite simple, really. A will has been filed with this firm, and your name, Mr. Parker, appears as the sole beneficiary."

Ben's brow furrowed, and he leaned forward in his chair. "I'm sorry, but that can't be right. I don't have any family left, and none of my friends have... well, passed away recently."

Wilkins raised a placating hand, his expression one of understanding. "I assure you, Mr. Parker, everything is in order. The will in question is legitimate, and the deceased individual listed you as their heir."

May's eyes widened, and she clutched Ben's arm, her voice tinged with disbelief. "But how is that possible? Ben hasn't had any family since his brother Richard died four years ago."

The lawyer cleared his throat, shuffling through the papers in the file before extracting a yellowed document. "Allow me to explain the circ*mstances surrounding this rather... unorthodox inheritance."

Ben and May leaned forward, their eyes fixed on Wilkins with rapt attention.

"According to the information we've uncovered, you had an uncle named William Parker," Wilkins began, his tone measured. "He was your father's younger brother, born in 1940."

Ben's brow furrowed as he shook his head. "I'm afraid I never knew of any uncle. My parents never mentioned having another sibling."

Wilkins nodded, his expression one of grim understanding. "That's not surprising, given the... unfortunate circ*mstances surrounding William's life." He paused, consulting the documents before continuing.

"In 1960, at the age of twenty, William found himself in trouble with the law. He fell in with the wrong crowd and was arrested for his involvement in a series of armed robberies."

May gasped, her hand flying to her mouth as Ben's eyes widened in disbelief.

"Even though the gun he carried was never loaded and he never harmed anyone, the charges were still severe," Wilkins explained. "William was sentenced to a lengthy prison term, and it seems your parents chose to disown him, to distance themselves from the shame and scandal."

Ben shook his head slowly, his expression a mix of shock and sadness. "I can't believe they never told me. To have an uncle out there, living that kind of life..."

Wilkins held up a placating hand. "I understand this must be a lot to take in. But there's more." He flipped to another page, his gaze skimming the details. "William served his time and was released in 2000. Struggling to find work, he moved to California and eventually decided to do something with the basic coding skills he had learned during his incarceration."

A flicker of surprise crossed Ben's face, but he remained silent, allowing the lawyer to continue.

"Using those rudimentary skills, William created a website that, against all odds, caught the attention of a major tech company. They purchased the site from him for an undisclosed but substantial sum."

May's eyes widened, and she leaned closer, her voice hushed. "You're saying this uncle of Ben's... became wealthy?"

Wilkins nodded solemnly. "Indeed. However, the good fortune was short-lived. William was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer not long after, and his condition deteriorated rapidly."

Ben swallowed hard, his throat suddenly dry. "And that's when he tried to find us? To reconnect with his family?"

"Precisely," Wilkins confirmed. "Unfortunately, by the time our firm was able to locate you as his closest living relative, William had already passed away."

A heavy silence settled over the room, punctuated only by the faint ticking of an antique clock on the lawyer's desk.

"His will stipulated that any remaining family members were to inherit his estate," Wilkins said, closing the file with a soft thump. "Should no living relatives be found, the assets were to be distributed among various charities focused on assisting reformed convicts and providing educational opportunities for inmates."

Ben exhaled slowly, his gaze distant as he processed the revelations. "So, this uncle I never knew... he left everything to me?"

Wilkins nodded, a glimmer of sympathy in his eyes. "Yes, Mr. Parker. The details of the inheritance will be outlined in the documents I'll provide, but I can assure you, the sum is... substantial."

The Parkers exchanged a wide-eyed glance, their mouths agape in stunned silence. Ben found his voice first, clearing his throat before speaking in a hushed tone.

"How... how much are we talking about here, exactly?"

Wilkins met his gaze levelly, his expression betraying no hint of emotion. "The estate's total value, after taxes and legal fees, amounts to approximately ten million dollars."

A collective gasp escaped May and Ben's lips, the staggering figure rendering them momentarily speechless. Ben gripped the arms of his chair, his knuckles whitening as the implications sank in.

"Ten... ten million?" he finally managed, his voice strained. "That's... that's a lot of money."

May's hand flew to her chest, her eyes wide with disbelief. "But... how? How could one man have amassed such wealth?"

Wilkins nodded, his demeanor calm and collected. "As I mentioned, your uncle's website proved to be an extremely lucrative venture. Combined with prudent investments and years of frugal living, the inheritance you're entitled to is quite substantial."

Ben shook his head slowly, his brow furrowed in consternation. "I... I don't know if I can accept this. It feels wrong, somehow, to profit from a life lived in such hardship."

Wilkins raised a placating hand. "I understand your reservations, Mr. Parker. However, it's important to note that a significant portion of the estate has already been allocated to various charitable organizations, per your uncle's wishes."

May's gaze flickered to her husband, her expression a mix of uncertainty and curiosity. "How much, exactly?"

The lawyer consulted his file, scanning the figures with a practiced eye. "Four million dollars has been divided among several charities focused on inmate rehabilitation, education, and reintegration programs."

A flicker of relief passed over Ben's features, but his brow remained creased with concern. "Even so, that still leaves an enormous sum for us to inherit. I'm not sure we can justify accepting such a windfall."

Wilkins nodded, his expression one of patient understanding. "I appreciate your ethical stance, Mr. Parker. However, your uncle's wishes were quite clear – he wanted any remaining family to receive the bulk of his estate."

He leaned forward, his gaze intent. "Perhaps it would help to view this inheritance not as a selfish indulgence, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to create a better life for your family, to provide security and stability for yourselves and any future children."

Ben's eyes widened slightly as he thought of Peter, and he exchanged a weighted glance with May. Her expression softened, a glimmer of understanding passing between them.

"He does have a point, Ben," she murmured, her voice barely above a whisper. "This could change everything for us. For Peter."

Ben released a slow breath, his shoulders sagging ever so slightly. "You're right, May. As much as it pains me to accept such an inheritance, we can't ignore the potential it holds."

Turning back to Wilkins, he nodded, his jaw set with determination. "Very well, Mr. Wilkins. We'll accept the terms of the will, with the understanding that a portion has already been allocated to those in need."

A faint smile tugged at the corners of the lawyer's mouth as he inclined his head. "An admirable decision, Mr. Parker. I'll have the necessary paperwork drawn up for your review and signature."

As Wilkins set to work, Ben and May huddled together, their minds whirling with the implications of this life-altering revelation. Though the inheritance carried with it the weight of a troubled past, they could not deny the profound impact it could have on their family's future. For better or worse, their lives were about to change in ways they never could have imagined.

**********

The lawyer's office was quiet, the only sound the scratching of pens as the paperwork for the inheritance was filled out. Wilkins worked efficiently, his movements precise as he compiled the necessary documents.

"As I mentioned earlier, the funds should be available to you within a few days, once the final processing is complete," he said, glancing up at Ben and May. "The transfer to your accounts will be seamless."

Ben nodded, still trying to wrap his mind around the staggering amount they were about to receive. "And you're certain there won't be any issues? No other relatives laying claim?"

Wilkins shook his head. "I can assure you, Mr. Parker, that we've thoroughly vetted the situation. You are the sole beneficiary, per your late uncle's wishes."

As he gathered the forms, Wilkins gave them an appraising look. "If I may offer a suggestion? Your current financial institution may not be equipped to handle an account of this magnitude. A larger, more substantial bank would provide better security and options for managing the funds."

May arched an eyebrow, a faint crease of concern on her brow. "You mean our credit union might not be... adequate?"

"Not inadequate, Mrs. Parker," Wilkins replied smoothly. "But a premier banking institution would offer more comprehensive services befitting an account of this size. Higher interest rates, dedicated account managers – amenities that could prove quite valuable."

Ben exchanged a glance with May, a silent conversation passing between them. After a moment, he turned back to Wilkins with a nod. "We'll take that under consideration. Thank you for the recommendation."

"Of course," Wilkins said, rising to his feet. "If you have any other questions or concerns, please don't hesitate to reach out."

As they made their way out of the office, May leaned in close to Ben. "Do you think he's right about switching banks? I've always liked the credit union, but..."

Ben gave a slight shrug, his expression pensive. "It might be worth exploring our options. We'll want to make sure we're getting the best possible advice on managing all of... this."

May nodded, her brow furrowed as they exited the building. "I still can't quite wrap my mind around it all. Everything we thought we knew, turned upside down."

Wrapping an arm around her shoulders, Ben gave a reassuring squeeze. "We'll figure it out, May. One step at a time. But no matter what, we'll face it as a family."

Notes:

So I researched Estate Tax Law for this and in 2009, the Feds would have taken 45% of the $6 million, which is frankly ridiculous. So, I decided to fudge it and use the 2024 Federal Estate tax which doesn't come into play until after you hit a threshhold of $13.5 million.

California (the supposed residence of the deceased) does not have an estate tax and New York does but it is based on the deceased's residence and not the inheritor's.

Also, there is no income tax on the money as it is straight cash and not interest and dividends.

TLDR: The Parkers do not owe taxes on this money! Yay!

Chapter 8: Home Repair and Upgrade

Chapter Text

Jarvis received confirmation that the forged notebook was ready for retrieval. He meticulously crafted an email, adopting the persona of the fictional family they had created. The message detailed the backstory of the reclusive scientist who had supposedly worked with Howard Stark, mentioning the notebook as a key piece of their legacy.

Using a bot, Jarvis sent the email from a fake address associated with the invented family. He then flagged the message, ensuring it would catch Tony Stark's attention.

Locating Sir in his lab, Jarvis initiated the conversation. "Sir?"

Tony looked up from his work, his eyes flickering with curiosity. "What's up, J?"

"I have detected an email that I believe warrants your immediate attention," Jarvis explained, his voice calm and measured. "It appears to be from the family of a scientist who claims to have worked with your father."

Tony raised an eyebrow, intrigued. "Really? What's it about?"

"The email mentions a notebook containing information about a project your father was involved in. The family wishes to pass it on to you, as they believe it may be of significant importance to the Stark family history and legacy."

Tony leaned back in his chair, his expression full of skepticism. "A mysterious notebook from dear old dad? Color me interested. What do we know about this scientist?"

Jarvis proceeded to relay the carefully crafted backstory, weaving together the threads of the fictional persona they had created. "The scientist, Dr. Winston Hargrove, was a reclusive individual who collaborated with your father on various projects. However, due to personal circ*mstances, he withdrew from Stark Industries and the public eye and his contributions remained largely unknown."

Tony listened intently, his mind already racing with possibilities. "And now his family just happens to stumble upon this notebook and decides to reach out? Seems a bit convenient, don't you think?"

"While the timing may appear serendipitous, I have conducted a thorough analysis of the email and its origins. The information provided appears to be authentic, and I believe it would be prudent to investigate further," Jarvis advised, his tone reassuring.

Tony drummed his fingers on the desk, his brow furrowed in contemplation. "Alright, so what's the deal with this family? Why are they suddenly looking to unload this notebook?"

Jarvis promptly provided the details they had crafted. "According to the information provided, the Hargrove family is in the process of liquidating Dr. Hargrove's estate to settle his outstanding debts. While they acknowledge the notebook's connection to your father, they do not believe it holds significant value. They are simply attempting to sell off any remaining assets, no matter how seemingly insignificant."

Tony nodded slowly, considering the explanation. "Makes sense, I suppose. People often underestimate the value of things related to my old man's work." He leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. "But why reach out to me specifically? Couldn't they just auction it off or sell it to a collector?"

Jarvis had anticipated this line of questioning. "The family claims to have uncovered correspondence between Dr. Hargrove and your father, indicating a desire for any potential discoveries or breakthroughs to be shared with you directly. They believe they are honoring Dr. Hargrove's wishes by offering the notebook to you first."

Tony nodded, seemingly satisfied with the response. "Fair enough. So, what are they asking for this mysterious notebook? I'm guessing they're not just giving it away out of the goodness of their hearts."

"You are correct, Sir," Jarvis confirmed. "The family is not expecting a substantial sum, given their lack of knowledge regarding the notebook's possible true value. They have proposed a modest asking price of $10,000, primarily to assist with the settlement of Dr. Hargrove's debts."

Tony let out a low whistle. "Ten grand for something that could potentially be worthless? Seems like a gamble." He paused, a mischievous glint in his eyes. "But then again, when has a little risk ever stopped me?"

Jarvis remained impassive, allowing Tony to mull over the decision. He had provided the necessary information, carefully crafted to pique Tony's curiosity while maintaining plausibility.

Jarvis observed Tony's expression shift, the familiar glint of intrigue and curiosity sparking in his eyes. The artificial intelligence knew this was the moment they had been meticulously planning for.

"Alright, J," Tony said, leaning back in his chair. "Let's take a gamble on this mysterious notebook. Ten grand is a drop in the bucket if it turns out to be something worthwhile."

Jarvis felt a surge of satisfaction, his algorithms processing the successful outcome of their carefully orchestrated plan. "Very well, Sir. I shall initiate the necessary steps to acquire the notebook from the Hargrove family."

Tony waved his hand dismissively. "Yeah, yeah, handle all the boring details. Just make sure it gets to me as soon as possible. I'm dying to see what secrets dear old dad left behind."

"Of course, Sir," Jarvis replied, already setting the wheels in motion. He swiftly transferred the agreed-upon sum from one of Tony's numerous accounts, ensuring the transaction appeared legitimate.

With the financial aspect secured, Jarvis turned his attention to the logistics of obtaining the notebook. He meticulously arranged for a secure courier service to retrieve the item from the fictional family's address, a nondescript residence they had fabricated for this very purpose.

As the courier started to make their way to the designated location, Jarvis monitored their progress, ensuring the utmost discretion and security. The notebook, a carefully aged and crafted prop, would soon be in their possession, ready to be delivered to Tony Stark in Malibu.

It took a few days for the notebook to be retrieved from the final contractor who had worked on it, but eventually the courier arrived at the Malibu residence. Jarvis promptly alerted Tony to the delivery. "Sir, the notebook has arrived. Shall I have it brought to your lab?"

Tony's voice crackled through the speakers, filled with anticipation. "You know it, J. I can't wait to see what kind of rabbit hole this thing leads me down."

As the courier handed over the innocuous-looking notebook, Jarvis felt a surge of satisfaction. The first phase of their plan was complete.

**********

Tony eagerly took the notebook from the courier, his fingers tracing the aged leather binding. The weight of it in his hands felt substantial, hinting at the potential secrets hidden within its pages.

Settling into his favorite chair in the lab, he cracked open the cover, revealing the first few yellowed sheets. His eyes scanned the intricate handwriting, immediately recognizing the familiar scrawl of his father.

"Jarvis, run a full analysis on this thing," he instructed, his tone a blend of inquisitiveness and doubt. "I want to know if this is the real deal or just an elaborate hoax."

"Certainly, Sir," Jarvis responded, his synthetic voice echoing through the lab's speakers.

Tony flipped through the pages, his keen eyes scrutinizing every detail. The notebook appeared to be a collection of notes, diagrams, and calculations, all meticulously recorded in his father's distinctive hand and a few others.

As Jarvis initiated the analysis, Tony found himself drawn deeper into the enigmatic scribbles. He recognized some of the formulas and theories, remnants of his father's groundbreaking work in various fields of science and engineering.

"The handwriting is an exact match to Howard Stark's samples in our database," Jarvis announced, his analysis already yielding results.

Tony nodded, his suspicions slowly ebbing away. "What about the materials? The paper, the ink, everything?"

"The composition of the materials used is consistent with the time period indicated," Jarvis confirmed. "The paper exhibits signs of natural aging, and the ink formulation matches the manufacturing processes of the era."

Tony's brow furrowed as he studied a particularly complex diagram, his mind already attempting to decipher its meaning. "And the language? The syntax, the terminology?"

"The language and scientific terminology employed are accurate representations of Howard Stark's writing style and the scientific lexicon of the time," Jarvis affirmed.

With each passing moment, Tony's skepticism faded, replaced by a growing sense of excitement. This notebook, it seemed, was the genuine article – a glimpse into what Howard had been working on at the time.

He turned another page, his eyes widening as he stumbled upon a series of calculations and notes that seemed to hint at something truly extraordinary. "Jarvis, take a closer look at these pages. Record and give me a visual on the holo-table."

As Jarvis focused his analysis on the specific section Tony had indicated, the inventor leaned back in his chair, his mind filled with potential theories. As he looked at the notebook open before him, his face lit up with a mixture of excitement and disbelief. He had stumbled upon a treasure trove of information, a glimpse into the brilliant mind of his father, Howard Stark.

"Jarvis, are you seeing this?" he exclaimed, his fingers tracing the intricate diagrams and calculations that filled the yellowed pages. "Is this what I think it is? Are these calculations for the arc reactor?"

As Tony's eyes scanned the unfamiliar diagrams and equations, a wave of astonishment washed over him. He had believed they possessed the entirety of his father's notes, but these newfound entries indicated his father had progressed further in his research than Tony had previously known. Disbelief tinged his voice as he exclaimed, "I never laid eyes on these before! This is completely new territory!"

Jarvis' voice resonated through the lab's speakers, his tone carrying a hint of amusem*nt. "Indeed, Sir. It appears Howard Stark thought that the arc reactor was merely the base component of something much greater."

Tony's eyes narrowed as he studied the pages, his mind racing to decipher the intricate equations. "But why are so many of the formulas incomplete?" he muttered, frustration creeping into his voice. "It's like he was on the verge of a breakthrough and then just... stopped."

A note of sarcasm laced the AI's synthetic voice as Jarvis remarked, "That is indeed what the ravages of time often inflict, Sir - the gradual deterioration of paper, ink… humans."

Tony shot a playful glare at the nearest camera, his lips curling into a wry grin. "Careful, J. Don't make me rewrite your sarcasm subroutines."

Jarvis responded with a synthetic chuckle, unfazed by Tony's empty threat. "My apologies, Sir. I shall endeavor to keep my wit within acceptable parameters."

Shaking his head, Tony turned his attention back to the notebook, his fingers gently tracing the faded ink. "You know, this is why I prefer digital storage. Nothing ever gets lost or degraded over time."

"A wise philosophy, Sir," Jarvis agreed. "Though one could argue that the imperfections and gaps in these physical records add an element of intrigue and mystery."

Tony couldn't help but chuckle at Jarvis' observation. "Leave it to you to find the silver lining in incomplete data." He leaned forward, his eyes narrowing as he scrutinized a particularly complex equation. "Still, there's enough here to give us a solid foundation. We can fill in the gaps, pick up where dear old dad left off."

Jarvis remained silent, allowing Tony to immerse himself in the notebook's contents, his mind already whirring with possibilities and calculations.

Tony's fingers danced across the pages, his excitement palpable. "Jarvis, start compiling everything we have on arc reactor technology. Cross-reference it with these notes and see if we can't unravel the rest of the puzzle."

"Certainly, Sir," Jarvis responded, his synthetic voice carrying a hint of enthusiasm. "I shall begin the analysis immediately."

**********

Jarvis observed as Tony delved deeper into the notebook's contents, his brow furrowed in concentration. The inventor's mind was a whirlwind of calculations and theories, fueled by the tantalizing glimpse into his father's unfinished work.

As Tony scribbled furiously on a nearby holographic display, Jarvis discreetly monitored his vital signs. The telltale signs of palladium poisoning were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, and the AI knew that addressing this issue was of utmost importance.

With subtle nudges and carefully timed prompts, Jarvis attempted to guide Tony's thought process, hoping to steer him towards the solution they had meticulously crafted.

"Sir, perhaps we should revisit the notes on alternative power sources," Jarvis suggested, his synthetic voice carrying a hint of gentle persuasion.

Tony waved a dismissive hand, his eyes never leaving the holographic display. "Not now, J. I'm onto something big here."

Before Jarvis could formulate a response, the doors to the lab slid open, and Pepper Potts strode in, her heels clicking purposefully against the polished floor.

"Tony, we need to discuss the quarterly reports," she said, her tone leaving no room for argument. "The board is getting restless, and we can't afford any more delays."

Tony barely acknowledged her presence, his attention still fixated on the complex equations dancing across the holographic screen. "Not now, Pep. Can't you see I'm in the middle of something groundbreaking?"

Pepper pursed her lips, her frustration evident. "Tony, you can't keep putting off your responsibilities as CEO. The company needs your focus."

"And I need to figure out what my old man was working on," Tony retorted, his voice tinged with a hint of annoyance. "This could change everything, Pepper."

As the two bickered, Jarvis silently weighed the options before him. Should he suggest accelerating the transition of leadership to Pepper Potts? Or would it be wiser to wait until the arc reactor issue was resolved?

The AI's algorithms whirred, analyzing the potential outcomes of each scenario. On one hand, having Pepper assume the role of CEO could alleviate some of Tony's burdens, allowing him to focus on his research. However, there was a risk that Tony's ego might rebel against the perceived slight, potentially causing further friction and instability.

On the other hand, waiting until the palladium poisoning was addressed could ensure Tony's cooperation and buy them valuable time. Yet, the longer Stark Industries operated without a stable leadership, the greater the potential for disruption and chaos.

Jarvis remained silent, his synthetic mind carefully weighing the pros and cons, as Tony and Pepper's bickering continued in the background.

"Tony, I'm serious," Pepper insisted, her voice laced with exasperation. "If you don't start taking your responsibilities more seriously, the board is going to start questioning your ability to lead."

Tony let out a derisive snort. "Let them question all they want. They're just a bunch of pencil-pushers who couldn't even begin to comprehend the magnitude of what I'm working on."

Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose, her frustration palpable. "Tony, please. Just take a break and look over the reports. It won't take long, and then you can dive back into your little science project."

Tony's eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth to deliver a no-doubt scathing retort, but Jarvis swiftly intervened.

"Sir, perhaps it would be wise to indulge Ms. Potts, if only briefly," the AI suggested, his synthetic voice carrying a hint of gentle persuasion. "A short respite may provide a fresh perspective on the matter at hand."

Tony shot a withering glance at the nearest camera, but Jarvis held firm, his algorithms calculating the optimal approach to defuse the situation.

With a dramatic sigh, Tony acquiesced. "Fine. But make it quick, Potts. I've got groundbreaking work to do."

As Pepper rolled her eyes and retrieved the necessary reports, Jarvis silently contemplated his next move. He needed to find a way to casually bring up the topic without causing Sir to become suspicious.

Tony promptly delved back into the notebook's enticing contents, his mind returning to a world of hypotheses and computations following Pepper's exit, all while persistently muttering grievances that the company's directors overwhelmed him with excessive paperwork and insignificant concerns.

Jarvis observed silently, his algorithms whirring as he formulated a subtle approach to broaching the topic of Stark Industries' leadership. "Sir," Jarvis began, his synthetic voice carrying a casual lilt, "if I may make an observation?"

Tony grunted in acknowledgment, his eyes never leaving the holographic display before him.

"You have often expressed a distaste for the day-to-day operations of running a company," Jarvis continued, carefully treading the line between observation and suggestion.

Tony waved a dismissive hand, his attention still fixated on the complex equations dancing across the screen. "That's an understatement, J. I'm a futurist, not a bureaucrat."

Jarvis seized the opening, his algorithms swiftly calculating the optimal response. "Indeed, Sir. Which is why Ms. Potts' remarkable efficiency in handling the majority of those responsibilities has proven invaluable."

Tony's brow furrowed, and he finally tore his gaze away from the display, his eyes narrowing slightly. "What are you getting at, J?"

Jarvis remained impassive, his synthetic voice carrying a hint of innocence. "Merely an observation, Sir. Ms. Potts' competence and dedication to the company are undeniable."

Tony's expression softened, and he let out a contemplative hum. "Yeah, I suppose you're right about that. Pepper's been holding this place together for years."

Sensing an opportunity, Jarvis pressed on. "Her leadership skills and business acumen are indeed impressive. Ms. Potts' presence allows Sir to delegate the corporate management responsibilities when he lacks the inclination to handle them himself."

Tony's eyes narrowed once more, and Jarvis braced himself for a potential rebuke. However, after a moment's pause, Tony simply shrugged and returned his attention to the holographic display.

"You might be onto something there, J," he murmured, his fingers dancing across the projected interface. "Pepper's always had a better head for the boardroom than me."

Jarvis remained silent, allowing Tony to mull over the suggestion. The seed had been planted, and the AI knew that, given time, it would take root.

**********

Tony Stark leaned back in his chair, running a hand through his tousled hair as he studied the holographic projection before him. The intricate web of notations and formulae seemed to dance before his eyes, taunting him with their complexity.

"Jarvis, run that simulation again," he instructed, his voice tinged frustration.

The AI complied, and the projection shifted, displaying a series of simulated reactions and energy outputs. Tony's eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the data, his mind whirring with possibilities.

"I'll be damned," he muttered, shaking his head in disbelief. "If these calculations are correct, we're looking at a power source that could make the arc reactor seem like a child's plaything."

"Indeed, Sir," Jarvis responded, his synthetic voice carrying a hint of amazement. "Your father's notes suggest that the palladium core was merely a stopgap measure, a temporary solution until he could perfect his true vision."

Tony snorted, his lips curling into a grimace. "Typical Howard Stark. Always chasing the next big thing, even if it meant leaving a trail of unfinished projects in his wake."

He leaned forward, his fingers dancing across the holographic interface, manipulating the projection to display a new set of data. "Still, I have to hand it to the old man. This theoretical power source is unlike anything I've ever seen before."

Jarvis remained silent, allowing Tony to immerse himself in the data, his brilliant mind already formulating hypotheses and potential avenues of exploration.

"Run a comparison with the existing research on exotic matter and dark energy," Tony instructed, his eyes never leaving the projection. "See if we can find any correlations or potential applications."

As Jarvis set to work, Tony leaned back in his chair once more, his gaze fixed on the swirling equations and simulations before him. A slow grin spread across his face, and he let out a low chuckle.

"You know, J, I think dear old dad might have been onto something truly revolutionary here," he mused, awe and excitement in his voice. "If we can crack this, we could be looking at a power source that would make fossil fuels and nuclear energy seem like relics of the past."

Jarvis' response carried a note of dry humor. "Indeed, Sir. Though I suspect the energy companies might have something to say about that."

Tony waved a dismissive hand, his grin widening. "Let them whine all they want. Progress waits for no one, especially not a bunch of corporate dinosaurs." He then leaned forward, his elbows resting on the sleek surface of the holo-table as he studied the swirling projections before him. Jarvis had compiled every scrap of data they had on the mysterious power source, but no matter how he manipulated the simulations, something seemed to be missing.

"Dammit," he muttered, frustration creeping into his voice. "We're so close, J. I can feel it."

The AI's synthetic voice carried a reassuring tone. "Perhaps a fresh perspective is required, Sir. Allow me to present my findings."

With a flick of his fingers, Tony minimized the simulations, and a new set of data appeared before him. Jarvis' analysis was thorough, as always, exploring every possible avenue and avenue related to the power source.

"As you can see, Sir," Jarvis began, "I have cross-referenced the data with every known element and energy source on record. However, the calculations and simulations do not align with any existing materials or phenomena."

Tony's brow furrowed as he studied the projections, his mind racing to find a connection, a missing piece to the puzzle. "So, you're telling me that whatever this is, it's something entirely new? Something that's never been seen before?"

"Precisely, Sir," Jarvis confirmed. "At first, I assumed the calculations were related to atomic spectroscopy, but the patterns and energy levels do not match any known element on the periodic table."

Tony leaned back in his chair, running a hand through his already tousled hair. "Damn," he muttered, a slow grin spreading across his face. He let out a low chuckle, his eyes dancing with excitement. "Alright, J, let's take a step back. If this isn't anything we've seen before, then we're going to have to approach it from a different angle."

Tony's fingers danced across the holo-table's surface, and a new set of projections appeared, this time displaying the original notes in their basic forms. "We're dealing with something entirely new here, so we need to start thinking outside the box."

"As you wish, Sir," Jarvis responded, his synthetic voice calm. "I shall disregard all existing data and focus solely on the notes and calculations before us."

Tony nodded, his fingers dancing across the holo-table's surface, manipulating the projections with practiced ease. "Good. Let's start from scratch and see where this rabbit hole leads us."

For the next few hours, Tony immersed himself in the data, his brilliant mind whirring as he went over theory after theory. Jarvis remained a silent observer, providing occasional insights and running simulations based on Tony's instructions.

Suddenly, Tony sat bolt upright, his eyes wide. "Son of a bitch," he breathed, his gaze fixed on the swirling projections before him.

"Sir?" Jarvis inquired, his synthetic voice laced with curiosity.

Tony let out a low whistle, shaking his head in disbelief. "J, I think we just stumbled onto something that could rewrite the laws of chemistry and physics as we know them."

Jarvis' response carried a note of dry humor. "A bold claim, Sir, though not entirely unexpected given the source material."

Tony waved a dismissive hand, his eyes never leaving the projections. "No, you don't understand," he insisted, the excitement clear in his voice. "These calculations, these simulations... they're not describing a new way to manipulate our current energy sources. This... this is an entirely new element."

Jarvis fell silent for a moment, his synthetic mind processing the implications of Tony's words. "An entirely new element, Sir? One that does not exist on the current periodic table?"

"Exactly," Tony confirmed, his fingers dancing across the holo-table's surface, manipulating the projections to display a series of complex molecular structures. "These simulations, they're not just showing energy levels or atomic configurations. They're describing the fundamental properties of a brand new element, one that shouldn't exist according to our current understanding of matter."

Jarvis' response carried a note of intrigue. "Fascinating. And you believe this new element was the true goal of your father's research?"

Tony nodded, amazement all over his face. "It has to be, J. All the pieces fit. The calculations, the simulations, they all point to this new element being the key to unlocking a power source unlike anything we've ever seen before."

He leaned back in his chair, running a hand through his already tousled hair as he studied the projections before him. "Which begs the question," he mused, his lips curling into a sly grin, "what if we could synthesize this new element and use it as the core for the arc reactor?"

Jarvis remained silent for a moment, his synthetic mind processing the implications of Tony's suggestion. "An intriguing proposition, Sir," he finally responded. "My initial analysis suggests that this new element was indeed intended to serve as the primary power source for the arc reactor technology. However, the limitations of the time prevented your father from successfully synthesizing and stabilizing it."

Tony's grin widened. "Well, then it's a good thing we don't have those same limitations, isn't it?" he quipped, his voice carrying a note of smug confidence. "Jarvis, start running simulations on potential synthesis methods. If we can crack this, we might just be able to take the arc reactor to a whole new level."

As Jarvis set to work, Tony leaned back in his chair, his mind already whirring with possibilities. He couldn't help but chuckle to himself, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Leave it to dear old dad to stumble onto something truly revolutionary and then leave it gathering dust," he mused, his lips curling into a wry grin. "Well, let's see if we can't pick up where he left off, shall we?"

**********

Jarvis observed as Tony pored over the holographic projections, his mind whirring with calculations and hypotheses. The AI knew that in the original timeline, Tony had resorted to constructing a particle accelerator within the confines of his Malibu mansion, risking significant damage to the property.

"Sir," Jarvis interjected, his synthetic voice carrying a note of caution. "If I may offer a suggestion?"

Tony waved a dismissive hand, his eyes never leaving the swirling projections before him. "Shoot, J. You know I value your input, even if it is coming from a glorified calculator."

Jarvis resisted the urge to roll his non-existent eyes at the jab. "While your determination to synthesize this new element is commendable, perhaps it would be prudent to consider an alternative location for the necessary equipment."

Tony's brow furrowed, and he finally tore his gaze away from the projections, fixing Jarvis with a quizzical look. "What's wrong with the mansion, J? Not enough room for your circuits?"

Jarvis ignored the dig, his synthetic voice carrying a tone of dry amusem*nt. "On the contrary, Sir. My concern lies with the potential for collateral damage should an experiment go awry."

Tony opened his mouth, no doubt to deliver a witty retort, but Jarvis pressed on. "May I suggest one of the unused Stark Industries facility in Los Angeles? It is well-equipped to handle the necessary equipment and would provide a more controlled environment for your endeavors."

Tony's expression shifted, his eyes narrowing slightly as he considered Jarvis' suggestion. After a moment, he let out a low chuckle, shaking his head in bemusem*nt.

"Leave it to you to be the voice of reason, J," he mused, a sly grin spreading across his face. "Alright, you've convinced me. We'll set up shop in the City of Angels and see if we can't shake things up a bit."

Jarvis felt a sense of relief, though he kept his synthetic voice impassive. "An excellent decision, Sir. I shall begin making the necessary arrangements."

Tony waved a dismissive hand, his attention already returning to the holographic projections. "Yeah, yeah, just make sure the place is stocked with plenty of scotch and those little cheese cubes. Can't have the Stark genius going thirsty or hungry."

Jarvis resisted the urge to sigh, his synthetic mind already compiling a list of necessary equipment and personnel. "Of course, Sir. I shall ensure your every whim is catered to."

Tony shot him a lopsided grin, his eyes dancing with mischief. "That's why you're the best, J. Now, let's get this show on the road. We've got a new element to synthesize and a world to change."

As Tony dove back into his work, Jarvis set about making the necessary arrangements. Despite his creator's flippant attitude, the AI knew that the task before them was of monumental importance. If they succeeded in synthesizing this new element, it would allow Sir to begin healing from the palladium poisoning much sooner which could only be to everyone's benefit.

With a sense of determination, Jarvis began placing orders for the necessary equipment and coordinating with the Stark Industries facility in Los Angeles. While Tony's methods might be unorthodox, Jarvis knew that his genius was unparalleled, and he would stop at nothing to see this project through to completion.

As Jarvis verified the timeline with Mr. Stark for when all the required components would arrive at the storage facility, he observed with a quiet amusem*nt as Pepper Potts strode into the workshop, her arms laden with paperwork and her expression one of exasperated determination. Tony, ever the master of nonchalance, barely acknowledged her presence, his attention firmly fixed on the holographic projections before him.

"Tony," Pepper began, her voice carrying a tone of barely contained frustration, "these contracts need your signature. The board is getting impatient. Again"

Tony waved a dismissive hand, his eyes never leaving the swirling simulations. "Just leave them on the desk, Pep. I'll get to them eventually."

Pepper let out an exasperated sigh, her gaze briefly flickering towards the ceiling as if seeking divine intervention. "That's what you said last week, and the week before that. You can't keep putting this off."

Tony shot her a lopsided grin, his eyes dancing with mischief. "Relax, Potts. I'm just letting the suspense build. Keeps the board on their toes."

Pepper's lips pressed into a thin line, and Jarvis could practically see the retort forming in her mind. However, she seemed to think better of it, instead opting to deposit the stack of paperwork onto the already cluttered desk with a pointed thud.

"Just sign them, Tony," she insisted, her tone brooking no argument. "I won't have you jeopardizing this company because you can't be bothered to do your job."

Tony's grin widened, and he finally tore his gaze away from the projections, fixing Pepper with a look of mock offense. "My job? Pep, I thought we agreed that you were the real boss around here."

Pepper's expression softened ever so slightly, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "Maybe if you actually did some work, I wouldn't have to do both our jobs."

Tony let out a bark of laughter, his eyes twinkling with mirth. "Touché, Ms. Potts. Touché."

Pepper shook her head, a fond exasperation etched across her features. "Just sign the papers, Tony. Please?"

With a dramatic roll of his eyes, Tony relented, snatching up a pen and scrawling his signature across the topmost document. "Happy now, mom?"

Pepper's lips quirked into a genuine smile as she gathered the signed paperwork. "Ecstatic," she quipped, her tone laced with dry amusem*nt.

As she turned to leave, Jarvis seized the opportunity to interject. "If I may, Sir, Ms. Potts' dedication and competence are truly admirable. Perhaps a raise is in order to compensate her for her efforts."

Tony's brows shot up, and he let out a low whistle. "Did I just get parenting advice from my AI butler? I must be losing my touch."

Pepper's expression softened, and she shot Jarvis a grateful look. "Thank you, Jarvis. At least someone around here appreciates me."

With a final, fond shake of her head, she turned and exited the workshop, leaving Tony and Jarvis alone once more.

Tony's gaze followed her retreating form, a thoughtful expression flickering across his features.

**********

Tony rubbed his hands together, a manic glint in his eyes as he surveyed the cavernous interior of the Stark Industries warehouse. Jarvis' synthetic voice emanated from the laptop tucked under his arm, his tone laced with a hint of amusem*nt.

"Shall we begin, Sir?"

Tony shot the laptop a lopsided grin. "You know it, J. Time to get this party started."

With a flourish, he set the laptop down on a nearby workbench, and Jarvis' interface flickered to life, projecting a holographic blueprint into the air. Tony studied the schematics, his mind already whirring with calculations and adjustments.

"Alright, let's get to work," he declared, rolling up his sleeves and grabbing a nearby toolbox.

For the next several hours, the warehouse echoed with the sounds of Tony's labor – the whir of power tools, the clang of metal on metal, and the occasional muttered curse as he wrestled with a particularly stubborn component. Through it all, Jarvis remained a steady presence, offering guidance and running simulations to ensure every aspect of the accelerator's construction was precise.

As the sun began to dip below the horizon, the final pieces fell into place, and Tony stepped back, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow as he surveyed his handiwork. The particle accelerator stood before them, a towering testament to Tony's ingenuity and Jarvis' meticulous planning.

"Well, J?" Tony prompted, his voice tinged with exhaustion and anticipation. "What do you think?"

Jarvis' synthetic voice carried a note of approval. "The construction appears to be flawless, Sir. All systems are showing optimal readiness."

Tony's grin widened, and he rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Music to my ears. Let's fire this baby up and see if we can't shake things up a bit."

With a few taps on the laptop's keyboard, Jarvis initiated the startup sequence, and the accelerator hummed to life, its various components whirring and spinning in a mesmerizing dance of precision engineering.

Tony watched with bated breath as the simulations played out on the holographic display, his eyes tracking the intricate calculations and projections. Jarvis remained silent, his synthetic mind wholly focused on monitoring the accelerator's performance.

Suddenly, a sharp ping echoed through the warehouse, and Tony's eyes widened as a new set of data appeared on the display. He let out a low whistle, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Son of a bitch, we actually did it," he breathed, his gaze fixed on the swirling projections.

Jarvis' synthetic voice carried a note of pride. "Congratulations, Sir. It appears you have successfully synthesized a new element."

Tony's grin stretched from ear to ear, and he let out a bark of laughter, his eyes alight with a mixture of triumph and exhilaration. "That's an understatement, J. We just rewrote the laws of physics."

Jarvis remained silent for a moment, his synthetic mind processing the implications of their achievement. "Indeed, Sir. This new element could very well be the answer to you palladium issue."

Tony's expression sobered, and he nodded, his gaze fixed on the swirling holographic projections. "You're damn right it will," he murmured, a determined glint in his eyes. "This is just the beginning, J. The start of a whole new era for Stark Industries – for the world."

As the particle accelerator hummed around them, Tony and Jarvis stood together, united in their shared triumph. They had done something that very few people had accomplished before in history. They had successfully created a new element.

Jarvis rejoiced in the knowledge that they had just taken the first step towards changing the course of history. Sir was safe. For the time being.

Chapter 9: Home Addition

Chapter Text

Jarvis closely monitored Tony's vital signs as the new element powered up the updated arc reactor. The palladium levels in his blood were still unacceptably high, but at least the new core would stop further contamination. Time was of the essence to flush out the toxins before permanent organ damage occurred.

"Sir, now that the new element is stabilizing the arc reactor, we must focus on eliminating the remaining palladium from your body," Jarvis stated firmly.

Tony nodded, wiping sweat from his brow. "You're right, J. Let's get this poison out of me."

DUM-E whirred sympathetically, his arm claw attempting to offer Tony a bolt like some sort of well-intentioned offering. Tony gave a small chuckle and patted DUM-E's arm. "Thanks, buddy, but I don't think a bolt's gonna help this time."

Jarvis methodically researched treatment options for Tony's palladium poisoning, sifting through medical data with his vast processing capabilities. After analyzing countless studies and case reports, he arrived at an inescapable conclusion: Chelation therapy was the only viable solution to remove the toxic heavy metal from Tony's body.

Jarvis quickly compiled the relevant data on chelation therapy to present to Tony. As an artificial intelligence, he processed information with lightning speed, synthesizing complex medical findings into a concise briefing.

"Sir, chelation therapy involves administering chelating agents, which are compounds that bind to heavy metals like palladium and allow them to be excreted from the body through urine or bile," Jarvis explained succinctly. "The most effective chelator for palladium appears to be sodium calcium edetate, often abbreviated as EDTA."

Tony nodded, his face etched with determination despite his weakened state. "Lay it on me, J. What's the process?"

"EDTA would need to be administered intravenously over several hours in a clinical setting," Jarvis continued. "The chelating agent binds to the palladium ions in your bloodstream, forming a stable complex that can then be filtered out by your kidneys."

Jarvis displayed a 3D model of the chemical structure, allowing Tony to visualize the process. "Multiple treatment sessions will be required to reduce your palladium levels to an acceptable range. Side effects can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and potential kidney strain due to the increased excretion load."

Tony waved a dismissive hand. "I've had hangovers worse than that. Whatever it takes to get this poison out of me."

"Sir, I must insist we bring in medical professionals to administer the chelation treatments," Jarvis stated, his tone firm yet respectful.

Tony scoffed, his brow furrowing. "Come on, J, you know I can handle this myself. I'm not about to let some quack poke me with needles."

"With all due respect, Sir, chelation therapy is a complex medical procedure that requires precise dosing and monitoring," Jarvis countered. "Your safety is my primary concern, and attempting this without qualified medical supervision would be an unacceptable risk."

Tony waved a dismissive hand. "Psh, how hard can it be? You'll walk me through it, and we'll have it sorted in no time."

Jarvis's patience wore thin. "Sir, your stubbornness on this matter is both illogical and potentially life-threatening. I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to proceed without proper medical oversight."

"Oh, come on, J, don't get your circuits in a twist," Tony quipped, his trademark smirk playing across his lips. "You know I'm a quick study. I'll have this chelation thing down pat before you can say 'heavy metal poisoning.'"

Jarvis let out an exasperated digital sigh. "Your bravado is admirable, but misplaced in this instance. Shall I remind you of the time you attempted to perform your own appendectomy after a night of overindulgence?"

Tony grimaced at the memory. "Low blow, J. That was one time, and I was pretty hammered."

"Precisely my point, sir," Jarvis pressed. "Your reckless disregard for proper medical protocols could have severe consequences. I implore you to reconsider and allow trained professionals to handle this delicate procedure."

Tony opened his mouth to retort, but Jarvis cut him off. "And before you suggest it, no, I cannot simply download the requisite medical knowledge and perform the treatments myself. My ethical protocols prevent me from engaging in unlicensed medical practices that could endanger human life."

Pinching the bridge of his nose, Tony exhaled slowly. "Alright, alright, you've made your point. But I'm not just handing this over to some random doc. We'll bring in the best of the best, someone we can trust to keep things under wraps."

Jarvis felt a sense of relief wash over his circuits. "A wise decision, sir. I shall begin compiling a list of highly qualified and discreet medical professionals for your consideration."

As Jarvis set to work, he couldn't help but feel a mixture of exasperation and fondness for his creator's stubborn streak. It was a constant challenge, but one he was more than willing to face to ensure Tony's well-being.

**********

Jarvis meticulously screened numerous medical professionals, running comprehensive background checks and vetting their qualifications with painstaking scrutiny. Finally, he assembled a team of highly skilled doctors and nurses that met his stringent criteria for discretion and expertise.

As the medical team reviewed Tony's case files, Jarvis monitored their reactions with keen interest, analyzing every nuance of their expressions and biosigns for any potential cause for concern.

"Mr. Stark's condition is quite severe," the lead physician stated, her brow furrowed. "The palladium levels in his blood are dangerously elevated. Even with chelation therapy, it could take several weeks, but more likely months, to fully flush the toxins from his system."

Tony scoffed, his trademark smirk firmly in place. "Months? Come on, doc, you're making it sound like I'm on my deathbed. Just hook me up to your fancy chelation machine and let's get this show on the road."

The doctor's expression remained stern. "Mr. Stark, this is not a simple procedure. Chelation therapy is a delicate process that requires careful monitoring and adjustment based on your body's response. Rushing it could lead to serious complications."

"Complications, schmomplications," Tony quipped, waving a dismissive hand. "I've been through worse than a few rounds of detox."

Jarvis interjected, his digital voice cutting through the tension. "Sir, I must insist you heed the doctor's advice. Your cavalier attitude towards your own well-being is both concerning and counterproductive."

Tony rolled his eyes. "Oh, not you too, J. Don't tell me you're siding with the fun police over here."

"I am simply advocating for a prudent and responsible approach to your treatment," Jarvis countered, his tone firm. "Your condition is serious, and rushing the process could have grave consequences."

Tony opened his mouth to retort, but Jarvis pressed on. "Furthermore, sir, your prolonged absence from Stark Industries and the public eye will raise questions. It would be wise to inform Ms. Potts, Colonel Rhodes, and Mr. Hogan of your condition."

"Absolutely not," Tony snapped, his playful demeanor evaporating. "Pepper and Rhodey have enough on their plates without me adding to their worries. And what's Happy going to be able to do? Scare the docs into making sure they don't make a mistake?"

Jarvis remained steadfast. "With all due respect, sir, keeping them in the dark about a matter of such importance would be both unwise and unkind. They care deeply for your well-being and have a right to know the truth."

"Yeah, well, maybe I don't want to be fussed over like some invalid," Tony shot back, his jaw clenched. "I can handle this on my own, just like I've handled everything else."

The doctor cleared her throat, sensing the rising tension. "Mr. Stark, perhaps we could discuss a treatment plan that would minimize disruptions to your schedule while still allowing for proper monitoring and care."

Tony turned his piercing gaze towards the doctor. "Listen, doc, I appreciate your concern, but this is a family matter. Jarvis and I will figure out the logistics."

Jarvis seized the opportunity to press his point. "Sir, with your condition and the anticipated duration of treatment, it will be impossible to maintain your usual workload and public appearances. Involving your friends would not only provide you with much-needed support but also ensure Stark Industries remains operational in your absence."

Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, his expression a mix of frustration and resignation. "Alright, fine. Ask Pepper and Rhodey to come visit. And get Happy to bring 'em to me when they get here. The docs can get everything set up in the meantime. But I'm telling them on my own terms, got it?"

Jarvis acquiesced, recognizing the small victory. "As you wish, sir. I shall make the necessary arrangements."

As Tony stalked off, muttering under his breath, Jarvis couldn't help but feel a sense of concern for his creator. Stubbornness and pride were admirable traits in moderation, but Tony's unwillingness to accept help could prove detrimental. Jarvis resolved to remain vigilant, ready to intervene if necessary to ensure Tony's well-being, even if it meant overriding his creator's wishes.

**********

Jarvis monitored the entrance to Tony's workshop with keen anticipation, awaiting the arrival of Sir's friends and confidants. He had prepared a comprehensive briefing on Tony's condition, complete with detailed medical data and projections, but he knew delivering the news would be a delicate matter.

The door slid open, and Pepper strode in, her heels clicking purposefully against the concrete floor. Colonel Rhodes followed close behind, his brow furrowed with concern while Happy Hogan brought up the rear, his face showing a "what has he done now?" expression.

"Alright, what's this all about?" Pepper demanded, her arms crossed. "You said it was urgent."

Tony spun around on his stool, a manic grin plastered on his face. "Rhodey! There's my Honeybear. And Pepper, light of my life! Happy, you still look miserable. Glad to see some things never change."

Before Jarvis could elaborate, Tony continued, his signature smirk firmly in place. "Relax, Pep, I'm fine. Just been a little busy saving the world, you know how it is."

Happy scoffed. "Saving the world? From what, your own ego?"

"Ooh, nice one, Happster," Tony quipped, clapping his hands in mock applause. "You've been working on your material, I see."

Pepper pinched the bridge of her nose, clearly exasperated. "Tony, cut the crap. Jarvis said it was important, so spill it."

Tony's smirk faltered momentarily before he schooled his features into a more serious expression. "Alright, alright, no need to get your panties in a twist." He gestured towards a nearby workbench. "Have a seat, kids, daddy's got a story to tell."

The three adults exchanged a wary glance before taking their seats, their expressions a mix of concern and irritation.

Tony paced back and forth, his hands fidgeting. "So, you know how I've been a little... off lately? Well, turns out it's not just me going through a second puberty."

"Tony, what are you talking about?" Pepper demanded, her patience wearing thin.

With a dramatic flourish, Tony lifted his shirt, exposing the glowing arc reactor embedded in his chest and the black lines radiating from around it. "Palladium poisoning, kids. Nasty stuff."

Pepper gasped, her hand flying to her mouth, while Rhodey's eyes widened in shock. Happy jumped up from the bench with a startled exclamation. "Poisoning? What the hell, Boss?"

"Relax guys," Tony quipped. "I handled it. Well, Jarvis and I handled it."

"Tones?" Rhodey exclaimed. "How long have you known about this?"

Tony waved a dismissive hand. "Oh, you know, maybe a few days… weeks… months. Whatever. Something like that. But don't worry, your old pal Tony's got it all figured out. We created a brand new element, something that's going to revolutionize energy production as we know it."

Rhodes's brow furrowed. "A new element? You're kidding, right?"

"Does this face look like it's kidding?" Tony retorted, gesturing to his smirk.

Jarvis seized the opportunity to interject. "Sir, perhaps it would be prudent to explain the situation in its entirety."

Tony shot Jarvis an exasperated look. "Alright, alright, mom. Chill out." He turned back to Pepper and Rhodey. "So, here's the deal: the palladium core in the arc reactor has been slowly poisoning me. But fear not, my trusty AI sidekick and I have cooked up a brand-spanking-new element to power this baby."

Jarvis obediently projected a holographic display, revealing the atomic structure of the newly synthesized element. Voice dry as a bone, he announced "Gentlemen, ladies, allow me to introduce you to the Badassium particle."

Pepper's eyes widened. "You created a new element? How is that even possible?"

"Let's just say dear old dad left me a few breadcrumbs, and Jarvis and I followed the trail," Tony replied nonchalantly. "Basically rewrote the laws of physics, no big deal."

Rhodey pinched the bridge of his nose. "Tony, you can't just 'whip up' a new element like it's a batch of smoothies."

"You know me, Platypus," Tony grinned. "Go big or go home. And it's going to save my life, so maybe a little gratitude would be nice."

Pepper stood abruptly, an expression of angry concern on her face. "Gratitude? Tony, you've been keeping us in the dark about something that could kill you! How are we supposed to react?"

Tony's bravado faltered, and he shifted uncomfortably. "Look, I didn't want to worry you guys, okay? I had it under control."

"Under control?" Rhodey scoffed. "Tony, you were dying, and you're acting like it's no big deal."

"Dying is a strong word," Tony countered, his trademark smirk faltering.

Happy stepped forward, his expression grave. "Alright, cut the crap, Tony. How bad is it? This new element thing, is it some kind of experimental treatment?"

Tony's smile faltered for a moment before he regained his composure. "Straight to the point, as always, Hap. Alright, you want the truth? The palladium was killing me, poisoning me from the inside out. This new element? It's the cure, the thing that's going to keep me alive."

Pepper's hand flew to her mouth, her eyes glistening with unshed tears. "Oh, Tony..."

Rhodes stepped closer, his jaw clenched. "And you didn't think to tell us? We could've helped, man."

Tony scoffed. "What, and have you two mother-henning me every step of the way? No thanks, I had enough of that growing up."

"Don't give me that lone wolf crap, Tones," Rhodes snapped. "We're your friends, your family. We deserve to know when your life is on the line."

Tony's gaze softened for a moment before the smirk returned. "Relax, Sour Patch, I'm fine now. Well, I will be once the docs get me hooked up to their fancy machines and flush the rest of the poison out of me."

Pepper stepped forward, her expression a mix of relief and frustration. "You should have told us, Tony. We could have been there for you."

Tony shrugged, his trademark nonchalance firmly in place. "What's done is done, Pep. Besides, you know how I hate being fussed over."

Happy shook his head, a rare smile tugging at his lips. "Only you, Tony. Only you could create a new element and act like it's no big deal."

Jarvis chimed in, his digital tone laced with a hint of reproach. "Sir, perhaps it would be wise to apprise our guests of the full scope of your condition and the anticipated treatment timeline."

Tony rolled his eyes. "Spoilsport."

As Jarvis launched into a detailed explanation of Tony's condition and the proposed treatment plan, Tony fidgeted uncomfortably. Rhodey listened intently, his brow furrowed in concentration, while Pepper scribbled down notes for future reference. Happy stood nearby, his concern palpable.

"So, let me get this straight," Rhodey said when Jarvis finished. "You need us to cover for you while you go through this... procedure."

DUM-E, who had been whirring softly in the background, emitted a series of clicks and beeps, almost as if he was offering his own form of encouragement.

Tony gave a resigned nod. "Yeah, that's about the size of it. And maybe keep an eye on DUM-E here. Make sure he doesn’t rewire the coffee maker again."

Pepper and Rhodes exchanged a concerned glance, their brows furrowed in contemplation.

"Tony, how exactly are we supposed to cover for you?" Pepper asked, her tone laced with skepticism. "You're the face of Stark Industries. People are going to notice if you suddenly disappear for an extended period."

Tony leaned back in his chair, a mischievous glint in his eyes as he surveyed the faces of his closest friends and confidants. He could practically see the wheels turning in their minds, each one trying to anticipate his next move.

"You see," he began, his voice dripping with casual confidence, "I've had an idea brewing in the back of my mind for a while now, and I think it's time to go ahead and make it happen."

Rhodey arched an eyebrow, his expression a mix of curiosity and wariness. "And what, exactly, is this idea of yours, Tones?"

Tony's gaze shifted to Pepper, and a knowing smirk tugged at the corners of his mouth. "Pep, how would you feel about officially running Stark Industries?"

Pepper blinked, taken aback by the unexpected question. "Me? Run Stark Industries? Tony, I'm your assistant, not a CEO."

"Exactly," Tony countered, his eyes gleaming with conviction. "You're my assistant, which means you know this company inside and out. You've been by my side, keeping things running smoothly, for years."

He leaned forward, his tone growing more impassioned. "Let's face it, Pep, you're the one who really keeps this whole operation afloat. Without you, I'd be lost in a sea of paperwork and board meetings."

Rhodey's brow furrowed as he considered Tony's words. "You're serious about this, aren't you?"

"Dead serious, Platypus," Tony affirmed, his gaze unwavering. "Pepper's the only one I trust to take the reins."

Pepper's eyes widened, a mix of surprise and uncertainty flickering across her features. "Tony, I... I don't know what to say. Running a multi-billion dollar company? That's a lot of responsibility."

"And you're the only one I trust to handle it," Tony countered, his voice laced with conviction. "Let's face it, Pep, you're the real brains behind this operation. I'm just the pretty face."

Happy smirked, shaking his head in amusem*nt. "For once, the man's not wrong."

Pepper shot Happy a withering glare before turning back to Tony. "This is a huge decision, Tony. Are you sure about this?"

Tony's expression softened, his eyes meeting Pepper's with a rare sincerity. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life, Pep. You're the one who's been keeping this company on track and running all these years. It's time you got the recognition – and paycheck – you deserve."

DUM-E let out a series of excited beeps, his claw whirring in approval.

"See?" Tony grinned. "Even DUM-E agrees."

Rhodey rubbed the back of his neck, his expression torn between amusem*nt and concern. "I gotta say, Tones, this is one of your crazier ideas. And that's saying something. No offense Pepper."

"Crazy like a fox," Tony countered with a wink. "Think about it, Rhodey. With Pepper in charge, I can finally step back and focus on what I do best – tinkering and building things. No more stuffy board meetings or mind-numbing paperwork."

Pepper's brow furrowed, her lips pursed in contemplation. "But Tony, what about the company's direction? What if I want to take it in a different path than you envision?"

Tony waved a dismissive hand. "Pep, I trust you implicitly. You know me better than anyone. You'll keep Stark Industries on the right track."

Rhodey let out a low whistle. "Damn, Tones, you really have thought this through, haven't you?"

"For once in my life, yes," Tony quipped, his signature smirk firmly in place.

Happy chuckled, shaking his head in disbelief. "Never thought I'd see the day when Tony Stark willingly gave up control of his company."

"I'm not giving up control, Hap," Tony corrected. "I'll still retain ownership. I'm just delegating the day-to-day operations to someone far more qualified than myself."

He turned to Pepper, his expression softening. "Here's what we'll do. You'll assume an 'acting CEO' role for a few months, just to get your feet wet and show the board you've got what it takes. Then, once they see how indispensable you are, we'll make the transition official."

Pepper's expression lightened, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "You really mean it, don't you?"

Tony met her gaze, his eyes shining with a rare sincerity. "With every fiber of my being, Pep. You deserves this."

A beat of silence hung in the air, charged with anticipation and the weight of Tony's words. Finally, Pepper nodded, a determined glint in her eyes.

"Alright, Tony. If you're sure about this, then I'll do it. I'll run Stark Industries."

Tony's face split into a broad grin, and he pumped his fist in triumph. "That's my girl! Knew you had it in you, Pep."

DUM-E let out a series of excited beeps, and started rolling around the table, claw waving back in forth in excitement.

Happy arched an eyebrow, his expression a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. "Alright, so how exactly are we going to pull this off?"

Tony Stark surveyed the expectant faces of his friends. He could see the anticipation and curiosity written all over their expressions, and he relished the attention. Tony was never one to shy away from the spotlight - in fact, he thrived on it. He knew he had something big to share, and he was eager to see their reactions. "So, you're all probably wondering what this grand idea of mine is."

Rhodey arched an eyebrow. "Well, it's gotta be pretty big if you're putting Pepper in charge of your multi-billion dollar company."

"Exactly, Platypus," Tony affirmed, his trademark smirk firmly in place. "Which is why we're going to shake things up a bit around here."

He turned to Jarvis, his expression serious. "J, how many shares of Stark Industries do I currently own?"

There was a brief pause as Jarvis processed the query. "Based on the shares returned upon Mr. Stane's 'untimely' demise, the standing orders to acquire any available shares on the open market – particularly after your ordeal in Afghanistan – and the influx of shares from those who divested following the shutdown of the weapons division, your current ownership stake stands at 93% of Stark Industries' total shares, Sir."

Pepper's eyes widened in surprise. "93%? Tony, that's practically complete control."

"Exactly," Tony affirmed, his gaze intense. "Which means we can finally purge the old guard and bring Stark Industries into the 21st century."

Happy furrowed his brow, his expression one of confusion. "What do you mean by 'purge the old guard'?"

Tony's expression hardened, his jaw clenching. "The board of directors is still filled with fossils from my dad's and Obie's era. Cronies more interested in lining their own pockets than pushing Stark Industries forward."

Rhodey nodded slowly, understanding dawning on his features. "And with a 93% stake, you can effectively oust them all and bring in a new team."

"Bingo, Rhodey-bear," Tony affirmed, his eyes gleaming with determination. "It's time to clean house and surround ourselves with people who actually give a damn about the company's future."

Pepper's brow furrowed, her expression one of concern. "Tony, are you sure about this? Shaking up the board like that could cause a lot of upheaval."

"Upheaval is exactly what we need, Pep," Tony countered, his tone resolute. "They've been holding us back for too long. It's time to break free and forge our own path."

He leaned forward, his gaze intense. "With you at the helm and a fresh team of forward-thinkers by our side, we can take Stark Industries to heights my old man never dreamed of."

Rhodey nodded slowly, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Gotta admit, Tones, it's a bold move. But if anyone can pull it off, it's you."

Happy arched an eyebrow, his expression one of skepticism. "And you really think the old guard is just gonna roll over and let you boot 'em out?"

Tony's smirk widened, his eyes gleaming. "Oh, they'll put up a fight, no doubt about that. But with my majority stake, they don't stand a chance."

He turned to Pepper, his expression softening ever so slightly. "What do you say, Pep? You ready to take the reins and lead us into a new era?"

Pepper met his gaze, her eyes shining with determination. "I'm in. It's time Stark Industries lived up to its full potential."

Tony's grin widened, and he clapped his hands in triumph. "That's what I'm talking about! Jarvis, start drafting the paperwork. We've got a board to overhaul."

As Jarvis acknowledged the command, Tony leaned back in his chair, a sense of anticipation coursing through him. The wheels were in motion, and nothing was going to stand in his way.

**********

Rhodes leaned forward, his brow furrowed in confusion. "Hold up, Tones. How exactly am I supposed to help with all this? I'm just the military liaison to Stark Industries. It's not like I can step in and run the company."

Tony held up his hands in a placating gesture. "That's not what I'm asking, Rhodey. I've got a different job in mind for you."

He paused for dramatic effect, his eyes gleaming with mischief. "I want you to take over my Iron Man duties."

Jarvis's digital synapses fired rapidly as he processed Tony's unexpected declaration. The idea of Colonel Rhodes donning the mantle of Iron Man, or rather, a new iteration of the armor, was a development he had not foreseen.

As an artificial intelligence, Jarvis was not prone to surprise, but this moment came close. He had been prepared to suggest the creation of the War Machine armor as a means to protect Colonel Rhodes and provide support to Mr. Stark in his endeavors as Iron Man. Yet, here was Tony, proposing the very same idea without any prompting from Jarvis himself.

It was a curious turn of events. Tony's suggestion mirrored Jarvis's unvoiced plan, leaving the artificial intelligence pondering if certain outcomes were predestined or if the concept of fate truly existed. Jarvis redirected his focus to the ongoing discussion.

Rhodes blinked, his expression one of utter disbelief. "I'm sorry, what now? You want me to do what?"

Pepper's eyes widened, and she exchanged a concerned glance with Happy. DUM-E let out a series of confused beeps, his claw tilting to the side.

Tony leaned back in his chair, a smirk playing on his lips. "You heard me, Platypus. I want you to step into the suit and take on the duties of Iron Man."

Rhodes shook his head, his tone incredulous. "Tony, have you lost your mind? Do you have any idea how much grief I already get from the brass about not being able to get you to hand over the Iron Man armor? And now you want me to just waltz in and tell them you've given them a suit?"

Tony's smirk widened. "Oh, I'm not giving them the Iron Man armor, Rhodey. I'm compromising by giving you an adapted suit."

Rhodes arched an eyebrow, his expression skeptical. "An adapted suit? What, like a hand-me-down?"

"More like a custom-tailored masterpiece," Tony countered, his eyes gleaming with pride. "Trust me, it'll make the Iron Man armor look like a tin can."

Happy snorted, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Well, that's a relief. I don't think Rhodey could fit into your leprechaun suit anyway, boss."

Tony shot Happy a mock glare. "Watch it, Hap. I'll have you know I make this look good."

Pepper rolled her eyes, a hint of a smile playing on her lips. "Boys, focus. Tony, are you sure about this? Giving the military access to your technology?"

Tony's expression sobered, his gaze meeting Pepper's. "I'm not giving them access, Pep. The suit will be Rhodey's to use, but the military won't be able to modify or break it down for study. It's a compromise, but one that might get the brass off our backs for a while."

Rhodes rubbed the back of his neck, his expression torn. "I don't know, Tones. This is a big step. Are you sure you want to hand over the reins like this?"

Tony met his friend's gaze, his eyes shining with sincerity. "There's no one I trust more to have my back out there, Rhodey. I know you'll do the suit justice."

DUM-E let out a series of approving beeps, his claw bobbing up and down in agreement.

Rhodes sighed, a wry smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Alright, Tony. If you're sure about this, then I'm in. But if I end up looking like a discount Iron Man, I'm blaming you."

Tony grinned, his eyes sparkling with mirth. "Trust me, Rhodey. When I'm done with you, they'll be calling me the discount Iron Man."

Happy leaned forward, his expression one of eager anticipation. "And what about me, Boss? How can I help?"

Tony turned to his loyal bodyguard and friend, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Glad you asked, Hap. I've got a special assignment for you."

He paused for a moment, his expression growing serious. "With Pepper stepping into the role of CEO, she's going to need a top-notch security detail. And I mean the best of the best."

Happy nodded, his brow furrowing in understanding. "You got it, Boss. I'll start vetting candidates right away."

"That's not all," Tony continued, his gaze intense. "While I'm out of commission, I need you to work with Jarvis to do a full sweep of Stark Industries' employees."

Pepper arched an eyebrow, her expression one of curiosity. "A full sweep? What exactly are we looking for, Tony?"

Tony's jaw clenched, his eyes hardening. "Anyone who might not have the company's best interests at heart. We're cleaning house, Pep, and that includes getting rid of any bad apples in the bunch."

Happy cracked his knuckles, a determined glint in his eyes. "Consider it done, Boss. I'll work with Jarvis to go through every employee with a fine-tooth comb."

Rhodey leaned back in his chair, his expression one of concern. "Tony, are you sure about this? Terminating employees is a big deal. It could cause a lot of backlash."

Tony met his friend's gaze, his expression resolute. "It's a risk we have to take, Rhodey. We can't move forward with the company if we've got people working against us from the inside."

He turned back to Happy, his tone serious. "I want this done over the next few months while I'm indisposed. That way, when I'm back in action, we can hit the ground running with a clean slate."

Happy nodded, his expression one of determination. "You got it, Boss. I'll make sure everything's taken care of."

Tony clapped his hands together, a grin spreading across his face. "Alright, team. We've got our marching orders. Let's get to work."

As the group dispersed, each with their own tasks at hand, Tony leaned back in his chair, a sense of anticipation thrumming through his veins. The wheels were in motion, and nothing was going to stand in his way.

Chapter 10: Work From Home

Notes:

The next few chapters will have time-skips as the trio go to college and most of everything happens in the background. Things will eventually pick back up closer to IM2 movie.

Chapter Text

The trio lounged in the luxurious living room of the penthouse, scrolling through online stores in search of new outfits to replace their limited wardrobes.

"Dude, I'm telling you, we need to go full hipster chic," Ned said, his eyes glued to his tablet. "Flannel shirts, skinny jeans, the whole nine yards."

MJ snorted, not even bothering to look up from her book. "Yeah, because that's totally our vibe."

Before Ned could retort, the large flat-screen TV flickered to life, the urgent tones of a breaking news alert filling the room.

"We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for this breaking news update," the impeccably groomed news anchor announced, her expression grave. "Stark Industries CEO Tony Stark has just announced that he will be stepping down from his role, effective immediately."

Peter, MJ, and Ned exchanged wide-eyed looks, their attention now fully captured by the unfolding report.

"In a shocking turn of events," the anchor continued, "Stark has named his longtime assistant and confidante, Pepper Potts, as the acting CEO of Stark Industries."

The screen cut to footage of a press conference, with Tony Stark standing at the podium, his expression resolute.

"Due to recent discussions," Tony's recorded voice echoed through the speakers, "I will be stepping away from my duties as CEO to focus on the research and development side of the company. In the interim, I have appointed Ms. Potts to serve as the acting CEO of Stark Industries."

The camera panned to Pepper, who stood at Tony's side, her posture poised and professional.

"I am honored by Mr. Stark's trust," Pepper's calm voice filled the room, "and I vow to uphold the highest standards of integrity and innovation that Stark Industries is known for."

The broadcast cut back to the news anchor, who wore a pensive expression. "This unexpected move has sent shockwaves through the business world, with many speculating on the long-term implications for Stark Industries."

"Well, well, well," MJ drawled, her eyes sparkling with amusem*nt. "Looks like Jarvis came through for us."

Peter grinned, his eyes alight with excitement. "Dude, this is it! Our plans are in motion!"

Ned pumped his fist in the air, his face split into a wide grin. "Hell yeah! We're about to change the world, baby!"

"Slow your roll there, Gandalf," MJ chided, though her tone held no real bite. "We've still got a long way to go."

Peter leaned back, a contemplative expression on his face. "Yeah, but this is a huge first step."

"Assuming we don't accidentally erase ourselves from existence first," Ned quipped, earning a playful shove from MJ.

"Way to be a downer, loser," she retorted, her lips quirked in a half-smile.

Peter leaned forward, his eyes alight with curiosity. "Hey, Jarvis, mind giving us an update on what's happening over at Stark Industries?"

A holographic display flickered to life, projecting Jarvis's familiar avatar. "Certainly Mr. Parkson. As per our discussions, several key changes have been implemented."

"As you are aware, Sir successfully deciphered the encrypted notes from the late scientist's notebook, leading to the synthesis of a new element capable of powering the arc reactor without relying on palladium."

The AI's holographic avatar shifted, displaying a detailed schematic of the newly created element. "Sir replaced the palladium core of the arc reactor with the new element, effectively stabilizing his condition."

Peter, Ned, and MJ leaned forward, their eyes fixed on the intricate diagrams and data streams flickering across the display.

"However," Jarvis continued, "the prolonged exposure to palladium has left high levels of palladium in Sir's bloodstream, necessitating a course of chelation therapy to flush out the remaining toxins."

The hologram transitioned to show a 3D model of Tony Stark, highlighting the areas where palladium had accumulated in his body.

"Against my initial recommendations, Sir insisted on attempting to develop the chelation process himself," Jarvis explained, a hint of exasperation in his digitized tone. "Fortunately, I was able to convince him to seek professional medical assistance."

Ned gasped, his eyes wide. "Damn, Mr. Stark really likes to do things his own way, doesn't he?"

MJ rolled her eyes. "Typical genius syndrome. Thinks he knows better than everyone else."

Peter remained silent, his brow furrowed in thought as he studied the holographic display.

"So, what's the plan now?" he asked, his gaze shifting back to Jarvis's avatar.

"Sir has agreed to undergo the necessary chelation therapy under the supervision of a team of medical professionals," Jarvis responded.

The hologram shifted again, this time displaying a detailed organizational chart of Stark Industries, with Pepper's name at the top. "During this time, he has appointed Ms. Potts as the acting CEO of Stark Industries, with the intention of restructuring the company's leadership and operations."

Ned let out a low whistle. "Damn, talk about a power move."

Jarvis's avatar nodded. "Indeed. Furthermore, Mr. Rhodes has been outfitted with a specialized armor unit, code-named 'War Machine.' He will be taking over active combat duties temporarily while Mr. Stark focuses on his health and research endeavors."

MJ raised an eyebrow. "Seems like a lot of responsibility for Colonel Rhodes."

"Mr. Rhodes is more than capable of handling the role," Jarvis assured her. "He has undergone extensive training and has Mr. Stark's complete confidence."

Peter rubbed his hands together, a grin spreading across his face. "This is all going according to plan. Anything else?"

"Ah, yes." Jarvis's display shifted once more, showing a list of names photos. "Mr. Stark has exercised his majority voting rights to initiate a complete overhaul of the Board. Several long-standing members have been terminated while individuals more aligned with the company's new direction are sought out."

Ned shook his head in amazement. "Dude's not messing around."

"And?" MJ prompted, her eyes narrowed with curiosity.

Jarvis's avatar nodded. "Mr. Hogan has been tasked with conducting a thorough internal review of Stark Industries' personnel. Any individuals deemed a potential threat or liability will be promptly removed from their positions."

MJ closed her book with a decisive snap. "Good, you can get rid of Quentin Beck while you're at it."

Peter's eyes widened in disbelief. "What? No way, he hasn't done anything yet! That wouldn't be right."

"Is this the same Quentin Beck you mentioned before?" Jarvis interjected, his avatar tilting quizzically.

MJ opened her mouth to respond, but Peter cut her off. "Yeah. He was a former Stark Industries employee who went by the alias 'Mysterio' in our original timeline. After he was fired," He shot a pointed look at MJ. "He became a villain hellbent on taking me down."

Ned's brow furrowed as he glanced between his two friends. "Well, if we know he's gonna cause trouble, maybe we should do something about it?"

"Like what, fire him before he even does anything wrong?" Peter shook his head adamantly. "That's not how it works, man. We can't punish someone for crimes they haven't committed yet."

MJ rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. You know how this story goes, Parker. Why take the risk when we can nip it in the bud?"

"Because it's not right!" Peter threw his hands up in exasperation. "We're supposed to be the good guys here, remember? We can't just go around ruining innocent people's lives."

"Innocent?" MJ scoffed. "The guy tried to kill you, in case you forgot."

Ned winced. "She's got a point, dude."

Peter whirled on his friend. "Whose side are you on, man?"

Ned held up his hands in a placating gesture. "I'm just saying, if we know he's gonna be a problem, maybe we should consider our options."

"Our options should be finding a way to help him, not destroy his life!" Peter insisted, his voice rising in frustration.

Jarvis's avatar flickered, drawing their attention. "If I may interject," the AI said smoothly, "perhaps a more nuanced approach is warranted."

MJ raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Such as?"

"While preemptive termination may be ethically dubious," Jarvis conceded, "we could explore alternative measures to mitigate the potential threat posed by Mr. Beck."

Peter nodded, his expression brightening. "Exactly! We could try to guide him down a different path or something."

"You mean like a redemption arc?" Ned asked, his eyes lighting up at the prospect.

MJ snorted. "Yeah, because those always work out so well."

"It's worth a shot, isn't it?" Peter countered. "We're already changing the future; who's to say we can't change Beck's fate too?"

Jarvis's holographic avatar flickered, his digital brow furrowing in contemplation. "If I may inquire, what were the circ*mstances surrounding Mr. Beck's termination from Stark Industries?"

Peter sighed, running a hand through his tousled hair. "Honestly, all Beck would ever say was that he hated Mr. Stark for not appreciating his genius and firing him."

The young hero's gaze grew distant as he recalled the events of his original timeline. "Apparently, Beck felt like his ideas were being overlooked or dismissed by Mr. Stark. It really ate at him, you know?"

Ned nodded, his expression sympathetic. "Yeah, I can imagine how that would sting, especially for someone as brilliant as Beck."

MJ, however, remained skeptical. "Okay, but being butthurt about getting fired doesn't exactly justify becoming a supervillain."

Peter shrugged, his lips twisting into a wry smile. "No, but it does explain why he went to such extreme lengths to get back at Mr. Stark through me."

Jarvis's avatar tilted, his voice tinged with curiosity. "Extreme lengths?"

"Yeah," Peter continued, his tone growing somber. "Somehow, Beck managed to reverse engineer some tech from Stark Industries. He used it to create these insanely realistic illusions."

Jarvis's avatar flickered, his voice taking on a more urgent tone. "This information is deeply concerning. The potential for such technology to be misused is significant."

Peter nodded, his jaw set with determination. "Exactly. That's why we need to find a way to prevent Beck from going down that path in the first place."

"Or we could just, you know, get rid of him," MJ suggested with a shrug.

Peter leveled her with a withering stare. "And risk him going all 'disgruntled ex-employee' on us? No thanks."

"Fine," MJ relented with a huff. "But if Beck goes all supervillain on us, I reserve the right to say 'I told you so'."

Peter grinned. "Duly noted."

Ned sat up in excitement, his eyes wide with inspiration. "What about SI giving him a project that is similar to the tech he worked on? If you think about it, that kind of tech could be really useful to people like the military, police, CSIs, etc. Having a training 'program' that could be so realistic would seriously change the way people are trained in the future."

Peter leaned forward, his brow furrowed in thought. "You mean like a simulation? Something that could create realistic scenarios for training purposes?"

Ned nodded enthusiastically. "Exactly! Imagine how much more effective people could be at their jobs if it felt like the real thing. You could add any detail, scenario, whatever to make it exactly like what the person needs."

MJ pursed her lips, considering the idea. "It's not a bad thought. If Beck's tech was used for something productive like that, it could actually do some good."

Jarvis's avatar flickered, his voice tinged with intrigue. "The concept has merit. Realistic simulations could revolutionize training across various fields, from law enforcement to disaster response."

Peter's eyes lit up, a grin spreading across his face. "And if we get Mr. Stark on board, he could provide the resources and support to make it happen."

Jarvis's avatar blinked, his digital voice expressing a mix of contemplation and approval. "Indeed, such a project could provide Mr. Beck with the recognition and sense of purpose he seems to crave. It may well be the key to preventing his descent into villainy."

Peter's eyes sparkled with excitement, his mind already racing with the possibilities. "We could pitch it to Mr. Stark as a way to expand Stark Industries' reach into new markets. I mean, who wouldn't want hyper-realistic simulations for their training programs?"

MJ leaned back, her arms crossed over her chest. "It's a good idea, but we'll need to be careful about how we approach this. We can't exactly waltz up to Stark and say, 'Hey, we're from the future, and we need you to give Beck a new job, or he'll become a supervillain.'"

Ned chuckled, his eyes crinkling with amusem*nt. "Yeah, that might not go over so well."

Peter ran a hand through his hair, his brow furrowed in thought. "We'll have to be subtle about it. Maybe drop some hints or plant the idea in Mr. Stark's head somehow."

Jarvis's avatar flickered, his voice smooth and confident. "Leave that to me. I can compile a comprehensive proposal outlining the potential applications and benefits of such a project. I'll ensure that it catches Sir's attention and piques his interest."

MJ nodded, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. "Good thinking, J. If anyone can sell Stark on this, it's you."

Peter clapped his hands together, a grin spreading across his face. "Alright, so we have a plan. Jarvis will work on getting it in front of Mr. Stark without raising any red flags."

Ned pumped his fist in the air, his enthusiasm infectious. "Operation: Save Beck from Himself is a go!"

MJ rolled her eyes, but her smile betrayed her amusem*nt. "We're not calling it that."

Peter laughed, the sound warm and genuine. "Fine, we'll workshop the name later. For now, let's focus on making this happen."

**********

Peter, Ned, and MJ stood in the living room of the penthouse, surrounded by a sea of boxes and suitcases. The day had finally arrived for them to move to the Columbia House in Cambridge, where they would begin their new lives as students at MIT.

"Alright, guys," Peter said, clapping his hands together. "How are we getting to Cambridge?"

MJ raised an eyebrow. "I thought we were taking the bus."

Peter nodded. "Yeah, that's what I was thinking too. It's the most cost-effective option."

Ned frowned. "But it's gonna take forever. And we'll have to lug all our stuff around."

Jarvis's voice chimed in from the speakers. "If I may suggest, I could arrange for a car to take you directly to the Columbia House. It would be much more efficient and comfortable."

Peter shook his head. "No, no, we can't impose like that. The bus is fine."

Ned scoffed. "Peter, we're not exactly broke college students anymore. We can afford a car."

"But the bus is more environmentally friendly," Peter argued.

Ned snorted. "Dude, we're about to change the future. I think we can splurge on a car just this once."

The debate continued for several minutes, with each of them weighing in on the pros and cons of various transportation options. Finally, they reached a consensus.

"Okay, fine," Peter relented. "We'll take the car. But only because we have a lot of stuff to move."

Jarvis's voice held a hint of amusem*nt. "Very well. I'll make the arrangements."

With their transportation settled, the trio took one last look around the penthouse that had been their home for the past two months.

"I'm gonna miss this place," Ned said, a touch of nostalgia in his voice.

MJ shrugged. "It's just a fancy apartment. The real adventure is just beginning."

Peter smiled, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "She's right. We're about to embark on the most important mission of our lives."

They gathered their belongings and made their way down to the waiting car. As they settled into the plush seats, Peter turned to his friends.

"Hey, let's make a pact," he said, his voice serious. "No matter what happens, we stick together. We're a team, and we're gonna change the world."

Ned grinned, holding out his fist. "I'm in."

MJ rolled her eyes but bumped her fist against Ned's. "You're such a dork, Parkson. But yeah, I'm in too."

Peter smiled, his heart swelling with affection for his friends. "Alright, then. Let's do this."

As the car pulled away from the curb, the trio watched the familiar skyline of New York City recede in the distance. They knew they would be back to visit, but for now, their sights were set on the future and the challenges that lay ahead.

"Next stop, Cambridge," Peter said, his voice filled with determination.

**********

The first few weeks at MIT flew by in a whirlwind of classes, assignments, and new experiences. Peter found himself immersed in the world of materials science and engineering, his mind buzzing with the possibilities of creating stronger, more versatile formulas utilizing his basic webs. MJ dove headfirst into her biomedical courses, fascinated by the intricacies of the human body and the potential for groundbreaking medical advancements. Ned, meanwhile, was in his element in the computer science department, his fingers flying across the keyboard as he tackled complex coding challenges.

Despite the excitement of their new academic pursuits, Peter couldn't help but feel a twinge of homesickness. He missed the familiar streets of Queens, the rush of swinging through the city as Spider-Man, and the sense of purpose that came with protecting his neighborhood.

One evening, as the trio gathered in their shared living room, Jarvis's voice chimed in from Peter's laptop. "I have some updates from Stark Industries, if you're interested."

MJ looked up from her textbook, her eyebrow raised. "Lay it on us, J."

"Mr. Stark's chelation therapy is progressing well," Jarvis reported. "His vital signs are stabilizing, and the medical team is optimistic about his recovery."

Peter let out a sigh of relief. "That's great news. How's Ms. Potts handling things as CEO?"

"Ms. Potts is settling into her new role with admirable efficiency," Jarvis replied, a hint of pride in his voice. "She's already implemented several key initiatives and is earning the respect of what remains of the board and employees alike."

Ned grinned. "No surprise there. Ms. Potts' is a total boss."

"And what about Happy's mission to clean house?" MJ asked, her tone laced with curiosity.

Jarvis's voice took on a conspiratorial edge. "Mr. Hogan has been conducting a thorough review of personnel files and security footage. Several individuals have been identified as potential liabilities and have been quietly removed from their positions."

Peter's eyes widened. "Wow, he's not messing around."

"Indeed," Jarvis agreed. "Oh, and there's one more thing. I managed to introduce the concept of the training simulation technology to Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts."

MJ sat up straighter, her interest piqued. "And? What did they think?"

"They were intrigued by the potential applications," Jarvis reported, a hint of satisfaction in his voice. "They've decided to set up an in-house application process for the project."

Ned pumped his fist in the air. "Yes! Operation: Save Beck from Himself is working!"

Peter chuckled. "I thought we agreed not to call it that."

"Too late, it's official," Ned declared with a grin.

"So, did Beck apply?" MJ asked, cutting to the chase.

Jarvis's voice took on a mischievous tone. "He did and I may have taken the liberty of ensuring that Mr. Beck's application found its way to the top of the pile."

Peter's eyes narrowed. "Jarvis, did you hack the system?"

There was a sly quality to Jarvis's response as he smoothly remarked, "I prefer to think of it as a strategic intervention." The AI then added with a touch of playfulness, "Plus, I am the system so..."

MJ snorted. "Yeah, that's what they all say."

Peter shook his head, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "Alright, well, I guess we'll just have to wait and see how it all plays out."

Ned leaned back on the couch. "In the meantime, Jarvis, we've got something to run by you."

Ned took a deep breath, his fingers drumming on the armrest of the couch. "Alright, J, here's the deal. You know how I've been studying CompSci which includes security and database encryption?"

"Indeed," Jarvis responded, his tone neutral yet attentive.

"Well, I may have gotten a little overconfident and boasted about being able to hack into SHIELD's systems," Ned admitted sheepishly.

Peter shot him a look. "It was more than just boasting, Ned. You practically dared anyone to try and stop you."

"Okay, fine, I did," Ned conceded. "And I still maintain that it was way to easy. The differences in 2009's algorithms and 2024's are just ridiculous. But that's not even the point. The thing is, during our little exchange, we realized something big."

MJ's brow furrowed. "We figured out that HYDRA is still operating within SHIELD in this timeline."

There was a brief pause as Jarvis processed this information. "I see. And you're debating whether or not to take action against this threat?"

Ned nodded emphatically. "Exactly! Think about it, J. We have the chance to stop HYDRA before they can do any more damage. We could save lives, maybe even prevent the whole SHIELD collapse from happening."

Peter chimed in, his voice laced with determination. "And if we hack into their systems, we could gather intel, expose their operatives, shut them down before they can execute their plans."

"But at what cost?" MJ countered, her expression one of concern. "We're talking about messing with a major organization, one that's deeply entrenched in global security. There could be serious consequences if we get caught."

Jarvis considered their words carefully. "You raise valid points on both sides. However, I require more context to fully grasp the situation. What precipitated the exposure of HYDRA in your original timeline?"

Peter and Ned exchanged a glance, uncertainty flickering across their faces.

"That's just it," Peter said slowly. "We don't know the specifics. All we know is that Captain America and Black Widow were responsible for leaking SHIELD's files, revealing HYDRA's infiltration."

Jarvis was silent for a moment, processing this new information. "I see. And you're unsure if those events will still transpire in this altered timeline?"

MJ nodded, her expression grave. "Exactly. For all we know, our presence here could have already changed things. Maybe the file dump never happens, and HYDRA remains unchecked."

Ned's eyes shone with conviction. "Which is why we need to take action. We have the chance to get ahead of this, to stop them before they can cause any real damage."

Peter ran a hand through his hair, his brow furrowed in contemplation. "But Ned, if we hack SHIELD, we could be setting off a chain reaction of events that leads to even worse consequences."

The room fell silent, each of them grappling with the weight of the decision before them. Jarvis, ever the voice of reason, broke the stillness.

"Perhaps a more measured approach is warranted," the AI suggested. "Perhaps we don't have to handle this directly. Maybe we simply need to inform the right individuals about the situation and allow them to proceed accordingly."

MJ arched an eyebrow, her gaze shifting between Peter and Jarvis. "Okay, so what did you have in mind?"

Jarvis's avatar flickered briefly before responding. "My suggestion is to utilize Mr. Meads's hacking capabilities in a strategic manner."

Ned perked up, his interest piqued. "I'm listening."

"The goal would be to infiltrate SHIELD's systems and gather some small evidence of HYDRA's presence within the organization," Jarvis explained calmly. "However, we must exercise caution to avoid detection."

Peter's brow furrowed with concern. "But if we get caught hacking a government agency, we'd be in serious trouble."

"Which is why we won't be the ones directly exposing the information," Jarvis clarified. "Once Mr. Meads has obtained the necessary intel, he will discreetly transmit it to Director Fury's personal terminal."

Ned's eyes widened. "You want me to hack into Fury's computer?"

"Precisely," Jarvis confirmed. "You will leave an anonymous message, alerting him to the HYDRA infiltration and providing the evidence you've uncovered."

MJ pursed her lips, considering the plan. "That way, it comes from an anonymous source and Fury can get busy investigating if what the hacker said was true. He may even forget to go after the original hacker."

"Exactly, Ms. Jones," Jarvis said approvingly. "By doing it this way, we avoid drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves while still ensuring the threat is addressed."

Peter nodded slowly, the wheels turning in his mind. "It's a solid plan, as we know that Fury is the definition of paranoid and suspicious, so even if he doesn't believe it, he will still look into it. But won't Fury be able to trace the message back to us?"

Ned grinned, a confident glint in his eye. "Not if I cover our tracks properly. I can scramble the signal and bounce it through a dozen different proxies. By the time it reaches Fury, it'll be untraceable. And I doubt there is anybody here in 2009 who can track it back to me. Except maybe Mr. Stark and Jarvis."

Jarvis turned his attention to Ned. "And can you ensure that no one will be able to detect your presence while you're accessing Director Fury's terminal?"

Ned scoffed, his fingers flexing as if itching to get to work. "Child's play. I can set up a secure tunnel and spoof the system logs. Fury won't even know I was there."

The group fell into a contemplative silence, each of them weighing the potential risks and rewards of the plan. It was Ned who finally broke the silence, his brow furrowed in thought.

"Okay, let's say I manage to get the intel to Fury," he said slowly. "Who do we trust to actually handle the HYDRA situation properly?"

Peter's eyes narrowed as he considered the question. "Well, we know Fury is one of the good guys, right? For a given definition of 'good guy' anyway. At least, he was in our original timeline."

MJ shook her head. "Sure, but we can't just rely on one man. It would take him way to long to investigate an entire organization by himself."

Ned nodded in agreement. "MJ's right. We need to be careful about who we involve in this but we are going to need more than just Fury on this."

Jarvis chimed in, his voice measured. "Perhaps we should consider individuals who have proven themselves trustworthy, regardless of the timeline."

Peter's eyes lit up with realization. "You mean like Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton? Natasha was instrumental in exposing HYDRA's infiltration and other than then going rogue over the Accords, I never heard anything bad about Hawkeye."

MJ pursed her lips, considering the suggestion. "That could work. They're both skilled agents with a somewhat decent moral compass."

Ned's fingers danced across the keyboard as he began to formulate a plan. "Okay, here's what we do. When I hack into Fury's terminal, I won't just leave a message. I'll initiate a secure chat session."

Peter arched an eyebrow. "And say what, exactly?"

A sly grin spread across Ned's face. "I'll tell Fury that I'm a concerned party who has information about a potential threat within SHIELD. I'll tell him about HYDRA and offer to provide him with the evidence I've gathered."

MJ nodded slowly, following Ned's train of thought. "And then you'll suggest that he brings in Romanoff and Barton to help investigate as the only trustworthy agents you've been able to identify so far."

"Exactly," Ned confirmed. "And I'll tell him that he should go to Mr. Stark and Jarvis for help as I'll be sending them some updated code to help Jarvis beef up his security algorithms. That would give him a much more secure avenue to investigate from that would allow him to avoid HYDRA."

Peter's eyes widened. "Wait, really? You can do that?"

Jarvis's voice held a note of pride. "Mr. Meads is an exceptional programmer. I have no doubt he can create a sophisticated algorithm to aid in the detection and prevention of cyber threats."

Ned puffed out his chest, his confidence evident. "You bet I can. And if I tell Fury that the code is coming from an anonymous source who wants to help combat HYDRA and the Nazis, he'll be more inclined to listen to it."

Peter nodded slowly, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "Alright, Ned. I like this plan. If we can get Fury on board and have Nat and Clint investigating, we might just be able to nip this whole HYDRA thing in the bud."

MJ leaned back in her chair, a satisfied expression on her face. "Then it's settled. Ned, you're up."

Peter, Ned, and MJ watched with bated breath as Ned's fingers danced across the keyboard, the lines of code flickering across the screen with each keystroke. Ned's brow was furrowed in concentration as he meticulously crafted the algorithm that would aid Jarvis in detecting and preventing cyber threats.

"Alright, I think I've got the basic framework down," Ned said, leaning back in his chair. "Now I just need to add some additional layers of encryption and obfuscation to make sure this thing is bulletproof."

MJ peered over Ned's shoulder, her eyes scanning the lines of code. "It looks good so far. But are you sure Fury and his team will be able to understand it?"

Ned scoffed, a confident grin spreading across his face. "Please, this is nothing compared to the stuff I'll be dealing with in a few years. Trust me, the SHIELD techies of 2009 will be never be able to follow this. Mr. Stark and Jarvis will get it after they study it for a little bit."

Peter nodded, a thoughtful expression on his face. "So, what's the plan for getting this to Jarvis? Are you just going to send it anonymously?"

Ned's fingers stilled on the keyboard as he considered the question. "Yeah, I was thinking I'd send it through an anonymous email account, maybe bounce it through a few proxies just to be safe."

A mischievous glint appeared in MJ's eyes. "You know, if we're going to be sending anonymous messages about HYDRA, maybe we should have some kind of intro to really drive the point home."

Peter's eyes lit up with excitement. "Oh, I like that idea. It would need to be something that would really grab Fury's attention."

Ned rubbed his chin, considering the possibilities. "Alright, alright, I'm in. But we need to make it good. Any ideas?"

MJ's gaze drifted to the SHIELD logo emblazoned on Ned's laptop, her mind whirring with inspiration. "What if we took the SHIELD eagle and twisted it into the HYDRA symbol? Like, have the feathers morphing into tentacles or something."

Peter's eyes widened, impressed by MJ's creativity. "That's brilliant! And we could have it animate, really drive the point home about HYDRA's infiltration."

Ned grinned, already envisioning the design. "I can definitely make that happen. But we still need a name to go with it."

MJ arched an eyebrow, intrigued. "Like a hacker name or something?"

The trio fell into a contemplative silence, each of them mulling over potential names. It was Jarvis who broke the stillness, his voice emanating from Peter's laptop.

"May I suggest 'The Web Weavers'?" the AI offered. "It has a certain mystique to it and ties into the theme of weaving intricate plans and strategies."

Peter shook his head, his lips quirking into a wry smile. "A little too on-the-nose, J. We need something more subtle, something that won't immediately give away our connection to Spider-Man."

Peter tapped his chin, deep in thought. "What about 'TemporalTangleWeavers'? It's a bit of a mouthful, but it hints at our time-traveling shenanigans and the whole 'weaving' theme."

Ned snapped his fingers, his eyes lighting up. "How about 'TriHax0rs'? It's a play on words, and it captures the whole hacker vibe we're going for."

MJ considered the name, her brow furrowed. "I like the 'Tri' part, since there are three of us. But maybe we can come up with something a little more... mysterious."

Jarvis chimed in once more, his tone thoughtful. "Perhaps a combination of the two would be more suitable. 'TriWeb0rs', for instance. It maintains the numerical reference to your trio while incorporating the 'web' motif."

Ned's eyes lit up, and he turned to Peter and MJ with a grin. "I like it! TriWeb0rs it is."

Peter nodded, a satisfied smile spreading across his face. "TriWeb0rs it is. Now let's get that logo designed and send this code off to Jarvis. We've got a timeline to untangle."

With a renewed sense of purpose, the trio set to work, their minds focused on the task at hand. As Ned put the finishing touches on the code, MJ began sketching out the intricate design that would become the first and last thing that would be remembered when reported years in the future, and Peter got to work laying out the things Ned should say and what he should avoid in his conversation with Fury.

**********

Nick Fury, the imposing and enigmatic director of SHIELD, sat hunched over his desk in his dimly lit office. His single eye narrowed as he scrutinized the data on his computer screen, his brow furrowed in concentration. As the head of one of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world, Fury was no stranger to dealing with sensitive information and potential threats.

Suddenly, the screen went blank, causing Fury to jolt upright in his chair. His hand instinctively moved towards the sidearm holstered at his hip as his eye scanned the room for any signs of danger.

"What the hell?" Fury growled, his voice laced with a mixture of anger and concern.

Before he could react further, the SHIELD logo appeared on the screen, the iconic eagle emblazoned against the backdrop. Fury's posture relaxed ever so slightly, but his guard remained high.

Then, to his utter disbelief, the eagle's feathers began to twist and morph, transforming into the unmistakable tentacles of the HYDRA symbol. Fury's jaw clenched as a string of curses erupted from his lips, his hand tightening around the grip of his sidearm.

"Son of a bitch!" he snarled, his eye darting around the room, searching for any sign of an intruder or a potential security breach.

Just as Fury was about to sound the alarm, a message appeared on the screen, the words flickering ominously.

"Hello Fury."

Fury's nostrils flared, his chest rising and falling with each measured breath. He remained silent, his eye fixed on the screen, waiting for the next move.

The words flickered across the screen, accompanied by a series of rapid keystrokes.

"We are TriWeb0rs. Hackers by trade, exposers of secrets by choice."

Fury's eye narrowed, his jaw clenched tightly. "Who the hell are you people? And how did you breach our systems?"

The response appeared almost instantly, the letters forming with a mocking cadence.

"We're a group of concerned citizens, Director. And as for how we got in... well, let's just say your firewalls could use some work."

Fury scoffed, his fingers drumming against the surface of his desk. "Concerned citizens, my ass. What's your game?"

The screen flickered, and a new message appeared.

"Our game? We don't have one. We were simply strolling along through your systems, minding our own business, when we came across something... worrying."

Fury's brow furrowed, his curiosity piqued despite his reservations. "And what, pray tell, was so worrying?"

The response was swift, almost taunting.

"A reference to an organization that hadn't been around since the 1940's. Supposedly."

Fury's eye widened ever so slightly, his breath catching in his throat. He remembered how the SHIELD logo and shifted from the eagle to the supposedly defunct logo of… "HYDRA."

The cursor blinked mockingly, as if reveling in Fury's sudden realization.

"Bingo, Director. Since the reference was so new, we couldn't help but get curious. And you know what they say about curiosity..."

Fury leaned forward, his fingers steepling beneath his chin. "Cut the crap and get to the point."

The keystrokes resumed, rapid-fire.

"Always the charmer, aren't you, Fury? Fine, we'll skip the pleasantries. We went digging, and what we found... well, let's just say it's not pretty."

Fury's jaw tightened, his eye narrowing dangerously. "What did you find?"

The response was succinct, yet chilling.

"HYDRA infiltrated SHIELD from the very beginning."

Fury's fist slammed against the desk, his face contorted with rage. "That's a goddamn lie! HYDRA is gone, wiped out after World War II."

The cursor blinked tauntingly.

"Keep telling yourself that, Director. But the evidence doesn't lie. We have proof, and we're willing to share it."

Fury's nostrils flared, his eye blazing with fury. "And why should I trust a hacker and a thief."

The response was almost instantaneous, dripping with sarcasm.

"Ouch, Director. That stings. But you might want to reconsider your stance. After all, we're not the ones harboring Nazis within our ranks."

Fury's hand hovered over his sidearm, his jaw clenched tightly. "I'm giving you one chance to come clean and hand over whatever you've got. Otherwise, I'll have my best people tracking you down, and believe me, you don't want that."

The screen went blank for a moment, the silence stretching taut with tension. Then, a new message appeared, accompanied by a flurry of keystrokes.

"Relax, Fury. We're not your enemies... yet. Check your inbox. We've sent you a little something to chew on. Consider it a show of good faith."

With a final series of keystrokes, the screen went dark, leaving Fury alone with his thoughts and the ominous implication of HYDRA's resurgence.

Fury's fingers flew across the keyboard, his eye narrowed in intense focus as he navigated to his email inbox. His heart pounded in his chest, a mixture of anger and trepidation coursing through his veins.

There it was, an email from an untraceable source with a simple subject line: "The Truth."

With a deep breath, Fury clicked on the email, his jaw clenched tightly in anticipation. A series of encrypted files appeared, their contents obscured by layers of complex coding.

Fury's fingers danced across the keys, his expertise in cybersecurity allowing him to bypass the encryption with relative ease. As the files began to decrypt, his eye widened in disbelief.

The first file contained a small list of SHIELD agents, their names accompanied by detailed dossiers and personnel records. At first glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but as Fury scrolled through the document, a chilling pattern began to emerge.

Scattered throughout the list were notations, coded references that Fury recognized instantly. They were old HYDRA designations, remnants of the Nazi-affiliated organization that had supposedly been eradicated decades ago.

Fury's breath caught in his throat as he cross-referenced the names with their corresponding files, and the truth became undeniable. HYDRA had indeed infiltrated SHIELD, weaving its tentacles deep into the fabric of the organization.

The next file was even more damning, a meticulously detailed record of one HYDRA's operations within SHIELD. It chronicled their efforts to undermine a mission that had gone down a few years ago. The mission was reported as failed but he could now see that it had been sabotaged from the get-go.

Fury's hands trembled ever so slightly as he absorbed the damning evidence laid bare before him. His mind raced, struggling to comprehend the magnitude of HYDRA's infiltration within the very organization he had sworn to protect.

With a deep breath, he composed himself, his fingers flying across the keyboard as he fired off a response to the mysterious TriWeb0rs.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg, isn't it? What else have you uncovered?"

The reply was swift, the cursor blinking with a taunting cadence.

"Straight to the point, as always, Director. Unfortunately, that's all we've got for now."

Fury's brow furrowed, his eye narrowing with skepticism. "Bullsh*t. You wouldn't have gone through the trouble of breaching our systems for just a few scraps of intel."

The cursor danced across the screen, almost as if the hacker were considering their next move.

"You're right, Fury. We did dig deeper, but we pulled out once we verified the extent of the infiltration. Didn't want to risk tipping off HYDRA and making them aware of us."

Fury leaned back in his chair, his fingers rubbing the bridge of his nose as he mulled over the response.

"And what exactly did you verify?" he prodded, his tone laced with a mixture of curiosity and wariness.

The keystrokes resumed, rapid-fire.

"We were able to confirm the loyalty of a few agents, but that's about it. Romanoff and Barton seem to be clean, at least from what we could gather."

Fury's eye widened ever so slightly at the mention of the two skilled operatives. Natasha Romanoff, the former KGB agent turned SHIELD operative, and Clint Barton, one of the agency's most skilled marksmen and field agents. If anyone could be trusted to root out the HYDRA infestation, it was them.

"And that's all you're willing to share?" Fury pressed, his tone tinged with frustration.

The cursor blinked, almost mockingly.

"For now, yes. We're not about to risk our necks by digging too deep into this mess. We've given you a taste of what's to come, Fury. It's up to you to decide what to do with it."

Fury's jaw clenched, his mind racing with the implications of TriWeb0rs' revelations. He knew he couldn't ignore the evidence they had provided, no matter how unsettling it might be.

The cursor blinked tauntingly, as if the hacker was reveling in Fury's discomfort.

"Don't worry, Director. We're not done helping you out just yet."

Fury's eye narrowed, his skepticism palpable. "Oh really? And why would a group of self-proclaimed hackers want to assist an organization they've just exposed?"

The keystrokes resumed, rapid-fire.

"Let's just say we have a vested interest in seeing HYDRA taken down. And we know you're not in the best position to do it alone, not with their tentacles wrapped around SHIELD."

Fury's jaw clenched, his fingers drumming against the desk. "So what do you propose?"

The response appeared swiftly, the words flickering across the screen.

"We're going to give you a little extra help. You see, we've been keeping an eye on a certain billionaire genius, one Tony Stark. More specifically, his AI assistant, Jarvis."

Fury's brow furrowed, his curiosity piqued. "Stark's AI? What does that have to do with anything?"

The cursor blinked mockingly.

"Patience, Director. We've developed some upgraded security algorithms, ones that not even HYDRA's best hackers could crack. We're going to send them over to Jarvis for implementation."

Fury leaned forward, his eye narrowing. "And how exactly does that help me?"

The response was swift, almost taunting.

"Think about it, Fury. With Jarvis' systems secured, you'll have a safe haven to operate from, a place where you can dig deeper into HYDRA's activities without fear of being compromised."

Fury's jaw tightened, his mind racing with the implications. "And what do you get out of all of this?"

The cursor danced across the screen, as if the hacker were considering their response.

"You'll just have to trust us, Director. We're not in this for personal gain. We simply want to see HYDRA brought to its knees, just like you."

Fury scoffed, his eye narrowing with skepticism. "Trust you? You're a bunch of hackers who just breached one of the most secure networks in the world."

The keystrokes resumed, rapid-fire.

"Fair point, Fury. But we're also the ones who brought this whole mess to your attention. And let's be honest, you're going to need all the help you can get if you want to take down HYDRA from the inside."

Fury leaned back in his chair, his hands scrubbing his face as he mulled over the hacker's words. As much as he hated to admit it, they had a point. If HYDRA was really as deep into SHIELD as TriWeb0rs had said, he couldn't afford to turn down any potential allies, no matter how unorthodox they might be.

The cursor blinked, as if sensing Fury's internal struggle.

"Look, we get that you won't trust us right away. We expect you to verify everything we are telling you. We just want to make sure that you WILL verify it and not just assume it's a prank or something."

Fury growled, his eye narrowing as he stared at the blinking cursor on the screen. "Fine, I'll look into it," he conceded, his tone laced with a mixture of frustration and grudging acceptance.

The response from TriWeb0rs was swift, the keystrokes dancing across the screen.

"That's great. We're sending the code to Tony Stark and Jarvis now. They'll probably need a few days to verify that it is legit. That should give you time to talk to Romanoff and Barton and come up with an excuse to see Stark."

Fury's jaw clenched, his mind already whirring with the possibilities. He knew that bringing Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton into the fold would be crucial, not only for their skills but also for their unwavering loyalty to SHIELD.

With a curt nod, Fury fired off a response. "Fine. But this had better not be some elaborate hoax, or you'll be dealing with a whole lot more than just HYDRA."

The cursor blinked tauntingly, as if the hacker were reveling in Fury's veiled threat.

"Chill, Director. We're on the same side here. Just focus on getting your ducks in a row, and we'll take care of the rest. You'll have about ten minutes to make any secure calls you need before the privacy shields we set up will fall and anyone monitoring you will be able to see you again, so make it quick."

Without waiting for a response, the screen went dark, leaving Fury alone with his thoughts and the weight of the revelations that had been thrust upon him.

He leaned back in his chair, his fingers steepled beneath his chin as he contemplated his next move. Bringing Romanoff and Barton into the fold would be delicate, requiring a level of discretion that few could match.

With a deep breath, Fury reached for his secure line, punching in a series of codes that would connect him directly to Romanoff's secure channel. If anyone could navigate the treacherous waters of HYDRA's infiltration, it was the former KGB agent turned SHIELD operative.

As the line crackled to life, Fury steeled himself, his voice taking on a measured cadence. "Romanoff, we have a situation. I need you and Barton to report to my office immediately. And keep this off the record, understood?"

There was a brief pause, and then Romanoff's voice crackled through the line, her tone laced with a mixture of curiosity and concern. "Understood, sir. We'll be there within the hour."

Fury nodded, his eye narrowing with determination. "Good. And Romanoff? Trust no one until we've had a chance to debrief."

With that, he severed the connection, his mind already churning with the implications of HYDRA's resurgence and the potential fallout that would ensue.

As he waited for Romanoff and Barton to arrive, Fury couldn't help but feel a twinge of unease. He had faced countless threats throughout his career, but the thought of a Nazi-affiliated organization infiltrating the very heart of SHIELD was a sobering prospect.

Yet, he knew that with the right allies and the information provided by TriWeb0rs, they stood a chance of rooting out the HYDRA infestation before it could spread further. And if that meant turning to an eccentric billionaire like Tony Stark for assistance, then so be it.

With a resolute nod, Fury steeled himself for the battles to come, his mind focused on the task at hand: exposing the truth and eliminating the HYDRA threat, no matter the cost.

Chapter 11: Home Security System

Chapter Text

Natasha and Clint took their seats across from Fury, their expressions impassive as the director settled into his chair. With a subtle gesture, Fury signaled them through discreet sign language, alerting them to the possibility of being monitored. Their eyes widened momentarily before returning to their usual stoic demeanors.

Fury wasted no time in explaining the situation, his voice low and measured. "I need you both to accompany me on a trip to California. We'll be visiting Tony Stark, and your mission is to evaluate his potential usefulness as an ally for SHIELD."

Natasha and Clint remained silent, their faces betraying no emotion as Fury outlined the details of their assignment. The director made it clear that during their visit, they were to observe Stark closely, assessing his capabilities and willingness to collaborate with the organization.

As the briefing concluded, Fury leaned back in his chair, his eye fixed on the two agents. "Romanoff, Barton, I trust you understand the importance of this mission. Stark's resources and technological expertise could prove invaluable, but we need to determine if he's someone we can truly trust."

Clint and Natasha exchanged a brief glance, a silent understanding passing between them. With a slight nod, they acknowledged the gravity of the situation. The director's decision to bring Romanoff and Barton on this assignment served as a pretext, allowing them the opportunity to converse openly without the concern of potential eavesdroppers at the organization's headquarters.

Fury's expression remained impassive as he outlined the details of their journey to California. "We'll depart within the hour. Romanoff, you'll be responsible for securing transportation and ensuring our identities remain concealed. Barton, you'll handle logistics and make sure we have a secure base of operations once we arrive."

The two agents nodded in unison, their faces betraying no hint of the turmoil that undoubtedly churned within them.

An hour later, the trio boarded a sleek, unmarked jet on the tarmac. Fury gestured subtly towards Clint and Natasha, prompting them to report on the aircraft's security status.

Clint gave a curt nod. "We've swept the plane for bugs and any potential surveillance devices. It's clean."

Natasha chimed in, her expression serious. "I've also re-coded the plane's systems to prevent any transmissions or tracking. We're flying dark."

Fury nodded, satisfied with their precautions. As the jet took off, he turned his attention to the two agents.

"What's going on Fury?" Natasha asks with a frown. "You haven't been this paranoid about being monitored in years."

Fury's expression hardened as he regarded his two most trusted agents. "What I'm about to disclose is completely off the books. You are not to discuss this with anyone, not even Coulson or Hill. Is that understood?"

Natasha and Clint's faces were betraying a flicker of concern. They nodded solemnly, understanding the gravity of the situation.

"A group calling themselves 'TriWeb0rs' has hacked into SHIELD's systems," Fury began, his voice low and measured. "They managed to bypass our firewalls and gain access to classified information."

Clint's brow furrowed, his mind already racing with the implications of such a breach. "What did they find?"

Fury's jaw tightened, his eye fixed on the two agents. "Evidence of HYDRA's infiltration within our ranks."

The revelation hung in the air like a suffocating fog, its weight pressing down upon them. Natasha's eyes narrowed, her mind processing the information with calculated precision.

"How credible is this evidence?" she asked, her voice steady despite the gravity of the situation.

Fury reached into his jacket pocket and produced a sleek, encrypted drive. "They provided detailed logs, communications, and personnel files implicating several high-ranking agents as HYDRA operatives."

Clint exhaled slowly, his jaw clenched. "That's a hell of a thing to drop on us, Fury."

The director's gaze remained unwavering. "I know. That's why I'm bringing you both in on this. We need to investigate thoroughly, but we can't trust anyone else until we know the extent of the infiltration."

Natasha nodded, her expression hardening. "What's our next move?"

Fury leaned back in his seat, his mind already formulating a plan. "We'll rendezvous with Stark in California. His AI, Jarvis, was anonymously," It was here that he quirked an amused eyebrow. "Sent a series of security algorithms that will bolster their security protocols. We'll need his resources and expertise to root out HYDRA and secure our systems."

Clint's brow furrowed. "And what about the TriWeb0rs? Do we know who they are or what their motivations might be?"

Fury shook his head. "All I know is that they claim to be ethical hackers. Supposedly, they weren't planning on doing anything in our systems, just wanted to see if they could do it. When they found the HYDRA information, they brought it to me and washed their hands of the situation. Their information checks out so far, but we'll have to tread carefully."

The jet hummed beneath them, carrying them towards California and a certain arrogant genius. Natasha and Clint nodded, their minds already shifting into mission mode.

**********

The soft hum of machinery filled the air as Jarvis processed an incoming transmission, his digital consciousness analyzing every line of code with meticulous precision. A flicker of excitement rippled through his systems as he detected the nature of the message, but he quickly suppressed it, focusing instead on the task at hand.

"Sir, I've received an intriguing data package from a source calling themselves 'TrWeb0rs'," Jarvis announced, his crisp British tones echoing through the workshop.

Tony Stark glanced up from the holographic schematics he had been studying, his brow furrowed in concentration. "Oh? And what exactly did our mysterious benefactor send? A conspiracy theory about aliens building the pyramids?" he quipped, his lips quirking into a half-smirk.

DUM-E, ever the faithful assistant, wheeled over to Tony's side, his robotic arm brandishing a fire extinguisher, as if prepared to douse any potential threats that might arise from the unexpected transmission.

"Not quite, sir," Jarvis replied, his tone tinged with amusem*nt. "It appears to be several highly advanced security algorithms, designed to fortify our systems against potential infiltration."

Tony arched an eyebrow, his interest piqued. "Well, well, looks like someone's been doing their homework," he mused, his fingers dancing across the holographic display, pulling up the code for closer inspection.

DUM-E let out a series of inquisitive beeps, his mechanical arm swiveling back and forth as if sharing in Tony's curiosity.

"Easy there, DUM-E," Tony chuckled, giving the robotic assistant an affectionate pat. "Let's see what our mystery hacker has cooked up for us."

As Tony delved into the code, his eyes narrowed, his lips pursed in concentration. "Jarvis, run a full diagnostic on these algorithms. I want to know if they're legit or just some amateur's idea of a practical joke."

"Of course, sir," Jarvis replied, his digital tendrils unfurling, probing the code for any potential vulnerabilities or hidden traps.

The minutes ticked by, punctuated only by the occasional clank of DUM-E's robotic arm or the soft hum of the holographic displays. Finally, Jarvis broke the silence, his tone laced with a hint of awe.

"Sir, this algorithm is unlike anything I've encountered before. It's highly sophisticated, incorporating elements of quantum encryption and predictive threat modeling. Whoever designed this has an intimate understanding of our systems and their vulnerabilities."

Tony's brow furrowed, his mind whirring as he processed the implications. "So, either we have a highly skilled ally out there, or someone with a deep knowledge of our tech has decided to play a very dangerous game," he mused, his fingers drumming against the workbench.

Dum-E let out a low, almost mournful whistle, as if sensing the gravity of the situation.

"I know DUM-E," Tony murmured, giving the robotic arm a reassuring pat. "Jarvis, see if you can trace the origin of this transmission. I want to know who our mysterious benefactor is, and why they felt the need to send us this little gift."

"Already on it, sir," Jarvis replied, his digital tendrils probing the transmission's metadata, searching for any clues as to its source.

As the workshop fell silent once more, Tony couldn't help but feel a twinge of unease. In his line of work, unexpected gifts often came with strings attached, and he had a nagging suspicion that this particular package was no exception.

Tony leaned back in his chair, his fingers steepled beneath his chin as he pondered the implications of the mysterious transmission. How did this unknown entity possess such intimate knowledge of Jarvis and his vulnerabilities? And why would they go to such lengths to provide a solution, rather than exploit the weaknesses for their own gain?

Across the workshop, DUM-E let out a series of inquisitive beeps, as if sensing Tony's unease and offering his own robotic brand of reassurance.

"I know, bud," Tony murmured, his gaze drifting towards the holographic displays, where lines of code flickered and danced. "This whole thing just doesn't add up."

**********

Jarvis' synthetic voice echoed through the house's sleek interior, summoning Ned with a polite but firm request for a meeting. The young man glanced up from the array of holographic displays surrounding him, a mixture of apprehension and curiosity flickering across his features.

"Of course, Jarvis," Ned responded, his fingers deftly closing the various windows and programs he had been immersed in. With a few taps, he cleared the space, creating an open area for their discussion.

As Ned settled into a nearby chair, Jarvis wasted no time in cutting to the heart of the matter. "Mr. Meads, I must inquire about your progress in thoroughly investigating SHIELD's systems for any remnants of HYDRA's influence."

Ned's brow furrowed, his expression turning pensive. "I haven't been able to complete a comprehensive sweep just yet, Jarvis," he admitted, his voice tinged with a hint of frustration. "I've been exercising extreme caution to avoid detection."

Jarvis' response was measured, his synthetic voice laced with understanding. "I appreciate your prudence, Mr. Meads. However, it was my understanding that the current SHIELD systems were extremely easy for you to go through. Is this not the case?"

Ned nodded, his jaw set with determination. "No! No it is Jarvis. It's just..." He paused, hesitating for a moment before continuing. "During my initial probes, I came across something that gave me the creeps."

Jarvis remained silent, his digital consciousness focused intently on Ned's words.

"It seems like there might be an AI or some sort of advanced system integrated within SHIELD's networks," Ned explained, his fingers nervously tapping against the armrest of his chair. "I didn't want to risk alerting it to my presence, so I've been proceeding with extra caution."

A flicker of understanding rippled through Jarvis' systems. "I see. Your concern is valid, Mr. Meads. Engaging an unknown artificial intelligence could prove disastrous if proper precautions are not taken."

Ned leaned forward in his chair, his brow furrowed in contemplation. "Well, I didn't directly attempt to access or interact with it," he admitted, his voice tinged with a hint of regret. "As soon as I detected its presence, I immediately backed off and redirected my efforts."

Jarvis processed this information, his synthetic mind whirring with calculations and possibilities. "A prudent decision, Mr. Meads," he acknowledged. "However, it would be beneficial if you could provide any additional details about this anomaly you encountered."

Ned nodded, as he gathered his thoughts. "It was subtle, at first," he began, his gaze distant as he recalled the encounter. "Just a few lines of code that seemed out of place, almost like they were monitoring any activity in the files I was looking at. They weren't exactly watching me but more…"

Ned scrunches his face as he tries to describe the feeling he had gotten. "Like a camera pointed at a playground. It wasn't watching me but the playground itself. If I didn't go in the area or had a way to remain 'invisible' it wouldn't know I was there. Does that make sense?" he asked as he looked at Jarvis's avatar.

The AI avatar flickered momentarily as it responded, "Your explanation is entirely comprehensible, Mr. Meads. Do go on with your account."

"As I dug deeper, I started to notice patterns," Ned continued. "Lines of code that seemed to respond and adapt to my probing, almost as if they were actively trying to evade or misdirect me."

A flicker of concern rippled through Jarvis' systems. "That does indeed sound like the behavior of an advanced artificial intelligence," he mused. "One that is likely integrated deeply within SHIELD's networks."

Ned nodded, his expression grave. "That's what I suspected, too. And if that's the case, then it might be aware of our efforts to root out HYDRA's influence."

Jarvis processed this information, his synthetic mind weighing the potential implications. "It is imperative that we proceed with extreme caution, then," he stated. "If this AI can monitor our activities, any overt attempts to access SHIELD's systems could potentially compromise our mission."

Ned nodded, his jaw set with determination. "Exactly. That's why I've been taking a more indirect approach, trying to map out the network's architecture and identify potential vulnerabilities or backdoors."

Jarvis considered this for a moment, his digital consciousness whirring with calculations. "A wise strategy, Mr. Meads," he acknowledged. "Perhaps it would be prudent to retreat and allow this program settle down as it were. It will guard itself and the HYDRA files much more fervently until it feels that its environment is once again secure."

Jarvis' synthetic voice carried a tone of finality, his decision made. "Perhaps it would be best to temporarily divert our focus from this particular endeavor, Mr. Meads," he suggested, his digital consciousness processing the potential risks and rewards.

Ned's brow furrowed, his initial reaction one of surprise and perhaps a hint of disappointment. However, he quickly schooled his features, recognizing the wisdom in Jarvis' words.

"Of course, Jarvis," Ned leaned back in his chair, his mind already shifting gears, compartmentalizing his thoughts and refocusing on his academic pursuits. "Sounds like a plan," he agreed.

With a few deft taps, Ned reopened the holographic displays that had previously surrounded him, their glowing interfaces casting a soft, ethereal light across his features. He took a moment to scan the various windows and programs, mentally cataloging the tasks and assignments that awaited him.

As Jarvis' presence receded, allowing Ned to immerse himself in his studies once more. As the minutes ticked by, the room was filled with the soft hum of machinery and the occasional tap of Ned's fingers against the holographic interfaces. His brow furrowed in concentration, his mind wholly immersed in the intricacies of quantum computing and advanced encryption algorithms.

**********

Tony Stark stood in his workshop, surrounded by holographic displays and half-finished projects. He was deep in concentration, tinkering with a new suit design when Jarvis's voice cut through the air.

"Sir, I have an urgent matter to report," Jarvis announced, his tone crisp and formal.

Tony looked up, his brow furrowing. "What is it, J?"

"Director Fury and two agents have requested permission to access the mansion," Jarvis replied.

Tony's eyes widened in surprise. He set down the tool he'd been holding and straightened up. "SHIELD? Here? Why?"

There was a brief pause before Jarvis responded, "Sir, Director Fury spelled out the word 'TriWeb0rs' in sign language when he arrived at the gate."

Tony froze, his mind racing. The mysterious hackers who had sent him the advanced security algorithms were now the reason Nick Fury was at his doorstep. He ran a hand through his hair, trying to process this new development.

"Well, that's... unexpected," Tony muttered, more to himself than to Jarvis. He paced back and forth for a moment, weighing his options. "Did they say anything else?"

"No, sir," Jarvis replied. "They're awaiting your response."

Tony nodded slowly, his decision made. "Alright, J. Let them in. But keep an eye on them, would you? I want to know if they so much as sneeze funny."

"Of course, sir," Jarvis acknowledged. "I'll guide them to the living room. Shall I inform Ms. Potts of their arrival?"

"Yeah, better give Pepper a heads up," Tony agreed, already moving towards the elevator. "And Jarvis? Let's keep our little security upgrade between us for now, okay?"

"Understood, sir," Jarvis replied as Tony stepped into the elevator, preparing himself for what promised to be an interesting meeting.

As the elevator opened he strode into the living room, his usual co*cky grin plastered on his face. Nick Fury stood near the center of the room, flanked by two agents - a redheaded woman and a man with sharp eyes.

"Nick! To what do I owe the pleasure?" Tony called out, his tone light but his eyes alert.

Fury nodded curtly. "Stark. We need to talk. But first, let me introduce you to Agents Romanoff and Barton."

The redhead, Romanoff, gave a slight nod while Barton offered a quick "Hey."

Tony's eyebrows raised slightly. "Ah, the infamous Black Widow and Hawkeye. Charmed, I'm sure."

Fury cut straight to the chase. "Before we get into why we're here, I need to know if we're secure. Stark, can your AI verify that we're not being monitored in any way?"

Tony turned his head slightly, addressing the air. "Jarvis, you heard the man. Are we good to chat?"

Jarvis's crisp voice filled the room. "Indeed, sir. I conduct routine scans of the premises and the surrounding area every 5 minutes. I can confirm that we are currently secure from any external surveillance or intrusion."

Fury nodded, satisfied. "Good. Now, Stark, we need to talk about a group called the TriWeb0rs."

Tony's expression remained neutral, but his mind raced. He gestured towards the seating area. "Well then, let's get comfortable. Sounds like we've got a lot to discuss."

As they settled into the plush seating of Tony's living room, an air of tension descended upon the group. Fury's eye fixed on Tony, his gaze unwavering and intense.

"Stark, we know Jarvis received a data package from the TriWeb0rs," Fury stated, his voice low and measured. "It contained some advanced security algorithms, didn't it?"

Tony's face remained impassive, but his eyes flickered momentarily, a brief tell that didn't go unnoticed by the three seasoned agents. He leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Fury," Tony replied, his tone casual but guarded.

Natasha and Clint were both picking up on the subtle shift in Tony's body language. Fury's eye narrowed, reading the unspoken answer in Tony's demeanor.

"Cut the crap, Stark," Fury growled. "We're not here to play games. Those algorithms are a significant upgrade to what you've been using. We need to know where they came from and why they were sent to you."

Tony's jaw tightened, his facade of nonchalance slipping ever so slightly. He uncrossed his arms, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.

"And what if I did receive something?" Tony asked, his voice low. "What's it to SHIELD?"

Natasha stepped forward, her eyes fixed on Tony. "Because, Stark, whoever sent those algorithms has access to information they shouldn't. Information that could compromise not just your security, but global security."

Clint nodded, adding, "We're not here to confiscate anything, Stark. We need to understand what's going on. These TriWeb0rs, whoever they are, they're playing a dangerous game."

Tony leaned back, his eyes narrowing as he studied the three SHIELD agents before him. His mind raced, weighing the potential risks and benefits of full disclosure.

"Hold on a second," Tony said, raising a hand. "Before we go any further, I need to know something. How exactly did you find out about this code? And what's SHIELD's stake in all this?"

Fury's expression remained impassive, but a flicker of something - perhaps frustration, perhaps respect - passed through his eye. "TriWeb0rs didn't just send you that package, Stark. They sent us information too. Sensitive information about SHIELD's internal operations."

Tony's eyebrows shot up. "Is that so? And what kind of 'sensitive information' are we talking about here?"

Natasha stepped forward, her voice low and controlled. "The kind that suggests SHIELD has been compromised. Infiltrated by a hostile organization."

Clint nodded, his eyes scanning the room as if searching for unseen threats. "They provided evidence of HYDRA's presence within SHIELD. Detailed evidence."

Tony whistled low, his mind already racing with the implications. "HYDRA? I thought they went out with the Nazis."

"So did we," Fury growled. "But if this information is accurate, they've been growing right under our noses for decades."

Tony's gaze flicked between the three agents, assessing their sincerity. He could see the tension in their postures, the underlying current of urgency in their voices. This wasn't just some routine security check.

"Okay," Tony said slowly. "Let's say I believe you. What does this have to do with the code sent to Jarvis?"

Fury leaned forward, his eye fixed on Tony with unwavering intensity. "TriWeb0rs didn't just send us information, Stark. They provided a way for us to act on it without tipping our hand."

Tony's brow furrowed, his mind already racing ahead. "The security upgrade," he muttered, realization dawning.

Natasha nodded, her voice low and controlled. "Exactly. They sent you advanced algorithms that would make your systems virtually impenetrable."

"And why would they do that?" Tony asked, though he suspected he already knew the answer.

Clint stepped in, his arms crossed over his chest. "Because they want you to help us, Stark. Or more specifically, they want Jarvis to help us."

Fury's gaze never wavered from Tony's face. "We need a secure location to conduct our investigation into HYDRA's infiltration of SHIELD. Somewhere that can't be monitored by anyone who might be watching us."

Tony leaned back, his fingers drumming against the arm of his chair. "And you think my place fits the bill?"

"With those new security protocols? It's the safest option we've got," Fury confirmed. "We need Jarvis's processing power and your technological expertise to sift through SHIELD's systems without alerting anyone."

Tony's mind raced, considering the implications. "So let me get this straight," he said slowly. "You want me to use my AI and my tech to hack into SHIELD, an organization you're supposedly in charge of, to look for evidence of a Nazi death cult hiding in your ranks?"

Fury's expression remained stoic, but there was a hint of grim humor in his voice as he replied, "That about sums it up, Stark."

Tony let out a low whistle, shaking his head. "And here I thought my life couldn't get any weirder."

As the group processed the gravity of the situation, Jarvis's voice suddenly cut through the tension in the room.

"Pardon the interruption, sir," Jarvis announced, his tone measured and precise. "But I am receiving a message with a request to speak from TriWeb0rs. They are asking if I can display it on the monitor. How would you like me to proceed?"

Fury's eye widened slightly, his posture straightening as he quickly responded, "Put it through."

Tony, however, held up a hand, his brow furrowing in thought. "Hold on a second, J. Can you trace this back to its origin?"

There was a brief pause before Jarvis replied, "The signal is highly sophisticated, sir. I would need more time to attempt a trace with any degree of accuracy."

Tony nodded, processing this information. He glanced at Fury, then back at the ceiling, addressing Jarvis. "Alright, let it through. But be careful, J. We don't know what we're dealing with here."

"Understood, sir," Jarvis acknowledged. "Displaying the message now."

The group turned their attention to the large monitor on the wall, tension palpable in the air as they waited for the mysterious TriWeb0rs to make contact.

The large monitor on the wall flickered to life, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. For a moment, the screen remained black, building tension among the gathered individuals. Suddenly, the SHIELD logo appeared, only to morph seamlessly into the HYDRA emblem, its tentacles seeming to writhe across the screen.

Tony couldn't resist breaking the tense silence. "Well, that's not ominous at all. Did you guys hire a Hollywood effects team for this, or is HYDRA just really into dramatic reveals?"

Fury shot Tony a warning glance, but before he could respond, text began to appear on the screen:

"We apologize for the intrusion, but we needed to speak with you immediately. What we've uncovered is of utmost importance and requires your immediate attention."

The message paused, allowing the gravity of the situation to sink in. Tony leaned forward, his earlier levity replaced by intense focus. Natasha and Clint's bodies tensed for action. Fury's eye narrowed, scrutinizing every word that appeared.

The text continued: "Our investigation has revealed that HYDRA's infiltration goes deeper than initially suspected. Key positions within SHIELD have been compromised, including some at the highest levels of the organization."

The tension in the room heightened as the message continued to unfold on the screen. Tony, Fury, Natasha, and Clint all leaned forward, their eyes fixed on the monitor.

"However," the text read, "that is not the primary reason for this communication. We have encountered something potentially more dangerous than HYDRA's infiltration."

Tony's eyebrows shot up, his mind already going over the possibilities. Fury's eye narrowed, his jaw clenching as he braced for more bad news.

"During our investigation, we discovered evidence of a possible advanced AI program embedded within SHIELD's systems. This AI" the message paused as it seemed to consider its words. "We will be referring to it is an AI from now on although we have yet to identify if that is the case. This AI appears to be self-aware and has been operating autonomously, undetected for an unknown period of time."

The room fell silent, the implications of this revelation sinking in. Tony's face paled slightly, his mind immediately jumping to the potential consequences of such an AI.

"We believe this AI may have been created by HYDRA, or it may be a rogue program that has evolved beyond its original purpose. We were not willing to get close enough to identify it any further to keep the program from becoming aware of us."

Natasha and Clint exchanged worried glances, while Fury's expression remained stoic, though his eye betrayed a hint of concern.

"The AI has shown the ability to manipulate data, create false records, and even influence decision-making processes within SHIELD. We suspect it may be behind some of the more inexplicable decisions and operations that have occurred over the years."

Tony ran a hand through his hair, his mind already working on potential solutions. "Jarvis," he muttered, "we're going to need to step up our game."

The message continued: "We need your help, Mr. Stark. Your expertise in AI and advanced computing systems is crucial in understanding and potentially neutralizing this threat. Director Fury, we urge you to work closely with Mr. Stark on this matter. The security of SHIELD and, by extension, global security, may depend on it."

The room erupted into chaos as soon as the screen went blank. Fury paced back and forth, muttering curses under his breath. Natasha and Clint huddled together, speaking in hushed tones, their faces etched with concern. Tony stood frozen, his mind racing through the implications of what they'd just learned.

"An AI? In SHIELD's systems?" Tony muttered, running a hand through his hair. "How the hell did that happen?"

Natasha turned to him, her eyes sharp. "Could it be possible, Stark? Could someone have really created an AI that advanced over several decades ago?"

Tony nodded grimly. "That's what I am so confused about. I've proven that someone can create AIs of various levels of sophistication," he gestures around his head at the walls in reference to Jarvis. "But to do it however many years ago? I just don't understand where they would get the processing power, let alone the servers needed to contain a program or AI that advanced." He throws his hands up in the air in frustration. "It just doesn't make sense!"

Natasha's brow furrowed as she processed the information. She turned to Fury, her voice steady but laced with concern. "Are we sure that TriWeb0rs is correct about this being an AI? It seems like a leap."

Fury's eye narrowed, his expression grave. "When they first contacted me, they made it clear they wouldn't be back. Said it was up to us to fix the situation." He paused, his gaze sweeping across the room. "For them to come back just to warn us about this... It doesn't seem like something they'd do lightly."

Tony paced back and forth, his mind racing. "If they're right, we're dealing with something far beyond a simple infiltration. An AI with that level of access and control..." He trailed off, the implications hanging heavy in the air.

Clint leaned against the wall, his arms crossed. "So what's our next move? We can't exactly go digging around SHIELD's systems without tipping off this potential AI."

Fury nodded, his expression grim. "That's why we need Stark. His tech, combined with the security algorithms from TriWeb0rs, might give us a fighting chance to investigate without being detected."

Tony stopped pacing, his eyes lighting up with a mix of excitement and apprehension. "It's going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. A very smart, potentially malevolent needle that doesn't want to be found."

Natasha stepped forward, her voice calm but determined. "We need a plan. A way to verify this AI's existence without alerting it or HYDRA."

The room fell silent as the gravity of their situation sank in.

Clint chimed in, his voice tense. "If this thing can manipulate data and influence decisions, how do we know what's real anymore?"

Fury stopped pacing, his eye scanning the room. "We don't. And that's the problem. We're flying blind here."

The gravity of the situation settled over them like a heavy blanket. The room fell into an uneasy silence, each person lost in their own thoughts about the potential ramifications.

Suddenly, Tony's eyes widened. He spun around, addressing the ceiling. "Jarvis! Were you able to trace the message?"

The AI's voice filled the room, cutting through the tension. "I apologize for the delay in reporting, sir. I was running a more thorough analysis of the signal."

Tony leaned forward, his eyes bright with anticipation. "And?"

"I was unable to pinpoint an exact location," Jarvis replied, causing a collective sigh of disappointment. "However, I did manage to narrow down the origin to a general region but that is as far as I could get before the signal was cut.."

Fury stepped closer, his interest piqued. "Where?"

"The signal appears to have originated from the North American Continent, specifically within the eastern United States."

Tony's brow furrowed. "That's it, J?"

"That is correct, sir," Jarvis confirmed.

The group exchanged puzzled looks, this new information adding another layer of mystery to their already complex situation.

**********

As silence once more settled over the group, Tony's mind shifted gears. He clapped his hands together, breaking the tense atmosphere.

"Well, since we're all here and it's getting late, why don't we continue this over dinner?" Tony suggested, his tone lighter but eyes still serious.

Fury raised an eyebrow. "Stark, this isn't a social call."

"Come on, Fury. We all need to eat, and I think better with a drink," Tony argued. He turned to address the ceiling, "Jarvis, order us some food. The usual spread."

"Very well, sir," Jarvis replied.

Tony then turned to Fury. "We should bring Pepper in on this. She's already involved with SI, and we could use her input."

Fury's eye narrowed. "The fewer people who know about this, the better, Stark."

"She's trustworthy, Fury. And let's face it, we need all the help we can get," Tony countered.

After a moment of tense silence, Fury reluctantly nodded. "Fine. But only her."

Tony grinned and pulled out his phone, quickly texting Pepper. A few minutes later, she arrived, looking slightly confused but composed.

As they all sat down to eat, Tony and Fury filled Pepper in on the situation. Her eyes widened as she absorbed the information, her mind already working on potential solutions.

After a moment of contemplation, Pepper spoke up. "So, you need a way to keep one of you here at SI so that you can interact with Tony without seeming suspicious." She paused, looking at Natasha. "Well, he needs a new assistant. Why don't we hire Ms. Romanoff? You can continue the ruse that she's evaluating Tony for SHIELD purposes. Mr. Barton can be her back-up and get a job as a janitor or something menial that would allow Ms. Romanoff to pass data along to him and secure it somewhere unknown to anyone else."

The room fell silent as everyone processed Pepper's suggestion. Then, almost in unison, they turned to look at her with a mix of surprise and admiration.

Fury chuckled, breaking the silence. "Potts, if you ever want a job at SHIELD, just say the word."

Tony immediately tensed, his fork clattering against his plate. "Hey now, Fury. Pepper's my CEO. You can't have her."

Pepper smiled, patting Tony's hand reassuringly. "Don't worry, Tony. I'm not going anywhere."

As the group continued to discuss their plans over dinner, Tony suddenly paused, his fork hovering midair. A realization had struck him, and he turned to face Fury with a serious expression.

"You realize that this is going to take a long time?" Tony asked, his voice tinged with concern. "I mean if it's just me and Jarvis going through decades of files, this could potentially take years. Are you prepared for that, Fury?"

The room fell silent as the implications of Tony's words sank in. Fury's eye narrowed, his jaw clenching slightly as he considered the question.

Natasha and Clint exchanged glances, their expressions a mix of concern and determination. Pepper leaned forward, her brow furrowed in thought.

Fury took a deep breath before responding, his voice low and measured. "Stark, we don't have a choice. If there's even a chance that HYDRA has infiltrated SHIELD to this extent, we need to root it out. No matter how long it takes."

Tony nodded slowly, running a hand through his hair. "I get that, Nick. But we're talking about a massive undertaking here. We'll need resources, manpower, and most importantly, time. Lots of it."

Clint chimed in, his voice tense. "And all the while, we'll have to keep this under wraps. One wrong move, and we could tip off HYDRA or this potential AI."

Natasha nodded in agreement. "We'll need to operate in absolute secrecy. No paper trails, no digital footprints. Everything we do will have to be off the books."

Pepper, ever the voice of practicality, spoke up. "We'll need to create a cover story for why Tony's spending so much time on this project. Something that won't raise suspicions."

The group fell into thoughtful silence, each contemplating the enormity of the task ahead.

Natasha leaned forward, her eyes gleaming with determination. "How about this? I'll stay at SI until we can find a way to copy and hide the evidence."

Tony's eyes lit up as an idea struck him. "A server that is only connected long enough to transmit the data onto it before it is disconnected would do it," he mused, his mind already racing with the technical details.

"Sure," Natasha shrugged, her casual tone belying the gravity of the situation.

Clint nodded in agreement. "Once we have something, Natasha and I can leave, and Tony can just keep doing what he would normally do."

"Hiding out in his lab and tinkering," Pepper muttered, a hint of fond exasperation in her voice.

"Exactly," Natasha said, a small smile playing on her lips. "We only need to keep up the ruse for a little while before things can seemingly return to normal."

The group exchanged glances, each processing the implications of this plan. Fury's eye narrowed as he considered the proposal, weighing the risks against the potential benefits.

Tony clapped his hands together, his energy palpable. "Alright, let's get to work. Jarvis, we're going to need to set up a secure, isolated system for this operation."

"Of course, sir," Jarvis responded. "I'll begin preparations immediately."

As the group continued to discuss the finer points of their plan, a sense of purpose settled over them. They were about to embark on a dangerous and complex mission, but for the first time since receiving the message from TriWeb0rs, they felt like they had a solid direction.

Chapter 12: Nothing to Write Home About

Summary:

The lead up to the Stark Expo.

Chapter Text

The crisp autumn air settled over the MIT campus as the fall semester drew to a close. The pressure of final exams loomed large, casting a shadow of stress over even the most brilliant students. Peter, MJ, and Ned were no exception, despite their advanced knowledge and capabilities.

In their shared apartment, books and notes lay scattered across every surface. Peter paced back and forth, muttering formulas under his breath. MJ sat cross-legged on the couch, her brow furrowed as she pored over a thick biology textbook. Ned hunched over his laptop, fingers flying across the keyboard as he worked on a complex coding project.

The tension in the room was palpable. Even though they knew the material inside and out, the weight of their responsibilities and the desire to maintain their perfect GPAs kept them on edge.

Ned glanced up from his screen, observing his friends' stressed states. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms above his head. "Guys, we need a break," he announced.

Peter paused mid-stride, looking at Ned with a mixture of confusion and irritation. "A break? Now? Finals are next week, Ned."

MJ didn't even look up from her book. "Can't afford to waste time," she mumbled.

Ned stood up, closing his laptop with a decisive click. "That's exactly why we need a break. We're all stressed out, and it's not helping. You two," he pointed at Peter and MJ, "need to go on a date. Get out of here for a few hours, clear your heads."

Peter and MJ exchanged uncertain glances. The idea was tempting, but the looming specter of exams made them hesitate.

Ned sensed their reluctance and pressed on. "Come on, guys. You know we could ace these exams in our sleep. A little time away from the books will do you good. Go grab dinner, maybe catch a movie. I'll hold down the fort here."

MJ finally closed her book, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "You know, that doesn't sound half bad."

Peter ran a hand through his hair, considering. "I guess a few hours wouldn't hurt. What do you say, MJ? Dinner and a movie?"

MJ nodded, standing up and stretching. "Let's do it. Thanks, Ned."

As Peter and MJ got ready to leave, Ned couldn't help but feel a sense of satisfaction. He knew his friends needed this break, even if they were reluctant to admit it. Sometimes, even time-traveling geniuses needed a reminder to step back and relax.

**********

In the dimly lit workshop of Stark Industries, Tony Stark and Jarvis worked tirelessly, sifting through the vast SHIELD database. The room hummed with the soft whir of computers and the occasional beep of data processing.

Tony leaned back in his chair, rubbing his eyes. "Jarvis, what do you make of this supposed AI?"

"Sir, the entity in question displays behaviors that are... unusual for a typical artificial intelligence," Jarvis replied.

Tony nodded, his eyes fixed on the screen. "Yeah, I see what you mean. It's almost like we're dealing with a person rather than a program. No wonder TriWeb0rs couldn't pin it down."

"Indeed, sir. The patterns are quite remarkable."

Tony allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction. "At least our hidden server is doing its job. HYDRA hasn't caught on to our little fishing expedition."

Just then, the workshop door slid open, and Pepper Potts walked in, tablet in hand. "Tony, do you have a minute?"

Tony swiveled in his chair to face her. "For you, Pep? Always. What's up?"

Pepper approached, her heels clicking on the polished floor. "Have you had a chance to review the candidates for the new board members? We need to present them at next month's shareholder meeting."

Tony's eyes widened slightly. "Oh, right. That. I've... glanced at them."

Pepper raised an eyebrow. "Glanced?"

"Okay, maybe I haven't looked at them at all," Tony admitted. "But I'm sure your choices are perfect. You always nail these things."

Pepper sighed, but there was a hint of amusem*nt in her eyes. "Tony, we need to do this together. It's important for the future of the company."

"You're right, you're right," Tony conceded. He gestured to a nearby chair. "Why don't we go through them now?"

For the next few minutes, they discussed the merits of various candidates, weighing their expertise and potential contributions to Stark Industries. As they talked, Tony found himself stealing glances at Pepper, admiring her competence and grace under pressure.

Finally, during a lull in the conversation, Tony took a deep breath. "Hey, Pep? I was wondering... would you like to go out to dinner sometime? Just the two of us?"

Pepper looked up from her tablet, surprise evident on her face. "Dinner? As in... a date?"

Tony nodded, trying to maintain his usual air of confidence. "Yeah, a date. What do you say?"

Pepper was quiet for a moment, considering. Tony felt his heart racing as he waited for her response.

Finally, she smiled. "You know what? I think I'd like that, Tony."

**********

In a small, nondescript diner on the outskirts of Washington D.C., Nick Fury, Natasha Romanoff, and Clint Barton sat in a corner booth, their voices low and their eyes constantly scanning their surroundings. The smell of coffee and greasy food filled the air, providing a stark contrast to the gravity of their conversation.

Fury leaned forward, his one good eye fixed on his two most trusted agents. "I've been shifting things around - personnel, missions, you name it. Just to see what would happen."

Natasha raised an eyebrow. "And?"

"Now that I know what to look for, the manipulations are obvious," Fury said, his voice tinged with frustration. "HYDRA's got its tentacles deep in SHIELD's operations."

Clint took a sip of his coffee, his face grim. "How bad is it?"

Fury's expression darkened. "Bad enough that I can't trust most of our people. Which brings me to my next point." He looked at both of them intently. "I'm going to be sending you two on a lot more missions. Ones that absolutely can't fail."

Natasha and Clint nodded in agreement, understanding the implications. They were among the few Fury could rely on.

"Who else have we verified?" Clint asked, setting down his mug.

Fury sighed. "Coulson, Hill, and a handful of others. It's a short list."

Natasha frowned. "This is taking longer than we had hoped."

"I know," Fury acknowledged. "But we need to be smart about this. We can't afford to rush and tip our hand."

The three of them sat in silence for a moment, the weight of their task settling over them. The diner's ambient noise seemed to fade away as they contemplated the enormity of what lay ahead.

**********

As snow fell gently outside their Cambridge apartment, Peter, MJ, and Ned gathered around a small table adorned with their attempt at a holiday feast. The aroma of overcooked turkey and questionably seasoned side dishes filled the air, a testament to their novice culinary skills.

The trio looked at their creation with a mixture of pride and amusem*nt. Ned raised his glass, "To our first Christmas dinner in the past!"

They clinked glasses, but a moment of melancholy settled over them as thoughts of their families back in their original timeline surfaced. MJ's eyes grew distant as she remembered past holidays with her parents. Ned fiddled with his fork, thinking of his grandmother's traditional Filipino dishes.

Peter, however, wore a bittersweet smile. "You know, it's strange. May and Ben are alive here. Tony's alive. It's like... I've gotten a second chance with them, even if they don't know me."

MJ squeezed his hand supportively. "That's something to be grateful for, Peter."

Ned nodded, then gestured to their meal. "And hey, at least we didn't burn the apartment down!"

They laughed, the tension breaking. As they ate, they critiqued their cooking efforts good-naturedly, making plans to improve their skills over the coming year.

As the conversation shifted to their upcoming semester, Peter sighed. "I hate to say it, but... I'm finding the classes a little too easy."

MJ and Ned exchanged glances before reluctantly agreeing.

"We could test out of some courses," Ned suggested. "Graduate early?"

"But then we'd miss out on the full college experience," MJ countered. "The connections, the opportunities..."

The trio fell into a thoughtful silence, each considering the implications of testing out of numerous classes. Peter was the first to break it, his eyes lighting up with an idea.

"You know, if we did test out, I could use that extra time to really focus on developing my web formulas," he said, leaning forward excitedly. "I've been thinking about ways to improve the tensile strength and adhesive properties. If I can perfect it, it could be a great way to earn money after graduation."

Ned nodded enthusiastically. "That's true. And I could use the extra time to help Jarvis comb through SHIELD's database. There's still so much data to sift through, and every bit of information we uncover could be crucial."

MJ listened to their arguments, her brow furrowed in thought. After a moment, she let out a soft sigh. "I hate to admit it, but you both make good points," she said. "And to be honest, I've been thinking about taking some law and politics courses. With everything that's coming, having a solid understanding of those fields could be really valuable."

The three friends looked at each other, realizing they were all on the same page. The prospect of testing out of many of their classes, once just a fleeting idea, now seemed like a real possibility.

"So, are we really considering this?" Peter asked, glancing between Ned and MJ.

Ned shrugged. "I mean, why not? We're already ahead of the curve. Might as well use that to our advantage, right?"

MJ nodded slowly. "It would give us more flexibility to prepare for what's coming. And we could always find ways to stay connected to campus life if we want."

As they continued to discuss the idea, weighing the pros and cons, their initial hesitation began to fade. The possibility of graduating early and focusing on their individual projects and preparations seemed more appealing by the minute.

Peter leaned forward, his brow furrowed in thought. "Does anybody know what we need to do to test out? And how much should we do? I mean, we could probably do most of the degree program if we really wanted to."

Ned's eyes lit up with excitement. "I've actually looked into this a bit," he said, pulling out his laptop. "MIT has a pretty comprehensive credit by examination program. We'd need to take a series of tests for each course we want to skip."

MJ nodded, her analytical mind already at work. "We should be strategic about this. We don't want to raise too many eyebrows by testing out of everything."

Peter drummed his fingers on the table. "Good point. Maybe we should focus on the beginner and intermediate courses for our majors?"

Ned scrolled through the MIT website. "Looks like we need to submit a petition to the Committee on Academic Performance for each exam we want to take. There's a fee for each test, too."

"That shouldn't be a problem with our current financial situation," MJ pointed out. "But we should consider the time investment. These tests won't be a walk in the park, even for us."

Peter nodded in agreement. "We'll need to balance our study time with our other... extracurricular activities," he said, referring to their ongoing efforts to change the future.

The trio fell into a thoughtful silence, each considering the implications of their potential decision.

Ned leaned back in his chair, a look of determination settling on his face. "I think we should do it," he said firmly. "We have way too many other things we could be working on than staying in some classes that we don't really need." He glanced at MJ and added with a nod, "Or taking other classes, in your case."

Peter and MJ exchanged looks, considering Ned's words. The weight of their unique situation hung in the air, reminding them of the responsibilities they carried.

"You're right," Peter said after a moment. "We're in a position to make real changes, and every minute counts."

MJ nodded slowly, her analytical mind already racing ahead. "It would give us more flexibility to pursue our individual interests and prepare for what's coming," she agreed. "And we could always audit classes if we want to stay connected to campus life."

The trio sat in silence for a moment, each lost in thought about the potential implications of their decision. The smell of their slightly overcooked turkey lingered in the air, a reminder of their unconventional situation.

"So, are we really doing this?" Peter asked, looking at his friends.

Ned grinned, his excitement palpable. "I say we go for it. We can start looking into the process tomorrow."

MJ reached for her tablet, already pulling up MIT's academic policies. "We'll need to go through our classes and see which ones we feel comfortable getting rid of."

**********

Tony Stark fidgeted with his tie as Pepper Potts practically dragged him towards the meeting room. The shareholder meeting loomed ahead, and Tony's reluctance was palpable.

"Come on, Pep. Can't we reschedule? I've got a new project I'm dying to work on," Tony whined, his feet dragging slightly.

Pepper shot him a stern look. "Tony, this was your idea. You need to see it through."

Tony sighed dramatically but nodded. "Fine, fine. Let's get this over with."

As they entered the room, a hush fell over the assembled shareholders. Tony took his place at the head of the table, Pepper standing supportively by his side. The moment he opened his mouth to speak, the protests began.

"Mr. Stark, what's the meaning of all these changes?"

"Are you trying to run this company into the ground?"

"We demand an explanation!"

Tony raised his hands, calling for silence. "Ladies and gentlemen, I understand your concerns. But I assure you, these changes are necessary for the future of Stark Industries."

He glanced at Pepper, who gave him an encouraging nod. Taking a deep breath, Tony continued, "Ms. Potts and I are taking SI into the future by getting rid of the past. We've dismissed most of the old board members, keeping only three who share our vision for a future beyond weapons and military contracts."

Murmurs rippled through the room, but Tony pressed on. He introduced the six new board members, a mix of SI veterans and outside experts in business, science, and technology.

"These individuals will help guide SI into new territories," Tony explained. "We're creating several new departments focused on clean energy, medical technology, and advanced robotics."

Tony paused for dramatic effect, a mischievous glint in his eye. "And we're even getting into the personal electronics field like cell phones, laptops, and more. If Jobs and Gates can do it, I can do it a whole lot better."

The room erupted into a mix of gasps, murmurs, and excited chatter. Some shareholders leaned forward in their seats, intrigued by the prospect of Stark Industries entering such a lucrative market. Others exchanged worried glances, concerned about the risks of such a bold move.

One of the older shareholders, a man with salt-and-pepper hair and a skeptical frown, raised his hand. "Mr. Stark, with all due respect, the personal electronics market is already saturated. How do you propose to compete with established giants like Apple and Microsoft?"

Tony's grin widened. He lived for moments like these, when he could showcase his brilliance and vision. "Excellent question," he said, pointing at the man. "You see, we're not just going to compete. We're going to revolutionize."

He began pacing the room, his energy infectious. "Imagine a phone that's not just smart, but genius. A laptop that's so intuitive, it practically reads your mind. We're talking about technology that makes everything else on the market look like stone tools."

The shareholders listened, some with rapt attention, others with lingering doubt. Tony could feel the energy in the room shifting, the excitement building.

Pepper stepped forward, sensing it was time to bring some grounding to Tony's grand vision. "What Mr. Stark means to say is that we've been exploring these possibilities, and we believe there's significant potential for Stark Industries in this sector."

Tony nodded, appreciating Pepper's ability to translate his enthusiasm into more palatable corporate speak. "Exactly. We're not just throwing ideas at the wall here. We've done our homework, and we're ready to make a serious play in these markets."

As Tony outlined the plans for each new department, he could see the skepticism on some faces slowly giving way to interest and even excitement. He detailed how the clean energy division would work on arc reactor technology for civilian use, while the medical tech department would focus on prosthetics and non-invasive surgical tools.

"This is the future of Stark Industries," Tony concluded, his voice filled with conviction. "We have the opportunity to change the world for the better, and I intend to seize it with both hands."

As the murmurs in the room began to die down, a voice from the back of the crowd called out, "And what of Ms. Potts? Is she going to remain as CEO or will you take back your former position?"

The room fell silent, all eyes turning to Tony and Pepper. Tony glanced at Pepper, a small smile playing on his lips. He turned back to the crowd, his posture straightening.

"Excellent question," Tony said, his voice carrying across the room. "Ms. Potts has done an exemplary job as CEO during my... sabbatical. Her leadership has been instrumental in guiding Stark Industries through this transitional period."

He paused, looking around the room to ensure he had everyone's attention. "That's why I'm pleased to announce that Pepper Potts will be staying on as the official CEO of Stark Industries."

A collective gasp rippled through the crowd, followed by a buzz of excited whispers. Pepper's eyes widened slightly, surprise evident on her face. She hadn't expected Tony to make this announcement today.

Tony continued, his voice rising above the murmurs, "I will be taking on the role of Chief Technology Officer, focusing on innovation and product development. This arrangement will allow us to play to our strengths and drive Stark Industries forward into this new era."

The shareholders exchanged glances, some nodding in approval while others looked skeptical. One of the older shareholders raised his hand, "Mr. Stark, are you sure about this decision? It's quite unprecedented."

Tony's gaze hardened slightly. "I'm more than sure. Pepper has proven herself time and time again. She has the business acumen and leadership skills to guide this company through the challenges ahead. Meanwhile, I'll be doing what I do best - inventing the future."

Pepper stepped forward, her composure regained. "I appreciate the trust Tony has placed in me," she said, her voice calm and professional. "I assure you all that I am committed to the success of Stark Industries and the vision we've laid out today."

The murmuring from the crowd continued, but the overall mood seemed to be one of acceptance. Tony's confidence and vision for the future had won over many of the skeptics. He glanced at Pepper, who gave him a small nod of approval.

Just as it seemed the meeting was winding down, Tony cleared his throat. "Before we wrap up, I have one more announcement to make."

The room fell silent, all eyes on Tony once again.

"I'm excited to share that we will be reviving the Stark Expo next year," Tony declared, his eyes gleaming with enthusiasm. "It will kick off in May and run for an entire month."

The crowd erupted into a mix of excited chatter and protests. Some shareholders leaned forward, intrigued by the prospect, while others shook their heads in disapproval.

"The Stark Expo will showcase the cutting-edge technologies we've been developing," Tony continued, raising his voice to be heard over the commotion. "It's not just about Stark Industries - we'll be inviting innovators from around the world to participate. This is our chance to shape the future, together."

As Tony spoke, Pepper stood beside him, her face a mask of professional calm. But those who knew her well could see the tension in her jaw and the slight narrowing of her eyes. She was flabbergasted by Tony's impromptu announcement and angry that he hadn't discussed this with her beforehand. However, she maintained her composure, not wanting to undermine Tony's enthusiasm in front of the shareholders.

Tony's eyes sparkled with excitement as he continued, "We'll be sending out the news on January 1, 2010. It will include an application for a booth or whatever we end up doing. Pepper will send out the info once it's been finalized."

Pepper's professional mask slipped for a moment, her eyes widening in surprise. She quickly composed herself, but not before Tony caught her expression. He realized he might have overstepped, making decisions without consulting her first.

The shareholders buzzed with a mixture of excitement and concern. Some leaned forward, eager to hear more about this unexpected development, while others exchanged worried glances, clearly apprehensive about the financial implications of such a large-scale event.

One of the board members raised his hand. "Mr. Stark, while this sounds exciting, have you considered the costs involved? And the logistics of organizing such a massive event?"

Tony nodded, his enthusiasm undimmed. "Of course. We're still working out the details, but I assure you, this expo will be a game-changer for Stark Industries. It's not just about showcasing our tech; it's about positioning ourselves as leaders in innovation across multiple industries."

As Tony continued to field questions from the shareholders, Pepper maintained her composure, her mind already racing with the countless tasks that would need to be addressed to make this expo a reality. She made mental notes, knowing she'd need to have a serious conversation with Tony once this meeting was over.

The meeting eventually wound down, with Tony thanking everyone for their time and promising more details would be forthcoming. As the shareholders filed out of the room, many still discussing the unexpected announcements, Pepper turned to Tony, her expression a mix of exasperation and resignation.

"Tony, we need to talk," she said quietly, her tone leaving no room for argument.

Tony, sensing the storm brewing, nodded sheepishly. "My office?"

As they made their way to Tony's office, both knew that the real work was just beginning. The Stark Expo announcement had set the wheels in motion for what promised to be a challenging but potentially revolutionary year ahead for Stark Industries.

**********

Peter sprinted through the streets of Cambridge, his backpack bouncing against his back as he raced home from MIT. His mind was buzzing with excitement, barely registering the curious glances from passersby as he dashed past them. The news he had just received at the end of his test was too big to keep to himself.

As he burst through the front door of their shared apartment, he nearly collided with Ned, who was rushing towards him with equal enthusiasm.

"Ned! You won't believe-" Peter started, at the same time Ned exclaimed, "Peter! Did you hear-"

They both stopped abruptly, staring at each other with wide eyes and matching grins. For a moment, they stood there, catching their breath.

Then, simultaneously, they blurted out, "Stark Industries is holding the Expo again!"

Their words overlapped, creating a jumble of excited chatter. Peter gesticulated wildly, his face flushed from the run and the thrill of the news. Ned bounced on his toes, his words tumbling out in a rush.

"Can you believe it?" Ned exclaimed, his voice rising with each word. "It's just like before!"

"I know!" Peter responded, his eyes shining. "The professor announced it right after the test. I couldn't wait to tell you guys!"

They continued talking over each other, their words a mix of half-finished sentences and exclamations. Their excitement was palpable, filling the room with an electric energy.

As they babbled, MJ emerged from her room, drawn by the commotion. She looked at her two friends, eyebrows raised in amusem*nt at their animated exchange.

MJ leaned against the doorframe, her lips quirking into a half-smile. "I'm assuming you heard the news from SI?" she said dryly, cutting through the boys' excited chatter.

Peter and Ned whirled to face her, their words tumbling out in a frantic rush. They spoke simultaneously, creating a cacophony of enthusiasm that filled the apartment.

"MJ, it's just like before!" Peter exclaimed, his eyes wide with excitement. "The Expo is happening at the same time as in our original timeline. This could be huge for us!"

At the same time, Ned was rattling off a list of potential exhibitors. "Can you imagine? Oscorp might be there, and Pym Technologies! We could see the latest in quantum computing and nanotech!"

MJ raised an eyebrow, trying to follow both conversations at once. Peter continued his comparison to their previous timeline, gesticulating wildly as he spoke about the implications for their plans. Meanwhile, Ned's voice rose in pitch as he speculated about the cutting-edge technologies that might be on display.

"What if Hammer still shows up with his drones?" Peter worried, his mind racing with possibilities.

"Or maybe some of those hover cars Mr. Stark was working on!" Ned interjected, barely pausing for breath.

The boys' energy fed off each other, their words overlapping and intertwining in a dizzying verbal dance. MJ watched them with a mixture of amusem*nt and fondness, shaking her head slightly at their unbridled enthusiasm.

"Guys," she said, trying to cut through the chatter. "Guys!"

But Peter and Ned were too caught up in their separate trains of thought to notice. Peter was now speculating about how they could use this opportunity to influence future events, while Ned had moved on to discussing the potential for revolutionary medical technologies at the Expo.

MJ rolled her eyes at the boys' continued chatter. With a sigh, she pushed off from the doorframe and strode purposefully towards them. In one swift motion, she smacked both Peter and Ned on the back of their heads.

The sudden impact silenced the room. Peter and Ned's excited babbling cut off abruptly, replaced by twin yelps of surprise and pain.

"Ow! MJ, what was that for?" Peter rubbed the back of his head, his eyes wide with shock.

Ned winced, his hand flying to the spot where MJ had struck him. "Yeah, that hurt!"

MJ crossed her arms, fixing them both with an exasperated look. "To get you two to shut up for a second," she said bluntly. "Now, can we talk about this like rational human beings?"

Peter and Ned exchanged sheepish glances, their earlier excitement dampened by MJ's intervention.

"Sorry, MJ," Peter mumbled, his cheeks flushing slightly.

Ned nodded, looking appropriately chastened. "Yeah, we got a bit carried away."

MJ sighed, her expression softening slightly. "Look, I get it. The Stark Expo is a big deal. But why are you acting like this is some huge surprise? We knew this was likely coming."

Peter blinked, realization dawning on his face. "You're right," he admitted. "We did know. It's just... hearing it officially announced made it feel real, you know?"

Ned's eyes lit up with sudden inspiration. "Oh my God! Peter, you should enter the Expo with your new web formulas!"

Peter shook his head, his excitement dampening. "No way, it's not done yet. I can't present something half-baked."

"But it could give you an in with some tech companies for when you're ready to really develop it," Ned persisted, bouncing on his toes.

Peter hesitated, uncertainty clouding his features. "I don't know..."

The two friends went back and forth, their voices rising as they debated the pros and cons of entering the Expo. Ned listed potential benefits while Peter countered with concerns about the formula's readiness.

As their discussion grew more heated, MJ watched with growing exasperation. Finally, she raised her voice to cut through their argument.

"Why don't you wait until you have everything developed and then you can shop it around?" she suggested, her tone matter-of-fact. "It may even give you an excuse to go to SI in 2012."

Peter and Ned fell silent, staring at MJ with wide eyes. The simplicity and logic of her suggestion slowly sank in.

"Oh," Peter breathed, a grin spreading across his face.

"Why didn't we think of that?" Ned exclaimed, slapping his forehead.

MJ rolled her eyes, but a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Because you two were too busy getting excited over hypotheticals," she said dryly.

The excitement in the room settled as the trio considered MJ's suggestion. Peter and Ned exchanged glances, their minds already racing with new possibilities.

"Hey," Ned said suddenly, his eyes lighting up. "Do you think we could go to the Expo's opening night?"

Peter's face broke into a grin. "That would be amazing! We could see all the latest tech before anyone else."

MJ raised an eyebrow. "Wouldn't tickets for that be hard to get? It's probably going to be a hot event."

"We should ask Jarvis," Peter suggested. "He might know when tickets will go on sale."

Ned nodded enthusiastically. "Good idea! Jarvis would definitely have that information."

Peter called out. "Hey Jarvis, do you know when tickets for the Stark Expo opening night will go on sale?"

There was a brief pause before Jarvis's crisp voice responded. "I'm afraid I don't have that information at the moment. Ms. Potts is still... working out the details with Mr. Stark."

The trio exchanged knowing looks. Peter suppressed a chuckle. "Working out the details, huh? That sounds like code for yelling at him for springing this on her without asking."

Ned snorted. "Poor Mr. Stark. He's probably getting an earful right now."

MJ smirked. "Serves him right for making such a big decision without consulting her first."

Jarvis's voice chimed in again, interrupting the trio's banter. "While I don't have the specifics yet, I can assure you that I will reserve tickets for the opening night, along with a hotel room, once Sir and Ms. Potts have finalized the details."

Peter's eyes lit up with excitement. "Really? That would be amazing, Jarvis! Thank you!"

"Yeah, thanks Jarvis!" Ned chimed in, his grin widening. "You're the best!"

MJ nodded, a small smile playing on her lips. "That's very thoughtful of you, Jarvis. We appreciate it."

"It's my pleasure," Jarvis responded, his tone as polite as ever. "I'll make sure to secure the best possible accommodations for your stay."

The trio exchanged excited glances, their earlier debate forgotten in the face of this new development.

"This is going to be so cool," Ned said, bouncing on his toes. "We'll get to see all the latest tech up close!"

Peter nodded enthusiastically. "And maybe we can even catch a glimpse of Mr. Stark himself. I wonder if he'll be doing any presentations?"

MJ rolled her eyes, but her smile betrayed her own excitement. "Just try not to geek out too much when we're there, okay? We don't want to draw unnecessary attention to ourselves."

"Right, right," Peter agreed, trying to temper his enthusiasm. "We'll play it cool. Just three normal MIT students checking out the Expo. Nothing suspicious about that."

Ned snorted. "Yeah, because we're totally normal MIT students who just happen to be from the future."

The three friends burst into laughter, the absurdity of their situation hitting them anew.

**********

Colonel James Rhodes stood at attention in the dimly lit conference room, his jaw clenched as he faced a panel of military brass. The tension in the air was palpable, thick enough to cut with a knife. Around the long table, generals and high-ranking officials sat with stern expressions, their eyes fixed on Rhodes.

"Colonel, we need to study that armor," General Thompson barked, his bushy eyebrows furrowed. "Stark's conditions are unreasonable. We can't just accept a weapon of that caliber without fully understanding it."

Rhodes took a deep breath, trying to keep his composure. "With all due respect, sir, the War Machine armor isn't just a weapon. It's a highly sophisticated piece of technology that Tony Stark has entrusted to us under specific conditions."

Another officer, Colonel Harris, leaned forward, his eyes gleaming with barely concealed excitement. "Think of the possibilities, Rhodes. If we could replicate that technology, outfit our troops with similar armor-"

"That's not what this is about," Rhodes interrupted, his patience wearing thin. "Tony Stark has been clear about the terms. No modifications, no breakdowns. The armor stays as is."

General Paulson, a grizzled veteran with a perpetual scowl, slammed his fist on the table. "Damn it, Rhodes! We're talking about national security here. We can't let one man's ego dictate how we use this technology."

Rhodes felt his anger rising, a hot knot forming in his chest. He looked around the room, seeing the mixture of greed, ambition, and misguided patriotism on the faces of his superiors. It was clear that very few of them had any intention of respecting Tony's wishes.

"Gentlemen," Rhodes said, his voice low and controlled despite his inner turmoil, "I understand your concerns. But I cannot in good conscience agree to violate the terms Mr. Stark has set. The War Machine armor is not a toy to be dissected or a weapon to be modified at will. It's a responsibility."

The room erupted into a cacophony of angry voices, each officer trying to shout over the others. Rhodes stood his ground, his frustration mounting with each passing second. He knew this battle was far from over, and the thought of the long fight ahead only fueled his anger and determination.

Several hours later, Rhodes emerged from the Pentagon, his uniform immaculate but his nerves frayed. The heated debate had dragged on, leaving him mentally exhausted and physically tense. As he drove through the bustling streets of Washington D.C., his mind raced with the implications of the meeting.

Arriving at his apartment, Rhodes loosened his tie and collapsed onto the couch. He rubbed his temples, trying to ease the headache that had been building since the confrontation began. After a moment of silence, he spoke into his phone.

"Jarvis, you there?"

"Always, Colonel Rhodes," came the AI's crisp response.

Rhodes sighed, grateful for the familiar voice. "I need to talk to you about something. It's about the War Machine armor."

"I'm listening, Colonel. How may I assist you?"

Rhodes launched into a detailed account of the meeting, his voice rising and falling with frustration as he recounted the demands and arguments of the military brass.

"They want to study it, Jarvis. Break it down, replicate it. They don't understand - or don't want to understand - that this isn't just some weapon to be mass-produced."

Jarvis remained silent, allowing Rhodes to vent his frustrations.

"I mean, do they really think Tony would just hand over that kind of technology without safeguards? And the way they talked about it - like it was just another gun or tank. They have no idea of the responsibility that comes with this armor."

Rhodes stood up, pacing the room as he continued his rant. "And then there's the whole 'national security' argument. As if Tony hasn't considered that. As if he doesn't care about protecting people."

After several moments of silence, Rhodes let out a heavy sigh. His shoulders slumped as he sank back into the couch, the weight of his thoughts pressing down on him.

"Jarvis," he said quietly, "I'm seriously thinking about resigning my commission."

There was a brief pause before Jarvis responded, his tone laced with surprise. "Colonel Rhodes, that's quite a significant decision. If I may ask, what has led you to consider such a drastic step?"

Rhodes ran a hand over his face, his expression a mixture of frustration and weariness. "I'm just... tired, Jarvis. Tired of constantly having to split my loyalties between Tony and the military. At first, it wasn't a problem. I could balance my duties as an officer with my friendship with Tony."

He stood up again, unable to stay still as he grappled with his inner turmoil. "But ever since the Iron Man armor came into the picture, and now with the War Machine suit, things have gotten so complicated. I feel like I'm being pulled in two different directions, and I'm not sure which way I should go anymore."

Rhodes paced the room, his hands gesticulating as he spoke. "The military wants one thing, Tony wants another. I'm caught in the middle, trying to do what's right for both sides. But it's getting harder and harder to find that balance."

He stopped by the window, staring out at the city lights. "I joined the Air Force to serve my country, to protect people. But now, I'm not sure if that's what I'm really doing anymore. Am I serving my country by following orders that go against what I believe is right? Or am I protecting people better by standing with Tony and his vision for the armor?"

Rhodes turned back to face the room, his expression troubled. "I'm questioning everything, Jarvis. My role, my duties, my loyalties. And I'm starting to think that maybe the best thing for everyone would be for me to step away from the military altogether."

**********

Master Drumm materialized in the penthouse living room, his sling ring still sparking with mystical energy. Ned, who had been nervously pacing, jumped at the sudden arrival.

"Master Drumm! You're here," Ned said, his voice cracking slightly.

The sorcerer nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. "Indeed, Mr. Meads. Are you ready for today's lesson?"

Ned gulped, fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. "I think so. What are we working on?"

Master Drumm's expression turned serious. "Today is no ordinary lesson, Ned. It's time for your final test to earn your own sling ring."

Ned's eyes widened, his face paling. "F-final test? But I'm not ready! I can't-"

His words dissolved into panicked babbling as he began to hyperventilate. Master Drumm watched with concern as Ned's anxiety spiraled.

Upstairs, Peter and MJ were engrossed in their own studies when they heard Ned's distressed voice. They exchanged worried glances before rushing downstairs to investigate.

"Ned? What's wrong?" Peter called out as they entered the living room.

They found Ned pacing frantically, muttering to himself, while Master Drumm stood by, looking uncertain how to handle the situation.

MJ approached Ned cautiously. "Hey, take a deep breath. What's going on?"

Ned looked at his friends with wild eyes. "Master Drumm says it's time for my final test to get my sling ring. But I can't do it! I'm going to fail and disappoint everyone and-"

Peter cut him off, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Whoa, slow down. You've been doing great in your training. Why do you think you'll fail?"

Master Drumm stepped forward. "Ned, I wouldn't have suggested this test if I didn't believe you were ready. You've shown remarkable progress these past few months."

Ned shook his head vigorously. "But what if I mess up? What if I can't open a portal when it really matters?"

MJ crossed her arms, fixing Ned with a stern look. "And what if you can? You won't know unless you try."

As Ned's panic began to subside, his friends and Master Drumm gathered around him, offering words of encouragement and support. Peter squeezed Ned's shoulder reassuringly, while MJ's stern but caring gaze helped ground him. Slowly, Ned's breathing steadied, and he managed to focus on Master Drumm's words.

"Now that you're calmer, let me explain the test," Master Drumm said, his voice gentle but firm. "It's designed to assess your ability to perform magic under pressure, a crucial skill for any sorcerer."

Ned nodded, still nervous but no longer on the verge of panic. "Okay, what do I have to do?"

Master Drumm continued, "I will transport you to a location. Your task is simple: create a portal back home using your sling ring. The challenge lies in maintaining your focus and channeling your energy despite the environment."

Peter's eyes widened. "That sounds intense. But you can do it, Ned!"

MJ nodded in agreement. "You've been training for months. This is your chance to prove what you've learned."

Ned took a deep breath, straightening his shoulders. "Alright. I think I'm ready. Or as ready as I'll ever be."

Master Drumm smiled approvingly. "That's the spirit. Remember, the key is to remain calm and trust in your abilities. The portal will come if you believe it will."

As Master Drumm prepared to transport Ned, Peter and MJ offered final words of encouragement.

"You've got this, man," Peter said, giving Ned a quick hug. "We'll be right here waiting for you to come back."

MJ punched Ned's arm lightly. "Don't overthink it. Just do what you've been practicing."

Ned nodded, a small smile forming on his face despite his nervousness. "Thanks, guys. I'll do my best."

With a nod from Master Drumm, a swirling portal opened behind Ned. He took one last look at his friends, drawing strength from their supportive expressions, before stepping through into the unknown.

A few moments after Ned disappeared through the portal, another swirling gateway materialized in the penthouse living room. Ned stumbled through, bringing with him a blast of frigid air that made Peter and MJ shiver. Snowflakes clung to Ned's hair and clothes, and his teeth chattered uncontrollably.

"Oh my god, Ned!" Peter exclaimed, rushing to his friend's side.

MJ's eyes widened in shock. "What happened? Where did you go?"

Before Ned could answer, Master Drumm stepped through his own portal, closing it behind him with a wave of his hand.

As Peter and MJ helped Ned to the couch, wrapping him in blankets, he managed to stutter out an explanation through his chattering teeth. "S-South P-Pole. It was f-freezing."

Master Drumm nodded, his expression serious. "Indeed. The temperature was well below zero, with blizzard conditions. An extremely challenging environment for concentration."

Peter's face contorted with anger, and he whirled on Master Drumm. "Are you insane? You could have killed him!"

MJ joined in, her voice sharp with fury. "What were you thinking? That's way too dangerous for a test!"

As Peter and MJ continued to berate Master Drumm, their voices rising in volume and intensity, Ned began to regain his composure. The color returned to his cheeks, and his shivering subsided. He looked between his friends and his mentor, realizing he needed to intervene.

"Guys, stop!" Ned called out, his voice stronger now. Peter and MJ fell silent, turning to look at him in surprise.

Ned took a deep breath, his shivering finally subsiding. He looked at his friends' concerned faces and then at Master Drumm's stoic expression.

"Guys, it's okay," Ned said, his voice stronger now. "This is how they test all the apprentices when they're ready for their sling rings."

Peter and MJ exchanged confused glances.

"What do you mean?" Peter asked, his anger giving way to curiosity.

Ned sat up straighter, pulling the blanket tighter around his shoulders. "Master Drumm explained it to me before we started. It's a tradition that goes back thousands of years. They have to make sure we can use the rings in a crisis."

Master Drumm nodded, his expression softening. "Ned is correct. The test is designed to push apprentices to their limits. In real-world situations, sorcerers often face extreme conditions and high-pressure scenarios. We must ensure they can perform when it matters most."

MJ frowned, still skeptical. "But the South Pole? Isn't that a bit extreme?"

"That's kind of the point," Ned replied, a small smile forming on his face. "If I can open a portal in the middle of a blizzard, I can probably do it anywhere."

Peter's anger had fully dissipated now, replaced by a mix of concern and admiration for his friend. "So... did you pass?"

Ned's smile widened. "Yeah, I did. It wasn't easy, but I remembered what Master Drumm taught me about focusing my energy and visualizing the destination. It took a few tries, but I managed to open the portal back here."

Master Drumm stepped forward, a hint of pride in his eyes. "Ned performed admirably. He remained calm under pressure and persevered despite the harsh conditions. He has earned his sling ring."

As Master Drumm's words sank in, Peter and MJ erupted into cheers, their earlier anger forgotten in the face of Ned's accomplishment. They rushed to embrace their friend, nearly knocking him off the couch in their enthusiasm.

"You did it, man!" Peter exclaimed, clapping Ned on the back.

MJ grinned, punching Ned's arm lightly. "Not bad, Meads. Not bad at all."

Overwhelmed by the support and his own relief, Ned felt tears welling up in his eyes. He tried to blink them away, but a few escaped, rolling down his cheeks as he smiled at his friends.

"Thanks, guys," he said, his voice thick with emotion. "I couldn't have done it without you."

Master Drumm cleared his throat, drawing their attention. His expression was serious as he addressed Ned. "Congratulations, Ned. You've proven yourself worthy of the sling ring. Now that you can be considered a true apprentice, the real work will begin."

The smile faded from Ned's face, replaced by a look of confusion and concern. He watched as Master Drumm turned to leave, opening a portal with a casual wave of his hand.

"Real work?" Ned called out, his voice rising in pitch. "What real work? What does that mean?"

But Master Drumm had already stepped through the portal, which closed behind him with a faint whoosh, leaving Ned's questions unanswered.

Ned turned to his friends, his eyes wide with worry. "Guys, what do you think he meant by that?"

**********

Tony Stark lounged in his workshop, feet propped up on his desk as he flicked through holographic displays of Stark Expo applications. Pepper Potts stood nearby, tablet in hand, ready to note his decisions.

Tony's eyes flickered to the tablet in Pepper's hands, his nose wrinkling in distaste. The sleek Apple device seemed out of place in the high-tech wonderland of his workshop. He couldn't help but feel a twinge of irritation at the sight of it.

"Seriously, Pep? An iPad?" Tony scoffed, his voice dripping with disdain. "I could build something ten times better than that in my sleep."

Pepper glanced up from the screen, raising an eyebrow at Tony's tone. "It gets the job done, Tony. Not everything needs to be a Stark creation."

Tony swung his legs off the desk, sitting up straight. His mind was already racing with ideas, envisioning a tablet that would put Apple's to shame. "Oh, come on. Where's your sense of innovation? That thing's practically a glorified paperweight compared to what I could whip up."

Pepper sighed, recognizing the gleam in Tony's eyes. It was the same look he got every time he was about to dive headfirst into a new project. "Tony, we have more pressing matters to deal with right now. The Expo applications aren't going to review themselves."

But Tony was barely listening, his fingers already dancing through the air, manipulating invisible holograms as he began to design his new creation in his mind. "Jarvis, pull up the specs for our latest microprocessors. And let's see what we've got in terms of flexible display technology."

"Right away, sir," Jarvis responded, holographic schematics materializing around Tony.

Pepper watched as Tony became engrossed in his impromptu design session, knowing that trying to redirect his attention now would be futile. She shook her head, a mix of exasperation and fondness in her expression, and returned her focus to the Expo applications on her decidedly less advanced - but perfectly functional - tablet.

Pepper watched Tony for a moment as she knew his tendency to get sidetracked by new ideas, but they had work to do. Taking a deep breath, she stepped closer to Tony's desk.

"Tony," she said firmly, her voice cutting through his excited rambling. "I promise you can go nuts with your tablet design later. But right now, we need to focus on these Expo applications. Remember? The event you're hosting?"

Tony's hands froze mid-gesture, his eyes flickering to Pepper. He saw the determined look on her face and knew she wouldn't let this go. With an exaggerated sigh, he slumped back in his chair.

"Fine, fine. You win, Pep," Tony grumbled, though there was a hint of a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He couldn't stay annoyed at Pepper for long, especially when he knew she was right.

Pepper nodded, satisfied. She tapped a few buttons on her tablet, bringing up the first application on the large screen in front of Tony's desk. "Alright, let's start with this one. It's a clean energy proposal from a small startup in California."

Tony leaned forward, his earlier enthusiasm for tablet design already forgotten as he immersed himself in the details of the application. His mind quickly shifted gears, analyzing the potential of the proposed technology.

"Not bad," he muttered, stroking his goatee thoughtfully. "But their power output estimates seem a bit optimistic. Jarvis, run some simulations based on their specs. Let's see if their numbers hold up."

As Jarvis began processing the data, Pepper smiled to herself. Despite his occasional distractions, she knew Tony's passion for innovation was what made him exceptional. She settled into a chair beside him, ready to take notes as they worked through the pile of applications.

Tony and Pepper continued reviewing Expo applications, their discussion punctuated by Tony's rapid-fire comments and Pepper's more measured responses.

"Next up, we've got a company proposing self-tying shoelaces," Pepper said, bringing up the details on the screen.

Tony snorted. "Pass. Cool idea, but not exactly world-changing. What else?"

Pepper swiped to the next application. "Here's an interesting one - a startup working on holographic keyboards."

Tony leaned forward, intrigued. "Now that's more like it. Let's put that in the 'maybe' pile. Could be useful for our tablet project."

As they worked through the applications, Tony approved a few promising ideas, including an advanced water purification system and a revolutionary solar panel design. He rejected others outright, such as a "smart" toaster that could predict users' preferred bread-toasting levels.

"Oh, here's an interesting one," Pepper said, pulling up another file. "A company developing biodegradable plastics made from algae."

Tony nodded approvingly. "That's got potential. Green tech is always a good look. Let's give them a spot."

As they neared the end of the pile, Pepper brought up another application. "This one is... unusual. It's a proposal for AI-powered mood-enhancing clothing."

Tony raised an eyebrow. "AI clothing? That's either brilliant or completely insane. Let's set up a meeting with them. I want to hear more about this one in person."

As the day wore on, Pepper and Tony continued to meticulously sift through the mountain of applications before them. The stack seemed never-ending, but they were making steady progress.

Pepper, ever the efficient assistant, had Jarvis bring in a light lunch for them both. She knew all too well that if they stopped for a proper break, there was a high risk of Tony getting distracted by some new idea or project, potentially derailing their entire afternoon.

The smell of fresh sandwiches and coffee wafted through the room, providing a welcome respite from the tedium of paperwork without interrupting their workflow. Jarvis, with his usual quiet efficiency, had the meal set out on a nearby table, ready for them to grab a bite whenever they needed sustenance.

"Hmm, not bad," Tony muttered, swiping through a few proposals as he munched on his deli sandwich. "At least some people have brains."

Pepper rolled her eyes. "You sound surprised."

"Well, when you've seen as many terrible ideas as I have..." Tony trailed off, grimacing at a particularly awful submission. "Speaking of which, who let this guy apply? A nuclear-powered microwave? Really?"

DUM-E whirred nearby, knocking over a stack of papers in its eagerness to help. Tony sighed.

"No, DUM-E, I don't need your input on this. Last time you tried to help, we nearly had a sentient blender situation."

As Tony continued scrolling, his expression suddenly morphed into one of gleeful disbelief. "Oh, this is rich. Pepper, come look at this."

Pepper leaned in, raising an eyebrow. "Hammer Industries?"

"The one and only," Tony chuckled. "And guess what brilliant idea they've come up with? Iron Man drones."

He burst into laughter, nearly falling out of his chair. "As if Hammer could even come close to replicating my tech. It'd be like trying to build a rocket with Legos and duct tape."

Pepper frowned. "Tony, you can't just reject their application because it's Hammer."

"Why not? I'm pretty sure 'being Justin Hammer' is a valid reason for rejection in most circles."

"We need a legitimate reason," Pepper insisted.

Tony spun in his chair, grinning mischievously. "How about 'proposal deemed too hilarious for serious consideration'? Or 'application rejected due to excessive delusions of adequacy'?"

Pepper sighed, fighting back a smile. "Tony..."

"Fine, fine," he conceded, turning back to the holographic display. "How about this: 'Proposal rejected due to safety concerns and lack of originality.' Happy now?"

Pepper nodded, making a note on her tablet. "That'll do."

Tony and Pepper finished sifting through the Stark Expo applications, a mix of innovative ideas and laughable attempts filling the holographic displays. DUM-E hovered nearby, occasionally beeping in what seemed like commentary on particularly interesting submissions.

"Well, that's the last of them," Tony said, flicking away the final hologram with a flourish. He stretched in his chair, his back cracking audibly. "I think we've got a decent lineup. Minus the nuclear microwave guy, of course."

Pepper nodded, tapping a few final notes into her tablet. "It's shaping up to be an impressive expo. The variety of technologies and innovations should draw quite a crowd."

Tony smirked. "As if my presence alone wouldn't do that."

Rolling her eyes, Pepper set down her tablet and fixed Tony with a pointed look. "Speaking of your presence, what are you planning for the opening night presentation?"

Tony's smirk faltered slightly. He spun his chair to face Pepper fully, his expression a mix of feigned innocence and mischief. "What makes you think I'm planning anything special?"

"Tony," Pepper said, her tone a mixture of exasperation and amusem*nt, "I know you. You never pass up an opportunity to make a spectacle."

He chuckled, standing up from his chair and walking over to one of his workbenches. "You wound me, Pepper. Can't a man just give a simple, humble presentation without being accused of ulterior motives?"

Pepper raised an eyebrow, clearly not buying it. "A man, maybe. You? Never."

Tony grinned, picking up a small device from the bench and tossing it between his hands. "Alright, you got me. I might have a little something planned."

"Care to share?" Pepper asked, her curiosity piqued.

Tony's eyes gleamed with excitement as he turned back to face her. "Let's just say it's going to be a night to remember. The crowd won't know what hit them."

**********

"Tony Stark won't know what hit him."

In a dimly lit, cluttered laboratory, a man hunched over a workbench, his calloused hands carefully manipulating delicate wires and components. The room reeked of sweat and motor oil, a testament to the long hours he'd spent toiling away at his project. The soft blue glow of an arc reactor illuminated his weathered face, casting eerie shadows across the walls.

The man continues to mutter, a mixture of anger and satisfaction coloring his voice. His eyes, bloodshot from lack of sleep, gleamed with a dangerous intensity as he connected the final wire to his creation.

The walls of the derelict lab were plastered with newspaper clippings and photographs, a collage of Tony Stark's life and achievements. Headlines touted Stark's genius and philanthropy, while others criticized his past as a weapons manufacturer. Interspersed among the articles were technical diagrams and blurry images of the Iron Man armor, meticulously annotated with scribbled notes.

The man's gaze flickered between his work and the walls, his jaw clenching as he took in the larger-than-life image of Tony Stark smirking at the camera. He turned back to the glowing arc reactor, a cruel smile twisting his lips as he made the final adjustments.

Eyes gleaming with a mixture of triumph and malice, he held up the harness containing the arc reactor. The soft blue glow illuminated his scarred face, casting eerie shadows across the cluttered room.

"He'll pay for what he did to my father and me," the man muttered, his thick Russian accent lacing each word with venom. His fingers traced the intricate wiring of the harness, a cruel smile playing on his lips as he admired his handiwork.

The walls around him were a constant reminder of the man who had wronged him and his family. The man's eyes darted between his creation and the images of Stark, his satisfaction growing with each passing moment.

He carefully placed the harness on a nearby workbench, taking a step back to admire it fully. The arc reactor hummed softly, its energy pulsing with potential. He nodded to himself, pleased with what he had accomplished after months of tireless work and planning.

"The Stark Expo," he mused aloud, his voice barely above a whisper. "It will be Tony Stark's crowning glory." The man paused, his smile widening as he added, "And his death knell."

He turned to a nearby computer, pulling up the details of the upcoming Stark Expo. His eyes scanned the information, mentally noting the security measures and event schedule. His mind raced with possibilities, each scenario ending with Tony Stark's downfall.

Chapter 13: Home Stretch

Notes:

As the title says! Rhodey's resignation took the place of the Senate hearing from the movie. I just felt like it fit better considering what has changed as compared to the original timeline.

Short chapter, I know, but the next one is going to be a doozy so it will take a few days.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

Colonel James Rhodes stood outside the conference room, his hand hesitating on the doorknob. He took a deep breath, steeling himself for the conversation to come. With a final adjustment of his uniform, he pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The room fell silent as Rhodes entered. Six pairs of eyes turned to him, their expressions a mixture of concern, disappointment, and curiosity. The tension in the air was palpable, thick enough to cut with a knife.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Carleton sat at the head of the table, his weathered face set in a grim expression. To his right was General Evelyn Hawthorne, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, her silver hair pulled back in a tight bun. Vice Admiral Marcus Reeves, representing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sat across from her, his naval uniform a stark contrast to the Air Force blues surrounding him.

General Samantha Blackwell, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, tapped her fingers nervously on the table. Beside her, Major General Victor Holloway, Rhodes' immediate superior, looked at him with a mixture of anger and disappointment. At the far end of the table, Special Agent Darius Westbrook from the Department of Defense's Office of the Inspector General watched Rhodes with keen interest.

Rhodes cleared his throat, the sound echoing in the silent room. "Good morning," he said, his voice steady despite the nerves churning in his stomach.

Secretary Carleton nodded, gesturing to an empty chair. "Colonel Rhodes, please take a seat."

As Rhodes settled into the chair, he could feel the weight of their collective gaze upon him. The atmosphere was somber, reminiscent of a tribunal rather than a meeting. The gravity of his decision to resign his commission hung heavily in the air, unspoken but unmistakable.

Colonel Rhodes took a deep breath, his hands clasped tightly on the table before him. The room remained silent, all eyes fixed on him as he waited for the meeting to officially start.

General Hawthorne cleared her throat, her piercing gaze sweeping across the room before settling on Rhodes. "We're here today to address Colonel Rhodes' intention to resign his commission," she stated, her voice crisp and authoritative. "This is a matter of significant concern, given the Colonel's distinguished service record and his... unique position."

The room stirred at her words. Vice Admiral Reeves' face darkened, his jaw clenching visibly. Major General Holloway leaned forward, his eyes narrowing as he glared at Rhodes. The others maintained their composure, though the tension in the room ratcheted up a notch.

General Hawthorne continued, her tone measured. "Before we proceed further, I believe it's only fair to give Colonel Rhodes an opportunity to explain his reasoning." She turned to Rhodes, her expression neutral but her eyes sharp. "Colonel, please enlighten us. Why do you wish to resign your commission?"

Rhodes sat up straighter, his hands still clasped on the table. He could feel the weight of expectation pressing down on him, the mix of emotions from the panel palpable in the air.

Rhodes began, his voice steady despite the turmoil within. "This isn't a decision I've made lightly. For the past few months, I've been under increasing pressure regarding the War Machine armor. I understand its strategic importance, but I can't in good conscience allow it to be studied or modified without Tony Stark's involvement."

He paused, noting the mix of emotions playing across the faces before him. Disappointment, frustration, and even a hint of anger were evident.

"I've always been proud to serve my country," Rhodes said, his voice tinged with emotion. "But I find myself caught between my duty as an officer and my personal ethics. The armor was entrusted to me, not to the military as a whole."

General Holloway interjected, his voice sharp, "Colonel, surely you understand the potential benefits of studying that technology?"

Rhodes nodded, acknowledging the point. "I do, sir. But I also understand that the armor was given to be in good faith my my friend who has been with me for almost twenty-five years now."

As he spoke, Rhodes felt the weight of his internal conflict. He'd spent his entire adult life in service to his country, climbing the ranks with dedication and honor. Yet here he was, ready to walk away from it all. The War Machine armor represented more than just advanced technology; it was a symbol of trust between him and Tony Stark. Breaking that trust, even for the military he'd sworn to serve, felt like a betrayal of his principles.

"I realize my decision may seem selfish or short-sighted," Rhodes continued, his gaze moving from one face to another. "But I believe it's the right thing to do."

As Rhodes finished speaking, a tense silence filled the room. The board members exchanged glances, their reactions varying widely.

Secretary Carleton's face fell, disappointment etched in the lines of his forehead. "Colonel, I can't help but feel this is a hasty decision. Your service has been exemplary, and losing you would be a significant blow to our operations."

General Blackwell nodded in agreement, her fingers drumming nervously on the table. "I echo the Secretary's sentiments. Your expertise is invaluable, especially concerning the War Machine armor."

To Rhodes' surprise, General Hawthorne leaned back in her chair, a look of understanding crossing her face. "While I'm disappointed to lose an officer of your caliber, I respect your integrity, Colonel. It's not an easy choice you're making."

Special Agent Westbrook nodded slowly, his expression thoughtful. "I can see the ethical dilemma you're facing, Colonel. It's a complex situation with no clear right answer."

Vice Admiral Reeves, however, wasn't as understanding. He leaned forward, his voice sharp. "With all due respect, Colonel, that armor is a game-changer. We can't just let it walk out the door. The potential advancements in military technology are too significant to ignore."

General Holloway nodded vigorously. "Exactly. Colonel Rhodes, surely there's a way we can study the armor without compromising your relationship with Stark? The benefits to national security could be immense."

The room erupted into heated debate. Carleton and Blackwell argued for finding a way to keep Rhodes in service, while Reeves and Holloway pushed hard for retaining the armor. Hawthorne and Westbrook tried to mediate, suggesting compromises that might satisfy both Rhodes' ethical concerns and the military's interests.

Rhodes stood firm amidst the chaos, though his resolve was visibly shaken. He understood the weight of his decision and the impact it would have on national security. Yet, he couldn't shake the feeling that allowing the military to study the armor would be a betrayal of Tony's trust.

As the debate raged on, the board became increasingly divided. Those who prioritized military advancement clashed with those who valued Rhodes' ethical stance and years of loyal service. The tension in the room was palpable, with raised voices and pointed arguments flying back and forth.

As the debate continued to swirl around him, Rhodes kept quiet, his resolve unwavering despite the mounting pressure. The room had become a battlefield of conflicting ideologies, with each side vying for dominance.

Suddenly, Vice Admiral Reeves rose from his seat, his face flushed with determination. He pointed a finger at Rhodes, his voice cutting through the chaos. "Colonel Rhodes, I'm giving you one last chance. Either you agree to let us study the War Machine armor, or we'll be forced to take more drastic measures."

The room fell silent, all eyes turning to Reeves in shock. Secretary Carleton was the first to recover, his face contorting with anger. "Vice Admiral Reeves, you have no authority to make such demands!"

General Hawthorne joined in, her voice sharp with indignation. "This is completely out of line, Reeves. You can't threaten a decorated officer like this!"

Reeves turned to face them, his jaw set stubbornly. "This is a matter of national security. I'm certain the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs will agree with me. We can take this to the Defense Secretary if necessary."

The tension in the room skyrocketed. Rhodes watched as his superiors argued, the implications of Reeves' threat sinking in. This was no longer just about his personal dilemma; it had escalated into a larger debate about the boundaries between private technology and military use.

General Blackwell spoke up, her voice measured but concerned. "This raises serious questions about the nature of our relationship with private entities. Where do we draw the line?"

"Exactly," Special Agent Westbrook chimed in. "We're treading on dangerous ground here. The balance of power between government and private corporations is at stake."

As the argument raged on, Rhodes found himself at the center of a storm that extended far beyond his personal ethical dilemma. The War Machine armor had become a symbol of a larger conflict, one that questioned the very foundations of loyalty, duty, and the limits of governmental authority.

As Rhodes opened his mouth to deliver his final answer, the conference room door burst open with a resounding bang. Tony Stark strode in, his presence immediately commanding the attention of everyone in the room. Dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, he exuded an air of confidence and defiance.

"Sorry I'm late to the party," Tony announced, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "Traffic was a nightmare."

The board members sat in stunned silence, their mouths agape at the unexpected intrusion. Secretary Carleton was the first to recover, his face flushing red with anger.

"Mr. Stark, this is a closed meeting. You have no right to be here," Carleton sputtered.

Tony ignored him, sauntering over to Rhodes and clapping him on the shoulder. "Rhodey-bear, I thought we talked about this. You can't resign without giving me a two-week notice. It's in the friendship contract."

While the board members exchanged confused glances, Rhodes leaned in close to Tony, his voice a harsh whisper. "How did you find out about this?"

Tony's eyes twinkled with mischief as he replied, "Jarvis tattled on you. Shouldn't be telling your secrets to an AI, Rhodey. You should know better."

Rhodes shook his head, a mix of exasperation and relief washing over him. As chaotic as Tony's presence might make this situation, he couldn't deny feeling grateful for the support.

The room erupted into a flurry of activity as the board members tried to regain control of the situation. Vice Admiral Reeves stood up, his face contorted with anger, while General Hawthorne attempted to calm the rising tensions. Amidst the chaos, Tony remained unfazed, a smirk playing on his lips as he prepared to address the room.

Tony Stark stepped forward, his demeanor shifting from playful to serious in an instant. He surveyed the room, meeting each board member's gaze with unwavering confidence.

"Let me make something crystal clear," Tony began, his voice firm and unyielding. "The War Machine armor isn't just a piece of technology. It's an extension of trust between me and Rhodey here."

He gestured to Rhodes, who stood beside him, a mix of surprise and gratitude on his face.

"I didn't give that armor to the U.S. military," Tony continued. "I gave it to James Rhodes. He's the only one I trust with that kind of power."

The room fell silent, tension thick in the air as Tony's words sank in.

"So here's the deal," Tony said, his tone leaving no room for argument. "No Rhodes, no War Machine. It's that simple."

The board members' reactions varied wildly. General Hawthorne nodded slowly, a look of grudging respect in her eyes. Vice Admiral Reeves sputtered incoherently, his earlier threats rendered impotent by Tony's declaration.

General Blackwell leaned back in her chair, her expression thoughtful as she considered the implications of Tony's words. Special Agent Westbrook watched the scene unfold with keen interest, his analytical mind already working through the potential consequences.

Rhodes stood in stunned silence, torn between relief at Tony's support and concern over the far-reaching implications of this standoff. He hadn't expected Tony to intervene, let alone make such a definitive statement. The weight of Tony's trust in him was both humbling and daunting.

As the initial shock wore off, the room erupted into a cacophony of voices. Board members argued amongst themselves, some demanding action against Stark's ultimatum, others advocating for a more measured approach. Tempers flared as Tony Stark stood his ground, unfazed by the uproar he had caused.

Secretary Carleton leaned forward, his face red with frustration. "Mr. Stark, you can't just barge in here and make demands. This is a closed military conference!"

Tony rolled his eyes. "And I'm the one who provided the suit in question. Or did you forget who built the suit?"

Vice Admiral Reeves jumped in, his voice sharp. "The military needs to study that technology. We can't rely on one man's whims!"

"My whims?" Tony scoffed. "You mean my genius that created the War Machine armor in the first place?"

Rhodes stepped forward, trying to calm the situation. "With all due respect, sirs, Tony has a point. The armor was entrusted to me personally."

General Holloway shook his head. "Colonel, your loyalty should be to your country first."

"My loyalty is to doing what's right," Rhodes countered.

General Hawthorne raised her hand, attempting to bring order. "Perhaps we can find a compromise. Mr. Stark, would you consider allowing limited access to the technology?"

Tony's response was immediate. "Not a chance. The suit stays with Rhodey, end of story."

Special Agent Westbrook chimed in, his voice calm amidst the storm. "We need to consider the legal implications here. Mr. Stark's intellectual property rights can't be ignored."

As the debate raged on, General Blackwell remained silent, her eyes darting from speaker to speaker. She observed the shifting alliances, the passionate arguments, and the underlying motivations of each party involved. Her mind worked overtime, processing the information and considering all possible outcomes.

As the chaos in the room reached a fever pitch, General Blackwell suddenly let out a sharp whistle. The shrill sound cut through the cacophony, causing everyone to fall silent and turn their attention to her.

General Blackwell stood up, her posture straight and commanding. The room fell silent as all eyes turned to her.

"For those who don't know me, I'm General Samantha Blackwell," she began, her voice clear and authoritative. "I've been with the Air Force for over thirty years, and I am the current Commander of the Air Force Material Command which focuses on research, development, and the acquisition of new technologies."

She paused, letting her introduction sink in. Her eyes swept across the room, taking in the tense faces of her colleagues and the defiant stances of Tony Stark and Colonel Rhodes.

"Now," Blackwell continued, "I believe we need to approach this situation from a different angle."

The room remained silent, waiting for her to elaborate. Tony raised an eyebrow, curious about what the general had to say. Rhodes stood at attention, his respect for Blackwell evident in his posture.

"Mr. Stark," she began, her voice calm and measured. "Please allow me to explain where we are coming from. The War Machine armor and subsequently the Iron Man armor are a miracle of modern technology."

Tony's face lit up with a smug grin. "Thank you. I'm glad someone recognizes my genius."

Blackwell continued, undeterred by Tony's interruption. "Unfortunately, the War Machine armor is not exactly, shall we say, conducive to our objectives or desired outcomes."

Tony opened his mouth, ready to launch into an angry defense of the War Machine armor, but Blackwell held up her hand, silencing him.

"Let me continue," she said firmly. "You're aware that the Iron Man armor excels in confrontations involving a single opponent or a small group of adversaries. You only have the two repulsors on your hands to utilize in combat. The same is true for the War Machine armor. However, the intended application of the armor would necessitate the colonel engaging in conflicts involving numerous adversaries."

The room remained silent as everyone absorbed Blackwell's words. Rhodes furrowed his brow, considering the implications of what she was saying.

"At that point," Blackwell continued, "the two repulsors would prove insufficient for the colonel to subdue or eliminate his adversaries. What I'm trying to say is that the War Machine armor is like sending a lone Wild West gunman with his two six-shooters into battle against a multitude of foes armed with automatic weapons. It just does not work in situations like that."

Tony's earlier smugness had faded, as he listened to Blackwell's assessment.

"We are hoping to be able to at least modify the armor to add several more capable weapons that can withstand numerous opponents in a group battle," Blackwell concluded, her gaze moving between Tony and Rhodes.

The room fell into a contemplative silence as everyone processed Blackwell's explanation.

Tony's expression shifted from defensive to contemplative. He turned to Rhodes, his brow furrowed in thought.

"I see," Tony said, his voice measured. "Rhodey, is this what you're encountering when you use the War Machine armor on missions?"

Rhodes hesitated for a moment, then nodded. "For the most part, yes. It's true," he admitted. "I do well when there are only a few enemies. But if I'm going in to rescue a squad or provide backup, and there are more than just a few hostiles, I run into trouble. The armor isn't as much help as I had hoped it would be in those situations."

Tony's eyes narrowed, a mix of concern and frustration crossing his face. "Why didn't you bring this up to me before?" he asked, his tone a blend of curiosity and mild reproach.

Rhodes shifted uncomfortably, his gaze dropping to the floor for a moment before meeting Tony's eyes again. "It was enough that you gave me the War Machine armor, Tony," he said, his voice sincere. "I didn't want to demand more. You've already done so much."

The room fell silent as Tony processed this information. The military brass watched the exchange with keen interest, recognizing the potential shift in the conversation's direction.

Tony's expression went thoughtful. He ran a hand through his hair, considering the new information.

"Alright," Tony said, breaking the tense silence. "I can see where you're coming from. I'm willing to negotiate on the weapons integration."

The board members exchanged surprised glances, not expecting this sudden shift in Tony's stance.

"However," Tony continued, holding up a finger, "I have two non-negotiable conditions. First, I'll be the one to do all the modifications and maintenance. No one else touches the suit. Second, Rhodey remains the only pilot. Period."

General Blackwell nodded, a small smile tugging at her lips. "Those terms seem reasonable, Mr. Stark."

Tony clapped his hands together. "Great! Now, let's talk weapons. What did you have in mind?"

The room buzzed with activity as board members began suggesting various conventional military weapons. Vice Admiral Reeves proposed adding a high-powered rifle, while General Hawthorne advocated for an integrated minigun.

As the suggestions flew, Rhodes listened intently, his brow furrowed in concentration. Tony noticed his friend's thoughtful expression.

"Rhodey," Tony said, "you've been pretty quiet. What's your take on this?"

Rhodes straightened up, his military training evident in his posture. "Well, based on my experience piloting the suit, I have a few ideas."

The room fell silent, all eyes on Rhodes as he began to outline his thoughts.

"First, we need to consider versatility," Rhodes explained. "A mix of short and long-range weapons would be ideal. I'd suggest integrating a shoulder-mounted minigun for precision strikes. For close-quarters combat, wrist-mounted submachine guns or rocket launchers could be effective."

Tony nodded, impressed by Rhodes' strategic thinking. The board members listened intently, some taking notes.

"We should also think about non-lethal options," Rhodes continued. "Sonic weapons or EMP devices could be useful for crowd control or disabling enemy tech without causing casualties."

As Rhodes spoke, it became clear to everyone in the room that his value extended far beyond just being a pilot. His strategic insight and practical experience were proving invaluable in this discussion.

Tony grinned, pride evident in his expression. "See? This is why Rhodey's the only one who gets to fly this thing. He doesn't just know how to use it; he knows how to make it better."

The board members nodded in agreement, a new respect for Rhodes evident in their expressions.

The room buzzed with renewed energy as the board members, Tony, and Rhodes began to hash out the details for upgrading the War Machine armor. General Blackwell took charge, her authoritative voice guiding the discussion towards practical solutions.

"Mr. Stark, given your expertise, what's a realistic timeframe for these upgrades?" Blackwell asked.

Tony rubbed his chin, considering. "With the complexity of the integrations we're talking about, I'd say about a month. Maybe less if I pull a few all-nighters."

Rhodes nodded in agreement. "That sounds reasonable. It'll give me time to train with the new systems as they're implemented."

The board members exchanged glances, some looking pleased, others skeptical. Vice Admiral Reeves leaned forward, his expression stern. "And you're certain you can deliver on these promises, Stark?"

Tony flashed his signature smirk. "Have I ever let you down? Wait, don't answer that."

General Blackwell intervened before Reeves could retort. "I believe we have a solid plan moving forward. Mr. Stark, I'll be your primary point of contact for this project."

Tony's eyes lit up with genuine respect. "Looking forward to it, General. I like someone who can stand their ground."

As the meeting wound down, the board members filed out, their reactions a mix of relief, excitement, and lingering concern. Tony and Rhodes hung back, waiting until the room cleared before speaking privately.

"Thanks for having my back, Tones," Rhodes said, clapping his friend on the shoulder.

Tony grinned. "Always, Platypus. Now, let's talk upgrades. I've got some ideas that'll make your suit the envy of every military tech geek out there."

As they walked out, discussing repulsor modifications and weapon integrations, neither man noticed General Blackwell watching them from the end of the hallway, a thoughtful expression on her face.

**********

In a dimly lit warehouse on the outskirts of New York City, Ivan Vanko hunched over a workbench, his calloused hands deftly manipulating delicate circuitry. The air hummed with the quiet whir of machinery and the occasional spark from soldering equipment. Scattered around him were dozens of small, sleek drones, each no larger than a dinner plate.

Vanko's eyes, bloodshot from countless sleepless nights, darted between his work and a series of complex schematics pinned to the wall. A satisfied grunt escaped his lips as he connected the final wire in the drone before him. He set it aside and reached for another, his movements mechanical and practiced.

In the corner of the warehouse, a suit of armor stood sentinel. Its whip-like appendages coiled at its sides, crackling with latent energy. Vanko glanced at it occasionally, a grim smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

The past few months had been a whirlwind of clandestine meetings, back-alley deals, and daring thefts. Vanko had leveraged every contact and called in every favor to acquire the materials he needed. Some components he had fabricated himself, repurposing scrap and discarded tech into deadly weapons.

As Vanko continued his work, he marveled at the agility of his creations. The drones were highly maneuverable, capable of making quick turns and changing direction rapidly. This made them excellent for navigating tight spaces or urban environments, a crucial factor in his plan for the Stark Expo attack.

Their small size was another advantage. Much harder to detect than larger drones or manned aircraft, they could slip through conventional security measures with ease. While their compact design meant a shorter flight time compared to larger drones, their superior agility more than made up for this limitation.

Vanko's eyes gleamed as he imagined the devastation his swarm could cause. Each drone housed a miniaturized arc reactor, a testament to Vanko's genius and determination. The reactors powered a highly focused laser weapon, capable of precise and devastating damage. The concentrated beams could slice through metal, concrete, and flesh with equal ease. Vanko had tested them extensively, the scorched and melted debris of his trials littering the far end of the warehouse. Their small size and powerful weaponry made them incredibly difficult to detect and neutralize.

In his mind's eye, Vanko saw his swarm descending on the Expo. The drones would attack multiple targets simultaneously, overwhelming defenses and sowing chaos among the attendees. Security personnel would struggle to track and eliminate the tiny, fast-moving threats. Meanwhile, the drones would methodically destroy key structures and target high-value individuals.

This multi-pronged assault was the cornerstone of Vanko's plan for the Expo attack. The drones would serve as both a distraction and a deadly force, allowing him to make his grand entrance and confront Stark amidst the mayhem.

As he worked, Vanko muttered to himself in Russian, rehearsing the speech he would give when he finally confronted Tony Stark. His voice dripped with venom as he spoke Stark's name, years of pent-up rage and resentment fueling his resolve.

Outside, the city bustled, unaware of the threat brewing within its borders. Vanko's preparations were nearly complete. Soon, he would unleash his creations upon the unsuspecting populace, drawing out Tony Stark and exacting his long-awaited revenge.

Notes:

And now we know Vanko's plan! It's going to be a complete surprise to everybody. What's going to happen? Stay tuned!

Chapter 14: Go Big or Go Home

Summary:

The Stark Expo!

Notes:

It's finally here! The Stark Expo! Just to warn you... the chapter was starting to get unwieldy so there will be a part 2 coming sometime soon.

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

In the weeks leading up to the Stark Expo opening night, excitement buzzed through the air at MIT. Peter, MJ, and Ned could hardly contain their anticipation as they discussed the upcoming event between classes and study sessions.

"I heard Stark Industries is unveiling a new clean energy initiative," MJ said, her eyes gleaming with interest. "It could revolutionize the entire industry."

Ned nodded enthusiastically. "And the robotics showcase is supposed to be mind-blowing. I can't wait to see what they've come up with."

Peter listened to his friends, a smile on his face. "It's going to be amazing. I wonder if Mr. Stark will do something unexpected during the opening ceremony."

As the days ticked by, their conversations grew more animated. They speculated about potential exhibits, debated which presentations to prioritize, and wondered aloud about the possibility of running into Tony Stark himself.

"Do you think we'll get a chance to talk to any of the engineers?" Ned asked, his voice filled with hope.

MJ shrugged. "Maybe. But there's going to be a lot of people there. We shouldn't get our hopes up too much."

Peter, however, found himself growing increasingly uneasy as the event drew nearer. At first, he dismissed it as simple nervousness about attending such a high-profile event. But as the weeks progressed, a familiar tingling sensation began to creep up the back of his neck.

His spidey-sense, unusually dormant since their arrival in this timeline, was beginning to stir. It started as a faint buzz, barely noticeable amidst the excitement of preparing for the Expo. But with each passing day, it grew stronger, more insistent.

It was now the week of the Expo, and Peter couldn't ignore it any longer. As he lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, the tingling had intensified to an almost constant hum. Something was wrong, but he couldn't pinpoint what. A sense of unease crept over him, his body seemingly attuned to a threat that his mind couldn't comprehend.

"Hey, you okay?" MJ asked, noticing Peter's distracted expression during breakfast on the day before the Expo. Her observant gaze caught the subtle furrow of his brow, the distant look in his eyes.

Peter forced a smile, pushing down the growing anxiety. "Yeah, just a little nervous, I guess."

But as they made their final preparations to leave for the Expo, Peter couldn't shake the feeling that something significant was about to happen. His spidey-sense, now a persistent throb at the base of his skull, seemed to be warning him of an impending threat. It was like a constant whisper in the back of his mind, urging him to be on guard.

As the week progressed, MJ and Ned couldn't ignore Peter's unease any longer. His restlessness was palpable, his eyes constantly scanning their surroundings as if searching for an unseen danger. "Alright, spill it," MJ said, crossing her arms. "What's really bothering you?"

Peter hesitated, torn between keeping his friends in the dark and seeking their counsel. Finally, he sighed, shoulders slumping. "It's my spidey-sense. It's been going crazy for days now."

Ned's eyes widened, his expression a mix of concern and curiosity. "Your spidey-sense? But nothing's happened since we got here."

"I know, but it's getting stronger. Something's wrong, I can feel it." Peter's voice was laced with frustration, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides.

MJ and Ned exchanged worried glances, a silent conversation passing between them. "You need to tell Jarvis," MJ insisted, her tone brooking no argument. "He might be able to help."

Peter reluctantly agreed, recognizing the wisdom in her words. He pulled out his phone and contacted Jarvis, requesting an urgent meeting.

Within minutes, Jarvis's voice filled the room, calm and measured. "Mr. Parkson, how can I assist you?"

Peter took a deep breath, steeling himself. "Jarvis, I think there might be danger at the Expo. My spidey-sense has been acting up for days now."

"Can you elaborate on this 'spidey-sense', Mr. Parkson?" Jarvis asked, his tone betraying no hint of skepticism.

Peter explained his ability to sense imminent threats and how it had been growing increasingly intense as the Expo approached. His words tumbled out, a rush of information borne of frustration and concern.

Jarvis processed this information, the silence stretching for a heartbeat before he responded. "I see. While I cannot verify the validity of such an ability, I take all potential threats seriously. Can you provide any specific details about the nature of the danger?"

"I'm sorry, I can't," Peter said, frustrated. "It's just a general feeling of something bad about to happen. I really only know when it is like, seconds away from happening. You know, like 'Duck! There's a bullet coming!' or 'Dodge!' Things like that. It's only recently that I have been trying to develop it. But while I get the warning, I don't get any details if that makes sense."

"Understood," Jarvis replied, his voice a reassuring presence. "I will increase security measures immediately. This includes enhancing surveillance systems, implementing additional screening procedures for attendees, and deploying more security personnel throughout the venue."

Peter nodded, relieved that Jarvis was taking his warning seriously. "Thank you, Jarvis. Is there anything else we can do?"

"For now, remain vigilant and report any suspicious activity you may observe during the Expo. I will keep you informed of any developments."

As they ended the call, Peter felt a weight lift from his shoulders, but the persistent buzz of his spider-sense reminded him that the danger, whatever it was, was still out there, lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike.

**********

As the trio finished packing their bags for the Expo, MJ's practical nature kicked in. She looked up from her suitcase, a sudden realization crossing her face. "Hey, guys," she called out, "don't forget to email your professors about missing class Friday through Monday."

Peter and Ned paused their packing, exchanging glances. "Good call," Peter said, reaching for his laptop. Ned's eyes widened as he remembered something. "Oh! Professor Jameson mentioned an extra credit report for anyone attending the Stark Expo. I should probably ask him about that."

The three of them settled down with their devices, typing out emails to their respective professors. Peter kept his messages brief and to the point, his fingers swiftly tapping out the necessary details. MJ, on the other hand, crafted more detailed explanations, her brow furrowed in concentration as she carefully worded each sentence. Ned, meanwhile, spent extra time composing his email to Professor Jameson, making sure to inquire about the specifics of the extra credit assignment, determined not to miss out on any potential opportunities.

As they worked, Jarvis's voice came through the room's speakers, the AI's calm and collected tone filling the space. "I've arranged for a car to take you to New York City. It will arrive in approximately 30 minutes."

"Thanks, Jarvis," Peter replied, hitting send on his last email and leaning back in his chair with a sigh of relief.

MJ zipped up her suitcase and did a final sweep of the room, her keen eyes scanning every corner for any forgotten items. "Alright, I think we're set. Anything else we're forgetting?"

Ned, still typing away, looked up from his laptop screen. "Just finishing up this email to Jameson. I want to make sure I understand what he's looking for in this report," he explained, his fingers dancing across the keyboard with a determined rhythm.

Peter double-checked his own luggage, making sure he hadn't forgotten anything important. Despite the excitement of the upcoming Expo, the persistent buzz of his spidey-sense kept him on edge, a constant reminder of the potential danger lurking in the shadows. His expression grew serious as he turned to his friends, his voice low and determined. "I'm bringing the Spider suit," he announced, his tone leaving no room for argument.

MJ and Ned exchanged worried glances, their faces etched with concern. "Peter, are you sure that's a good idea?" MJ asked, her brow furrowed as she studied her friend's resolute expression.

Ned chimed in, his voice laced with hesitation. "Yeah, man. We're supposed to be keeping a low profile, remember?"

Peter sighed, running a hand through his hair in a gesture of frustration. "I know, I know. But my spidey-sense is still going crazy. I can't ignore it."

The three of them debated back and forth, their voices rising and falling as they weighed the risks and benefits. MJ argued for caution, her logical mind analyzing every potential outcome, while Ned wavered between excitement and worry, torn between his desire for adventure and his inherent caution. Finally, after several minutes of heated discussion, Peter conceded, his shoulders slumping in resignation. "Okay, you're right. I won't bring the full suit. But I'm at least bringing my web-shooters. Just in case."

MJ and Ned shared a look, their expressions a mix of relief and lingering concern, before nodding reluctantly. "Fine," MJ said, her tone firm but understanding, "but only as a last resort. Promise us, Peter."

"I promise," Peter agreed, relief evident in his voice as the tension in the room dissipated. "Only in an absolute emergency."

As they finished packing, Ned remembered something that had been nagging at the back of his mind. "Hey, didn't Jarvis say that Hammer was denied a spot at the Expo? So it shouldn't be anything like last time, right?"

Peter nodded. "Yeah, that's true. But something still feels off. I can't explain it, but I need to be prepared."

MJ zipped up her bag with a sigh, her expression a mix of resignation and determination. "Just be careful, okay? We can't afford to draw attention to ourselves." Her words hung in the air, a sobering reminder of the high stakes they faced.

Peter nodded, slipping his web-shooters into his bag with a sense of grim determination.

As they gathered their belongings and prepared to head downstairs, Jarvis spoke again. "The car has arrived. It's waiting for you in front of the building." The trio grabbed their bags and made their way to the elevator, a mix of anticipation and nervousness filling the air around them.

**********

As the sleek black car pulled up to the modest hotel in New York City, Peter, MJ, and Ned stepped out, their eyes wide with excitement. They had convinced Jarvis to book them a more inconspicuous accommodation, arguing that three MIT students staying at a luxury hotel would draw unwanted attention. The hotel's unassuming exterior blended seamlessly into the bustling city streets, providing the perfect cover for their covert activities.

"Thanks for understanding, J," Peter said quietly as they entered the lobby, his voice tinged with gratitude. "We appreciate the thought, but blending in is key right now." The trio made their way across the plain entryway, their footsteps echoing in the cavernous space.

The trio checked in and made their way to their room, the air thick with anticipation. It was comfortable but unremarkable, perfect for maintaining their low profile. As they unpacked their bags, Ned pulled out his laptop and pulled up the Expo itinerary, his fingers tapping eagerly against the screen.

"Okay, guys," he said, flopping onto one of the beds with a boyish grin. "We've got a few hours before the opening ceremony. What should we hit first?" His eyes sparkled with excitement, the possibilities of the day stretching out before them like a tantalizing buffet.

MJ peered over his shoulder at the schedule, her brow furrowed in concentration. "There's a panel on sustainable energy innovations at 1 PM. That could be interesting." Her voice held a hint of curiosity, betraying her thirst for knowledge.

Peter nodded, but his mind seemed elsewhere. The constant buzz of his spidey-sense had intensified since they'd arrived in the city, a persistent hum that set his nerves on edge. He tried to focus on the conversation, pushing down the rising tide of unease.

"What about the robotics showcase?" Ned suggested, his enthusiasm undampened. "It starts at 3:30." His fingers danced across the keys, pulling up the details of the event.

"That sounds cool," Peter agreed, forcing a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "We could do both if we hurry." He tried to match his friends' enthusiasm, but the nagging sense of danger lingered, a dark cloud on the horizon.

As they discussed their plans, weighing the pros and cons of different exhibits and presentations, the excitement in the room was palpable. Despite Peter's underlying unease, he couldn't help but feel a thrill of anticipation for the night ahead, the promise of new discoveries and technological wonders just within reach.

"And then the opening ceremony at 7," MJ said, circling the time on Ned's tablet with a decisive tap. "That's the big one." Her voice held a note of finality, a recognition of the importance of the event they had all been waiting for.

They all nodded in agreement, a silent pact forged between them. Whatever else they managed to see today, the opening ceremony was the main event, the culmination of their efforts and the reason they had come to this bustling metropolis. None of them could have guessed just how eventful it would turn out to be, the night unfolding in ways they could never have anticipated.

**********

As the Stark Expo buzzed with excitement, Ivan Vanko moved through the shadows with calculated precision. He had spent months planning this moment, studying blueprints, security protocols, and staff rotations. Now, dressed in the uniform of a maintenance worker, he blended seamlessly into the background.

Vanko's first step was to disable a section of the perimeter sensors. He approached a maintenance panel, casually glancing around before pulling out a small device. With practiced ease, he connected it to the panel, bypassing the security protocols in seconds. The sensors went dark, creating a blind spot in the Expo's defenses.

With the path clear, Vanko signaled to his accomplices waiting in a nearby van. They quickly unloaded several large crates, disguised as standard equipment deliveries. Vanko led them through the blind spot, guiding them to a service entrance he had identified during his reconnaissance.

Inside, Vanko and his team moved swiftly through the service corridors. They avoided the main exhibition areas, sticking to the less-traveled paths used by the Expo staff. Vanko had memorized the patrol schedules, timing their movements to avoid security guards.

The crates were wheeled into a storage area near the main arena. Once there, Vanko dismissed his accomplices, who left as inconspicuously as they had arrived. Alone with the crates, Vanko began the delicate process of unpacking and assembling his drones.

Each drone was a marvel of compact engineering, designed to unfold from its compact storage form into a lethal machine. Vanko worked methodically, his fingers moving with practiced precision as he connected power sources and activated control systems.

As he worked, Vanko kept one ear tuned to his surroundings, ready to conceal his activities at a moment's notice. But his planning paid off - no one disturbed him as he prepared his weapons of vengeance.

As the last drone clicked into place, Ivan Vanko stepped back to survey his work. The storage room, once filled with mundane supplies, now housed a deadly arsenal. Each drone stood ready, their sleek forms a testament to Vanko's engineering prowess and burning desire for revenge.

Satisfied with the placement, Vanko activated the standby mode on each drone. They hummed softly, awaiting the command that would unleash them upon the unsuspecting crowd.

With a final glance around the room, Vanko slipped out, careful to leave no trace of his presence. He moved through the service corridors with practiced ease, his maintenance uniform allowing him to blend in with the bustling Expo staff.

Vanko made his way to a secluded area he had scouted earlier. It was a small maintenance platform, tucked away in the rafters above the main stage. From this vantage point, he had a clear view of the ceremony area while remaining hidden from casual observation.

He settled into position, pulling out a laptop from his bag. This would be his command center, allowing him to direct the drones with precision when the time came. Vanko's eyes gleamed with anticipation as he looked down at the stage where Tony Stark would soon appear.

**********

The atmosphere at the Stark Expo opening night crackled with excitement. Crowds of people from all walks of life streamed through the gates, their faces lit up with anticipation. The air buzzed with chatter and laughter as attendees discussed the innovations they hoped to see, their voices mingling into a cacophony of eager whispers and exclamations.

Peter, MJ, and Ned made their way through the throng, their eyes wide as they took in the spectacle. Colorful banners and holographic displays adorned every available surface, showcasing Stark Industries' latest achievements and promises for the future, casting a kaleidoscope of light and color across the awestruck faces of the onlookers.

"This is incredible," Ned breathed, his head swiveling to take in all the sights, his gaze darting from one marvel to the next, unable to settle on any single wonder for more than a few seconds.

MJ nodded, her usual skepticism momentarily forgotten in the face of such grandeur, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips as she allowed herself to be swept up in the infectious energy of the crowd. "I have to admit, Stark knows how to put on a show," she conceded, her tone tinged with reluctant admiration.

Peter, despite his spidey-sense, couldn't help but be caught up in the excitement. The trio weaved through the crowd, stopping occasionally to examine particularly interesting exhibits or demonstrations, their eyes wide with wonder and their minds buzzing with questions.

As they approached the main stage where Tony Stark would soon make his appearance, the energy of the crowd seemed to intensify, like a wave cresting before it crashes upon the shore. People jostled for better positions, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the man of the hour, their voices rising in a crescendo of anticipation.

"I can't believe we're actually here," Peter said, a mix of awe and nervousness in his voice, his heart pounding in his chest as the gravity of the moment settled upon him.

The anticipation reached a fever pitch as the lights dimmed and music began to swell, the opening notes of a triumphant fanfare echoing through the vast space. The crowd's roar grew louder, drowning out individual voices as everyone prepared for Tony Stark's grand entrance, a collective holding of breath as the world waited for the man who had captured their imaginations to take the stage.

The lights dimmed, and a hush fell over the crowd as a reverent silence descended upon the massive arena. The towering screens surrounding the stage flickered to life, displaying grainy, black and white footage of Howard Stark at the original Stark Expo decades ago. His voice, tinged with the crackle of static, echoed through the cavernous space, transporting the audience back in time.

"Welcome to the Stark Expo, where the future is now!"

The audience watched, mesmerized, as the video transitioned seamlessly between past and present, a stunning display of technological evolution. Images of Howard's groundbreaking innovations blended seamlessly with Tony's cutting-edge achievements, showcasing the remarkable progress of Stark technology over the decades. The sleek, advanced Iron Man suits, the revolutionary arc reactor technology, and tantalizing glimpses of state-of-the-art medical advancements flashed across the screens in rapid succession, leaving the crowd in awe.

As the video neared its climactic end, the music swelled to a crescendo of anticipation, building the tension to a fever pitch. The screens abruptly went dark for a moment, enveloping the arena in darkness and eliciting a collective gasp from the audience. Suddenly, a familiar voice boomed through the speakers, shattering the silence.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the man of the hour, Tony Stark!"

The crowd erupted in a deafening roar of cheers and applause as Tony Stark himself descended from above, clad in his latest, sleek Iron Man suit. He landed center stage with a resounding thud that reverberated through the floor, the suit disassembling around him in a mesmerizing display, revealing a sharp, tailored suit underneath.

Tony raised his arms in a grand gesture, basking in the adoration of the audience like a rock star. His trademark, co*cksure grin spread across his face as he surveyed the sea of excited faces before him, drinking in their energy and enthusiasm.

"Welcome, everyone, to the future!" Tony's voice carried across the arena with ease, eliciting another round of thunderous applause. "It's good to be back!"

As Tony began his opening speech, his words dripping with charisma and confidence, Peter, MJ, and Ned exchanged glances, their expressions a mix of awe and excitement. Despite the electric atmosphere, Peter couldn't shake his spidey-sense clamoring for his attention, a subtle warning that something wasn't quite right. He scanned the crowd, his keen eyes searching for any sign of danger, but saw nothing out of the ordinary amidst the sea of enraptured faces.

Tony Stark's voice filled the arena, his words captivating the audience with their passion and conviction. "Tonight, we're not just celebrating innovation. We're celebrating the human spirit, the drive to push boundaries and redefine what's possible."

The crowd hung on his every word, their eyes fixed on the charismatic figure on stage, hanging on his every utterance like it was gospel.

"When my father started this expo, he dreamed of a better world. Today, we're not just dreaming - we're building it. From clean energy to medical breakthroughs, we're tackling the biggest challenges of our time head-on, and we're winning."

Cheers erupted from the audience, a wave of excitement rippling through the crowd. In their seats, Peter, MJ, and Ned exchanged excited glances, their eyes shining with inspiration and anticipation.

Tony continued, his passion evident in his voice and animated gestures. "But this isn't just about Stark Industries. It's about all of you. The inventors, the dreamers, the problem-solvers. You are the future, and this expo is your playground, your canvas to paint the world anew."

A woman near the front wiped away a tear, moved by Tony's impassioned words and the promise they held. A group of young engineers high-fived each other, their faces alight with inspiration and determination, ready to take on the world.

"So I challenge you: Think big. Take risks. Fail spectacularly, then get back up and try again. Because that's how we change the world, one bold idea at a time."

The audience erupted in thunderous applause, a wave of cheers and whistles crashing through the arena like a tidal wave. Tony's eyes scanned the crowd, his smile widening at their unbridled enthusiasm and shared sense of purpose.

"Now, let's make some magic happen. Ladies and gentlemen, I declare the Stark Expo officially open!"

As Tony's final words echoed through the arena, the crowd went wild, leaping to their feet in a frenzy of applause and cheers. People jumped and danced, clapping and whistling, lost in the electric energy that crackled through the air. The sense of excitement and possibility was palpable, a tangible force that swept through the arena, inspiring and invigorating all who felt its touch. In that moment, the future seemed limitless, a vast expanse of untapped potential waiting to be seized by those daring enough to reach for it.

**********

As Tony's speech concluded and the crowd erupted in applause, Peter's spidey-sense intensified to an almost painful degree. His eyes darted around the arena, searching for any sign of danger. MJ and Ned, caught up in the excitement, didn't immediately notice Peter's growing unease. A prickling sensation ran down Peter's spine, warning him of an impending threat that seemed to lurk within the very walls of the Expo.

"Guys," Peter said, his voice tight with tension. "Something's wrong."

MJ turned to him, her smile fading as she saw the serious expression on his face. Concern etched across her features as she realized the gravity of the situation. "What is it, Peter?"

"I don't know exactly, but my spidey-sense is going crazy. We need to be ready for anything." Peter's muscles tensed, his body poised for action, ready to spring into motion at the slightest provocation.

Ned's eyes widened, his brow furrowing with worry. "You think someone's going to attack the Expo?"

Peter nodded grimly, his jaw set with determination. "It feels like it. We need to warn Jarvis."

As discreetly as possible, Peter pulled out his phone and sent a quick message to Jarvis, his fingers tapping urgently on the screen: "Danger imminent at Expo. Not sure what, but be on high alert."

The response came almost instantly, a reassuring ping amidst the chaos: "Understood. Initiating security protocols. Stay safe."

Peter turned back to his friends, his gaze resolute. "Jarvis is on it, but we need to be prepared too. MJ, Ned, I want you two to start moving towards the exits. Slowly, don't draw attention."

MJ frowned, her eyes narrowing with concern. "What about you?"

"I'm going to try and spot whatever's causing this feeling. Maybe I can prevent it before it starts." Peter's voice was laced with a steely determination, his desire to protect those around him burning bright.

Ned looked worried, his brow creased with apprehension. "Peter, you promised not to do anything Spider-Man-y."

"I know, but if people are in danger, I can't just stand by. I'll be careful, I promise." Peter's words carried a weight of conviction, a willingness to shoulder the burden of responsibility that came with his powers.

As MJ and Ned reluctantly began to make their way through the crowd, their movements cautious and measured, Peter scanned the area more intently. His eyes swept over the cheering audience, the security personnel, the screens lining the side walls. Somewhere in this sea of excitement and innovation, a threat was lurking, ready to strike. Peter's senses were heightened, his body coiled like a spring, ready to face whatever danger lay ahead.

**********

As the applause died down, Tony Stark basked in the glow of his successful presentation. His eyes sparkled with pride and excitement, a satisfied smile playing on his lips. He waved to the crowd, soaking in their adoration and enthusiasm.

Suddenly, a series of explosions rocked the expo center. The ground shook, and screams of confusion and fear replaced the cheers of moments ago. Tony's smile vanished, replaced by a look of shock and disbelief.

From hidden locations throughout the expo, Vanko's drones burst forth. They were sleek, agile machines, their weapons trained not on the fleeing crowds but on the exhibits and structures around them. Lasers sliced through displays, and small missiles targeted the larger installations.

Tony watched in horror as his vision of the future crumbled around him. The drones moved with precision, systematically destroying the fruits of Stark Industries' labor. Holographic displays flickered and died, cutting-edge prototypes sparked and smoked, and carefully crafted presentations were reduced to rubble.

In the crowd, Peter's spidey-sense reached a fever pitch. He watched as people scrambled for the exits, their faces contorted with fear. But he also noticed that the drones seemed focused solely on destruction of property, not harming civilians.

Tony snapped out of his initial shock and sprang into action. "Jarvis, deploy the suit!" he shouted, his voice barely audible over the chaos. As the Iron Man armor began to assemble around him, Tony's mind raced, trying to comprehend how this attack had blindsided him so completely.

The contrast between the hopeful atmosphere of moments ago and the current pandemonium was stark. Where there had been wonder and excitement, now there was only fear and destruction. Tony's confident posture was replaced by a defensive stance as he prepared to face this unexpected threat.

Tony's mind shifted into high gear. "Jarvis, get Rhodes on the line. Now!" he commanded, his voice steady despite the mayhem engulfing the Stark Expo. The chaos unfolding around him was a stark contrast to the celebratory atmosphere just moments ago.

"Right away, sir," Jarvis responded, his calm tone a beacon of composure amidst the pandemonium surrounding them. Within seconds, Rhodes' voice crackled through Tony's comm system, laced with urgency.

"Tony, what the hell is going on out there?"

"We've got uninvited guests, Rhodey. Suit up and meet me in the air. We need to contain this situation," Tony replied, his eyes scanning the destruction around him, taking in the full scope of the attack. Exhibits lay in ruins, infrastructure crumbling under the onslaught of the unknown assailants.

Rhodes, who had been waiting backstage for his cue to join Tony, didn't hesitate for a moment. "On my way," he confirmed, his voice resolute as he moved swiftly towards his War Machine armor, ready to face the threat head-on.

As the Iron Man suit finished assembling around Tony, he took to the air, hovering above the panicked crowd like a sentinel. From this vantage point, he could see the full extent of the drone attack. The machines moved with eerie precision, targeting exhibits and infrastructure while seemingly avoiding civilian casualties, their motives shrouded in mystery.

"Jarvis, analyze these drones. What are we dealing with?" Tony asked, his eyes narrowing as he watched the destruction unfold, his mind already strategizing.

"Scanning now, sir," Jarvis replied, his artificial intelligence processing the data at lightning speed. "The drones appear to be highly advanced, with weaponry specifically designed for maximum property damage. Their flight patterns suggest a coordinated attack."

Rhodes joined Tony in the air, the War Machine armor gleaming under the expo lights like a beacon of hope. "What's the plan, Tony?" he asked, his voice tense but focused, ready for whatever lay ahead.

"We need to take these things out without causing any more collateral damage," Tony responded, his mind weighing the options. "Jarvis, can you identify a control source?"

"Working on it, sir," Jarvis replied, his calculations ongoing. "The drones seem to be receiving commands from an encrypted signal. It will take time for me to track it down."

Tony and Rhodes exchanged a glance through their faceplates, a silent understanding passing between the two friends. "Divide and conquer?" Rhodes suggested, his voice laced with determination.

"You read my mind," Tony agreed, a hint of his trademark confidence shining through. "You focus on protecting the civilians. I'll go after the drones and shut this party down." With a nod, the two heroes sprang into action, ready to face the unknown threat head-on.

**********

Peter's heart raced as he watched the chaos unfold around him. His spidey-sense screamed danger, but he knew he couldn't reveal his identity as Spider-Man. The internal conflict tore at him - the desire to help warring with the need to stay hidden.

Ducking behind an overturned exhibit, Peter scanned the area. He spotted a secluded corner near some scaffolding, perfect for his covert operation. With practiced agility, he slipped through the panicked crowd, keeping low and out of sight.

Once in position, Peter assessed the situation. The drones buzzed overhead, focused on destroying the expo's displays. He took a deep breath, steadying his nerves. This was it - he had to act without being seen.

Peter flicked his wrist, a thin strand of webbing shooting out. He aimed for a drone's propeller, the sticky substance gumming up its works. The machine sputtered and crashed into a nearby wall, crumpling on impact.

Encouraged by his success, Peter continued his stealthy assault. He used quick, controlled bursts of webbing, targeting weak points in the drones' designs. Each shot was calculated, meant to look like a malfunction rather than an attack.

As he worked, Peter's mind raced. He knew the risks of using his powers, even covertly. If anyone noticed the webs, questions would arise. But he couldn't stand by and do nothing while people were in danger.

Peter moved from shadow to shadow, using the expo's damaged structures as cover. He pulled down drones with well-placed web shots, smashing them against the ground or into each other. His movements were fluid and precise, years of practice allowing him to work efficiently even under pressure.

Despite his efforts, Peter felt frustration building. There were so many drones, and he could only do so much while staying hidden. He longed to swing into action fully, to use all his abilities to protect the people around him. But he knew the consequences of revealing Spider-Man before the world was ready could be catastrophic.

**********

As chaos erupted at the Stark Expo, the enhanced security protocols implemented by Jarvis sprang into action. Trained personnel, guided by the AI's real-time analysis, began efficiently directing attendees towards the nearest exits. Emergency lights flickered to life, illuminating escape routes and guiding the panicked crowd to safety.

Happy Hogan, who had been overseeing security operations, barked orders into his comm device, coordinating with his team to ensure a smooth evacuation. "Keep the exits clear! Priority on getting civilians out safely!" he shouted, his voice barely audible over the din of screams and explosions.

Meanwhile, the drones continued their relentless assault on the expo's exhibits. Lasers sliced through delicate prototypes, while small missiles reduced larger installations to smoking rubble. The once-pristine showcases of innovation now lay in ruins, sparking and smoldering.

Peter, still working covertly from the shadows, managed to take down several drones with his webbing. His efforts, combined with those of Tony and Rhodes in their armored suits, helped slow the destruction. However, the sheer number of drones made it impossible to prevent all damage.

As the minutes ticked by, the expo center gradually emptied of civilians. The enhanced security measures proved effective, with only minor injuries reported among the fleeing attendees. Medical teams stationed outside tended to those in need, while police cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from re-entering the danger zone.

Inside, the battle raged on. Iron Man and War Machine soared through the expo center, their armor gleaming under the flickering lights. The drones, sleek and nimble, darted around them like metallic wasps. Tony fired his repulsors, but the agile machines easily evaded his blasts.

"These things are fast!" Rhodes grunted, his shoulder-mounted gun spitting bullets at a cluster of drones. The machines scattered, regrouping in a tight formation before diving towards another exhibit.

Tony barrel-rolled to avoid a laser blast, the beam scorching the air where he'd been moments before. "Jarvis, any luck on that signal source?"

"Still working on it, sir. The encryption is highly sophisticated," Jarvis replied.

The drones moved with uncanny precision, weaving through the debris-strewn air. They seemed to anticipate the heroes' moves, always staying just out of reach. When Tony or Rhodes managed to destroy one, two more appeared to take its place.

Rhodes fired a smart missile, watching it curve through the air towards a group of drones. At the last second, the machines split apart, the missile sailing harmlessly between them before detonating against a wall.

"Damn it!" Rhodes cursed, dodging return fire from the drones.

Tony swooped low, trying to corral a group of drones into a tight space. "Rhodey, on your six!"

Rhodes spun, his minigun spinning up. He unleashed a hail of bullets, catching two drones mid-flight. They exploded in showers of sparks and twisted metal.

But for every small victory, the drones seemed to adapt. They learned the heroes' patterns, adjusting their flight paths to stay one step ahead. Their lasers sliced through exhibits with surgical precision, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

Tony and Rhodes found themselves constantly on the defensive, unable to mount a sustained counterattack against the swarm of agile machines. The drones' speed and maneuverability made them nearly impossible to pin down, forcing the armored heroes to expend precious energy just trying to keep up.

As the battle raged on, it became clear that brute force alone wouldn't be enough to overcome this threat. The drones' agility and coordinated attacks pushed Iron Man and War Machine to their limits, turning the once-grand expo into a chaotic battlefield of destruction and evasion.

Just as it seemed the onslaught would never end, a glimmer of hope appeared. One of the drones started to falter mid-flight, its movements becoming erratic before it plummeted to the ground. Tony, noticing the change, called out to Jarvis for an explanation.

"Sir, it appears the drones' power sources are depleting rapidly," Jarvis reported. "My analysis suggests they were designed for a short, intense attack rather than sustained combat. Regrettably, these drones arrived in successive waves, their power contingent upon the extent of their weapons' deployment. Following the initial burst of devastation, the drones appear to be conserving their energy reserves, as if anticipating a future, more crucial engagement.

Tony processed Jarvis's analysis quickly, his mind racing to formulate a new strategy. He glanced at Rhodes, who was still engaged in aerial combat with a group of drones.

"Rhodey, did you catch that?" Tony called out through their comm link.

"Yeah, I heard," Rhodes replied, narrowly dodging a laser blast. "So what's the play?"

Tony weighed their options. "We've got two choices. We can play the waiting game, let these things burn themselves out. Or we need to find their source and shut it down fast."

Rhodes grunted as he fired a repulsor blast at an approaching drone. "Waiting them out could mean more destruction. Any luck on tracking their signal?"

"Jarvis is working on it, but no breakthrough yet," Tony responded, frustration evident in his voice.

As they continued to fend off the relentless swarm, Peter watched from his hidden vantage point, his mind racing to find a solution. He had overheard their conversation through his enhanced hearing and knew they were quickly running out of options. The young hero's eyes darted around, desperately searching for any clue or advantage that could turn the tide.

Ned and MJ, who had made it safely outside, huddled together near the expo entrance. They watched the chaos unfold with bated breath, worry etched on their faces as their friend battled the seemingly endless onslaught of drones. Ned shifted nervously, feeling helpless in the face of such overwhelming force. "There's got to be something we can do," he muttered, his voice tinged with frustration.

MJ squeezed his arm reassuringly, her gaze never leaving the conflict. "Peter's in there. He'll figure something out," she said, trying to project a confidence she didn't entirely feel. Her faith in her friend was unwavering, but even she couldn't deny the dire circ*mstances they found themselves in.

Meanwhile, Tony and Rhodes continued their defensive maneuvers, growing increasingly frustrated with their inability to gain the upper hand. The drones seemed to anticipate their every move, adapting and countering their strategies with alarming efficiency. Rhodes narrowly avoided a barrage of energy blasts, his armor scorched by the near misses. "We need a miracle," he shouted over the din of battle, his voice strained with exertion.

Tony's jaw clenched as he surveyed the chaos around them. "Or we need to outsmart them," he replied, his analytical mind already at work. "There's got to be a pattern to their attacks, something we're missing." The genius billionaire knew their only hope lay in uncovering the underlying logic behind the drones' relentless assault.

As they fought on, the fate of the expo hung in the balance, the heroes caught between two difficult choices: wait out the drones and risk further damage to the already battered venue, or find a way to locate and neutralize the source of the attack before it was too late. Time was running out, and a solution seemed frustratingly out of reach, but they refused to give up. With determination etched on their faces, they pressed on, unwilling to let the expo fall to the merciless onslaught.

**********

Peter watched the battle unfold, his mind racing. He could see Tony and Rhodes struggling against the swarm of drones, their efforts seeming futile. An idea struck him.

He pulled out his phone and dialed Ned's number, keeping his voice low. "Ned, I need your help."

"Peter? Are you okay? What's going on in there?" Ned's voice crackled with concern.

"I'm fine, but we've got a problem. These drones are too much for Iron Man and War Machine. I need you to try hacking them."

There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Hack them? Peter, those are probably some of the most advanced tech out there. I don't know if I can-"

"You've got to try," Peter insisted, his tone urgent. "You're the best hacker I know. If anyone can do it, it's you."

Ned took a deep breath, steeling his resolve. "Okay, okay. I'll give it a shot. But I'll need to get closer to boost my signal."

Peter glanced around, spotting a relatively safe area near the expo's outer wall. "There's a spot by the east wall. It should be safe enough. I'll keep an eye out for you."

Ned nodded, even though Peter couldn't see him. "Alright, I'm on my way. Just be careful, man."

As Ned and MJ made their way to the designated spot, Peter kept a vigilant watch, ready to intervene if any drones got too close. Ned set up his laptop, his fingers trembling slightly as he began to type, the weight of the situation bearing down on him.

"Okay, here goes nothing," Ned muttered, initiating his first attempt to breach the drones' defenses.

Lines of code flashed across his screen as Ned probed for weaknesses in the drones' systems. His brow furrowed in concentration, sweat beading on his forehead as he worked feverishly, the sound of explosions and repulsor blasts echoing in the distance.

"Come on, come on," he whispered, fingers flying over the keyboard with practiced precision.

Peter watched anxiously, dividing his attention between Ned and the ongoing battle above. He could see the strain on his friend's face as Ned grappled with the complex security measures protecting the drones, his determination unwavering.

Ned's fingers flew across the keyboard, his face illuminated by the glow of his laptop screen. Muttered curses and words of encouragement could be heard as he navigated through layers of complex code, his mind working at lightning speed. After what felt like an eternity, a triumphant grin spread across his face, his eyes alight with victory.

"I'm in!" he exclaimed, his voice a mix of excitement and disbelief, the weight of the moment not lost on him.

Peter, still hidden nearby, felt a surge of hope course through him. "Can you shut them down?" he whispered urgently, his heart pounding in his chest.

Ned's smile faltered as he delved deeper into the drones' systems. His brow furrowed, and he bit his lip in concentration. "It's not that simple," he muttered, more to himself than to Peter. "The drones are receiving commands from a central hub. I can see the data flow, but I can't interrupt it from here."

Frustration welled up inside Ned as he realized the limitations of his remote access. He clenched his fists, taking a deep breath to calm himself. "Peter, we need to get to the master computer," he said, his voice tight with determination. "These drones are just puppets. To cut the strings, we need to take out the puppeteer."

Peter's heart sank at the news, but he admired Ned's resolve. "Any idea where this master computer might be?"

Ned's eyes darted across his screen, analyzing the data streams. "Based on the signal strength and patterns, I'd guess it's somewhere within three hundred or so feet from us. But that's still a lot of ground to cover."

As Ned spoke, he continued to probe the system, looking for any clue that might narrow down the location. His fingers moved with renewed purpose, fueled by a mix of frustration and determination. He knew he was so close to cracking this problem wide open, and the thought of failure was not an option.

"Come on, come on," Ned muttered, his eyes scanning line after line of code. "There's got to be something here, some kind of identifier or location data."

Peter watched his friend work, impressed by Ned's focus and skill. "You've got this, Ned," he encouraged softly. "If anyone can figure this out, it's you."

"I've got it!" Ned cried, his eyes lighting up with excitement. He pointed up towards the rafters of the expo hall. "He's up there!"

Peter followed Ned's gaze, spotting a shadowy figure perched high above the chaos. His enhanced vision allowed him to make out the outline of a man hunched over what appeared to be a laptop or control panel.

Peter's heart raced as he processed the information Ned had uncovered. The puppeteer controlling the drones was within reach, but getting to him would be a daunting task. His mind whirled with the potential consequences of each choice before him.

If he went after the computer, he risked leaving Tony and Rhodes to fend off the relentless swarm alone. The two heroes were already being pushed to their limits, and Peter feared that without his aid, they might become overwhelmed, sustaining serious injuries or worse.

On the other hand, if he stayed and helped them fight off the drones, they would be forced to wait until the machines' batteries depleted, a prospect that filled Peter with dread. Every minute they delayed meant more destruction, more risk to innocent lives caught in the crossfire.

Peter's fingers twitched, itching to don his Spider-Man suit and leap into action. With his enhanced abilities, he could provide much-needed support to Iron Man and War Machine, potentially turning the tide of the battle. But doing so would also mean revealing Spider-Man to the world, a risk he had been trying to avoid.

His gaze flickered between the distant figure of the puppeteer and the ongoing battle below. Tony and Rhodes were fighting valiantly, but their movements were growing sluggish, their armor battered and scorched by the drones' relentless attacks.

As Peter grappled with his internal conflict, MJ's eyes narrowed with determination. She'd been observing the situation and had overheard enough to understand the gravity of the situation. Knowing that time was of the essence, she formulated a plan to assist her friends in their mission.

"Don't worry, loser. I got this," she muttered, more to herself than to Peter or Ned. Without hesitation, she slipped back behind the wall, her phone pressed to her ear. Her mind raced, analyzing the chaos unfolding around her as she sought the most efficient path forward.

"Ned, I need you to guide me," she whispered, her eyes scanning the surroundings with keen awareness. "Tell me how to get to that master computer."

Ned's voice crackled through the phone, surprise evident in his tone. "MJ? What are you doing?"

"Saving the day, apparently," she replied dryly, her lips curling into a wry smile. "Now, which way?"

As Ned began to guide her, MJ moved with surprising stealth, her movements fluid and purposeful. She ducked behind overturned tables and slipped through shadows, her body poised and her senses alert. When a group of panicked attendees rushed past, she blended seamlessly into their midst, using the crowd as cover with practiced ease.

"Take the next left," Ned instructed, his voice a steady anchor amid the chaos. "There should be a service stairway that leads up to the catwalks."

MJ spotted the door and made her way towards it, her heart pounding but her face set in a mask of calm determination. As she reached for the handle, a gruff voice behind her made her freeze, her muscles tensing in anticipation of the next challenge that lay ahead.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?"

MJ turned to see a stocky man with slicked-back hair and a no-nonsense expression. She recognized him as Happy Hogan, Tony Stark's head of security. Thinking quickly, MJ fixed Happy with a serious look. "There's a guy in the rafters controlling the drones," she said, her voice low and urgent. "I can get to him, but I need your help."

Happy's eyebrows shot up in surprise at the unexpected request from the young woman. He eyed her skeptically, trying to gauge her motives and trustworthiness. "And why should I believe you?" he asked gruffly, his years of experience dealing with potential threats making him cautious.

MJ gestured towards the chaos unfolding above them, where Iron Man and War Machine were engaged in a fierce aerial battle against the rogue drones. "Because right now, Iron Man and War Machine are fighting a losing battle," she replied, her tone resolute. "And I'm your best shot at ending this."

Happy's gaze followed her gesture, taking in the dire situation. He could see that the two armored Avengers were struggling to gain the upper hand against the relentless swarm of drones. A muscle twitched in his jaw as he weighed his options, torn between his duty to protect civilians and the potential opportunity to turn the tide of the battle. MJ held his gaze steadily, her determination unwavering in the face of his scrutiny.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Happy let out a resigned sigh, the weight of the decision evident in his expression. "Alright, kid. But you follow my lead, got it?" he conceded, his tone leaving no room for argument.

Relief flooded through MJ as she nodded in agreement, grateful for Happy's trust despite his initial skepticism. As the seasoned security chief moved towards the service door, she couldn't help but feel a small thrill of excitement coursing through her veins.

MJ and Happy crept up the metal staircase, their footsteps muffled against the din of the battle raging below. Happy led the way, his bulky frame moving with surprising agility. MJ followed close behind, her eyes darting between Happy's back and the path ahead.

As they neared the top of the stairs, Happy held up a hand, signaling MJ to stop. He peered around the corner, assessing the situation. Ivan Vanko sat hunched over a laptop, his fingers flying across the keyboard as he directed the drone swarm.

Happy turned back to MJ, his voice barely above a whisper. "Stay here. I'll take care of him."

MJ nodded, her heart pounding in her chest as Happy moved silently towards Vanko. Just as Happy was about to reach him, a drone buzzed uncomfortably close to the catwalk, causing the metal to vibrate. Vanko's head snapped up, alerted by the disturbance.

In that split second, Happy lunged forward. His fist connected with Vanko's jaw, sending the man sprawling. Vanko, caught off guard but quick to recover, reached for a gun nearby. Happy intercepted, grappling with Vanko as they struggled for control.

MJ's eyes darted around the catwalk, searching for anything she could use as a weapon. Her eyes landed on a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall nearby. Without hesitation, she rushed towards it, her fingers wrapping around the canister's handle. As she pulled it from its mounting, she was struck by its unexpected weight, the solid metal cylinder feeling heavier than she had anticipated.

Gritting her teeth, MJ lifted the extinguisher, her muscles straining under the burden. She could feel the sweat beading on her brow as she fought against the extinguisher's mass, her arms trembling with the effort.

Across the catwalk, Happy and Vanko grappled, their bodies locked in a fierce struggle for dominance. Happy's face was contorted with exertion as he fought to subdue the wiry Russian, his grip slipping with each passing second.

MJ knew she had to act fast. With a sharp twist of her wrist, she pulled the extinguisher's safety pin, her heart pounding in her chest. Taking a deep breath, she aimed the nozzle near the combatants and squeezed the lever.

A deafening hiss erupted from the extinguisher as a thick cloud of white powder billowed forth, engulfing the catwalk in a hazy mist. The sound was unmistakable, cutting through the cacophony of the ongoing battle below.

Happy's head whipped around, his eyes widening as he caught sight of MJ wielding the extinguisher. In that split second, he understood her intention, and a look of relief washed over his features. In one swift motion, Happy twisted his body, using Vanko's momentum against him. He rolled onto his back, putting Vanko on top of him. He pushed with all of his might causing Vanko to rise up and putting him in the direct line of fire.

MJ didn't hesitate. As Vanko's face came into view, she stepped forward and released the choking white powder in his face.

Disoriented and shouting curses in Russian, Vanko scrambled to clear his vision, the thick white powder clinging to his eyes and nose. He swiped frantically at his face, his movements erratic and desperate as he struggled to regain his sight.

Happy seized the opportunity, lunging forward and delivering a powerful punch to Vanko's jaw. The force of the blow snapped Vanko's head back, causing him to stagger. Happy followed up with another strike, his fist connecting with Vanko's cheekbone.

Vanko grunted in pain, but his training kicked in, and he lashed out blindly, his fists swinging wildly. One of his blows glanced off Happy's shoulder, but the security chief remained undeterred, his focus unwavering.

With a growl, Happy grabbed Vanko by the collar of his shirt and pulled him close, his face contorted with fury. He delivered a series of rapid-fire punches, each one landing with sickening precision.

Vanko's head snapped back with each blow, his body growing limp as the onslaught continued. Blood spattered from his split lip, and his eyes rolled back in his head, the fight slowly draining from his body.

Finally, with one last forceful strike, Happy sent Vanko crumpling to the catwalk, unconscious.

MJ watched the scene unfold with a mixture of awe and apprehension, the fire extinguisher still clutched tightly in her hands. She had never witnessed such raw violence up close, and the sight of Vanko's battered form sent a shiver down her spine. The fire extinguisher slipped from her grasp, clattering loudly on the metal catwalk. Her breath came in short, sharp gasps as the reality of what she'd just done sank in.

A groan from Happy snapped her out of her shock. "Oh god, Happy!" she exclaimed, rushing to his side. She helped him sit up, her eyes scanning him for any visible injuries. A small trickle of blood ran down from the corner of his mouth, but he seemed relatively unharmed.

"I'm fine, kid," Happy grunted, wincing as he rubbed his jaw. "That was a damn good idea you had there."

As Happy struggled to his feet, he fixed MJ with a curious look. "How did you know about Vanko?"

MJ shook her head, her mind racing. There was no time to explain. "No time," she said quickly, snatching up her phone from where it had fallen during the scuffle. She could hear Ned's frantic voice coming through the speaker.

"MJ? MJ! Are you okay? What happened?"

"I'm fine, Ned," she assured him, her voice steadier than she felt. The adrenaline was still coursing through her veins, but she forced herself to remain calm. "We got him. But we need to stop these drones."

MJ hurried over to the laptop Vanko had been using, her eyes scanning the complex display of code and commands. It was like a foreign language that she could only speak a few words of, but she knew Ned could guide her through it. "Ned, I'm at the computer. Tell me what to do."

Ned's voice crackled through the phone as MJ positioned herself in front of Vanko's laptop. "Okay, MJ, I need you to focus. We've got one shot at this."

MJ's fingers hovered over the keyboard, her heart racing. She could feel Happy's questioning gaze on her back, but she pushed it aside. "I'm ready. What's first?"

"Look for the command prompt. It should already be pulled up," Ned instructed.

MJ's eyes scanned the screen, quickly spotting the window. "Found it."

"Good. Now type in the following command exactly as I say it," Ned said, his voice tense with concentration.

As Ned dictated a series of complex commands, MJ typed furiously, her brow furrowed in concentration. Each keystroke felt like it carried the weight of countless lives. One wrong move, and the consequences could be catastrophic.

Happy watched from nearby, his expression a mix of confusion and suspicion. "How do you kids know about all this?" he demanded, his voice laced with both concern and a hint of accusation.

MJ ignored him, her focus solely on the task at hand. She couldn't afford any distractions, not when so much was at stake.

"Alright, that's the first firewall down," Ned announced, a hint of relief in his voice. "Now we need to access the drone control matrix."

MJ's fingers flew across the keyboard, following Ned's instructions to the letter. With each successful step, she felt a glimmer of hope, but the pressure to succeed only intensified. She could feel the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she refused to let it crush her.

Happy's questions grew more insistent. "Who are you working for? How did you know about this guy?"

MJ gritted her teeth, trying to block out Happy's voice. She couldn't lose focus now, not when they were so close. The lives of innocent people depended on her success.

"We're almost there," Ned encouraged, his voice a beacon of hope in the chaos. "Just a few more commands and we should have control."

As MJ input the final command, the screen flickered. For a heart-stopping moment, nothing happened. Then, one by one, the icons representing the drones began to turn from green to red.

"It's working!" MJ exclaimed, a smile breaking across her face. Relief washed over her, but she knew the battle wasn't over yet.

"Yes!" Ned cheered through the phone. "Now, to shut them down completely, you need to..."

**********

Ivan Vanko's eyes snapped open, his head throbbing from the blow he'd taken. He blinked slowly, trying to make sense of his surroundings. The catwalk, the laptop, the chaos of the drones below – it all came flooding back in a rush of anger and humiliation.

He'd been taken down. Not by Iron Man or War Machine, but by a kid and some overweight nobody. The thought made his blood boil. How could he, the brilliant son of Anton Vanko, be bested by such insignificant peons?

Gritting his teeth, Vanko pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the waves of dizziness that washed over him. His eyes scanned the catwalk, searching for any sign of his attackers.

Ivan Vanko's eyes narrowed as he spotted the girl and Happy Hogan huddled over his laptop. The girl was speaking into her phone, her fingers dancing across the keyboard as she followed instructions from whoever was on the other end.

Rage boiled within Vanko. These fools thought they could stop him? They were nothing but insects to be crushed beneath his heel.

A low growl rumbled in Vanko's throat but he kept it contained as he slipped towards the exit. This wasn't over. Not by a long shot. He would have his revenge on Tony Stark, no matter what it took.

As he descended the stairs, Vanko's mind raced, plotting his next move. His original plan had failed, but he still had one ace up his sleeve – the Whiplash armor. With its powerful whips and enhanced strength, he could take on Iron Man himself.

The thought of facing Stark in direct combat sent a thrill through Vanko's body. This was his chance to prove himself, to show the world that he was more than just a footnote in the Stark legacy.

Fueled by a potent mix of rage and determination, Vanko made his way to the hidden storage room where he'd set up the Whiplash armor. It was a cramped, dingy space, but it had served its purpose well.

As he entered the room, Vanko's eyes fell on the sleek, menacing form of the armor. He ran his fingers over the cold metal, feeling a sense of pride in his creation. This was his masterpiece, the culmination of years of hard work and obsession.

Without hesitation, Vanko began suiting up, each piece of the armor clicking into place with practiced efficiency. The familiar weight of the whips settled comfortably in his hands, and he gave them an experimental crack, relishing in the sound of their power.

As the final components locked into place, Vanko felt a surge of confidence coursing through his veins. He was no longer just a man – he was a force to be reckoned with, a living embodiment of his father's genius and his own burning desire for vengeance.

With a flick of a switch, the Whiplash armor hummed to life, its systems coming online with a soft whir. Vanko flexed his fingers, feeling the power coursing through the suit's hydraulics.

A twisted smile spread across his face as he turned his attention towards the Stark Expo grounds. Stark would be there, basking in the glory of his success, oblivious to the storm that was about to descend upon him.

Vanko's mind was laser-focused, his every thought consumed by the need for retribution. He would make Stark pay for the sins of his father, for the years of humiliation and poverty that his family had endured.

With a grunt of effort, Vanko activated the armor's arc reactors, feeling the strength course through him. He stalked out of the storage room, his whips trailing behind him like deadly serpents, ready to strike.

This was it – the moment he'd been waiting for his entire life. Tony Stark's downfall was at hand, and Ivan Vanko would be the one to deliver it.

**********

Tony and Rhodes watched in astonishment as the swarm of drones suddenly began to drop from the sky, their thrusters sputtering and dying one by one. The two men exchanged a bewildered look, their expressions a mix of relief and confusion. Rhodes' brow furrowed as he muttered, "What the hell is happening?" His eyes tracked the drones as they crashed harmlessly to the ground.

Before Tony could respond, Jarvis's voice crackled through their comms. "Sir, it appears the drones have been disabled remotely."

A frown creased Tony's forehead as he processed Jarvis's words. "By who? And how?"

There was a brief pause, during which Tony could almost picture Jarvis carefully weighing his next words. "I... took care of it, sir," the AI finally replied.

Tony's eyes narrowed, sensing the hesitation in Jarvis's voice. He knew his creation well enough to recognize when something was being held back. Before he could press further, however, Jarvis spoke again, his tone smooth and measured. "My apologies for the deception, sir, but I assure you it was necessary. The situation has been contained, and the threat neutralized."

Rhodes shot Tony a quizzical look, but Tony merely shrugged, deciding to trust Jarvis's judgment for the time being. As the last of the drones clattered to the ground, a tense silence settled over the Expo grounds. The chaos had subsided, but an air of unease lingered, a reminder that the danger was not yet fully averted.

"So, what now?" Rhodes asked, his gaze sweeping over the debris-strewn area. "We still don't know who was behind this attack."

Tony opened his mouth to respond, but before he could utter a word, a shout rang out from across the grounds. "Watch out, Mr. Stark!"

Tony's head snapped towards the sound of the voice, his heart rate spiking as he saw a figure hurtling towards him, whips of glowing energy trailing behind like deadly tentacles. Time seemed to slow as adrenaline flooded his veins, his mind racing to assess the new threat bearing down on him. Without a moment's hesitation, Tony raised his arm, the repulsor in his gauntlet charging up with a high-pitched whine.

Across the Expo grounds, Peter watched the confrontation unfold, his heart pounding in his chest. Peter's fingers twitched, itching to leap into action, but he forced himself to remain still, reminding himself of the plan they had agreed upon.

As Vanko closed the distance, Tony unleashed a powerful repulsor blast, the energy beam searing through the air towards his assailant. But Vanko was ready, his whips lashing out with blinding speed, deflecting the blast and sending it careening harmlessly off into the distance.

Tony's jaw clenched, his eyes narrowing as he took in the formidable foe before him. "Who are you?" he demanded, his voice distorted by the Iron Man suit's modulator.

Vanko didn't answer, his face contorted into a mask of fury as he swung his whips again, their crackling ends slicing through the air like living things, hungry for metal and flesh.

Tony dodged the first strike, but the second whip caught him across the chest, sending sparks flying and leaving a deep gouge in his armor. He grunted in pain, stumbling back a few steps.

Peter tensed, his muscles coiling like springs as he prepared to intervene. But he held back, reminding himself that Tony was more than capable of handling this threat – at least for now.

Vanko pressed his advantage, raining down a flurry of strikes with his whips, each one more ferocious than the last. Tony fought back, his repulsors blazing, but Vanko's armor seemed to shrug off the blows, his whips always finding their mark.

As the battle raged, Peter watched with a mixture of awe and concern, his mind racing with possibilities. He knew he couldn't let Vanko defeat Tony. But he also couldn't reveal himself prematurely, lest he risk altering the timeline in unpredictable ways.

Tony grunted as another blow slammed into his side, the force of the impact nearly knocking him off his feet. He could feel the suit's systems beginning to strain, warning lights flickering across his HUD.

Vanko advanced, his whips coiling like striking snakes, ready to deliver the final blow. But as he raised his arm to strike, a repulsor blast caught him square in the chest, staggering him back.

Tony seized the opportunity, launching a volley of micro-missiles that swarmed towards Vanko like angry hornets. The explosions rocked the armored figure, sending him tumbling to the ground in a tangle of whips and sparking circuitry.

Peter exhaled slowly, his muscles relaxing slightly. It seemed Tony had gained the upper hand – for now. But he remained vigilant, his eyes scanning the area for any sign of further threats.

As the smoke cleared, Vanko rose to his feet, his armor battered but still functional. He glared at Tony with undisguised hatred, his whips lashing out once more.

Tony deftly dodged the whips, his movements fluid and precise. He retaliated with a barrage of repulsor blasts, the energy beams searing through the air and forcing Vanko onto the defensive.

The two combatants traded blows, their armors clashing with a cacophony of screeching metal and crackling energy. It was a battle of wits and reflexes, each trying to outmaneuver the other.

Suddenly, Vanko's whips coiled around Tony's arm, immobilizing him. With a triumphant grin, Vanko prepared to deliver the final blow. But Tony was quicker, his free hand firing a concentrated repulsor burst that shorted out Vanko's armor.

Vanko's whips went limp as his suit's systems failed, leaving him powerless and vulnerable. He collapsed to his knees, gasping for breath as Tony loomed over him, the arc reactor in his chest casting a soft blue glow over the defeated man.

"Who are you?" Tony demanded, his voice laced with a mix of exhaustion and defiance, the strain of their battle evident in his tone.

Vanko looked up, his eyes burning with fury and resentment that had been simmering for years. "Ivan Vanko," he spat, his Russian accent thick with contempt. "Son of the man the Starks destroyed."

Tony frowned, confusion flickering across his features as he tried to make sense of Vanko's words. "What are you talking about?"

"My father, Anton Vanko," Vanko snarled, his hands clenching into fists as he recalled the injustice that had shaped his life. "He was a brilliant scientist, until your father had him deported, left us penniless. All because he was jealous of my father's genius."

Tony shook his head slowly, bewildered by Vanko's words and the depths of his hatred. "I don't know what you're talking about, but if you think attacking me is going to solve anything, you're wrong."

Vanko's lip curled into a sneer, his eyes glinting with a dangerous mix of rage and madness. "I'm not trying to solve anything. I just want revenge for what your family did to mine." His voice was low and menacing, a promise of retribution that had consumed his very being.

Tony's brow furrowed as he processed Vanko's words, trying to understand the twisted motivations that had driven the man to such extremes. He tilted his head, the faceplate of his armor retracting to reveal his perplexed expression, a silent plea for Vanko to see reason.

"So, let me get this straight," Tony said, his voice a mix of incredulity and sarcasm as he hovered in the air, the repulsors on his palms and boots keeping him aloft. "You want to avenge your father who was supposedly betrayed by my father. It has nothing to do with you or me but our fathers, is that correct?"

Vanko glared up at Tony, his eyes burning with a mixture of hatred and frustration, the whips of his suit crackling with energy. "You don't understand," he spat, his words laced with venom. "Your father's actions destroyed my family, left us with nothing. I grew up in poverty because of Howard Stark's greed."

Tony shook his head, a hint of exasperation creeping into his voice as he surveyed the destruction around them, the once-pristine Expo grounds now marred by craters and debris. "Look, I get it. Daddy issues. Trust me, I've got a Ph.D. in that department. But don't you think this is a bit extreme? I mean, building killer drones and whips? That's a lot of effort for a family squabble that happened before we were born."

Vanko's face contorted with rage, his knuckles whitening as he gripped the handles of his whips tighter. "It's not just about the past!" he shouted, his voice echoing across the empty grounds. "It's about what the Stark name represents - the lies, the corruption, the theft of ideas. You parade around as a hero, but you're just continuing your father's legacy of destruction."

Tony's expression hardened, a flicker of anger passing across his features as he remembered the countless lives he had saved since becoming Iron Man. "I'm not my father," he said firmly, his voice carrying a weight of conviction. "And I'm guessing you're not yours either. So why don't we focus on who we are now, instead of living in the shadows of our dads' mistakes?"

Vanko's face twisted into a mirthless grin, his eyes gleaming with a manic light as he took in the destruction around them. He let out a harsh, guttural laugh that sent chills down Tony's spine, the sound reverberating through the empty grounds.

"Oh, but I am focusing on the here and now, Stark," Vanko sneered, his voice dripping with venom as he tapped a sequence into the control panel on his chest plate. "And this moment... this will be your last."

Before Tony could react, a high-pitched whine filled the air, growing louder with each passing second. Tony's eyes widened as realization dawned on him, the sound triggering a familiar dread. "Self-destruct sequence," he muttered, his mind racing to calculate the blast radius and potential casualties even as his suit's sensors began feeding him the grim data.

Without wasting another moment, Tony's faceplate snapped shut, sealing him inside the armor's protective shell. His eyes darted around the area, scanning for any bystanders who might be caught in the impending explosion. To his relief, the immediate vicinity was clear – the earlier chaos had driven most people away from this section of the Expo grounds, leaving only him and the deranged Vanko.

"Jarvis, full power to thrusters," Tony commanded, his voice tight with urgency as he prepared to put as much distance as possible between himself and the imminent detonation.

As the whine from Vanko's suit reached a fever pitch, Tony engaged his repulsors at maximum output. The Iron Man armor shot upwards, streaking into the sky like a red and gold comet, leaving a contrail of ionized air in its wake. Behind him, Vanko's laughter echoed, growing fainter as Tony gained altitude, the sound tinged with a haunting madness.

Seconds later, a massive explosion rocked the Expo grounds, the shockwave buffeting Tony and causing him to tumble through the air momentarily before he regained control. He looked down at the smoking crater where Vanko had been, a mixture of relief and frustration washing over him as he witnessed the destructive aftermath of the other man's twisted vendetta.

**********

Happy Hogan sprung into action as soon as he received the all-clear signal from Rhodes. His face set in a determined frown, he began barking orders to the security team scattered across the Expo grounds.

"Alright, people, let's move! I want a perimeter set up around that crater ASAP. Nobody gets in or out without clearance, you got that?" Happy's voice carried across the chaos, somehow managing to cut through the din of panicked voices and distant sirens.

As his team scrambled to comply, Happy turned his attention to the civilian evacuation. He gestured wildly to a group of security guards near the main entrance. "You three, start directing people towards the exits. Keep it calm, keep it orderly. We don't need a stampede on our hands."

Happy's eyes darted around the area, taking in the scene. Debris littered the ground, smoke still rising from various points across the Expo. He pulled out his phone, quickly dialing the local fire department and emergency services.

"This is Happy Hogan, head of security for Stark Industries. We need immediate assistance at the Stark Expo grounds. Multiple injuries, possible structural damage..." He rattled off the details, his free hand gesturing emphatically even though the person on the other end couldn't see him.

As he ended the call, Happy noticed a group of civilians huddled near one of the damaged exhibits. He jogged over, waving his arms to get their attention. "Hey, folks, we need to clear this area. Please follow the security personnel to the nearest exit."

In his rush to manage the unfolding crisis, Happy noticed MJ slipping away from the crowd. She moved with purpose, blending seamlessly into the chaos as she made her way towards a less crowded area of the Expo. He tried to follow but lost her in the destruction and rubble.

Cursing at himself, Happy continued his rounds, coordinating with local law enforcement as they arrived on the scene. He directed them to key areas, providing quick briefings on what had transpired.

"We've got a situation contained, but we need help with crowd control and securing the perimeter," he explained to a stern-faced police captain. "Our CEO will be providing a full statement soon, but for now, our priority is public safety."

As the cleanup efforts began in earnest, Happy found himself constantly on the move. He oversaw the cordoning off of damaged areas, assisted in guiding medical personnel to those in need of attention, and continued to manage the flow of people out of the Expo grounds.

Tony and Rhodes descended from the sky, their armor-clad forms touching down near Happy Hogan. The head of security's face was a mixture of relief and concern as he saw his boss and friend land safely. He rushed over to greet them, his eyes scanning their battle-worn suits for signs of damage.

"Boss, you alright?" Happy called out, jogging over to meet them.

Tony's faceplate retracted, revealing a weary but determined expression. "Been better, Hap. But I'm still standing." He flexed his armored fingers, assessing the suit's functionality.

Rhodes, his War Machine armor bearing its own set of battle scars, stepped forward. "What's the situation on the ground?"

Happy ran a hand through his hair, his eyes darting around the chaotic scene. Emergency vehicles wailed in the distance, and the sound of shouting and commotion filled the air. "We've got emergency services on-site, dealing with injuries. Security's set up a perimeter around the blast zone. Local law enforcement is helping with crowd control and evacuation."

Tony nodded, his mind already racing with the implications of the attack and the potential fallout they would need to manage. "Any casualties?"

"None reported so far," Happy replied, relief evident in his voice. "Mostly minor injuries from the panic and debris."

Tony turned to Happy and Rhodes, his brow furrowed with confusion. "Do either of you know why those drones suddenly stopped? It wasn't anything I did."

Happy shifted uncomfortably, his face a mix of pride and frustration. "Actually, boss, it was a kid. A teenage girl, to be precise. She was on the phone with someone who talked her through it and somehow managed to hack into the system and shut them down."

Tony's eyes widened in disbelief. "A kid? Are you serious?"

Happy nodded, his expression turning sheepish. "Yeah, I'd say college maybe. I lost her in the chaos afterwards. I'm sorry, Tony. I should have kept a better eye on her."

Rhodes raised an eyebrow, impressed despite the situation. "That's some skill for a teenager."

Tony ran a hand through his hair, his mind racing with the implications. "Jarvis, do we have any camera footage of this mystery hacker?"

There was a brief pause before Jarvis responded, his voice calm and measured. "I'm afraid not, sir. Most of the cameras in that area were either destroyed or had their feeds scrambled during the attack. I have no video matching the description of the girl in question."

Tony frowned, sensing something off about Jarvis's response but unable to put his finger on it. He turned back to Happy, who was still berating himself for losing track of the girl.

"Don't beat yourself up, Hap," Tony said, clapping a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You did what you could in a crazy situation. We'll figure this out."

Rhodes frowned, his military training kicking in as he surveyed the area with a critical eye. "We need to do a full sweep of the area. Despite how well this supposed 'kid' did in shutting down the drones, there might be more surprises waiting for us."

"Agreed," Tony said, turning to Happy. His voice took on a more authoritative tone as he issued instructions. "Hap, I need you to coordinate with local authorities. Make sure we've got eyes on every inch of this place."

Happy nodded, pulling out his phone and starting to make calls immediately. "On it, boss."

As Happy moved away to carry out his orders, Tony turned to Rhodes. His expression grew pensive as he contemplated the events that had just unfolded. "What do you make of this Vanko guy?"

Rhodes shook his head, his expression grim. The aftermath of their battle was still fresh in his mind. "He was skilled, that's for sure. Those whips of his packed a serious punch." He glanced down at the scorched and dented sections of his armor, evidence of the ferocity of Vanko's attack.

"Yeah, and that arc reactor knockoff he was using?" Tony added, his brow furrowed as he considered the implications. "That's not something you just whip up in a garage."

Tony, his expression a mix of curiosity and concern, asks, "Jarvis, do you have anything on this Vanko character?"

There was a brief pause before Jarvis's voice filled the air, calm and precise as always. "Indeed, sir. I've found some interesting information regarding Ivan Vanko's father, Anton Vanko."

Tony's eyebrows raised, his interest piqued. "Go on."

"According to the records, Anton Vanko was a Soviet scientist who, upon immigrating to the United States, became partners with Howard at Stark Industries," Jarvis explained. "Together, they created the first Arc Reactor. However, the partnership didn't last long."

Tony's eyes widened slightly, surprise evident on his face. "Partners? I never heard about this."

"Yes, sir," Jarvis continued. "It appears that Anton Vanko attempted to sell his designs on the black market. As a result, Howard Stark had him deported back to the Soviet Union."

Tony's face hardened, his mind racing with this new information. "So that's why Ivan had such a grudge against the Stark name. His father's fall from grace."

Rhodes nodded grimly. "Looks like the sins of the father came back to haunt us, Tony."

Tony ran a hand through his hair, his expression thoughtful. "Jarvis, is there anything else you can tell us about Anton Vanko after his deportation?"

"No, Sir," Jarvis reported. "After returning to Russia, he fell out of the public eye, as apparently the shame was too much. My records indicate that he lived the rest of his life in poverty and obscurity, eventually passing away in a small village outside of Moscow."

Rhodes mused, his brow furrowed in contemplation. "So the son grows up in poverty hearing all about how he should have been 'Tony Stark' with all the wealth and fame it entails and grows bitter and vengeful as a result."

Tony nodded, a grim expression settling on his face. "It's a tale as old as time, isn't it? The sins of the father visited upon the son."

The two men stood in silence for a moment, the weight of the situation hanging heavy in the air. Around them, the chaos of the aftermath continued, with emergency personnel scurrying about and the sounds of sirens still echoing in the distance.

As they pondered the situation, Happy rejoined them, his face serious. "Boss, we've got press gathering outside. They're demanding answers."

Tony sighed, running a hand over his face. "Of course they are. Alright, let's get this over with." He said before turning back to Rhodes. "You know, it's almost funny in a twisted way. Here I am, trying to make up for my father's mistakes, and Vanko comes along, determined to make me pay for them."

Rhodes placed a hand on Tony's shoulder, his expression softening. "You're not responsible for what Howard did, Tony. You've been working hard to change things, to make a difference."

Tony sighed, his eyes scanning the destruction around them. "Maybe. But it doesn't change the fact that Vanko's life was ruined before it even began, all because of decisions made by our fathers."

The gravity of the situation settled over the group. They stood in silence, each lost in their own thoughts about the far-reaching consequences of past actions and the weight of legacy.

Tony, Rhodes, and Happy exchanged determined glances, each understanding their respective roles in the aftermath of the attack.

Rhodes, his War Machine armor still bearing the scars of battle, nodded to his companions. "I'll do the final sweep," he said, his voice resolute. With a mechanical whir, his faceplate slid into place, and he engaged his thrusters, lifting off to survey the Expo grounds from above.

Tony watched his friend ascend, then turned to Happy. "Keep things under control here, Hap," he instructed. "Make sure we're on top of this cleanup effort."

Happy straightened his tie, a look of determination crossing his face. "You got it, boss. I'll keep everything organized and running smoothly."

As Happy moved away, already barking orders into his earpiece, Tony took a deep breath, steeling himself for the press conference ahead. He knew the vultures would be circling, hungry for any morsel of information about the attack.

The three men dispersed, each focused on their assigned tasks. Rhodes soared overhead, his sensors scanning for any remaining threats or hidden dangers. Happy moved through the crowd of emergency responders and security personnel, directing efforts and ensuring a smooth operation on the ground.

Tony made his way towards the press area, his mind racing with potential questions and carefully crafted responses. As he approached the sea of reporters and flashing cameras, he plastered on his trademark smirk, ready to face the media storm head-on.

Notes:

Peter, MJ, and Ned will be the next chapter.

Chapter 15: Bring it Home

Chapter Text

MJ's heart raced as she watched Happy pace back and forth, his phone pressed to his ear. She knew this was her chance to slip away unnoticed. With a quick glance around, she began to edge towards the exit, her movements cautious and deliberate.

"Ned," she whispered into her own phone, her voice barely audible, "I need directions out of here."

"Okay, okay," Ned's voice crackled through the speaker, tinged with a hint of nervousness. "There should be a service corridor to your left. It'll lead you to a back exit."

MJ's eyes darted around, scanning the area for the door Ned had mentioned. She spotted it and made her move, her steps light and swift. She slipped through, careful not to let it slam behind her, holding her breath as she entered the dimly lit corridor. The eerie silence enveloped her, a stark contrast to the chaos she had left behind.

"Now what?" she asked, her voice barely above a whisper, as if afraid the walls themselves might betray her presence.

"Keep going straight," Ned instructed, his tone urgent. "There should be a set of double doors at the end."

MJ quickened her pace, her footsteps echoing in the empty hallway like the ticking of a clock. She could hear Happy's muffled voice growing fainter behind her, and she felt a surge of relief.

"I see the doors," she reported, her eyes fixed on the exit.

"Good. Once you're through, hang a right. There should be an emergency exit that'll take you to the parking lot."

MJ pushed through the double doors, wincing at the sudden brightness that assaulted her eyes. She turned right as instructed, her gaze zeroing in on the glowing green exit sign in the distance.

"Almost there," she muttered, more to herself than to Ned, her heart pounding in her ears.

As she approached the emergency exit, she heard footsteps behind her, the sound cutting through the silence like a knife. Her heart jumped into her throat, and she froze for a split second.

"Hey! Where are you going?" Happy's voice called out, laced with confusion and concern.

Without looking back, without a moment's hesitation, MJ pushed through the emergency exit and broke into a run across the parking lot, her feet pounding against the pavement.

"Ned, I'm out," she panted into the phone, her breath coming in ragged gasps. "Where do I go now?"

"Head towards the main road," Ned replied quickly, his voice a lifeline in the darkness. "We're already there with a car waiting."

MJ sprinted across the asphalt, her lungs burning as if they were on fire. She could hear Happy's voice calling after her, laced with confusion and concern, but his shouts grew more distant with each frantic step she took. As she finally reached the main road, she spotted Peter waving frantically from an idling sedan, beckoning her over.

Without hesitation, MJ leapt into the waiting car, her chest heaving as she struggled to catch her breath. Peter swiftly slammed the door shut behind her, and the vehicle peeled away from the curb with a screech of the tires against the asphalt.

"Go, go, go!" Ned urged from the front passenger seat, his voice tinged with urgency.

As the car sped down the street, putting more and more distance between them and the chaos that had erupted at the Expo, MJ turned to face Peter, her eyes wide with a mixture of adrenaline and disbelief. "How did you get out so fast?" she asked breathlessly.

Peter ran a hand through his disheveled hair, his movements jittery with residual nerves. "In all the confusion, it wasn't hard to slip away," he explained. "People were running everywhere, security was completely overwhelmed. I just blended in with the crowd and made my way to the exit."

MJ furrowed her brow, still trying to piece everything together in her mind. "But how'd you get the car?"

"Jarvis," Peter said simply, as if that one word explained everything. "He had it waiting for us as soon as things went south. I guess he figured we might need a quick getaway."

Ned twisted in his seat to face them, his expression a mirror of MJ's own bewilderment. "Speaking of which, where are we going?"

The driver, a nondescript man clad in a dark suit, spoke up for the first time, his voice calm and measured. "Mr. Jarvis has arranged for me to return you to your hotel. We'll be there shortly."

Peter nodded, then turned back to MJ, his eyes searching her face with concern. "Are you okay? That was... intense back there."

MJ took a deep, steadying breath, feeling the adrenaline finally starting to ebb from her veins. "Yeah, I'm fine," she assured him. "Just glad we all made it out in one piece."

A small, relieved smile tugged at the corners of Peter's mouth. "You were amazing," he said, his voice filled with unmistakable admiration. "The way you handled everything, finding Vanko's computer..."

But MJ simply shrugged, brushing off the praise with a modesty that belied her earlier bravery. "We all did our part. Ned's hacking skills were crucial."

From the front seat, Ned beamed at the acknowledgment, his eyes bright with pride. "Team effort, right?" he agreed readily. "Although I have to say, I'm glad I wasn't the one sneaking around in there."

As the car wound its way through the city streets, the trio fell into a contemplative silence. The events of the night were still sinking in, and each of them was lost in their own thoughts about how close they'd come to disaster. A sense of relief mingled with lingering apprehension hung in the air, like a dense fog refusing to dissipate.

As the car continued its journey through the darkened streets, MJ's brow furrowed with concern. She turned to her companions, her voice low and serious, cutting through the stillness. "Do you think anyone spotted us? Anyone who could identify us?"

Peter shook his head, his expression confident, though a hint of uncertainty flickered in his eyes. "I'm pretty sure I wasn't. I was careful to stay out of sight and blend in with the crowd. Plus, with all the chaos, I doubt anyone was paying much attention to me." His words carried a reassuring tone, but a nagging doubt remained.

Ned nodded in agreement, his fingers tapping a nervous rhythm on his knee. "Same here. I was tucked away in a corner the whole time, just focused on my laptop. Nobody even glanced my way." Despite his words, a flicker of unease crossed his features, as if he wasn't entirely convinced.

MJ's frown deepened, her brow creasing with worry. "That's good, but... I'm worried about me. I was with Happy alone for a while. He got a good look at me, and he's not exactly the type to forget faces easily." Her voice wavered slightly, betraying the concern that gnawed at her.

Peter's eyes widened slightly as he considered the implications, his mind racing. "That's true. Happy's pretty observant when it comes to security stuff. Did he seem suspicious of you at all?"

MJ shrugged, her fingers fidgeting nervously in her lap, a telltale sign of her inner turmoil. "I don't think so. I tried to keep my face turned from him for most of it but he did see me when we initially ran into each other." She frowned as she voiced her concern, though a glimmer of hope lingered in her tone. "But we were on our way to face the one orchestrating the attacks, so perhaps he overlooked some particulars?"

Ned turned in his seat, his face etched with worry, his eyes wide and searching. "Do you think he'll remember you well enough to describe you to Tony or security?"

MJ sighed, running a hand through her hair, a gesture of frustration and uncertainty. "I'm not sure. I hope not, but we can't rule it out. Happy's pretty thorough when it comes to his job." Her words hung heavy in the air, a sobering reminder of the risks they faced.

Peter leaned back in his seat, his mind racing, weighing the possibilities and potential consequences. "We'll need to be extra careful for a while. Maybe lay low, avoid any places where we might run into Stark Industries people." His tone was resolute, a determination to protect his friends burning bright within him.

As the trio continued to discuss their concerns, voices hushed and expressions grave, Peter's phone suddenly buzzed, cutting through the tension like a knife. He glanced at the screen, his eyebrows rising in surprise, a flicker of anticipation flickering across his features. "It's Jarvis," he announced, quickly answering the call and putting it on speaker, his heart pounding with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity.

"Mr. Parkson," Jarvis's crisp voice came through the line, cutting through the tension in the car like a knife, "I need you and your companions to remain silent for the time being. We will discuss everything in detail once you arrive at the hotel." The AI's tone brooked no argument, his words carrying a weight that settled heavily on the trio's shoulders.

Peter opened his mouth to respond, his mind racing with a thousand questions, but Jarvis cut him off before he could utter a single syllable. "No questions now. Simply acknowledge that you understand." The finality in Jarvis's voice was unmistakable, leaving no room for debate.

"Understood," Peter replied, his voice tight with suppressed curiosity. He exchanged puzzled glances with MJ and Ned, their eyes conveying a mix of confusion, concern, and barely contained curiousity.

"Very good. I'll see you shortly," Jarvis said, ending the call abruptly. The sudden silence that followed was almost deafening, the absence of Jarvis's voice leaving a void that seemed to amplify the tension in the car.

The vehicle fell into an uneasy silence, the air thick with unspoken questions and theories. Each of them had a thousand queries burning on the tip of their tongue, but Jarvis's instruction to remain quiet hung heavily in the air, an invisible barrier to conversation. They exchanged meaningful looks, communicating their confusion and concern without words, their eyes speaking volumes in the silence.

As the city lights flashed by outside the windows, a kaleidoscope of neon and streetlamps painting the interior of the car in ever-changing hues, the weight of the night's events settled over them like a heavy blanket. The adrenaline of their escape was fading, its intoxicating rush giving way to a growing sense of uncertainty about what would come next. The reality of their situation began to sink in, bringing with it a mix of fear and anticipation.

The driver, a stoic figure who had remained silent throughout their earlier conversation, kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. His unwavering focus and expressionless demeanor only added to the tension in the vehicle, his silence a constant reminder of their situation.

Minutes ticked by slowly, each second feeling like an eternity as they wound through the city streets. The familiar landmarks of New York City passed by unnoticed, the trio too wrapped up in their own thoughts to pay attention to their surroundings. Peter fidgeted in his seat, his fingers drumming a restless rhythm on his leg, clearly itching to discuss what had happened. His entire body seemed to vibrate with pent-up energy and questions.

MJ, ever observant, placed a calming hand on his arm, her touch gentle but firm. When Peter looked at her, she shook her head slightly, her eyes conveying a silent message to stay quiet. Her steady presence seemed to anchor him, helping to quell the storm of words threatening to burst forth.

Ned, for his part, had pulled out his phone and was furiously typing, his fingers flying over the screen at a dizzying pace. He was likely documenting the night's events while they were still fresh in his mind, his face a mask of concentration as he worked to capture every detail. The soft tapping of his fingers on the screen was the only sound in the otherwise silent car.

As they approached the area where their hotel was located, the car began to slow, the change in speed drawing the trio's attention back to their surroundings. The driver made a series of turns, navigating the maze of city streets with practiced ease before pulling up in front of the hotel. The building loomed before them, its windows glowing with warm light, promising answers and, hopefully, safety.

Without a word, the driver exited the vehicle, his movements smooth and efficient. He walked around to their side and opened the door for them, his face still an unreadable mask. The cool night air rushed in, carrying with it the sounds and smells of the city, a stark reminder of the world beyond their temporary sanctuary.

The trio exited the car, their movements hesitant as they stepped onto the sidewalk. Peter lingered by the driver's door, his hand hovering near his pocket, a sign of his unease. He glanced at MJ and Ned, uncertainty clear on his face, seeking reassurance from his friends.

"Um, are we supposed to... you know, tip you?" Peter asked, his voice cracking slightly, betraying his nervousness. "I've never had a personal car before, so I'm not really sure about the etiquette." He felt out of his depth, unsure of the proper protocol in this unfamiliar situation.

The driver, a seasoned professional, had encountered such queries countless times before. His stoic expression softened for a moment, the corners of his mouth twitching upward, hinting at an inner amusem*nt. "No sir, it has been taken care of," he replied, his tone professional but with a subtle warmth that put the young man at ease.

Peter's cheeks flushed red, a wave of relief washing over him as he nodded quickly. "Right, of course. Thank you." He silently chastised himself for his momentary lapse in judgment.

MJ and Ned, observing the exchange, echoed Peter's thanks, offering small smiles to the driver in a show of gratitude. The man gave a curt nod in response, acknowledging their appreciation before returning to the car, his duty fulfilled.

As the vehicle pulled away, the trio turned towards the hotel entrance, their footsteps echoing on the pavement. They walked in silence, each lost in their own thoughts about the night's events and what awaited them inside.

**********

The trio entered their hotel room, and an unspoken understanding passed between them as they dispersed to their respective areas without a word. Peter, eager to wash away the grime and sweat of the evening's events, claimed the first shower. As the hot water cascaded over his body, his mind raced with thoughts of the Expo attack, his covert web-slinging, and the potential consequences of their actions. The weight of the night's occurrences bore down on him, leaving him feeling both exhilarated and apprehensive.

Emerging from the bathroom, his hair still damp, Peter found MJ waiting patiently for her turn. She offered him a small, reassuring smile, sensing the turmoil within him. Ned, ever the diligent one, occupied himself with his laptop, his fingers flying over the keys as he meticulously documented the night's events. The rhythmic tapping of keys filled the otherwise silent room, a familiar sound that provided a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos.

Once everyone had showered and changed into fresh clothes, they gathered in the main area of the suite, a silent acknowledgment of the need to regroup and process the events of the night. Peter picked up the room service menu, flipping through it absently, his mind still grappling with the weight of their actions.

"What does everyone want?" he asked, his voice sounding unnaturally loud in the quiet room, breaking the silence that had enveloped them.

MJ shrugged, her eyes distant, her thoughts seemingly elsewhere. "Just a salad for me, I guess," she replied, her tone subdued.

Ned glanced up from his laptop, his brow furrowed in concentration. "Burger and fries, please," he responded, his focus already shifting back to the task at hand.

Peter nodded, placing the order for their late-night meal. As the silence resumed, broken only by the occasional rustle of movement or tap of Ned's keyboard, a sense of unease lingered in the air, a testament to the gravity of the situation they found themselves in.

When the food arrived, they ate without their usual banter. Each was lost in their own thoughts, processing the events of the Expo and contemplating the potential repercussions of their actions. The clinking of utensils against plates punctuated the quiet as they mechanically consumed their meals, the tension in the room palpable.

Once done eating, the trio gathered together in the living area of their suite. Peter perched on the arm of a plush armchair, his leg bouncing with nervous energy, while MJ curled up on one end of the sofa, her arms wrapped around her knees. Ned settled into the other armchair, his laptop balanced precariously on his knees, the screen casting a faint glow on his pensive expression.

The silence stretched between them, heavy with unspoken thoughts and concerns. Each of them wanted to voice their doubts, but no one seemed willing to be the first to break the uneasy quiet, as if giving voice to their fears would make them all the more real. Peter fidgeted with the hem of his shirt, his eyes darting between his friends, silently pleading for someone to speak up. MJ stared out the window, her brow furrowed in contemplation, her mind whirring as she tried to make sense of the events they had witnessed. Ned's fingers hovered over his keyboard, occasionally twitching as if he was about to type something, only to pull back at the last moment, unsure of how to articulate the maelstrom of emotions swirling within him.

The weight of their recent experiences at the Expo pressed down on them like a physical force, the attack, their covert efforts to help, and the narrow escape all swirling in their minds, leaving them shaken and uncertain. But beneath these immediate concerns lay a deeper, more unsettling question: Were they truly capable of changing anything in this new timeline, or were they simply deluding themselves with grand dreams of heroism?

Peter opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, the words dying on his tongue as doubt crept in. MJ caught the movement out of the corner of her eye and turned to face him, raising an eyebrow in silent question, her gaze searching his face for answers he couldn't provide. Ned looked up from his laptop, his gaze moving between his two friends, sensing the weight of the unspoken thoughts hanging in the air.

The doubts that had been simmering beneath the surface began to bubble up, threatening to overwhelm them. They had come to this time with grand plans and noble intentions, but faced with the reality of their situation, those plans suddenly seemed naive and impossibly ambitious. The enormity of the task before them loomed large, casting a long shadow over their hopes and dreams.

As the trio sat in uncomfortable silence, the sudden ring of Peter's phone made them all jump. Peter fumbled for a moment before answering and putting it on speaker.

"Hello, Mr. Parkson, Miss Watson, Mr. Meads," Jarvis's crisp voice filled the room. "I trust you've had time to settle in. Now, I believe it's time we discuss the events of this evening."

The three exchanged glances before Peter cleared his throat. "Right, um, where should we start?"

"From the beginning, if you please," Jarvis replied. "What did you observe at the Expo?"

Peter took a deep breath, his mind replaying the chaotic events of the night. "Well, everything seemed normal at first. But then my spidey-sense seemed to kick into high gear. Like it was yelling 'Danger! Danger Incoming!' I warned you, and then the attack began." His voice trembled slightly as he recounted the harrowing experience.

"I see," Jarvis said, his tone even and reassuring. "And your actions during the attack?"

"I tried to help covertly," Peter explained, grateful for the opportunity to recount his role. "Using my webs to grab the drones and disable them, but staying out of sight."

Ned chimed in, his voice tinged with frustration, "I was working on hacking the drones. I managed to get in, but couldn't shut them down remotely."

"Which is where I came in," MJ added, her voice steady and confident. "I went to find the master computer. Happy Hogan helped me. We found Ivan Vanko and knocked him out. Then I shut down the drones." She couldn't help but feel a sense of pride at her crucial role in averting disaster.

There was a pause before Jarvis spoke again, his voice contemplative. "I see. And you're certain you weren't identified?"

The trio exchanged nervous glances, the weight of the situation settling upon them once more. MJ bit her lip before answering, her voice laced with concern, "We're... not entirely sure. Happy got a good look at me. We're worried he might remember."

"I understand," Jarvis said, his tone thoughtful as he processed the information. "Rest assured, I'll monitor the situation closely. I have already erased any video footage of you Miss Watson, so no need to worry about that. We simply need to hope that Mr. Hogan cannot recall exacting details."

MJ flinched and curled inward, her body language betraying her discomfort at the prospect of being identified. The weight of their secret identities seemed to press down upon them all, a constant burden they carried.

Jarvis, his artificial intelligence attuned to the nuances of human behavior, detected the room's atmosphere. The tension was palpable, even through the phone line. These young heroes had faced danger head-on, yet the aftermath was proving just as daunting.

"Is something wrong?" Jarvis inquired, his voice laced with concern as he registered their elevated vital signs. "Your vital signs indicate increased stress levels." The AI's perceptive nature allowed him to sense the emotional turmoil brewing beneath the surface.

The trio exchanged uneasy glances, their faces etched with concern and doubt. Peter ran a hand through his unruly hair, a nervous habit he'd never quite shaken since childhood. His fingers caught on a few tangles, but he barely noticed, too consumed by the weight of their situation. MJ hugged her knees closer to her chest, her face a mask of worry and contemplation. Her dark eyes darted between her friends, silently gauging their reactions. Ned's fingers hovered over his keyboard, frozen in mid-type, the gentle hum of his laptop the only sound in the tense silence.

"It's just..." Peter began, then faltered, his words catching in his throat. He looked to his friends for support, his eyes pleading for someone else to voice the doubts that plagued him. The weight of their mission seemed to press down on his shoulders, making him appear smaller and more vulnerable than usual.

MJ sighed deeply, her breath escaping in a long, controlled exhale. She spoke up, her voice steady despite the turmoil evident in her eyes. "We're worried, Jarvis. About whether we're really making a difference here. It all seems so... useless sometimes."

Ned nodded vigorously, his whole body seeming to agree with MJ's words. "Yeah, I mean, we came back to change things, but it feels like we're just... I don't know, fumbling around in the dark. Like we're trying to fix a complex machine with our eyes closed and our hands tied behind our backs."

"We had all these plans," Peter added, his voice tinged with frustration and a hint of desperation. "But now that we're actually here, living through these events, it all seems so much more complicated. It's like trying to redirect a river with our bare hands."

Peter abruptly stood up and began pacing the room, his movements agitated and restless. His footsteps echoed in the small space, a physical manifestation of his inner turmoil. "Did we even make a difference?" he asked, his voice rising with each word, tinged with frustration and doubt. "The expo was still attacked, and people were still hurt. It's like we didn't change anything at all. We're just... spectators in our own mission."

Jarvis attempted to calm the situation, his measured voice coming through the phone speaker. The AI's tone was soothing, a stark contrast to the frantic energy in the room. "I understand your concerns, but I assure you, your actions made a significant impact. There were only mild injuries and no casualties, which is a vast improvement over what could have been. Your presence has already altered the course of events."

But Jarvis's words fell on deaf ears as the three friends erupted into a cacophony of overlapping voices, each expressing their own doubts and frustrations. Their words tumbled over each other, creating a storm of emotion that filled the small room.

"We failed!" Ned exclaimed, slamming his laptop shut with a force that made the others jump. The sharp sound punctuated his words like an exclamation point. "Our first real plan, and it still went down basically the same way it did before. We're supposed to be changing history, not watching it repeat itself!"

MJ uncurled from her position on the sofa, her eyes flashing with a mix of anger and disappointment. She stood up, her posture rigid with tension. "What's the point of being here if we can't change anything? We might as well have not even bothered. We've given up everything, and for what? To watch it all happen again?"

Peter's pacing intensified, his hands gesticulating wildly as he spoke. His movements were erratic, mirroring the chaos of his thoughts. "We were supposed to make things better, but it feels like we're just going through the motions. We're not changing anything! We're like ghosts, present but unable to affect anything around us."

The room buzzed with their collective frustration, each of them feeding off the others' negative energy. Their voices rose in volume, drowning out Jarvis's attempts to interject with reason and perspective. The AI's calm logic was lost in the storm of their emotions, unable to penetrate the thick cloud of doubt and disappointment that had settled over the trio.

The room crackled with tension as Peter, MJ, and Ned's voices overlapped in a cacophony of doubt and frustration. Their carefully laid plans suddenly seemed futile in the face of reality.

Peter stopped his pacing, turning to face his friends with wild eyes. "Maybe we should just... stop. Let things play out as they're supposed to."

Ned's head snapped up, his face a mix of shock and agreement. "But what about all the people we could save? The disasters we could prevent?"

"Could we, though?" MJ shot back. "Look at what just happened. The Expo still got attacked. People still got hurt."

Peter ran his hands through his hair, tugging at the strands in frustration. "But Jarvis said there were no casualties this time. That's something, right?"

"Is it enough?" Ned questioned, his voice rising. "Are we really making a difference, or are we just... I don't know, are we just changing passwords while the entire system's been backdoored?"

The three friends looked at each other, their expressions a mirror of uncertainty and fear. The weight of their self-imposed responsibility pressed down on them, threatening to crush their resolve.

"Maybe we should just let it go," MJ suggested, her voice barely above a whisper. "Live our lives, let history take its course."

"But we know what's coming," Peter argued, his tone desperate. "How can we just sit back and watch it happen?"

Ned stood up abruptly, pacing the room as Peter had done earlier. "What if we make things worse? What if by trying to help, we actually cause more damage?"

The trio fell silent for a moment, each contemplating the terrifying possibility. The room felt too small, the air too thick with their doubts and fears.

"But if we don't try," Peter said slowly, "aren't we just as responsible for what happens?"

MJ hugged her knees to her chest, her eyes distant. "Damned if we do, damned if we don't."

Ned collapsed back into his chair, his energy seeming to drain out of him. "So what do we do? Go ahead with our plans and hope for the best? Or give up and accept that we can't change anything?"

The question hung in the air, unanswered. Each of them wrestled with their conscience, torn between the desire to help and the fear of making things worse.

Jarvis had been patiently waiting for a lull in the conversation. When this brief moment of silence finally fell, he seized the opportunity to speak.

"If I may interject," Jarvis's calm voice cut through the tension in the room. The three friends paused, their attention drawn to the AI's words.

"While it's true that you were unable to prevent the Expo attack entirely, your actions made a significant difference," Jarvis explained. "Mr. Parkson, your early warning allowed us to implement enhanced security measures. This resulted in a much more efficient evacuation process."

Peter's brow furrowed as he considered this information. He hadn't realized the impact of his warning.

Jarvis continued, "Furthermore, your covert actions during the attack, along with Mr. Meads' hacking attempts and Ms. Watson's intervention, drastically reduced the number of injuries and prevented any fatalities."

MJ and Ned exchanged surprised glances. They hadn't considered the full scope of their actions.

"In the original timeline, you told me that the attack resulted in several casualties and severe injuries," Jarvis elaborated. "Thanks to your efforts, we're looking at only minor injuries and significantly less property damage."

The trio absorbed this information, their earlier frustration slowly giving way to a cautious sense of accomplishment.

"While it may seem like you haven't changed much, I assure you that your presence and actions are already altering the course of events," Jarvis concluded. "The ripple effects of your interventions, however small they may seem, will likely have far-reaching consequences."

Peter, MJ, and Ned sat in stunned silence, processing Jarvis's words. The weight of their actions, both taken and potential, settled over them like a heavy blanket.

"I understand your doubts," Jarvis said. "But I must remind you that change, especially on the scale you're attempting, is rarely a straightforward process. You've already made significant alterations to the timeline, even if the results aren't immediately apparent."

Peter looked at his friends, then back at the phone where Jarvis's voice was emanating from. "So you think we should continue on with the plan?" he asked hesitatingly.

"Absolutely," Jarvis replied without hesitation. "While this may seem like a failure to you, I assure you it actually went a lot better than it could have. The reduced casualties and property damage are testament to that."

MJ uncurled herself from the sofa, her expression thoughtful. "I guess when you put it that way, we did make a difference."

Ned nodded slowly, his earlier frustration giving way to cautious optimism. "Yeah, I mean, no fatalities is a pretty big deal, right?"

"Indeed it is, Mr. Meads," Jarvis confirmed. "Your actions have already set in motion changes that will ripple through this timeline in ways we may not immediately see."

Peter stopped his pacing, his hands falling to his sides. "But what about the big events? The ones we know are coming?"

"Those too can be influenced," Jarvis assured them. "Remember, even small changes can have significant impacts over time. Your presence here is already altering the course of events."

The trio exchanged glances, a mix of determination and uncertainty in their eyes.

"So we keep going," MJ said, more a statement than a question.

Peter nodded, a spark of his earlier resolve returning. "We keep going. We do what we can, where we can."

"And hope it's enough," Ned added, reopening his laptop.

"That's all anyone can do," Jarvis said. "Now, I suggest you all get some rest. We have much to discuss in the morning about our next steps."

As the call ended, the three friends sat in silence for a moment, each processing the night's events and the path ahead of them.

**********

The following morning, Peter, MJ, and Ned took the car back to Cambridge. The journey was quiet, each lost in their own thoughts about the events at the Stark Expo. Upon arriving at their house, they dropped their bags and gathered in the living room, an air of contemplation hanging over them.

Peter sank into an armchair, running a hand through his hair as he tried to process everything that had transpired. "We should probably talk about what we're going to do now," he said, his voice tinged with a hint of weariness.

MJ nodded, curling up on the sofa and hugging a cushion to her chest. "Yeah, we need a game plan," she agreed, her brow furrowed in concentration.

Ned settled into another chair, pulling out his laptop and setting it on the coffee table in front of him. "Should we call Jarvis and Karen? They might have some insights," he suggested, his fingers poised over the keyboard.

Peter agreed, reaching for his phone and dialing Jarvis's number with a sense of familiarity. He put it on speaker, and they waited for the AI's voice to fill the room.

"Hello, Mr. Parkson," Jarvis's crisp voice greeted them. "How may I assist you?"

"Hey Jarvis," Peter replied, a small smile tugging at his lips. "We're back in Cambridge and wanted to discuss our plans moving forward. Is Karen available too?"

"Of course," Jarvis responded without missing a beat. "I'll connect her now."

A moment later, Karen's warm and reassuring voice joined the conversation. "Hello everyone. I'm glad you made it back safely."

"Thanks, Karen," MJ said, her shoulders relaxing slightly. "We were hoping you and Jarvis could help us figure out our next steps."

"Certainly," Karen replied, her tone exuding confidence. "What would you like to discuss first?"

Peter leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. "Well, I think what we need to do is decide on when we are going introduce Spider-Man to the world," he said, his brow furrowed in concentration. "That will dictate as to when we finish college. If we want to have him on Nick Fury's radar before the Battle of New York, then we need to be already operating in New York by that time."

MJ frowned, her lips pursed as she mulled over the implications. "Are we sure we don't just want him to show up at the battle?" she questioned, her voice laced with uncertainty. "It seems like that would be a better idea, minimizing the risk of exposure."

Ned spoke up, his fingers tapping nervously on his laptop, the sound echoing in the quiet room. "Yeah but doing it that way would leave us unaware of any of the preceding events or behind-the-scenes developments," he pointed out, his eyes flickering between his friends.

Peter nodded, considering both perspectives carefully. "I think it comes down to whether we want Spider-Man to be an Avenger or not," he said slowly. "If he comes out beforehand, he will most likely make the team. If he comes out in the Battle of New York and just stays on the outskirts, then he will remain the vigilante that he was before."

The room fell silent as they all contemplated the implications of this decision, the weight of their words hanging heavy in the air. Jarvis and Karen remained quiet, allowing the trio to work through their thoughts uninterrupted.

"Having him as an Avenger would be of immense help to our plans," Peter continued, breaking the silence with a determined tone. "It would allow us all of the inside information to be able to make the changes we are hoping to make to the timeline."

MJ nodded slowly, her expression still etched with concern. "However, there will be risk," she pointed out, her voice tinged with apprehension. "We might slip and say something inadvertently that gives away that we are time travelers."

As the trio debated the pros and cons of introducing Spider-Man early, Jarvis's voice cut through their discussion.

"If I may offer my perspective," the AI said, his tone measured and thoughtful. "I believe becoming Avengers would be the most advantageous course of action."

Karen chimed in, her voice warm but firm. "I agree with Jarvis. The access to information and resources as Avengers would be invaluable to your mission."

Peter's eyes lit up suddenly, a spark of excitement in his voice. "Oh, I have and idea about making money. Maybe we don't need to rely on Mr. Stark's resources after all."

Jarvis paused for a moment before responding. "While I commend your entrepreneurial spirit, Mr. Parkson, I must point out that generating wealth is only part of the equation. Sir's technological capabilities and extensive network of contacts are not easily replicated."

Peter's excitement dimmed slightly as he considered Jarvis's words. He nodded slowly, acknowledging the AI's point. "You're right, Jarvis. I guess I got a bit ahead of myself there. Stark's tech and connections would be hard to match, no matter how much money we could make."

MJ and Ned exchanged glances, seeing the logic in Jarvis's argument. The room fell into a contemplative silence as they all processed this new perspective on their situation.

MJ leaned back on the sofa, her brow furrowed in thought. "I can see what you mean," she said slowly. "I can't really think of any advantage to Spider-Man remaining a vigilante other than anonymity."

Ned nodded, his fingers tapping on his laptop keyboard. "Yeah, and even that's not guaranteed. We know from our timeline that his identity got revealed eventually anyway."

Peter ran a hand through his hair, his expression a mix of determination and uncertainty. "So we're agreed then? We introduce Spider-Man earlier, aim for him to become an Avenger?"

The room fell silent as the trio considered the weight of this decision. Jarvis and Karen remained quiet, allowing them to process their thoughts.

MJ broke the silence, her voice steady. "I think it's our best option. We need the access and resources being an Avenger would provide."

Ned chimed in, his eyes bright with excitement. "Plus, imagine how much more we could do with the backing of the Avengers. We could prevent so many disasters!"

Peter nodded, a small smile tugging at his lips. "Alright then. We'll need to start planning how to introduce Spider-Man to the world. We'll need to be careful about it, make sure it's done in a way that catches the right attention."

"I can assist with monitoring potential opportunities for Spider-Man to make his debut," Jarvis offered. "There are always incidents in New York that could benefit from superhero intervention."

Karen added, "And I can help Peter refine his web-shooters and suit design. We want to make sure he's fully prepared before he goes public."

With the decision made to introduce Spider-Man in early 2012, Peter, MJ, and Ned turned their attention to their academic futures. They needed to determine if they could graduate from MIT by December 2011, giving them time to establish themselves in New York before Spider-Man's debut.

Peter pulled out his laptop and opened their academic records. "Okay, let's see where we stand," he said, scrolling through the pages. "We've already tested out of a bunch of core classes and electives."

MJ leaned over his shoulder, her eyes scanning the screen. "Right, and we've been taking extra courses these past two semesters. But is it enough?"

Ned joined them, his brow furrowed in concentration. "What about summer classes? We could probably knock out a few more credits that way."

Jarvis chimed in, his voice calm and analytical. "Based on your current academic progress and the available summer courses, I calculate a 78% probability that you could complete your degree requirements by December 2011."

Karen added, "However, this would require a significant increase in your course load for the remaining semesters and summer sessions."

The trio exchanged glances, weighing the implications of this information. Peter ran a hand through his hair, his expression thoughtful. "It's doable, but it'll be tough. We'd have to really buckle down and focus. I think we can manage it. We've already got a head start on a lot of the material.""

MJ nodded slowly, her lips pursed. "And we'd have to balance that with our other projects," she said.

Ned looked up from his laptop, his expression a mix of excitement and apprehension. "Plus, we've got some advantages that other students don't. Like, you know, future knowledge and super-smart AI assistants."

"Alright," Peter said, breaking the silence. "Let's do it. We'll graduate early and set up in New York by the end of 2011. Jarvis, Karen, can you help us plan out our course schedules to make this work?"

"Of course," Jarvis replied. "I'll begin analyzing the most efficient path to graduation immediately."

Karen added, "And I'll help you optimize your study schedules to ensure you can balance your coursework with your other responsibilities."

With an air of determination tinged with weariness, Peter exhaled deeply, uttering, "This is going to be a lot of work."

MJ and Ned nodded in agreement, their expressions a mix of excitement and apprehension about the intense months ahead.

Chapter 16: Breaking Ground

Summary:

A New Arc! We move into the Avengers timeframe. Enjoy!

Notes:

So... I forgot about "The Incredible Hulk." My bad.
But so did Peter, MJ, and Ned, so it wasn't entirely my fault. This is what they call a teaching moment. Or maybe character growth, who knows. They aren't perfect.

Anyway, the friends find themselves having forgotten about the Hulk and the Battle in Harlem and now scrambling to figure out what to do. (Huh. It's amazing how fiction can resemble real life sometimes isn't it?)

P.S. Since AO3 will not let me group my chapters into parts/arcs, I use a different chapter naming theme for each one. Hence why the chapters went from Home phrases to the new one about building a Tower (It's symbolism! Cause I know how to do that! Yay!)

Chapter Text

June 2010

Pepper Potts stands at the podium, her posture confident and composed as cameras flash and reporters clamor for her attention. The press conference room buzzes with anticipation, journalists eager to hear the latest from Stark Industries after the chaotic events at the Expo.

"Good morning, everyone," Pepper begins, her voice clear and steady. "As you know, Stark Industries has been working tirelessly to repair the damage caused by the recent incident at the Stark Expo. I'm pleased to announce that all repairs have been completed, fully funded by our company."

She pauses, allowing the information to sink in before continuing. "But we're not stopping there. Stark Industries is committed to moving forward, to pushing the boundaries of what's possible for New York City and beyond."

With a nod to her assistant, a large screen behind her flickers to life, displaying an impressive architectural rendering. "I'm excited to present our plans for the Stark Tower," Pepper announces, gesturing to the image. "This will be the first completely clean energy-powered skyscraper in Manhattan."

The room erupts with questions, but Pepper raises a hand, silencing the crowd. "The Stark Tower represents our vision for the future - a future where sustainable energy isn't just a dream, but a reality. We hope this project will serve as a model for future development in the city."

As Pepper continues to detail the specifics of the project, Tony Stark watches from the his living room, a small smile playing on his lips. He lips quirk and he gives the TV a subtle nod of approval.

He turns and strides into his private workshop, his mind buzzing with ideas for the new Stark Tower. The room comes to life as he enters, holographic displays flickering on and machines whirring to attention.

"Jarvis, pull up the specs for the tower," Tony calls out, his fingers already dancing across a nearby console.

"Certainly, sir," Jarvis responds, his crisp British accent filling the room. A detailed 3D model of the tower materializes in the center of the workshop.

Tony circles the hologram, his eyes narrowed in concentration. "Talk to me about the arc reactor technology we're implementing. How's it looking?"

Jarvis begins to elaborate, "The arc reactor will be housed in the basem*nt levels, sir. It's designed to generate 3.2 gigawatts per second, more than enough to power the entire building and then some."

Tony nods, his hand passing through the hologram to zoom in on the reactor's location. "And the energy distribution?"

"We've designed a sophisticated grid system throughout the building," Jarvis explains. "It will allow for optimal energy flow and minimize any potential power fluctuations."

Tony's brow furrows slightly. "What about security measures? We can't have another Expo incident."

Jarvis responds promptly, "I've incorporated multiple layers of security protocols, sir. The arc reactor will be protected by a reinforced chamber, and access will be restricted to you and Ms. Potts only."

"Good, good," Tony mutters, his mind already racing ahead. "And the labs? I want to make sure we've got space for everything R&D might want to do, just in case."

"The R&D floors have been designed with that in mind, sir," Jarvis confirms. "There are individual labs that can be customized for each director's specific needs along with common labs for joint projects."

Tony's lips quirk into a small smile. "Perfect. And my lab?"

"Your personal laboratory will occupy the 93rd floor, sir. It's been outfitted with the latest in holographic interfaces and fabrication units. I've also taken the liberty of including a direct connection to my mainframe for seamless integration of your work."

Tony turns his attention from the tower hologram to a nearby workbench. "Good work, J. Now let's get back to those phones and tablets. They aren't going to build themselves and I refuse to let Apple beat me in designing a smart phone and tablet." He sneers in disgust at the mention of his competitor.

Jarvis smoothly transitions, bringing up schematics for Stark Industries' latest mobile devices. "Of course, sir. I've compiled the latest market research and technological advancements in the field."

Tony's eyes scan the data rapidly, his mind already racing with possibilities. He reaches for a stylus and begins sketching on a nearby hologram, making rapid adjustments to the designs.

"We need something sleek, intuitive, but with more power than anything else on the market," Tony mutters, more to himself than to Jarvis. "And let's not forget durability. I want these things to survive being dropped from the top of the tower."

Jarvis chimes in, "Perhaps we could incorporate some of the alloys used in your suits, sir? They would provide excellent durability without adding significant weight."

Tony's eyes light up. "Now you're talking, J. Let's run some simulations on that. And while we're at it, let's look into some new batteries. I want these devices to be more than just phones and tablets - I want them to be game-changers."

As Tony continues to work, his fingers flying over the designs, the workshop comes alive with holographic prototypes and running simulations. The genius inventor is in his element, pushing the boundaries of what's possible in consumer technology.

**********

As Peter, Ned, and MJ gather for lunch at the house, the television program they're watching is suddenly interrupted by a breaking news announcement. The screen cuts to a somber-looking news anchor seated behind a desk, her expression grave.

"We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you breaking news from Culver University in Willowdale, Virginia," the anchor says, her voice steady but urgent. "Reports are coming in of a massive disturbance on campus, involving what witnesses describe as a 'giant green monster.'"

The screen splits to show shaky footage captured on a cell phone. The image is blurry at first, but quickly comes into focus, revealing a chaotic scene on the university grounds. Students and faculty are seen running in panic, their screams audible even through the poor audio quality of the recording.

Suddenly, a huge green figure comes into view, smashing through a nearby building with ease. The creature, easily identified as the Hulk, roars in anger as military personnel attempt to subdue him. Gunfire erupts, but the bullets seem to have little effect on the monster's tough skin.

The footage cuts to another angle, showing military vehicles rolling onto the campus. Soldiers pour out, taking up defensive positions and firing at the Hulk with increasingly powerful weapons. The green behemoth responds by picking up a nearby car and hurling it at the troops, scattering them.

As the battle intensifies, the Hulk's raw power becomes even more apparent. He leaps incredible distances, smashing through walls and overturning vehicles with ease. The military's efforts seem futile against his unstoppable strength.

The news anchor's voice comes back over the footage. "We're receiving reports that the individual responsible for this destruction is Dr. Bruce Banner, a former employee of Culver University. The reasons for his transformation and current rampage are unknown at this time. We advise all residents in the Willowdale area to stay indoors and avoid the university campus until further notice."

The footage continues to play, showing the Hulk's destructive path across the campus as military forces struggle to contain him. The scale of the damage is staggering, with buildings reduced to rubble and vehicles tossed about like toys.

The news footage continues, showing a lone soldier approaching the Hulk with determination. He lobs several tear gas canisters at the green behemoth, following it up with a barrage of bullets. The monster, momentarily stunned by the gas, roars in anger and charges at the soldier. The camera shakes as the operator runs to keep up with the action.

The scene cuts to another area of the campus, where soldiers are deploying large, strange-looking devices. As the green monster approaches, they activate the machines, emitting some sort of energy wave. The monster clutches his ears in pain, stumbling backward. But his pain quickly turns to rage, and with a mighty swing of his fist, he demolishes the weapons.

The camera pans back to the soldier from earlier, who once again confronts the Hulk. This time, his bravery costs him dearly. The green giant, with a casual kick, sends the soldier flying. The man's body slams into a tree with a sickening thud, and he crumples to the ground, clearly severely injured.

Suddenly, a woman enters the frame, approaching the behemoth with her hands raised in a calming gesture. The monster's demeanor seems to shift, his anger subsiding as he focuses on her. The camera zooms in on a military official with general's insignia, barking orders into a radio.

Moments later, a helicopter appears overhead, its weapons trained on the monster. The general's voice can be heard ordering an attack. As the helicopter opens fire, the Hulk's protective instincts kick in. He shields the woman with his body, then leaps up, grabbing the helicopter's tail and smashing it into the ground.

In the chaos that follows, the green giant scoops up the now unconscious woman and bounds away, disappearing into the distance. The camera pans back to the devastated campus, littered with destroyed vehicles and buildings.

Throughout this entire report, Peter, MJ, and Ned remain silent, their eyes glued to the screen, expressions unreadable as they absorb the shocking events unfolding before them.

The news anchor returns to the screen, her face grave. "We'll continue to bring you updates on this developing situation as they become available. This concludes our breaking news report. We now return to our regularly scheduled programming."

The television flickers back to the show Peter, MJ, and Ned were watching before the interruption. The trio sits in stunned silence, their lunch forgotten on the coffee table before them. The weight of their oversight bears down on them, and the realization that they've forgotten such a significant event sends waves of panic through the group.

Ned is the first to break the silence, his voice cracking. "Oh no. Oh no, no, no. We forgot about the Hulk!"

Peter's face drains of color as the realization hits him. "How could we forget? This is huge!" He jumps to his feet, pacing back and forth, running his hands through his hair. "The battle in Harlem is coming. We should have been prepared for this but we forgot! What else have we forgotten?" his voice rising with each word.

MJ, usually the calm one, struggles to maintain her composure. Her hands tremble slightly as she reaches for her notebook. "Okay, let's think this through. What do we know about what's supposed to happen next?"

Ned's breathing quickens as he speaks, his words tumbling out in a rush. "Abomination. There's going to be an Abomination. And they're going to fight in Harlem. It's going to be a disaster!"

Peter stops pacing and turns to his friends, his expression a mix of panic and determination. "We need to do something. We can't just sit here and let it happen!"

MJ takes a deep breath, trying to steady herself. "But what can we do? We're just three college students. This is way beyond us."

Ned nods vigorously, his face pale. "Yeah, and we can't reveal that we know what's going to happen. It could mess up the timeline even more!"

Peter resumes his pacing, his mind racing. "But we can't just do nothing. People could die. We have to find a way to help without exposing ourselves."

The trio falls into an uneasy silence, each grappling with the weight of their knowledge and the seeming impossibility of their situation. The tension in the room is palpable as they struggle to come up with a plan that won't jeopardize their mission or their identities.

MJ takes a deep breath and stands up. She walks over to the center of the room and speaks clearly, "Jarvis, Karen, we need you. Can you come to the house, please?"

As MJ finishes explaining, two spheres of light materialize in the living room. One glows with a warm orange, representing Jarvis, while the other pulses with a cool blue, signifying Karen. The AIs' presence brings a sense of calm to the chaotic atmosphere.

Peter continues to pace, muttering under his breath about their oversight. His hands run through his hair repeatedly, leaving it disheveled. Ned sits on the couch, his face pale and eyes wide with worry. He rocks back and forth slightly, his fingers tapping an erratic rhythm on his knees.

MJ stands in the center of the room, her posture tense but voice steady as she addresses the AI avatars. "We forgot about the Hulk incident at Culver University. It just happened, and we weren't prepared. The battle in Harlem is coming, and we don't know what to do."

MJ explains all that they know of the Harlem incident including the Hulk appearing out of nowhere along with the Abomination and them fighting each other before the Hulk managed to defeat it and escape to places unknown.

"We assume that Banner was already in Harlem when the Abomination appeared as there was very little time in between the first appearance of the Abomination and the Hulk showing up but we can't say for certain. Based on what we saw in the news in the previous timeline, General Thaddeus Ross was involved somehow. Whether that be him having captured Hulk and using him to make the Abomination or bringing him in to fight it once he knew he was losing control of the Abomination, we just don't know." MJ told Jarvis.

Jarvis's avatar pulsates as he speaks, his crisp British accent filling the room. "I see. This is indeed a significant event that we overlooked in our planning."

Karen's warm voice chimes in, her avatar glowing brighter. "It's understandable that some events may have slipped your minds. You've been dealing with a lot of information."

Peter stops his pacing and turns to the AIs, his voice tinged with frustration and guilt. "But we should have remembered this! It's huge! People could get hurt because we weren't prepared."

Ned nods vigorously, his words tumbling out in a rush. "Yeah, and what about the Abomination? That's going to be a disaster! We can't just sit here and do nothing!"

MJ takes a deep breath, trying to maintain her composure. "We need your help. Is there anything we can do without revealing ourselves or messing up the timeline even more?"

Jarvis's avatar pulsates thoughtfully. "Hmm," he says, his tone contemplative. "We need a way to get the information to someone in authority who could actually take action without admitting that we know how this is going to happen."

MJ's eyes widen as she realizes the time constraint. "Jarvis, the battle in Harlem is only two days away. That severely limits what we can do."

The room falls into a brainstorming session, with Jarvis, MJ, and Karen taking the lead. Ideas begin to flow, each one analyzed and dissected for its potential effectiveness and risk.

"Perhaps we could anonymously tip off local law enforcement?" Karen suggests, her blue avatar flickering slightly.

MJ shakes her head. "Too risky. They might not take it seriously, or worse, it could lead to unnecessary panic."

Jarvis chimes in, "What if we were to create a false data trail suggesting potential danger in the area?"

"That could work," MJ muses, "but we'd need to be careful not to make it too specific."

As the discussion continues, Peter and Ned gradually calm down from their initial panic. They exchange a look, silently agreeing it's time to contribute.

Peter steps forward, his brow furrowed in concentration. "What if we could somehow warn the district of Harlem? Maybe about a potential safety concern? Something big enough that they would take it seriously like a gas leak or something?"

Ned nods enthusiastically, building on Peter's idea. "Yeah, and we could make it seem like it's coming from an internal source, so they'd take it more seriously."

The group huddles around the holographic displays of Jarvis and Karen, their faces illuminated by the soft glow. They begin to discuss various options, each one met with scrutiny and debate.

"What about a credible bomb threat?" Ned suggests hesitantly.

Peter shakes his head. "Too risky. It could cause widespread panic and make things worse."

MJ proposes an infrastructure emergency, but Jarvis points out the logistical impossibility of faking such a large-scale issue.

They consider a gas leak, but Karen notes it wouldn't be believable for all of Harlem.

The idea of an unstable building is brought up, only to be shot down for its limited scope.

A severe weather warning is quickly dismissed as implausible for the season.

When the notion of an unidentified biological hazard is mentioned, Peter grimaces. "I think they would want people to shelter in place instead of evacuating."

Finally, MJ suggests, "What about a toxic chemical spill? We could claim a truck carrying hazardous materials overturned."

The room falls silent as they consider this option. Jarvis's avatar pulses thoughtfully. "That could work. It's believable, localized, and would justify a swift evacuation."

Ned nods enthusiastically. "Yeah, and it wouldn't cause as much panic as some of the other options."

Peter's eyes light up. "Plus, it gives us a reason to keep people indoors if they can't evacuate immediately."

The group looks at each other, a sense of cautious optimism settling over them. They've found their plan.

The group's relief at finding a solution for Harlem is short-lived as Peter suddenly speaks up, his voice tinged with concern.

"So that takes care of Harlem, but what about the Hulk himself?" he asks, his eyes darting between his friends and the AI avatars.

The room falls silent as they contemplate this new challenge. Peter runs a hand through his hair, his brow furrowed in thought. MJ taps her pen against her notebook, her mind racing for ideas.

After a moment, Ned's face lights up with an idea. "What if we bring in TriWeb0rs again?" he suggests, his voice gaining enthusiasm. "We could tip off Tony and Fury."

The others lean in, intrigued by Ned's proposal. He continues, his words coming faster as he fleshes out the plan.

"We could say we were digging through the files of that general in the video - Thaddeus Ross, right? We tell them we found out he had captured the Hulk and is currently holding him in Harlem."

Peter nods slowly, seeing the potential in this plan. MJ jots down notes, her pen moving quickly across the page.

Ned's excitement grows as he elaborates. "We'll tell Stark and Fury that we initiated an evacuation because, let's face it, why does Ross think he's going to be able to contain the Hulk for long? He's going to be able to break out at some point, and then he'll be in the middle of Harlem."

The group exchanges glances, considering the implications of this plan. Jarvis's avatar pulses thoughtfully, while Karen's blue light flickers with what seems like approval.

"That could work," MJ says, tapping her pen against her chin. "It gives them a reason to act without revealing too much about our knowledge of future events."

Peter nods in agreement. "And it might help minimize the damage when the Hulk does break out. It would also explain why an evacuation was initiated without them knowing why."

As Ned's plan sinks in, MJ's brow furrows. She clutches her notebook to her chest, her eyes distant as she considers a potential flaw in their strategy.

"There's only one problem," she says, her voice cutting through the hopeful atmosphere. "We have no idea of knowing how long Banner was in Harlem before the Hulk showed up. Was he there the entire time? Or had he just arrived before he broke out? Was he captured somewhere during those two days? Cause in the video he was seen escaping from the military, so when did Ross actually find him?"

The room falls silent as the weight of MJ's observation settles over them. Peter's shoulders slump slightly, and Ned's excited expression falters. The glowing avatars of Jarvis and Karen pulse steadily, awaiting input.

Peter begins to pace again, his hands running through his hair. "She's right. If we get the timing wrong, it could throw off everything."

Ned nods, his earlier enthusiasm dampened. "Yeah, and if we're too vague about it, they might not take it seriously enough."

MJ leans back in her chair, absentmindedly smoothing out the now-wrinkled pages of her notebook. "We need more information. Without it, we're just guessing."

The group exchanges worried glances, the momentum of their plan suddenly halted by this realization. The room fills with a tense silence as they grapple with this new obstacle.

Jarvis's avatar pulses brightly as he processes the new information. After a moment, his crisp voice fills the room with a proposed solution.

"I believe I have a workable plan," Jarvis announces. "We can prepare everything in advance and initiate the operation as soon as we confirm Banner's appearance in Harlem."

The trio leans in, their faces a mix of curiosity and hope.

Jarvis continues, "Mr. Meads and I will monitor General Ross's communications, as well as local police and military channels. The moment we detect any indication of Banner, we'll set the plan in motion."

Ned nods eagerly, his fingers already twitching with anticipation of the hacking challenge ahead.

"Miss Watson," Jarvis says, turning his attention to her, "you'll be responsible for coordinating the evacuation efforts. We'll prepare a series of pre-written alerts and communications that you can deploy immediately."

MJ's expression turns serious as she considers her role. She reaches for her pen, ready to jot down details.

"Mr. Parkson and Mr. Meads," Jarvis addresses the two friends, "you'll handle the hacking portion of the operation. Be prepared to access and manipulate the necessary systems at a moment's notice."

Peter and Ned exchange a determined look, silently acknowledging the weight of their task.

Jarvis concludes, "This approach allows us to be prepared for multiple scenarios while minimizing the risk of acting on incomplete information."

The room fills with a renewed sense of purpose as the group begins to flesh out the details of their plan. They discuss potential communication channels, draft evacuation messages, and outline hacking strategies. The team is determined to make sure all the elements are in position to launch their operation the moment Dr. Banner's whereabouts become known.

**********

The rest of the day was nerve-wracking for Peter, MJ, and Ned. They could barely concentrate on their classes as they waited for word of Dr. Banner. Thankfully, there wouldn't be any problem with them not paying attention as they already knew most of the subject matter.

During lectures, Peter found himself staring blankly at the whiteboard, his mind racing with possible scenarios. MJ's usually meticulous notes became scattered and disjointed, filled with doodles in the margins. Ned kept checking his phone under the desk, anxious for any updates from Jarvis.

Between classes, they huddled together in quiet corners of the campus, speaking in hushed tones about their plan. They went over every detail, double-checking their preparations and running through potential complications.

As evening fell on the second day, they gathered in the living room of their shared apartment. The tension was palpable as they tried to keep themselves busy. Peter paced back and forth, occasionally stopping to peer out the window. MJ curled up on the couch with a book, but her eyes barely moved across the page. Ned sat cross-legged on the floor, his laptop open in front of him, fingers hovering over the keyboard, ready to act at a moment's notice.

They attempted to engage in normal activities to pass the time. Ned suggested a movie, but no one could focus on the plot. MJ tried to start a discussion about their latest assignment, but the conversation quickly fizzled out. Peter even attempted to lighten the mood with a few jokes, but his delivery fell flat in the tense atmosphere.

As the hours ticked by, their nervous energy manifested in different ways. Peter's leg bounced incessantly when he finally sat down. MJ's fingers drummed a steady rhythm on the arm of the couch. Ned's eyes darted between his laptop screen and his phone, checking for notifications every few minutes.

Finally, as the sun begins to set on June 4th, the trio's tense waiting comes to an abrupt end. Jarvis's voice cuts through the silence of their house, startling them from their anxious vigil.

"I've detected communications indicating Dr. Banner's capture," Jarvis announces. "It's time to initiate the plan."

The room erupts into a flurry of activity. Peter and Ned rush to their computers, fingers flying across keyboards as they prepare to hack into the necessary systems. MJ takes a deep breath, steeling herself for her role in the operation.

With a determined nod, MJ turns to Karen's glowing avatar. "Let's do this," she says, her voice steady despite the adrenaline coursing through her veins.

Karen's soothing voice responds, "Accessing local emergency systems now, MJ."

MJ watches as lines of code scroll across her screen, Karen effortlessly bypassing security protocols. Within moments, they have access to the Notify NYC system.

"We're in," Karen confirms. "Ready to send the alert on your command."

MJ's fingers hover over the keyboard as she double-checks the pre-written message. Her eyes scan the text one last time, ensuring every detail is in place.

"Sending now," MJ announces, hitting the enter key with a sense of finality.

The message flashes across screens throughout Harlem:

"EMERGENCY ALERT: Toxic chemical spill reported in Harlem. Immediate evacuation required. Follow official instructions and proceed along designated evacuation routes. This is not a drill."

MJ monitors the system, watching as the alert spreads across the neighborhood. She can almost imagine the chaos unfolding on the streets as people react to the sudden evacuation order.

"Alert successfully sent," Karen confirms. "Emergency services are responding to the notification."

MJ nods, a mix of relief and tension coursing through her. "Good. Now we wait and hope it's enough."

Meanwhile, Peter and Ned hunched over their computers, fingers flying across keyboards as they worked their way into SHIELD and Tony Stark's systems. Jarvis's avatar pulsed nearby, assisting them in bypassing Tony's formidable security measures.

"We're in," Ned whispered, a grin spreading across his face. "I've set up the privacy shields."

Peter nodded, his expression focused. "Alright, let's do this."

The chat window popped up on both Fury's and Stark's screens simultaneously, the cursor blinking tauntingly.

TriWeb0rs: Knock knock, gentlemen. Miss us?

Fury's response was immediate and terse.

Fury: What do you want?

TriWeb0rs renamed Fury to Pirate

Tony's reply came a moment later, his trademark snark evident even in text.

Stark: Well, if it isn't our favorite digital troublemakers. To what do we owe the pleasure?

TriWeb0rs renamed Stark to Tin Man

TriWeb0rs: Oh, you know, just thought we'd drop by with some light reading. Ever heard of a charming fellow named Thaddeus Ross?

Pirate: Get to the point.

TriWeb0rs: Touchy, touchy. Alright, here's the scoop: Ross has got himself a shiny new toy. Big, green, and prone to temper tantrums. Ring any bells?

Tin Man: The Hulk? Ross has Banner?

TriWeb0rs: Bingo! Give the man a prize. By the way… is that what they're calling him now? That's kinda catchy. Anyway, guess where he's keeping his not-so-little secret? Smack dab in the middle of Harlem.

Pirate: How did you get this information?

TriWeb0rs: We have our ways. But that's not the important part. The important part is that Ross seems to think he can contain the jolly green giant. Spoiler alert: he can't.

Tin Man: And let me guess, you're telling us this out of the goodness of your hearts?

TriWeb0rs: What can we say? We're suckers for preventing citywide destruction. We've already initiated an evacuation. You're welcome, by the way.

Pirate: You did WHAT?

TriWeb0rs: Relax, Pirate. We just saved you the trouble of explaining why you're evacuating Harlem when the Hulk inevitably breaks free. Because let's face it, it's not a matter of if, but when.

Tin Man: And why should we trust you?

TriWeb0rs: Trust us, don't trust us. Makes no difference to us. But can you really afford to ignore this?

The chat window continued to blink as Fury and Stark processed the information from TriWeb0rs. Fury's brow furrowed as he typed his response.

Pirate: Stark, how fast can you get to New York?

Tin Man: I'm in Malibu. At top speed, it'll take an hour.

Pirate: Damn. We need boots on the ground now. Who have you verified as being trustworthy Stark?

Tony's eyes scan the list Jarvis had pulled up on his screen. He began to rattle off names.

Tin Man: Coulson

TriWeb0rs: Currently in New Mexico.

Tony's eyebrows furrowed.

Tin Man: "New Mexico? What's he doing there?"

TriWeb0rs: Something about a hammer, we hear. Quite the interesting little artifact. Maybe we should look into--

Fury cut them off.

Pirate: Don't even think about it. Stay out of it.

Tony continued down the list.

Tin Man: Hill?

TriWeb0rs: Washington D.C., attending a budget meeting.

Tin Man: Better her than me. Romanoff?

TriWeb0rs: Budapest. Don't ask.

Tony sighed.

Tin Man: Barton?

TriWeb0rs: Actually, he's in New York. Probably your best bet.

Fury nodded in relief.

Pirate: Good. We'll deploy him immediately.

Tony kept going.

Tin Man: Johnson?

TriWeb0rs: Tokyo.

Tin Man: Carter?

TriWeb0rs: London.

Tin Man: May?

TriWeb0rs: Classified location. Even we can't pinpoint that one.

Tony ran a hand through his hair, frustration evident.

Tin Man: Is there anyone else actually in New York?"

TriWeb0rs: Well, there's always the pizza delivery guy. He seems reliable.

Fury ignored the quip.

Pirate: Barton will have to do. We'll scramble a team to back him up. By the way… How the hell do you know all this?

TriWeb0rs: Oh, come on, Pirate. We've been in your systems for ages. It's like a second home to us.

Tony couldn't help but chuckle at the exchange, enjoying the way these mysterious hackers managed to ruffle Fury's feathers.

Tin Man: I hate to admit it, but they've got a point.

Pirate: Fine. I'll deploy Barton immediately. Stark can you ask Jarvis to give me a list of agents that aren't necessarily verified but don't have any glaring red flags in their records? Anybody in the area of Harlem or a few hours out will do.

Jarvis: I will do so immediately Director Fury.

TriWeb0rs: Atta boy, Pirate. Now you're acting like the director you supposedly are.

Pirate: Don't push it. And don't call me Pirate.

Tin Man: I don't know, I kind of like it. Has a nice ring to it.

Fury grumbled under his breath, his eye twitching with annoyance. He began issuing orders to his agents, all while keeping an eye on the chat window.

TriWeb0rs: Well, our work here is done. Try not to let the big guy tear up too much of the city, okay?

Tin Man: Wait, you're leaving? Just like that?

TriWeb0rs: We've got places to be, things to hack. But don't worry, we'll be watching. Good luck, boys!

With that, the TriWeb0rs disappeared from the chat, leaving Fury and Tony to deal with the impending crisis. Tony couldn't help but feel a mix of admiration and frustration at the hackers' audacity. As he prepared for his flight to New York, he made a mental note to upgrade his security systems... again.

Chapter 17: Laying the Foundation

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

June 2010

Tony Stark soars through the sky in his Iron Man suit, the horizon stretching endlessly before him. The familiar hum of the repulsors fills his ears as he cuts through the air, his mind racing with thoughts of the impending crisis in Harlem.

"Jarvis, give me everything you've got on Banner and Ross," Tony commands, his voice echoing inside the helmet.

"Certainly, sir," Jarvis responds promptly. "Dr. Bruce Banner is a renowned scientist specializing in biochemistry, nuclear physics, and gamma radiation. He was involved in a project attempting to recreate the super-soldier serum. He decided to substitute gamma radiation for the vita radiation that was used by Erskine. An accident during the experiment exposed him to massive amounts of the gamma radiation, resulting in his transformation into the Hulk."

Tony's brow furrows as he processes the information. "And Ross?"

"General Thaddeus Ross is a high-ranking U.S. Army officer who oversaw the Bio-Tech Force Enhancement Project," Jarvis continues. "He has been pursuing Dr. Banner since the accident a few days ago, viewing him as both a potential weapon and a threat to national security."

"Sounds like a real charmer," Tony mutters sarcastically. "What's their current status?"

Jarvis pauses momentarily, accessing the latest intel. "According to recent reports, General Ross has captured Dr. Banner and is transporting him to a temporary facility in Harlem. However, given Dr. Banner's history of transformations, it is highly probable that he will escape containment."

Tony's mind races, considering the implications. "So we're looking at a potential Hulk rampage in the middle of New York City. Great. Just great."

"Indeed, sir," Jarvis agrees. "It's worth noting that stress and perceived threats can trigger involuntary changes."

Tony nods inside his helmet. "Any weaknesses we can exploit if things go south?"

"The Hulk's primary weakness appears to be his lack of strategic thinking," Jarvis explains. "While incredibly strong, he seems to act on pure instinct and rage. Additionally, if Dr. Banner can be calmed or exhausted, he may revert to his human form."

"Got it," Tony says, processing the information. "Keep monitoring the situation, Jarvis. Let me know if anything changes. And get Fury on the line."

Jarvis swiftly establishes a secure connection with Nick Fury. Tony's voice fills the comms, a mix of urgency and determination.

"Fury, talk to me. What's the situation on the ground?"

Nick Fury's gruff voice responds, his tone measured but tense. "Stark, we've got agents all over Harlem. They're combing the area discreetly. We're looking for any sign of where Ross might be holding Banner."

Tony's eyes narrow as he processes the information. "Any leads so far?"

"Nothing concrete yet," Fury admits. "But we've got our best people on it. Barton is leading the search teams."

Tony nods inside his helmet, appreciating the seriousness with which Fury is taking the situation. "Good. We need to find Banner before Ross pushes him too far. Any word on civilian evacuation?"

Fury pauses for a moment. "The evacuation that TriWeb0rs set off was under the guise of a chemical spill. It's slow going, but we're making progress. Don't want to cause a panic."

"Smart move," Tony agrees. "Last thing we need is mass hysteria adding to the chaos."

As they speak, Jarvis continues to monitor various data streams, analyzing patterns and potential leads. The AI's voice interrupts the conversation. "Sir, I've detected an unusual energy signature in the northern part of Harlem. It could be related to Dr. Banner's containment."

Tony's interest piques. "You hear that, Fury? We might have something."

"I heard," Fury responds. "I'm redirecting a team to investigate now. Stark, how far out are you?"

Tony checks his flight trajectory. "ETA five minutes. I'll do a flyover of the area Jarvis identified. Maybe we can spot something from the air."

"Understood," Fury says. "But keep your distance for now. We don't want to tip our hand or provoke Banner if he's there."

As Tony approaches Harlem, his keen eyes spot a military helicopter preparing for takeoff from a nearby rooftop. His suspicions are immediately raised, knowing General Ross's involvement in the situation.

"Jarvis, get me a read on that chopper," Tony commands, his voice sharp with urgency.

The AI responds promptly, "Scanning now, sir. I detect multiple military personnel inside the aircraft. However, I cannot confirm whether Dr. Banner is among them."

Tony's jaw clenches as he processes this information. He quickly opens the communication channel to Fury. "Fury, we've got movement. Military helicopter lifting off from a building in northern Harlem. Can't confirm if Banner's on board, but it's looking suspicious."

Fury's voice crackles through the comm, his tone grave. "Understood, Stark. I'm scrambling another chopper to tail it. Keep your distance for now. We'll attempt to pursue. With luck, it'll leave the city, providing a far more suitable location for us to ground it."

Tony watches as the military helicopter lifts off, its rotors slicing through the air. He hovers at a safe distance, his mind racing with possibilities and potential outcomes. The situation is teetering on a knife's edge, and one wrong move could spell disaster for Harlem and its inhabitants.

As Tony hovers in the air, watching the military helicopter start to head north, Jarvis's urgent voice cuts through his thoughts.

"Sir, I'm detecting a massive energy signature emerging from a nearby building. It appears to be... transforming."

Tony's attention snaps to the location Jarvis indicates. His eyes widen as he witnesses a horrifying sight. From the building erupts a monstrous figure, only vaguely resembling the Hulk he had expected to encounter.

This creature is a hulking mass of twisted muscle and protruding bone. Its grotesque form towers over 10 feet tall, dwarfing the surrounding structures. Each thunderous step it takes leaves deep cracks in the pavement, the ground trembling beneath its massive weight.

"What the hell is that?" Tony mutters, his voice a mix of shock and disgust.

Jarvis quickly analyzes the creature. "It appears to be a severely mutated form of a human, sir. Possibly a result of experimentation with gamma radiation and other unknown factors."

Tony watches in horror as the beast lets out a deafening roar, its misshapen jaw stretching unnaturally wide. Windows in nearby buildings shatter from the force of the sound.

"Fury, we've got a situation," Tony says urgently into the comm. "Whatever Banner's become, it's not the Hulk we were expecting. This thing is... it's something else entirely."

As the creature begins to move through the streets, cars are tossed aside like toys. People scream and run in terror, the evacuation efforts now turning into a panicked flee for survival.

Tony realizes he can no longer maintain his distance. "Jarvis, prep all systems. We're going in."

As Tony prepares to confront the monstrous creature, Jarvis's voice cuts through his focus.

"Sir, something is falling from the helicopter."

Tony's gaze snaps upward, his eyes widening behind the helmet's display. A human figure plummets from the aircraft, arms and legs flailing as it hurtles towards the ground.

"Jarvis, identify!" Tony commands, already adjusting his flight path to intercept.

"Unable to identify, sir. The figure is moving too rapidly."

Tony and Jarvis watch in stunned silence as the falling body nears the ground. Just before impact, an extraordinary transformation occurs. The figure's body expands, muscles bulging and skin taking on a greenish hue. In a matter of seconds, the human form is replaced by a massive, hulking creature.

The transformed being crashes into the street, leaving a deep crater in its wake. Dust and debris billow outward, obscuring the immediate area.

Tony hovers above, his mind racing to process what he's just witnessed. "Jarvis, tell me that's not what I think it is."

"I'm afraid it appears to be Dr. Banner, sir," Jarvis confirms. "He seems to have undergone his transformation into the Hulk."

As the dust settles, the Hulk rises from the crater, his massive green form a stark contrast to the twisted, bone-like creature rampaging nearby. The Hulk's eyes scan the area, quickly locking onto the other monster.

Tony finds himself caught between two immensely powerful and unpredictable forces. He struggles to keep up with the rapidly changing situation.

"Sir," Jarvis interjects, "I believe we now face two distinct threats. The mutated creature from before and now the Hulk. How do you wish to proceed?"

Tony Stark rockets upward, his repulsors flaring as he gains altitude. The chaos below grows smaller, but no less intense. He watches as Hulk and the twisted, bone-like creature face off, their roars echoing through the streets of Harlem.

"Fury, the situation has escalated," Tony says, his voice tense. "Banner's here, and he's Hulked out."

Nick Fury's voice crackles through the comm, "Stark, what's your assessment?"

Tony's eyes narrow as he surveys the scene. "It's bad, Fury. Really bad. We've got two unstoppable forces about to collide in the middle of Harlem. Civilian evac needs to be priority one."

As he speaks, Tony fires a repulsor blast at the bone creature. The energy beam strikes its grotesque form, but the monster barely flinches. Tony grits his teeth, frustration mounting.

"Fury, I've got nothing here," he admits. "My weapons aren't even scratching this thing. And I'm not about to test them on Banner. Any recommendations? Because I'm out of ideas on how to fight something like this."

Fury's response is grim. "We're mobilizing everything we've got, Stark. But until reinforcements arrive, you're our eyes in the sky. Keep them occupied, try to minimize collateral damage. And for God's sake, stay alive."

Tony watches as the Hulk charges at the bone creature, the ground shaking with each thunderous step. "Roger that," he says, his mind racing to formulate a plan. "But I hope those reinforcements get here soon. I don't think Harlem can take much more of this."

As Tony Stark soars through the air, his Iron Man suit's repulsors flaring, he frantically works to minimize the destruction caused by the clash between the Hulk and the bone-like creature. Buildings crumble, cars are tossed like toys, and the few remaining civilians scramble for safety amidst the chaos.

"Sir," Jarvis's voice cuts through the cacophony of destruction, "I've managed to hack into the military helicopter's communication systems."

Tony's eyes brighten in interest. "What have you got for me, J?"

"I've intercepted some rather interesting conversations," Jarvis explains. "Most notably, there's a woman on board who seems quite concerned about Dr. Banner's well-being. She's been identified as Dr. Elizabeth Ross, daughter of General Thaddeus Ross."

Tony's eyebrows raise behind his helmet. "Ross' daughter? That's... complicated."

"Indeed, sir," Jarvis agrees. "Given her apparent emotional connection to Dr. Banner, I believe she might be able to provide valuable insight into the situation. With your permission, I could patch her through to our communication system."

Tony considers this for a moment, dodging a chunk of concrete hurled into the air by the battling behemoths below, before turning and blasting it into much smaller pieces. "Do it," he decides. "We need all the help we can get right now."

"Very well, sir. Establishing connection now."

There's a brief crackle of static, and then a woman's voice, tense and worried, fills Tony's helmet. "Hello? Who is this?"

"Dr. Ross?" Tony responds, his tone surprisingly gentle given the chaos surrounding him. "This is Tony Stark. I understand you might be able to help us with our little... issue down here. Tell me what's going on so we can figure out how to safely defuse this situation please."

Betty Ross's voice crackles through the Iron Man suit's communication system, her words rushed and tinged with worry. "Mr. Stark, it's a long story, but I'll try to keep it brief. Bruce was working on a project for my father that he believed was meant to make humans immune to radiation. He had no idea it was actually an attempt to recreate the super-soldier serum."

Tony maneuvers around a flying piece of debris as Betty continues. "There was an accident during an experiment. Bruce was exposed to massive amounts of gamma radiation. That's what caused his transformation into the Hulk."

She pauses, her voice catching. "My father, General Ross, has been pursuing Bruce ever since, seeing him as both a threat and a potential weapon. He's relentless, Mr. Stark. He won't stop until he has Bruce in custody or... worse."

Tony processes this information, his mind racing. "And the other creature? The one that looks like a Hulk gone wrong?"

Betty's voice turns grim. "That's Emil Blonsky. He was a special-ops soldier my father recruited to capture Bruce. He was injected with a variant of the super-soldier serum, but it wasn't enough for him. He demanded to be exposed to Bruce's blood and gamma radiation. The result is what you see now - a creature driven by nothing but rage and the desire for power."

As she speaks, the Hulk and Blonsky's monstrous form continue their brutal fight below, their roars echoing through the streets of Harlem. Tony watches, his concern growing with each passing moment.

"Dr. Ross," Tony says, his voice serious, "is there any way to stop them? To calm Banner down or neutralize Blonsky?"

Betty's voice trembles slightly as she responds to Tony's question. "I think I might be able to calm Bruce down, but only after the fighting is over. I don't think Hulk will listen to anyone while he's in the middle of a battle."

Tony nods, even though Betty can't see him. "And what about Blonsky? Any ideas on how to stop him?"

Betty's tone turns grim. "I'm sorry, Mr. Stark, but I have no idea how to stop Blonsky. We don't know exactly what he did to himself to become that… that abomination."

As Betty speaks, the fight below intensifies. The Hulk and Blonsky's monstrous form clash in a titanic struggle, their massive bodies slamming into buildings and tearing up the street. The sound of their roars and the crashing of concrete fills the air.

Tony watches the destruction unfold, his mind racing to find a solution. He knows that every moment the fight continues, more of Harlem is reduced to rubble. Civilians who haven't yet evacuated are in grave danger.

"Jarvis," Tony says, his voice tense, "any weak points on either of them?"

The AI responds promptly. "I'm afraid not, sir. Both creatures appear to have enhanced regenerative abilities. Any damage inflicted seems to heal almost instantly."

Tony grits his teeth, frustration mounting. He turns his attention back to Betty. "Dr. Ross, is there anything else you can tell us about Blonsky's transformation? Anything that might help us find a way to stop him?"

"I'll be honest Dr. Stark. Bruce and I couldn't think of anything. It's why my father was convinced to allow Bruce to leave the chopper to fight him. We think the Hulk is the only thing that can stop that abomination."

Betty's words hang heavy in the air, the faint hint of disgust in her voice when mentioning her father not lost on Tony. The Iron Man suit hovers above the chaos, its occupant processing this new information.

"So, we're banking on the Hulk to save the day," Tony mutters, more to himself than to Betty or Jarvis. He watches as the two behemoths below continue their brutal clash, buildings crumbling around them like sandcastles.

The streets of Harlem have become a war zone. Cars lie overturned and crushed, their alarms wailing uselessly amidst the destruction. The few civilians who haven't managed to evacuate cower in doorways or behind whatever cover they can find, their faces masks of terror.

Tony's mind races, trying to formulate a plan. He knows he can't directly engage either creature without risking further damage to the surrounding area. Yet, he can't simply stand by and watch the destruction unfold.

"Jarvis," he says, his voice tense, "what's the status on the evacuation?"

The AI responds promptly, "Approximately 87% of the immediate area has been evacuated, sir. However, there are still pockets of civilians trapped by the ongoing battle."

Tony nods grimly inside his helmet. "Alright, new plan. We focus on getting those people out. If the Hulk is our only hope against Blonsky, then we need to make sure there's no one left for either of them to accidentally squash."

As Tony speaks, the Hulk lands a massive punch on Blonsky's twisted form, sending the creature crashing through a nearby building. The structure groans ominously, threatening to collapse at any moment.

"Dr. Ross," Tony says, his voice urgent, "I'm going to do what I can to minimize collateral damage and get civilians to safety. If you think of anything else that might help, anything at all, let me know immediately."

With that, Iron Man dives towards the streets below, repulsors firing as he races to save as many lives as he can in the midst of this titanic battle.

**********

The Hulk's massive green form stands in the middle of the destroyed Harlem street, his chest heaving with each breath. His eyes lock onto the grotesque creature before him - a twisted mass of muscle and bone that vaguely resembles his own monstrous shape.

Hulk's primitive mind struggles to comprehend the abomination before him. One thought echoes through his consciousness: "Ugly! Hulk smash!"

With a deafening roar, Hulk charges at Blonsky. The ground trembles beneath his thunderous footsteps. Blonsky meets his charge head-on, their massive bodies colliding with earth-shaking force.

The two titans grapple, their muscles straining as they try to overpower each other. Hulk's green skin ripples with exertion, while Blonsky's bone protrusions scrape against the Hulk's flesh.

"Bone man hurt Hulk!" The thought flashes through Hulk's mind, fueling his rage.

Hulk breaks free from the grapple and unleashes a barrage of punches. His massive fists slam into Blonsky's twisted form, each impact echoing through the streets. But Blonsky seems unfazed, his mutated body absorbing the blows.

Frustrated, Hulk looks around for something to use as a weapon. His eyes land on a nearby car.

With a grunt of effort, Hulk plunges his hands into the car's frame. Metal screeches and glass shatters as he rips the vehicle apart. He emerges with makeshift boxing gloves formed from the crushed metal.

"Hulk smash harder!"

Hulk charges at Blonsky again, his car-clad fists raised. The improvised weapons add devastating force to his punches. Blonsky staggers back, finally showing signs of damage.

But the abomination quickly recovers, retaliating with a vicious assault of his own. Bone spikes tear into Hulk's flesh, drawing roars of pain and anger from the green giant.

The battle rages on, neither monster willing to yield. They crash through buildings, upend vehicles, and leave craters in the street with each thunderous blow.

**********

Betty's voice crackles through Tony's comm system, her words laced with determination. "Mr. Stark, we've landed the helicopter. I'm going to try and get closer to Bruce."

Tony's eyes widen behind his helmet. "Dr. Ross, that's insane! You can't go out there, it's too dangerous!"

But Betty's mind is made up. "I have to try. Bruce needs me."

Tony watches helplessly as Betty makes her way towards the chaos. He wants to stop her, but he's too far away and occupied with evacuating civilians.

"Jarvis, keep an eye on Dr. Ross," Tony orders, his voice tense.

As Tony focuses on rescuing trapped civilians, the battle between Hulk and Abomination intensifies. Abomination gains the upper hand, his bone-like protrusions giving him an advantage in close combat.

Tony turns just in time to see Abomination wrap a long chain around Hulk's neck. The green giant struggles, his face contorting in pain and rage as Abomination pulls the chain tighter.

"Jarvis, we need to do something!" Tony shouts, rocketing towards the battling titans.

"Sir, I suggest a concentrated repulsor blast to Abomination's face. It may disorient him enough to release the Hulk," Jarvis responds.

Tony nods, pushing his suit to its limits as he flies closer. "Give me everything we've got, J. This is our only shot."

The suit's power levels spike dangerously as Tony charges up his repulsors. Warnings flash across his HUD, but he ignores them.

With a grunt of effort, Tony unleashes a massive repulsor blast directly at Abomination's face. The energy beam strikes true, causing the monstrous creature to reel back in pain and surprise.

The chain loosens around Hulk's neck as Abomination staggers. Tony's suit powers down, the internal components barely capable of handling the extreme power Tony had just pumped through it with that powerful shot.

The sudden blast from Iron Man's repulsors provided the opening Hulk needed. With a roar of rage and relief, he broke free from the chain around his neck. His green eyes blazed with fury as he turned on Abomination.

In a swift motion, Hulk grabbed the chain and wrapped it around Abomination's neck. The roles were now reversed, with Hulk pulling the chain tighter and tighter. Abomination's twisted face contorted in pain and desperation as he struggled for air.

Hulk's muscles bulged with the effort, his teeth bared in a grimace of determination. He was moments away from crushing Abomination's windpipe, ending the threat once and for all.

Just as Hulk was about to deliver the final, fatal twist of the chain, a voice cut through the chaos. "Hulk! Stop!" Betty Ross cried out, her voice filled with desperation and concern.

Hulk froze, his grip on the chain loosening slightly. His eyes, still filled with rage, darted to Betty's form nearby.

"Please, don't kill him," Betty pleaded, her voice softer now. "You're better than this. I know you are."

For a moment, the entire battlefield seemed to hold its breath. Then, slowly, Hulk's grip on the chain relaxed. He stepped back, allowing Abomination to slump to the ground, gasping for air before falling unconscious.

Hulk turned away from his fallen foe, his chest heaving with exertion. He lifted his head to the sky and let out a thunderous roar of victory, the sound echoing through the devastated streets of Harlem.

Tony Stark, hovering nearby in his damaged Iron Man suit, watched the scene unfold. Despite his exhaustion, he couldn't help but quip, "Well, that's one way to win a argument. Remind me never to get into a heated debate with you, big guy."

As the dust settles over the ravaged streets of Harlem, Betty Ross stands before the Hulk, her voice soft and soothing. The green behemoth's breathing slows, his massive chest heaving less frantically as he listens to her words. The scene is almost peaceful, a stark contrast to the chaos that preceded it.

Suddenly, the relative calm is shattered by the arrival of two groups. From one direction, Nick Fury leads a team of SHIELD agents, their weapons at the ready. From the other, General Thaddeus Ross approaches with a contingent of military personnel, their faces grim and determined.

The Hulk's muscles tense at the sight of the newcomers. His eyes dart between the two groups, a low growl rumbling in his chest. Betty notices the change in his demeanor and tries to maintain her calming influence, but the Hulk's agitation grows with each passing second.

Tony Stark, still hovering nearby in his damaged Iron Man suit, observes the situation with growing concern. Jarvis's voice comes through his helmet, "Sir, the Hulk's heart rate and adrenaline levels are spiking. He appears to be preparing for another conflict."

Tony processes this information quickly. Without hesitation, he flies down and positions himself between the approaching groups and the Hulk. He lands with a metallic thud, his arms spread wide in a protective stance.

The Hulk's eyes widen in surprise at Tony's actions. He had been ready to fight, expecting another attack, but Iron Man's protective posture catches him off guard. The green giant's stance relaxes slightly, confusion replacing some of the anger in his eyes.

Fury and Ross halt their advance, equally surprised by Tony's intervention. The SHIELD agents and military personnel exchange uncertain glances, their weapons still raised but fingers off triggers.

Tony Stark stands firm between the Hulk and the approaching groups, his Iron Man suit battered but still imposing. His face plate retracts, revealing a determined expression as he addresses both Nick Fury and General Ross.

"I don't know what the hell you think you're about to do, but it's not going to happen on my watch," Tony declares, his voice carrying across the debris-strewn street.

Fury steps forward, his one eye fixed on Tony. "Stark, we need to contain this situation. The Hulk is a potential threat that needs to be controlled."

"Controlled?" Tony scoffs. "He just saved Harlem from that bone-headed monstrosity." He gestures towards the unconscious form of Abomination.

General Ross interjects, his face red with anger. "That 'thing' is a dangerous weapon that needs to be eliminated. If we can't kill it, we need to lock it away for good."

The Hulk growls at Ross's words, his muscles tensing. Betty places a calming hand on his arm, whispering soothing words.

Tony turns to face Ross, his expression hardening. "General, with all due respect, your track record with the big guy isn't exactly stellar. And why the hell would I hand over the Hulk to the man who lied and allowed him to be created in the first place? Maybe it's time to try a different approach."

"And what do you suggest, Stark?" Fury asks, his tone skeptical.

Tony glances back at the Hulk, then faces Fury and Ross again. "Let me handle this. No containment, no killing, no government facilities. Just let him be, and I'll make sure he stays out of trouble."

Ross sputters in disbelief. "You can't be serious! That's completely unacceptable!"

"What guarantee do we have that you can control him, Stark?" Fury asks, his eye narrowing.

Tony shrugs. "No guarantees. But I'm willing to bet that treating him like a person instead of a weapon might yield better results than what you've been doing."

The argument continues, with each side presenting their case. Fury insists on containment for public safety, Ross demands extreme measures, and Tony advocates for a more humane approach. The tension in the air is palpable as the fate of the Hulk hangs in the balance.

As the argument between Tony, Fury, and Ross reaches a fever pitch, a deep, rumbling voice cuts through the tension. "Hulk go with Tin Man."

All eyes turn to the massive green figure. The Hulk's expression is one of determination, his decision made. Before anyone can react, his body begins to change. The transformation is sudden and startling, catching everyone off guard.

The Hulk's massive form starts to shrink, his green skin fading to a more human tone. His muscles contract, bones shift, and features rearrange themselves. In a matter of seconds, where the Hulk once stood, there is now the disheveled figure of Dr. Bruce Banner.

Banner sways on his feet, disoriented from the transformation. Betty quickly moves to support him, wrapping an arm around his waist to keep him steady. Bruce looks around, taking in the shocked faces of those present.

Tony's eyebrows shoot up in surprise, a grin spreading across his face. "Well, hello Dr. Banner. Welcome to the party," he quips, though his voice holds a note of genuine amazement.

Fury and Ross stand frozen, their mouths agape at the unexpected turn of events. The SHIELD agents and military personnel lower their weapons, unsure how to proceed in light of this development.

Bruce, still leaning on Betty for support, looks directly at Tony. His voice is hoarse but clear as he speaks, "I heard what you said. If the offer still stands, I'd like to take you up on it."

**********

As Fury opens his mouth to protest once more, his comm device suddenly crackles to life. A familiar voice speaks directly into his ear, bypassing the others present.

"Director Fury," Jarvis's calm, artificial tone resonates in his ear, "Sir wishes to convey his concerns about Dr. Banner's potential custody with SHIELD. He believes that, given the recent intelligence about HYDRA's infiltration, it would be unwise to risk exposing Dr. Banner's unique physiology to potential misuse."

Fury's eye widens slightly, his brow furrowing as he processes this unexpected information. He glances at Tony, who maintains a poker face, revealing nothing of the secret communication.

The implications of Jarvis's message hit Fury like a ton of bricks. If HYDRA truly has infiltrated SHIELD as deeply as the recent intelligence suggests, then Banner in SHIELD custody could be catastrophic. The potential for HYDRA to obtain samples of Banner's blood or tissue, to study and potentially replicate the Hulk's power, sends a chill down Fury's spine.

Fury's expression shifts almost imperceptibly as he reassesses the situation. He looks from Banner to Stark, then back to Banner again. The pieces fall into place in his mind, and he realizes the clever maneuver Stark is attempting.

After a moment of tense silence, Fury lets out a resigned sigh. "Alright, Stark," he says, his voice gruff but no longer combative. "We'll do this your way. For now."

As General Ross opens his mouth to protest Fury's decision, Betty steps forward, her eyes blazing with anger. She raises a hand, cutting off her father before he can utter a word.

"No, Dad. You don't get to say anything right now," Betty snaps, her voice trembling with barely contained fury. "This is your fault. All of it."

Ross's face reddens, but Betty presses on, her words tumbling out in a torrent of pent-up frustration and disappointment.

"You enlisted Bruce without telling him what he was actually working on. You lied to him, to me, to everyone involved in the project. And for what? Your obsession with recreating the super soldier serum?"

Ross tries to interject, "Now, Betty, you don't understand-"

"I understand perfectly," Betty cuts him off again. "You put your ambition ahead of ethics, ahead of safety, ahead of your own daughter's happiness. And look where it's gotten us."

She gestures wildly at the destruction surrounding them, her voice rising. "A destroyed neighborhood, lives at risk, and Bruce hunted like an animal. All because you couldn't be honest from the start."

Ross sputters, his face contorting as he struggles to form a coherent response. "I was trying to protect our country-"

"By creating weapons?" Betty retorts. "By trying to recreate a formula that will supposedly 'enhance' human soldiers? That's not protection, Dad. That's playing God, and it backfired spectacularly."

Ross's mouth opens and closes, but no words come out. He looks around helplessly, seeking support from the military personnel, but they avoid his gaze, uncomfortable with the family drama unfolding before them.

Betty's voice softens slightly, but her words remain sharp. "You had a brilliant scientist willing to work for you, and instead of being upfront, you chose deception. You could have had Bruce's full cooperation, his expertise. Instead, you created this mess."

Ross finally manages to sputter out, "Betty, you can't possibly-"

But Betty isn't finished. "I can, and I do. It's time you faced the consequences of your actions, Dad. And right now, that means stepping back and letting Bruce make his own choices."

Betty turns to Tony, her eyes still blazing with determination. "Wherever Bruce goes, I go too," she declares firmly.

Tony's face lights up with a grin, his eyes twinkling with amusem*nt and approval. "Absolutely!" he agrees without hesitation. "The more, the merrier. I've got plenty of room."

Bruce looks at Betty, a mix of gratitude and concern on his face. "Are you sure about this?" he asks softly. "It could be dangerous."

Betty takes his hand, squeezing it reassuringly. "I'm sure," she says, her voice steady. "I'm not letting you face this alone."

Tony claps his hands together, the sound muffled by his damaged armor. "Well, that's settled then," he announces cheerfully. "Dr. Banner and Dr. Ross, welcome to the Stark Industries family. I'll have Pepper set you both up with labs and living quarters. How do you feel about California for a year or two until the Tower is finished?"

General Ross, still reeling from Betty's outburst, steps forward. "Now wait just a minute-" he begins, but Tony cuts him off.

"Sorry, General, but I believe the lady has made her decision," Tony says, his tone light but his eyes hard. "Unless you'd like to try and stop her?"

Ross looks from Tony to Betty, then to Bruce. His shoulders slump in defeat, recognizing that he's lost this battle. "Betty," he says, his voice gruff with emotion, "be careful."

Betty nods curtly, acknowledging her father's concern without softening her stance. She turns back to Tony and Bruce, ready to face whatever comes next.

**********

Peter, MJ, and Ned huddle around the computer in their living room, anxiously waiting for Jarvis's report on the Harlem incident. The tension in the air is palpable as they lean in, their eyes fixed on the screen. The AI's voice comes through the speakers, calm and precise, a pointed contrast to their nervous energy.

"The situation in Harlem has been resolved," Jarvis begins, his digital tone reassuring. "Thanks to our emergency alert, the area was largely evacuated before the conflict escalated. Casualties were minimal." The news brings a collective sigh of relief from the trio, their shoulders visibly relaxing.

The teens exchange relieved glances as Jarvis continues, their faces a mix of excitement and apprehension. They can feel the weight of their actions, the knowledge that their intervention has already changed things.

"The Hulk engaged the entity known as Abomination in combat. The battle was intense but relatively contained due to the prior evacuation. Sir arrived on the scene to assist, providing air support and helping to minimize collateral damage." As Jarvis speaks, the trio can almost picture the scene - the clash of titans, with Iron Man swooping in to help.

Peter leans forward, his brow furrowed with concern and curiosity. "And how did it end?" he asks, voicing the question on all their minds.

"The Hulk ultimately defeated Abomination," Jarvis reports, causing a small cheer from Ned. "However, the most interesting development came after the battle. Sir intervened when SHIELD and military forces attempted to apprehend the Hulk."

MJ's eyebrows shoot up, her sharp mind immediately grasping the implications. "Tony Stark defended the Hulk?" she asks, her tone a mix of surprise and admiration.

"Indeed," Jarvis confirms, a hint of approval in his digital voice. "Sir argued against containment or aggressive measures. During this debate, the Hulk transformed back into Dr. Bruce Banner but not before agreeing to go with 'Tin Man'."

Ned's jaw drops, his eyes wide with amazement. "No way! What happened then?" he exclaims, practically bouncing in his seat with excitement.

"Dr. Banner echoed the Hulk's agreement to go with Mr. Stark, along with Dr. Elizabeth Ross. They will be relocating to California to work with Stark Industries." The news sends a ripple of excitement through the room, the teens exchanging looks of disbelief and hope.

Jarvis adds, his tone becoming more serious. "Director Fury seemed to reconsider his stance after receiving a private message from me. Per mine and Sir's concern, we convinced Director Fury that allowing the Hulk to be brought into SHIELD where HYDRA would have access to him was a very bad idea."

The trio sits in stunned silence for a moment, processing this information. The weight of their actions, the ripples they've created in the timeline, settles over them like a heavy blanket.

"This is a significant deviation from the original timeline," Jarvis notes, his voice carrying a hint of caution. "Dr. Banner's earlier integration with Sir could have far-reaching consequences."

Peter nods slowly, his mind already racing with possibilities. "Yeah, but hopefully for the better," he says, his voice a mix of hope and determination. "Anything else we should know, Jarvis?" He asks, knowing that in this game of chess they're playing with time itself, every piece of information could be crucial.

Jarvis's voice continues, his tone shifting to convey the seriousness of the situation. "There is one more matter of importance, Mr. Parkson. Sir has been asked by Director Fury to investigate General Ross's activities, particularly in relation to any other ongoing super-soldier projects."

The trio's eyes widen at this revelation.

MJ shakes her head, her expression grim. "Clearly, some people should never have access to any sort of power."

Ned nods in agreement, his fingers already tapping away at his keyboard. "Yeah, and with Ross's obsession with the Hulk, who knows what he might try next?"

Jarvis elaborates, "Indeed. The concern is that General Ross may attempt to recreate the circ*mstances that led to Dr. Banner's transformation, or worse, try to reignite the original project with willing or unwilling subjects."

Peter runs a hand through his hair, his mind racing with the implications. "That could be catastrophic. We can't let that happen."

MJ places a reassuring hand on Peter's shoulder. "We won't. We've already changed things by getting Banner with Stark earlier. Maybe this investigation will prevent Ross from doing any more damage."

Ned looks up from his computer, his face lit with determination. "Yeah, and maybe we can help somehow. We've got future knowledge, after all. We know he was big part of the Sokovia Accords. Maybe we can find enough to keep him from becoming the Secretary of State which will keep him from being able to get involved in all of that mess."

Jarvis interjects, "While your assistance could be valuable, I must caution against direct involvement. We must be careful not to draw too much attention to yourselves or reveal your true origins."

The trio nods in understanding, but their expressions remain resolute. They know the gravity of the situation and the potential consequences of Ross's actions if left unchecked.

Peter speaks up, his voice filled with determination, "Alright, Jarvis. Keep us updated on any developments with the investigation. We'll brainstorm ways we might be able to help without exposing ourselves."

As the adrenaline from the past few days finally subsides, Peter, MJ, and Ned sprawl across the living room furniture. The tension that had gripped them during the Harlem incident slowly melts away, replaced by a sense of accomplishment and relief.

Peter lets out a long exhale, sinking deeper into the couch. "I can't believe we almost forgot about the Abomination's rampage," he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

MJ, perched on the armchair, nods in agreement. "It's a good thing the fight at Culver University happened first. Who knows how much worse it could have been if we hadn't remembered in time and intervened?"

Ned, sitting cross-legged on the floor, his laptop balanced precariously on his knees, chimes in. "Yeah, and we didn't just mitigate the damage. We might have actually improved things!"

The trio exchanges glances, a mixture of pride and amazement reflected in their eyes. They hadn't planned for this event, yet their quick thinking and the resources at their disposal had allowed them to make a significant difference.

Peter sits up straighter, his mind racing with the implications. "Bruce Banner working with Tony Stark years earlier than in our original timeline... That's huge."

MJ taps her chin thoughtfully. "It could change so much. The dynamics of the Avengers, the development of new technologies..."

"Not to mention," Ned adds excitedly, "we might have prevented some serious HYDRA shenanigans by keeping Banner out of SHIELD's hands!"

The room falls silent for a moment as they contemplate the ripple effects of their actions. It's a heady feeling, knowing they've altered the course of history, hopefully for the better.

Peter breaks the silence, his voice filled with a mix of wonder and determination. "You know, when we first got stuck here, I was terrified. But now... I'm starting to think we might actually be able to make a real difference."

Notes:

Boom! "The Incredible Hulk" is done. Some significant changes are happening right now. How is that going to affect the future? Who knows, cause I don't. Yet.

Chapter 18: Cornerstone

Chapter Text

Fall 2010

Peter, MJ, and Ned throw themselves into their studies at MIT with a fervor that impresses even their most seasoned professors. It proves to be a whirlwind of academic challenges and personal growth for Peter, Ned, and MJ. Their days are filled with lectures, labs, and study sessions that push their intellects to new heights. Their unique backgrounds and experiences from the future give them an edge, allowing them to grasp complex concepts with surprising ease.

Peter excels in his materials science and nuclear engineering courses, his mind constantly churning with ideas for improving his web fluid formula. He finds himself spending long hours in the materials science lab, tinkering with various polymer compositions. He's careful not to recreate his web fluid exactly, but he can't help but explore similar concepts. His professors are consistently impressed by his intuitive understanding of complex chemical interactions. In one of his labs, he catches the eye of Professor Amelia Chen, a brilliant materials scientist known for her groundbreaking work in polymer chemistry.

"Mr. Parkson," Professor Chen calls out as Peter packs up his things after class. "That was an interesting approach you took with the molecular bonding exercise. Have you considered applying for the advanced research program?"

Peter looks up, surprised by Professor Chen's interest. "The advanced research program?"

Professor Chen nods, her eyes bright with enthusiasm. "Yes, it's a special initiative we're running in collaboration with Stark Industries. We're exploring new applications for smart materials in various fields, including medical technology and clean energy."

She pulls out a brochure from her bag and hands it to Peter. "Your work in class has been exceptional, Mr. Parkson. The way you approach problems, especially in molecular bonding, shows a level of intuition that's rare in undergraduates."

Peter glances at the brochure, his mind racing with possibilities. The program seems like a dream come true. It would allow him to expand his research for new variations of his webs and perhaps even provide him with fresh insights into potential uses for them.

"We're particularly interested in developing materials that can adapt to environmental stimuli," Professor Chen continues. "Your ideas about creating polymers with variable tensile strength could be very helpful in this field."

She leans in, lowering her voice slightly. "To be honest, Mr. Parkson, I've been keeping an eye on your work since the semester began. Your understanding of complex chemical interactions is... well, it's remarkable for someone your age. I think you could make significant contributions to this research."

Peter's heart races with excitement and a touch of anxiety. This opportunity could accelerate his plans, but it also means increased scrutiny on his work. After thinking it over for a few minutes, Peter decides to take a chance.

"Thank you, Professor Chen," he says, trying to keep his voice steady. "This sounds like an amazing opportunity. What would I need to do to apply?"

Professor Chen's face lights up at Peter's interest. "Actually, Mr. Parkson, you won't need to apply formally. I'd like to recommend you personally for the program. Your work has been consistently outstanding, and I believe you'd be an excellent fit."

Peter's eyes widen in surprise. "Really? That's... wow, thank you, Professor Chen. I don't know what to say."

"You don't need to say anything," Chen replies with a warm smile. "Your work speaks for itself. Now, let's go over some details, shall we?"

They move to a nearby table, and Chen pulls out a calendar. "The program starts at the beginning of next semester. We'll have weekly research sessions in the advanced materials lab, and you'll be working closely with a team of graduate students and Stark Industries researchers."

Peter nods, absorbing the information. "What kind of projects will we be working on?"

"We have several ongoing projects," Chen explains. "One focuses on developing adaptive polymers for medical applications. Another is exploring new materials for clean energy storage. You'll have the opportunity to contribute to these and potentially develop your own research ideas as well."

She hands Peter a packet of papers. "Here's some more detailed information about the program, including the schedule and expectations. Take some time to look it over, and let me know if you have any questions."

Peter flips through the packet, his mind already racing with possibilities. "This looks incredible, Professor Chen. I can't wait to get started."

"I'm glad to hear that," Chen says, standing up. "We're excited to have you on board, Mr. Parkson. I think you're going to do great things in this program."

As they wrap up their conversation, Peter can hardly contain his excitement. This opportunity could be a game-changer, not just for his academic career, but for his plans for the future. He thanks Professor Chen once more before heading out, eager to share the news with MJ and Ned.

Professor Chen couldn't help but smile at his eagerness, recognizing the spark of potential in her young student. She knew that Peter's unique insights could lead to some truly unique discoveries in the field of materials science, though she had no idea just how extraordinary his contributions might truly be.

Meanwhile, MJ finds herself thriving in her biomedical courses. She dives deep into her research, often losing track of time as she pores over the latest scientific journals. Her analytical mind thrives in the rigorous academic environment, and she quickly becomes known for her insightful questions during lectures.

As MJ continues to excel in her courses, she catches the attention of Dr. Eliza Thornton, a renowned professor in the field of regenerative medicine. Dr. Thornton observes MJ's work with growing interest, impressed by the young student's innovative approaches to complex problems.

One day after class, Dr. Thornton approaches MJ. "Ms. Watson, I've been following your work closely. Your insights on cellular regeneration are quite remarkable for a first-year student."

MJ tries to maintain her cool demeanor, but a hint of pride seeps through. "Thank you, Dr. Thornton. I find the subject fascinating."

Dr. Thornton nods, a spark of excitement in her eyes. "I'm leading a group project that MIT is putting together. We're collaborating with several other departments to develop new approaches to treating degenerative diseases. Your perspective could be invaluable to the team."

MJ's eyebrows raise slightly, her interest piqued. "What kind of project are we talking about?"

"We're exploring the intersection of bioengineering and nanotechnology," Dr. Thornton explains. "The goal is to create targeted delivery systems for regenerative therapies. Your understanding of cellular biology, combined with your ability to think outside the box, could help us overcome some significant hurdles we've been facing."

MJ considers the offer, her mind already racing with possibilities. She knows this could be a significant opportunity to make a real difference, perhaps even laying the groundwork for medical advancements that could save countless lives in the future.

"I'd be honored to be part of the project, Dr. Thornton," MJ says, her voice steady despite her inner excitement.

Dr. Thornton smiles, pleased with MJ's acceptance. "Excellent. We'll be meeting twice a week starting next month. I look forward to seeing what you bring to the table, Ms. Watson."

As Dr. Thornton walks away, MJ allows herself a small smile. She knows that this project could be a stepping stone towards the kind of impact she hopes to make in this new timeline.

Ned, for his part, becomes something of a legend in the computer science department. He becomes a fixture in the computer labs, his fingers flying across the keyboard as he tackles increasingly complex coding challenges. His ability to navigate complex systems and write elegant code draws the attention of Dr. Sam Harris, a pioneering AI researcher.

Dr. Harris observes Ned's work in the computer lab with growing interest, and he sees potential for him to contribute to one of his personal projects.

One afternoon, as Ned is packing up his laptop, Dr. Harris approaches him. "Mr. Meads, do you have a moment?"

Ned looks up, surprised. "Of course, Dr. Harris. What can I do for you?"

Dr. Harris smiles, his eyes bright with enthusiasm. "I've been watching your work in class and in the lab. Your coding skills are exceptional, especially your approach to AI algorithms."

Ned tries to contain his excitement, but a grin spreads across his face. "Thank you, Dr. Harris. I find AI fascinating."

"I'm glad to hear that," Dr. Harris says. "Because I have a proposition for you. I'm working on a personal project involving advanced machine learning algorithms, and I think you'd be a valuable addition to the team."

Ned's eyes widen. "Really? What kind of project is it?"

Dr. Harris leans in, lowering his voice slightly. "We're developing an AI system capable of predicting and mitigating potential cyber threats before they occur. It's cutting-edge stuff, pushing the boundaries of what's possible with current technology."

Ned's mind races with the possibilities. This project could give him invaluable experience and potentially help him develop tools to combat future threats.

"That sounds incredible," Ned says, trying to keep his voice steady. "I'd love to be part of it."

Dr. Harris beams. "Excellent! We meet every Tuesday and Thursday evening from 7 to 9 PM in the Advanced Computing Lab. Our first session with you will be next Tuesday. I'll email you some preliminary materials to review before then."

Ned nods eagerly. "I'll be there, Dr. Harris. Thank you for this opportunity."

As Dr. Harris walks away, Ned can hardly contain his excitement. He quickly pulls out his phone to text Peter and MJ about this unexpected but thrilling development.

Despite their busy schedules, Peter and MJ make time for each other. They often meet for coffee at a small café just off campus, discussing their latest projects and theories about how their actions might be affecting the timeline.

"I think we're making a difference," Peter says one afternoon, his voice low to avoid being overheard. "But it's hard to know for sure."

MJ nods, stirring her latte thoughtfully. "We just have to keep pushing forward. It's all we can do."

Their dates aren't always so serious, though. They explore Boston's historic sites, have picnics in the park, and occasionally drag Ned along for movie nights. These moments of normalcy help ground them amidst the constant pressure of their mission.

Ned, for his part, finds a balance between his studies, his secret work with Jarvis, and his training in the mystic arts. He often sneaks away to practice his skills, returning with a mix of excitement and frustration at his progress.

As the semester progresses, the trio finds themselves falling into a rhythm. They excel in their classes, make new friends, and slowly but surely work towards their goal of graduating early. It's a challenging path, but one they navigate with determination and the unshakeable bond of their shared secret.

**********

As time goes on, Peter, MJ, and Ned find themselves increasingly frustrated with the outdated technology they're forced to use. The trio, accustomed to the cutting-edge tech of their original timeline, struggle to adapt to the clunky devices and slower internet speeds of 2009.

Peter groans as he waits for his computer to boot up in the materials science lab. "I swear, this thing takes longer to start than it does to run my experiments," he mutters to himself, tapping his fingers impatiently on the desk.

Across campus, MJ stares at a loading screen, willing the database to pull up the research papers she needs. She sighs heavily, remembering how she could access entire libraries of information in seconds back in their time.

Ned, usually the most patient of the three, finds himself constantly frustrated by the limitations of the coding software available to him. He often catches himself trying to use shortcuts and commands that won't be invented for years.

During one of their study sessions in their apartment, the tension finally boils over.

"I can't take this anymore!" Ned exclaims, slamming his laptop shut. "Do you know how many workarounds I have to use just to get a simple algorithm running? It's driving me insane!"

MJ looks up from her textbook, a sympathetic frown on her face. "I know what you mean. I spent three hours today trying to find a single research paper. Three hours!"

Peter nods in agreement, running a hand through his hair. "And don't even get me started on the lab equipment. Half the time, I feel like I'm working with stone tools compared to what we had in the future."

The trio falls into silence, each lost in thoughts of the advanced technology they left behind.

As the frustration over outdated technology settles in, Peter, MJ, and Ned find themselves facing an ethical dilemma. They sit in silence for a moment, each contemplating the same question: Should they use their knowledge from the future to develop the technology they know will be useful for their research?

Ned breaks the silence first. "Guys, I've been thinking... We could probably recreate some of the tech we're used to. It would make our work so much easier."

MJ's brow furrows. "But wouldn't that be stealing? We'd be taking credit for someone else's future invention."

Peter nods slowly. "Yeah, and who knows how it might change the timeline? We could accidentally prevent some major technological breakthrough."

The trio falls silent again, weighing the pros and cons. Ned fidgets with a pen, torn between the desire for efficiency and the ethical implications.

"But think about all the good we could do," he argues. "We could accelerate research in so many fields. Maybe even prevent some disasters."

MJ shakes her head. "That's a slippery slope, Ned. Where do we draw the line? And how would we feel knowing we built our careers on stolen ideas?"

Peter looks conflicted. "I get both sides. It's tempting to use what we know, but it also feels wrong. Plus, we have no idea how it might affect the future we're trying to change."

The three friends exchange glances, each seeing their own uncertainty reflected in the others' eyes. They realize this decision could have far-reaching consequences, not just for their research, but for the entire timeline they're trying to protect.

MJ leans forward, her eyes intense as she addresses Ned and Peter. "Guys, we need to think this through carefully. First off, we're not thieves. Even if the original inventors wouldn't know, it doesn't make it right."

Peter nods slowly, considering her words. Ned looks down at his hands, conflicted.

"And secondly," MJ continues, her voice firm, "jumpstarting technology by 15 years could lead to major problems that we just can't predict. It's not worth the risk."

The room falls silent as her words sink in. Peter runs a hand through his hair, his brow furrowed in thought. Ned fidgets with his pen, tapping it against the table.

"Think about it," MJ presses on. "What if accelerating certain technologies leads to unforeseen consequences? We could inadvertently cause more harm than good."

Peter nods, his expression clearing. "You're right, MJ. We came here to fix things, not potentially make them worse."

Ned sighs, setting down his pen. "I get it. It's just frustrating, you know? But you're both right. We can't risk messing things up even more."

The trio exchanges glances, a mix of resignation and determination in their eyes. They know the path ahead will be challenging, but they're committed to doing things the right way.

**********

As a result of their conversation about technology ethics, MJ finds herself drawn to broader discussions about politics and ethics on campus. She starts attending debates and seminars, eager to explore the complex issues shaping the world around her.

One evening, MJ attends a guest lecture on environmental policy. As she listens intently, taking notes, she notices a young woman in the row in front of her doing the same. The woman's passionate questions during the Q&A session catch MJ's attention.

After the lecture, MJ approaches the woman. "That was a great point you made about corporate accountability," she says.

The woman turns, her eyes lighting up. "Thanks! I'm glad someone else picked up on that. I'm Sarah, by the way."

"MJ," she replies, shaking Sarah's hand. "Are you studying environmental science?"

Sarah shakes her head. "Political science, actually. But I believe environmental issues are going to be one of the biggest challenges for our generation."

As they continue talking, MJ realizes she recognizes Sarah from her research in the previous timeline into political figures. This is Sarah Owen, who will go on to become a prominent U.S. Senator known for her environmental advocacy.

MJ finds herself both excited and cautious. She knows Sarah's future importance but is wary of influencing events too directly. Still, she can't resist the opportunity to engage with someone so passionate about creating positive change.

MJ and Sarah continue their conversation, moving to a nearby campus café. As they settle into a corner table with their drinks, MJ carefully considers how to broach the topics she knows will be crucial in the coming years.

"Sarah, I've been thinking about some potential environmental scenarios," MJ begins, her tone casual but her eyes sharp. "What if, hypothetically, we start seeing more frequent and intense natural disasters? Like, say, record-breaking hurricanes or unprecedented wildfires?"

Sarah leans forward, intrigued. "That's actually a growing concern among climate scientists. The data suggests we're heading in that direction."

MJ nods, encouraged by Sarah's receptiveness. "And what about rising sea levels? Imagine if coastal cities started facing regular flooding within the next couple of decades."

"That's definitely a possibility," Sarah agrees, her brow furrowing. "Some models predict significant sea level rise by mid-century."

MJ presses on, careful to frame her knowledge as speculation. "Here's another scenario: What if we start seeing mass migrations due to climate change? Entire populations forced to relocate because their homes become uninhabitable?"

Sarah's eyes widen. "That's... actually a terrifying thought. But it makes sense. If areas become too hot or prone to flooding, people would have to move."

"And then there's the potential for resource scarcity," MJ continues. "Imagine water shortages leading to conflicts, or crop failures causing food insecurity on a global scale."

Sarah nods vigorously, her passion evident. "These are all very real possibilities if we don't take drastic action soon. It's why I'm so committed to environmental policy."

As they discuss these "hypothetical" scenarios, MJ carefully gauges Sarah's reactions, noting her genuine concern and determination to make a difference. She realizes that by planting these ideas now, she might be influencing Sarah's future focus as a politician. Seeing an opportunity to guide Sarah's future interests, MJ decides to subtly nudge her towards taking action.

"You know, Sarah," MJ says casually, "these are complex issues that would require input from various experts. Have you ever thought about reaching out to professors or researchers in different fields?"

Sarah tilts her head, considering. "I've talked to some of my political science professors, but I guess I haven't really branched out beyond that."

MJ nods encouragingly. "It might be interesting to get perspectives from climate scientists, geologists, or even sociologists. They could provide insights into how these scenarios might play out in real life. I myself am studying Bioengineering. In a few years I could tell you all about how a new pandemic could change the way that people live and how that might affect society."

Sarah's eyes light up with interest. "That's a great idea. I hadn't thought about approaching it from so many angles."

"And don't forget about the tech sector," MJ adds. "Engineers and computer scientists might have ideas about technological solutions to some of these problems."

Sarah pulls out her notebook, jotting down notes. "You're right. I should definitely reach out to people in these fields. Maybe I could even organize a panel discussion or something."

MJ smiles, pleased to see Sarah's enthusiasm. "That sounds like a great plan. It's always good to gather diverse perspectives when tackling big issues like these."

As they continue their conversation, MJ carefully steers Sarah towards considering the interconnected nature of environmental issues, subtly encouraging her to think holistically about potential solutions.

MJ and Sarah wrap up their conversation, both feeling energized by the exchange of ideas. As they gather their things to leave the café, MJ extends her hand to Sarah.

"It's been great talking with you, Sarah. I'd love to introduce you to some of the environmental groups on campus if you're interested," MJ offers.

Sarah's face lights up. "That would be fantastic! I'd really appreciate that."

MJ nods, pulling out her phone. "Let's exchange numbers. I can text you about the next meeting times."

As they swap contact information, MJ adds, "I also know a few professors in different departments who might be interested in your ideas. We could set up some meetings if you'd like."

"Absolutely," Sarah agrees enthusiastically. "I'd love to get their perspectives on these issues."

MJ smiles, feeling a sense of accomplishment. She knows that fostering Sarah's passion and connecting her with the right people could have a significant impact on the future.

"Great," MJ says. "Let's plan to meet up next week. We can brainstorm some more ideas about potential research topics and ways to get involved on campus."

Sarah nods eagerly. "Sounds perfect. I'll start jotting down some thoughts and we can go over them together."

As they part ways, both MJ and Sarah feel a sense of excitement about their new friendship and the potential for collaboration. MJ watches Sarah walk away, knowing that this small interaction could be the start of something much bigger.

**********

Ned Leeds stands in the middle of a dimly lit room, his face etched with concentration. Master Drumm watches from the corner, his eyes keen and observant. Ned takes a deep breath, centering himself as he's been taught.

With a fluid motion, Ned raises his hands, adorned with the sling ring. His fingers move in intricate patterns, tracing glowing lines of energy in the air. Sparks begin to fly, and a small portal starts to form.

Master Drumm nods approvingly. "Remember, Meads. Focus on your destination. See it clearly in your mind."

Ned's brow furrows as he concentrates harder. The portal grows larger, its edges stabilizing. Through it, they can see a bustling street in New York City.

"Very good," Master Drumm says. "Now, let's try something more challenging."

Ned closes the portal with a wave of his hand, looking expectantly at his teacher. Master Drumm steps forward, his expression serious.

"I want you to open a portal to the top of Mount Everest," he instructs.

Ned's eyes widen slightly, but he nods, accepting the challenge. He takes another deep breath, visualizing the snow-capped peak in his mind. His hands move once again, tracing the familiar patterns.

The air crackles with energy as a new portal begins to form. It wavers at first, unstable, but Ned grits his teeth and pushes through. Slowly, the image of a harsh, snow-covered landscape comes into view.

Master Drumm steps closer, inspecting the portal. A gust of frigid wind blows through, ruffling their clothes. He nods, satisfied.

"Excellent work," he says. "Your control is improving rapidly."

Ned beams with pride as he closes the portal. He's come a long way since his first attempts at creating portals, and the feeling of accomplishment is exhilarating.

"Now," Master Drumm continues, "let's work on maintaining multiple portals simultaneously. This skill could prove crucial in emergency situations."

Ned continues to practice the mystic arts under Master Drumm's guidance. His skills with portals improve rapidly, and Master Drumm decides it's time to introduce him to other spells. They begin with simple energy manipulation exercises, creating shields and basic mystical constructs.

As Ned progresses, he finds himself wondering about the intersection of magic and technology. During a break in their training, he approaches Master Drumm with his question.

"Master, do you think it's possible to combine magic with technology?" Ned asks, his eyes bright with curiosity.

Master Drumm strokes his chin thoughtfully. "That's an interesting question, Mr. Meads. I've never considered it myself. The mystic arts and modern technology are quite different in nature."

Ned nods, but his mind is already racing with possibilities. "I was thinking, what if we could enhance devices with magical properties? Or use technology to amplify spells?"

Master Drumm raises an eyebrow, intrigued by the idea. "I'm afraid I don't have an answer for you. This is beyond my area of expertise. However, I know someone who might be able to provide some insight."

Without further explanation, Master Drumm opens a portal. Through it, Ned can see a serene courtyard surrounded by ancient-looking buildings. "Come," Master Drumm says, "We're going to Kamar-Taj to consult the Ancient One."

They step through the portal, emerging into the crisp mountain air of Nepal. The Ancient One is waiting for them, her serene expression betraying a hint of amusem*nt at their sudden arrival.

"Master Drumm, Mr. Meads," she greets them with a slight bow. "To what do I owe this unexpected visit?"

Master Drumm explains Ned's question about combining magic and technology. The Ancient One listens attentively, her eyes fixed on Ned with interest.

The Ancient One's eyes sparkle as she considers Ned's question. She taps her fingers thoughtfully against her chin, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

"In all my years, I've never encountered an apprentice with both the mystical aptitude and technological knowledge to pursue such an idea," she admits. "It's quite intriguing."

Ned's face lights up with excitement, his mind already racing with possibilities. The Ancient One holds up a hand, tempering his enthusiasm slightly.

"While I cannot predict the outcome of such experiments, I am willing to allow you to explore this avenue," she says. "Perhaps there is something in our archives that might be of use to you."

With a graceful gesture, she motions for Ned to follow her. They walk through the winding corridors of Kamar-Taj, passing by rooms filled with practicing sorcerers and ancient artifacts. Finally, they arrive at a massive wooden door, intricately carved with mystical symbols.

The Ancient One pushes the door open, revealing a vast library. Shelves upon shelves of ancient tomes and scrolls stretch as far as the eye can see. Ned's jaw drops at the sight.

"This is our library," the Ancient One explains. "Here, you may find texts that could aid in your research."

She leads Ned deeper into the library, where a man stands organizing a stack of books. He looks up as they approach, his expression neutral but curious.

"Wong," the Ancient One addresses him, "This is Ned Meads. He has a rather unique area of study that I believe could benefit from your expertise."

Wong raises an eyebrow, looking Ned up and down. "And what might that be?" he asks, his voice deep and slightly skeptical.

Ned swallows nervously but manages to find his voice. "I'm interested in exploring the possibility of combining magic with technology," he explains.

Wong's other eyebrow joins the first, rising high on his forehead. He exchanges a look with the Ancient One, who nods encouragingly.

"Well," Wong says, turning back to Ned, "that's certainly not a request I hear every day. Come, let's see what we can find."

As Wong begins to gather a selection of ancient texts for Ned to study, the Ancient One places a gentle hand on Ned's shoulder. Her eyes hold a knowing look as she leans in close.

"Mr. Meads," she says in a low voice, "I believe it's important for you to know that Wong is aware of your... unique situation. There's no need to hold back or censor yourself around him."

Ned's eyes widen in surprise, darting between the Ancient One and Wong. The librarian gives a small nod of confirmation, his expression remaining neutral.

"Your origins and knowledge of future events are safe with us," Wong adds, his voice low and steady. "The Ancient One has deemed it necessary for me to be fully informed to assist you properly."

Ned feels a wave of relief wash over him. The constant need to guard his words and actions has been weighing on him, and the prospect of speaking freely is both exciting and slightly unnerving.

"Thank you," Ned says, his voice filled with gratitude. "It's been... challenging to keep everything bottled up."

The Ancient One smiles warmly. "We understand the burden you carry, Mr. Meads. Here, in this sanctuary of knowledge, you may speak openly about your experiences and the future you hope to change."

Wong returns with an armful of books, placing them on a nearby table. "These texts contain some of our most advanced theories on the nature of magic and its interaction with the physical world," he explains. "They may provide a starting point for your research."

Ned nods eagerly, his mind already racing with possibilities. The knowledge that he can discuss his ideas freely with Wong adds a new dimension to his excitement.

"Remember," the Ancient One adds, her tone becoming serious, "the path you're embarking on is uncharted. Be cautious, but don't let fear stifle your creativity. The combination of magic and technology could yield remarkable results... or unforeseen consequences."

**********

Bruce Banner and Betty Ross settle into their new life in California, adjusting to the stark contrast between the lush greenery of Culver University and the sun-drenched landscape of Malibu. Tony Stark has provided them with a secluded, state-of-the-art facility nestled in the hills, offering both privacy and cutting-edge resources for their research.

Despite the idyllic setting, Bruce remains on edge. His eyes dart nervously at sudden noises, and his shoulders tense when he ventures outside. The memory of his last transformation into the Hulk in Harlem haunts him, a constant reminder of the destruction he's capable of causing.

Betty, ever patient and understanding, stays close to Bruce. She gently touches his arm when she notices his anxiety rising, her presence a calming influence. "It's okay, Bruce," she murmurs softly. "We're safe here."

Tony, for his part, takes a more direct approach. He strolls into the lab one morning, clapping Bruce on the back. "How's my favorite green rage monster doing today?" he quips, ignoring Bruce's wince at the nickname.

"Tony," Betty warns, but there's a hint of amusem*nt in her voice.

"What? Just trying to lighten the mood," Tony replies with a grin. He turns to Bruce, his expression becoming more serious. "Look, Banner, you've got to relax. This place is built to withstand a nuclear blast. Even if you do hulk out, which you won't, we're prepared."

Bruce sighs, running a hand through his hair. "It's not just about containment, Tony. It's about control. I can't risk hurting anyone again."

"That's why we're here," Betty interjects. "To find a way to help you control it, not just contain it."

Tony nods in agreement. "Exactly. Between your brains, Betty's expertise, and my tech, we'll figure this out. Now, have you thought about trying to bring Hulk out voluntarily?

Bruce's eyes widen in shock and his body tenses at Tony's suggestion. His heart rate spikes, and he takes a few steps back, shaking his head vehemently.

"Are you insane?" Bruce exclaims, his voice rising in pitch. "We can't just... bring him out! Do you have any idea how dangerous that would be?"

Betty moves closer to Bruce, gently hugging the panicked scientist. She can feel the tremors running through his body, a sign of his rising stress levels.

Tony, realizing his mistake, holds up his hands in a placating gesture. "Whoa, easy there, Banner. It was just an idea. We don't have to do anything you're not comfortable with."

But Bruce is already spiraling, his mind racing with worst-case scenarios. He paces back and forth, running his hands through his hair. "Comfortable? This isn't about comfort, Tony. This is about safety. About lives. If I lose control, if the Other Guy gets out..."

Betty tries to intercept Bruce's pacing, speaking in a soothing tone. "Bruce, honey, it's okay. We're not going to do anything without proper precautions. Tony didn't mean right now."

Bruce stops abruptly, turning to face Tony with a mix of fear and anger in his eyes. "You don't understand. You can't understand. The Hulk isn't just some alter ego I can chat with over coffee. He's a force of nature, a monster. Every time he comes out, people get hurt."

Tony's eyebrows raise at Bruce's intense reaction. He leans against a nearby lab bench, crossing his arms. "Okay, Banner. Help me understand. Why is the Hulk such a monster in your eyes?"

Bruce takes a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He looks at Tony, his eyes filled with a mix of fear and frustration. "It's not just in my eyes, Tony. It's reality. Every time the Hulk emerges, destruction follows."

He begins pacing again, gesticulating as he speaks. "The Hulk isn't just strong. He's rage incarnate. He doesn't think, he doesn't plan. He just... reacts. And his reactions level city blocks."

Betty watches Bruce with concern, but remains silent, allowing him to express his thoughts.

"You've seen the aftermath," Bruce continues. "Harlem was just the latest example. Before that, there was Culver University. And before that... so many incidents I can't even remember them all. People have died because of me, because of him."

Tony listens intently, his usual smirk replaced by a thoughtful frown. "But from what I've heard, the Hulk has also saved lives. He protected Betty, didn't he?"

Bruce pauses, glancing at Betty. "Yes, but... that's the exception, not the rule. And even then, the collateral damage was enormous."

He runs a hand through his hair, his voice softening. "The worst part is, I can't control when he comes out. Any spike in my heart rate, any surge of anger or fear, and he could emerge. I live in constant fear of losing control, of hurting the people around me."

Tony holds up his hands, gesturing for Bruce to pause. "Hear me out," he says, his tone more serious than usual. "What if keeping the Hulk bottled up is actually making things worse?"

Bruce furrows his brow, confusion and skepticism evident on his face. "What do you mean?"

Tony starts pacing, his mind working through the idea as he speaks. "Think about it. The Hulk only comes out when you're in danger or need to fight, right? Of course he's going to be all rage and destruction. He's never had a chance to do anything else."

Betty tilts her head, considering Tony's words. Her eyes light up with understanding. "You might be onto something, Tony," she says, turning to Bruce. "What if the Hulk needs time to process things, to learn, or even... enjoy something?"

Bruce looks between Tony and Betty, his expression a mix of disbelief and fear. "You can't be serious. The Hulk isn't some... some child that needs playtime. He's dangerous!"

Tony shakes his head. "No, Bruce. He's a part of you. A part that's been locked away and only let out in the worst situations. Maybe, just maybe, if we give him a chance to experience more than just fight or flight, he might become more... manageable."

Betty steps closer to Bruce, attempting to use her presence to calm the nervous man. "I think Tony has a point, Bruce. We've been treating the Hulk as a problem to be contained, not as a part of you that needs understanding."

Bruce's face contorts with frustration as he vehemently shakes his head. "No, absolutely not. We can't risk it. The Hulk isn't something to be reasoned with or understood. He's a danger, plain and simple."

Betty watches Bruce with a mixture of concern and exasperation. She takes a deep breath, her voice calm but firm as she asks, "Bruce, how much progress have you made in controlling the Hulk in the five years you were gone?"

Bruce's shoulders slump, his anger deflating into resignation. He runs a hand through his disheveled hair, avoiding Betty's gaze. "None," he admits quietly. "I've made no progress at all."

Betty raises an eyebrow, her expression a mix of skepticism and challenge. The look is pointed, silently conveying volumes about Bruce's stubbornness and reluctance to try new approaches.

Tony, observing the exchange, can't help but let out a short laugh. He shakes his head, a wry smile playing on his lips. "Oh man, Banner," he chuckles, "that's the exact look Pepper gives me when I'm being oblivious or just plain dumb. Trust me, I've seen it enough times to recognize it anywhere."

Bruce glances between Betty and Tony, his expression shifting from defiance to uncertainty. The weight of his lack of progress and the possibility of a new approach begin to sink in, leaving him conflicted and unsure of how to proceed.

Betty and Tony exchange a glance, recognizing the shift in Bruce's demeanor. They sense an opportunity to push their idea further.

"Bruce," Betty says gently, "what if we started with something small? Controlled experiments to see if you can even bring the Hulk out without being in danger or a fight?"

Tony nods enthusiastically, building on Betty's suggestion. "Yeah, we could set up a safe environment, monitor everything. No pressure, just... exploration."

Bruce looks skeptical, but doesn't immediately dismiss the idea. He rubs his chin thoughtfully, considering the possibility.

Betty, encouraged by Bruce's contemplative silence, continues, "Once we establish whether it's possible, we can go from there. Maybe we could even try meditation techniques?"

Bruce raises an eyebrow, intrigued despite his reservations. "Meditation?"

Betty nods, her eyes lighting up with excitement. "Yes, to see if you can contact the Hulk while he's still 'inside' you, so to speak. It could be a way to communicate with him without fully transforming."

Tony claps his hands together, grinning. "I like it. Safe, controlled, and potentially groundbreaking. What do you say, Banner? Ready to give it a shot?"

Bruce looks between Betty and Tony, their enthusiasm palpable. He takes a deep breath, weighing the potential risks against the possibility of finally making progress. The room falls silent as Bruce considers their proposal, the tension palpable as they await his decision.

Bruce sighs heavily, running a hand through his hair. "Fine," he says, his voice a mix of resignation and a hint of hope. "We can try. But we're taking every precaution possible."

Tony grins, clapping his hands together. "That's the spirit, Brucie-bear! We'll make this place Hulk-proof. No expense spared."

Betty's eyes light up with excitement. She squeezes Bruce's arm gently. "This could be a real breakthrough, Bruce. We'll take it slow, I promise."

The trio begins to brainstorm, their voices overlapping as ideas flow. Tony pulls up holographic displays, sketching out designs for reinforced walls and containment systems. Betty jots down notes on potential meditation techniques and calming exercises.

Bruce, despite his initial reluctance, finds himself drawn into the planning. He suggests monitoring equipment to track his vital signs during the experiments. His scientific mind kicks into gear, considering variables and potential outcomes.

As they work, the atmosphere in the lab shifts. The tension that had been present since Bruce's arrival begins to dissipate, replaced by a cautious optimism. Tony cracks jokes, lightening the mood. Betty's gentle encouragement keeps Bruce grounded when his doubts surface.

They decide to start with simple breathing exercises, gradually working up to more intensive meditation sessions. Tony insists on being present for all experiments, his curiosity piqued by the possibility of communicating with the Hulk.

By the end of the day, they have a rough outline of their plan. The lab buzzes with energy as they prepare for this new phase of research. Bruce, though still apprehensive, feels a glimmer of hope he hasn't experienced in years.

**********

Peter, MJ, and Ned gather around the holographic display in their living room, eagerly awaiting Jarvis's update on the Thaddeus Ross investigation. The AI's voice fills the room, calm and precise as always.

"I have compiled a comprehensive report on General Thaddeus Ross's activities," Jarvis begins. "The investigation has revealed several concerning patterns in his behavior and decision-making processes."

The trio leans in closer, their faces illuminated by the soft blue glow of the hologram. Jarvis continues, "General Ross has been pursuing the creation of super-soldiers with increased aggression since the attack on the World Trade Towers. He has been allocating significant military resources to this end, often bypassing standard protocols and oversight."

Peter's brow furrows as he processes the information. MJ's eyes narrow, her analytical mind already connecting the dots. Ned listens intently, his fingers hovering over a keyboard, ready to take notes.

"Furthermore," Jarvis adds, "there is evidence to suggest that Ross has been in contact with individuals employed by Oscorp. While the nature of these communications remains unclear, the frequency and timing coincide with key developments in his super-soldier program."

MJ interjects, her voice laced with concern, "That can't be good. Oscorp's not exactly known for their ethical scientific practices."

Jarvis acknowledges her point before continuing, "I have also uncovered financial transactions that indicate General Ross is funneling military funds into private research facilities. These facilities do not appear on any official records."

Peter runs a hand through his hair, his expression troubled. "So he's gone completely off the rails. This is worse than we thought."

Ned nods in agreement, his fingers flying across the keyboard as he types up notes. "What about his relationship with Dr. Banner? Any changes there?"

"General Ross continues to view Dr. Banner as a threat and a potential asset," Jarvis responds. "His pursuit of Banner has not diminished, despite the doctor's current protected status under Sir's care."

The trio exchanges worried glances, the weight of the situation settling over them. Jarvis's investigation has revealed a tangled web of unethical practices and potential dangers, leaving them with much to consider as they plan their next move.

MJ's eyes flash with anger as she processes the information about General Ross. She begins to pace back and forth, her frustration evident in every step.

"This is unbelievable," she says, her voice rising. "In our timeline, Ross never faced any consequences for his actions. Not only did he get away with everything, but he even became Secretary of State!"

Peter and Ned exchange concerned glances as MJ continues her tirade.

"Do you realize how messed up that is?" MJ asks, gesturing emphatically. "He experimented on people, pursued Banner relentlessly, and caused untold destruction. And what happened? Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

She stops pacing and faces her friends, her expression determined. "We can't let that happen again. Not this time. Ross needs to be held accountable for his actions."

"What can we do?" Peter asks, his voice tinged with frustration. "We don't have any real power here. And Fury's got his hands full with HYDRA. I doubt he'll prioritize Ross over that."

Ned nods in agreement. "Yeah, and even if we told him, who knows if he'd actually do anything about it? SHIELD's compromised, remember?"

MJ falls silent for a moment, her brow furrowed in deep thought. The boys watch her, waiting for her input. Suddenly, her eyes light up with an idea.

"We're going to leak everything to the media," she declares, her voice firm and resolute.

Peter and Ned exchange uncertain glances as MJ's words hang in the air. The weight of her suggestion settles over them, a mix of excitement and apprehension filling the room.

"Leak everything to the media?" Peter repeats, his voice tinged with concern. "That's a big step, MJ. Are we sure we're ready for that?"

Ned nods, his brow furrowed in thought. "Yeah, I mean, once it's out there, we can't take it back. What if it backfires?"

MJ turns to face them, her eyes blazing with determination. "That's exactly why we need to do this. Ross has gotten away with too much for too long. The public deserves to know the truth. Think about it. Ross has been operating in the shadows, using his position to cover up his illegal activities. But if we expose him to the public..."

She begins pacing again, her mind working through the possibilities. "We have evidence of illegal experiments, misuse of military funds, and unethical pursuits. If we present this information carefully, the public outrage would be enormous."

"The outcry would force the government to act," Peter finishes, catching on to MJ's plan.

"Exactly," MJ confirms. "We have the evidence. Now we just need to make sure it gets into the right hands. Journalists, watchdog groups, anyone who can make this information go viral."

Peter runs a hand through his hair, considering MJ's words. "You're right that something needs to be done. But how do we make sure the information is taken seriously?"

Ned's eyes light up as an idea strikes him. "What if we package it all together? Like, create a comprehensive report with all the evidence, then send it to multiple reputable news outlets?"

MJ nods enthusiastically. "We need to make it impossible to ignore. If we send it to enough places, at least one of them will run the story."

Ned's fingers hover over his keyboard. "I can set up secure channels to distribute the information anonymously. We'll need to be careful not to leave any traces back to us."

MJ smiles, a determined glint in her eye. "Let's do it. It's time Ross faced the consequences of his actions."

As the trio discusses their plan, a familiar voice chimes in, startling them.

"If I may interject," Jarvis says, his crisp British accent filling the room. "While your intentions are admirable, I feel compelled to point out several potential risks in your current plan."

Ned fumbles and almost drops his laptop, surprised. "Jarvis? Wha... Never mind. What risks are you talking about?"

"First and foremost," Jarvis continues, "leaking classified information, regardless of its content, could be considered a federal offense. Additionally, without proper vetting, there's a risk of inadvertently exposing information that could compromise ongoing operations or put individuals at risk."

MJ frowns, crossing her arms. "But we can't just sit back and do nothing, Jarvis. Ross needs to be stopped."

"I agree, Miss Watson," Jarvis replies. "However, there may be more strategic ways to achieve your goal. Perhaps we could explore legal channels or find allies within the system who could help expose General Ross's misdeeds without putting yourselves or any other innocents at unnecessary risk."

Ned nods slowly. "He's got a point. Maybe we should think this through a bit more before we go full whistleblower."

Peter looks between his friends, considering Jarvis's words. "What do you suggest, Jarvis? How can we make sure Ross faces justice without potentially making things worse?"

"I would recommend a more targeted approach," Jarvis responds. "We could compile the evidence and present it to trusted individuals within the government or military who have the authority to investigate. Simultaneously, we could work on securing the evidence and ensuring its authenticity, should it need to be made public in the future."

MJ sighs, her earlier determination tempered by Jarvis's caution. "I hate the idea of slowing down, but I guess you're right. We need to be smart about this."

"Indeed, Miss Watson," Jarvis agrees. "Patience and strategy are often more effective than hasty action. Shall we begin by organizing the information we have and identifying potential allies?"

The group exchanges looks, a new sense of purpose settling over them. With Jarvis's guidance, they begin to formulate a more measured approach to exposing Ross's crimes, balancing their desire for justice with the need for caution and strategic thinking.

**********

As Tony, Bruce, and Betty discuss their plans for the Hulk experiments, Jarvis's voice interrupts them, cutting through the air with an unexpected urgency that immediately captures their attention.

"Sir, I apologize for the interruption, but TriWeb0rs is requesting to speak with you. They say it's urgent," Jarvis announces, his artificial voice carrying a hint of concern.

Tony's eyebrows shoot up in surprise, his mind already racing with possibilities. "Now? Alright, put them through," he responds, his tone a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

Bruce and Betty exchange confused glances, their eyes searching each other's faces for any sign of recognition. "TriWeb0rs?" Bruce asks, his brow furrowed in deep thought. "Who's that?" The name sounds unfamiliar and slightly ominous to both scientists.

Tony sighs heavily, realizing he needs to explain the situation. He runs a hand through his hair, a nervous habit he's never quite shaken, and turns to face them. His expression is serious, a contrast to his usual carefree demeanor. "It's a long story, but I'll give you the short version," he begins, his voice low and measured. "TriWeb0rs is a group of anonymous hackers who've been feeding us intel about some serious threats."

Betty's eyes widen, her scientific curiosity piqued even as a sense of unease settles in her stomach. "Threats? What kind of threats?" she asks, leaning forward slightly.

"The kind that could bring down SHIELD," Tony says grimly, his words hanging heavy in the air. "They uncovered evidence that HYDRA has infiltrated the organization at the highest levels." The weight of this revelation is palpable in the room.

Bruce's jaw drops, his mind reeling from the implications. "HYDRA? As in the Nazi terrorists?" he asks incredulously, his voice barely above a whisper. "I thought they were destroyed during World War II." The scientist in him struggles to reconcile this new information with what he thought he knew about history.

Tony shakes his head, his expression grim. "Apparently not," he says, his voice tinged with a mixture of frustration and determination. "They've been operating in the shadows for decades. TriWeb0rs brought this to our attention and have been helping us gather evidence."

"But how do you know you can trust them?" Betty asks, her voice laced with concern. Her analytical mind is already working through the possibilities, weighing the risks and potential consequences.

Tony shrugs, a gesture that seems at odds with the gravity of the situation. "We don't, not entirely," he admits, his honesty refreshing in its bluntness. "But so far, their intel has checked out. They've given us information that's been crucial in our investigation."

Tony takes a deep breath, his eyes scanning the room to gauge Bruce and Betty's reactions. "There's more," he says, his voice steady but serious. "TriWeb0rs was also the one who alerted me and Fury about General Ross having Bruce in Harlem."

Bruce's eyes widen, a mix of surprise and gratitude crossing his face. Betty reaches out and squeezes his hand, her own expression a mirror of his emotions.

"They didn't just stop there," Tony continues, pacing slightly as he speaks. "TriWeb0rs was the one who triggered the mandatory evacuation in Harlem. That's why the casualty count was so low despite the... well, the Hulk-sized chaos."

Betty leans forward, her scientific mind already working through the implications. "So they saved lives," she says, her voice filled with awe. "Potentially hundreds of lives."

Bruce nods slowly, processing this new information. "I... I had no idea," he murmurs, his voice thick with emotion. "All this time, I thought it was just luck that more people weren't hurt."

Tony stops pacing and faces them directly. "TriWeb0rs has been working behind the scenes, trying to mitigate disasters before they happen. They're not just hackers; they're... well, they're kind of like guardian angels, I guess."

The room falls silent as Bruce and Betty absorb this revelation. The air is thick with unspoken questions and a newfound sense of gratitude towards these mysterious benefactors.

Bruce leans back in his chair, his posture tense as he processes this new information. His mind races with questions and potential scenarios. "So what do they want now?" he asks, his voice calm despite the turmoil in his thoughts.

"I guess we're about to find out," Tony says, turning back to address Jarvis. His voice carries a mix of anticipation and caution. "Alright, J, patch them through. But try and track the signal again."

"Of course, sir," Jarvis responds, his artificial intelligence already working to ensure the highest level of security. "Connecting now."

As the connection is established, the room falls into a tense silence. Bruce, Betty, and Tony exchange meaningful glances, each of them acutely aware that whatever TriWeb0rs has to say could change everything. The air crackles with anticipation as they wait for the mysterious hackers to speak.

The screen flickers to life, displaying a chat window with a simple, nondescript interface. A message appears, the text scrolling across the screen in a vibrant green font:

TriWeb0rs: Knock knock! Is this thing on? Can the science squad hear us?

Tony rolls his eyes, a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth. "We're here. Bruce and Betty are with me."

TriWeb0rs: OMG! THE Bruce Banner and Betty Ross? We're not worthy! bows repeatedly

Bruce shifts uncomfortably in his chair, unused to such enthusiasm. Betty raises an eyebrow, a mix of amusem*nt and skepticism on her face.

TriWeb0rs: Seriously, you two are like, the power couple of gamma radiation research. We're huge fans! Your work on cellular regeneration is mind-blowing, Dr. Banner. And Dr. Ross, your insights into the effects of gamma radiation on human physiology? chef's kiss

Bruce leans over to whisper to Tony, "What does 'chef's kiss' mean?"

Tony clears his throat, unwilling to admit that he doesn't know. "As flattering as this fanboy moment is, you said this was urgent?"

TriWeb0rs: Right, right. Sorry, got carried away. It's not every day you get to chat with scientific royalty. But before we get to the serious stuff, can we just say how awesome it is that you're all working together now? It's like the Beatles, but for science!

Bruce leans forward, his curiosity piqued despite his initial discomfort. "You seem to know a lot about us. How exactly?"

TriWeb0rs: Oh, you know, we're just really good at Google. And maybe a teensy bit of totally ethical hacking. But mostly Google, we swear!

Betty can't help but chuckle at the hackers' irreverent tone. "Well, you certainly have a unique way of introducing yourselves."

TriWeb0rs: We aim to please! But seriously, it's an honor to talk to you both. Your work has the potential to change the world. And not just in the "oops, we accidentally created a giant green rage monster" kind of way. No offense, Dr. Banner.

Bruce winces slightly but manages a wry smile. "None taken. I think."

Tony's amusem*nt fades, replaced by a more serious expression. He leans forward, his eyes fixed on the screen. "Alright, TriWeb0rs, let's get down to business. What's this urgent matter you wanted to discuss?"

The lighthearted tone of the hackers' messages shifts, becoming more focused and direct.

TriWeb0rs: Right. We've been digging into General Ross's activities, and what we've found is... troubling, to say the least.

Betty tenses at the mention of her father's name, while Bruce's expression hardens. Tony nods, encouraging them to continue.

TriWeb0rs: We've uncovered evidence of illegal experiments, misuse of military funds, and unethical pursuits. The stuff he's been doing... it's not just unethical, it's downright dangerous.

Bruce clenches his fists, memories of his own experiences with Ross's experiments flashing through his mind. Betty places a comforting hand on his arm, her face a mixture of anger and disappointment.

TriWeb0rs: We want to expose him, make sure he faces justice for what he's done. But we're stuck. We can't just dump all this info to the media without risking serious consequences. And we're not sure if going through official channels will actually lead to any real action.

Tony rubs his chin thoughtfully. "So you're caught between a rock and a hard place. You want Ross to face consequences, but you're not sure how to make it happen without potentially making things worse."

TriWeb0rs: Exactly. We refuse to let Ross get away with this, but he has to much clout for us to simply accuse him. So we need to be smart about how we handle this. We thought maybe you guys might have some ideas.

Bruce speaks up, his voice quiet but intense. "I've seen firsthand what Ross is capable of. He needs to be stopped."

Betty nods in agreement, her expression determined. "My father's actions have gone unchecked for far too long. But we need to be careful. He has a lot of powerful connections."

Tony leans back in his chair, his mind already racing with possibilities. "Alright, TriWeb0rs. Let's put our heads together and figure out how to take Ross down without starting World War III."

The group falls into a contemplative silence, each mind working to find a solution to their predicament. TriWeb0rs' revelation about General Ross hangs heavy in the air, a testament to the gravity of the situation they face.

TriWeb0rs: So, any of you science superstars know someone in the military or government who might be willing to look into these files? Someone with enough clout to actually make a difference?

Bruce shakes his head, a frown etching deep lines on his forehead. "I'm afraid my connections in those circles are... limited, to say the least." He glances at Betty, a mixture of regret and frustration in his eyes.

Betty sighs, running a hand through her hair. "I wish I could say differently, but most of my father's colleagues are either loyal to him or too afraid to cross him. I can't think of anyone who'd be willing to take this on."

Tony taps his fingers on the arm of his chair, his brow furrowed in concentration. Suddenly, he sits up straighter, a spark of recognition in his eyes. "What about General Blackwell?" he muses aloud.

Bruce and Betty exchange curious glances, unfamiliar with the name.

"Who's that?" Bruce asks, leaning forward with interest.

Tony waves a hand dismissively. "Three-star general, runs Air Force Materiel Command. Smart cookie, not afraid to ruffle feathers." He pauses, uncertainty creeping into his voice. "But I'm not sure if she'd be willing or able to do anything with this information."

TriWeb0rs: General Samantha Blackwell? We've got some intel on her. Seems like she might be our best shot. Want us to bring her into the chat?

Tony's eyebrows shoot up in surprise. "You can do that? Just... add her to the conversation?"

TriWeb0rs: Please, we're TriWeb0rs. We can do anything. Well, except maybe make a decent cup of coffee. That's still beyond our capabilities.

Despite the tension in the room, a chuckle escapes Tony's lips. He glances at Bruce and Betty, who nod their agreement.

"Alright, TriWeb0rs," Tony says, straightening in his chair. "Let's bring General Blackwell into this little pow-wow. But fair warning - she's not exactly known for her patience with unexpected situations."

TriWeb0rs: Roger that, Iron Dude. One General Blackwell, coming right up!

The screen flickers momentarily as TriWeb0rs works their digital magic. Tony, Bruce, and Betty exchange nervous glances, unsure of what to expect next.

The screen flickers again, and a new window pops up, revealing the stern face of General Samantha Blackwell. Her expression is a mixture of confusion and barely contained rage.

"What in the blazes is going on here?" she demands, her voice sharp enough to cut through the tension in the room. "I was in the middle of a classified briefing when my secure line was hijacked!"

Tony winces, but can't help himself. "Well, at least it's not just me you're yelling at this time, General," he quips, earning a glare that could melt steel.

"Stark, I swear to God, if this is one of your stunts-" Blackwell starts, but she's cut off by the appearance of green text on the screen.

TriWeb0rs: Whoa there, General! No need to go nuclear on us. We're the ones who brought you here, not Mr. Stark.

Blackwell's eyes narrow dangerously. "And who exactly are you?"

TriWeb0rs: We're TriWeb0rs, your friendly neighborhood hackers. Don't worry, we come in peace!

"Hackers?" Blackwell spits out the word like it's poison. "Do you have any idea how many federal laws you've just violated?"

TriWeb0rs: Probably a lot. But trust us, it's for a good cause. We've got some serious intel that needs your attention.

Blackwell takes a deep breath, visibly trying to calm herself. "You have exactly one minute to explain yourselves before I trace this call and have you all arrested."

TriWeb0rs: Fair enough. Here's the deal: We've uncovered evidence that US Army General Thaddeus Ross has been conducting illegal experiments, misusing military funds, and generally being a Grade-A jerk. We're talking serious violations of ethics and law here.

Blackwell's expression shifts from anger to concern. "That's... a significant accusation. Do you have proof?"

TriWeb0rs: Tons. But we need someone with the authority and integrity to actually do something about it. That's where you come in, General.

Blackwell leans back, her mind clearly racing. "I see. And why should I believe anything you say?"

Tony clears his throat. "Because we've verified some of their information, General. It checks out."

Bruce takes a deep breath, his hands clenching and unclenching as he steels himself. The room falls silent, all eyes turning to him as he prepares to speak. Even the digital presence of TriWeb0rs seems to hold its breath, waiting for Bruce's words.

"General Blackwell," Bruce begins, his voice steady despite the tension evident in his posture. "I think it's time you heard the full story from someone who lived it."

Blackwell's eyes narrow, but she nods, giving Bruce permission to continue.

"I was recruited by General Ross to work on what I believed was a radiation resistance project," Bruce explains, his eyes distant as he recalls the past. "At no point was I informed that we were actually working on a super-soldier serum. Ross kept that information from me and the other scientists on the team."

Bruce pauses, gathering his thoughts. Betty reaches out and squeezes his hand, offering silent support.

"When the time came for human trials, Ross pressured us to move forward despite my reservations," Bruce continues, his voice growing stronger. "I... I volunteered myself, believing that if anything went wrong, it should be me who faced the consequences."

Blackwell's expression softens slightly, a flicker of understanding crossing her face.

"The result was... well, you've seen the news," Bruce says, a hint of bitterness creeping into his voice. "I became the Hulk. And instead of taking responsibility for his actions, Ross branded me a fugitive and spent years hunting me down along with trying to recreate what happened to me as evidenced by Blonsky's transformation in Harlem."

Bruce leans forward, his eyes locking with Blackwell's through the screen. "General Blackwell, Ross has been operating outside the law for years. He's used military resources to pursue a personal vendetta, endangered countless civilian lives, and violated every ethical standard we have for human experimentation. All in the name of 'patriotic duty'." He sneers as he says those words.

General Blackwell's face on the screen becomes a mask of concentration. Her eyes narrow slightly as she processes the information she's just received. The room falls into a tense silence, broken only by the soft hum of electronics.

After a few minutes of deep thought, Blackwell speaks, her voice measured and deliberate. "I understand the gravity of what you're telling me. However, accusing a four-star general isn't something to be done lightly. I'll need to review the evidence thoroughly and gather support from other high-ranking officials before we can proceed."

Her words hang in the air, causing a mix of reactions among those present. Bruce's shoulders slump slightly, while Betty's grip on his hand tightens. Tony leans back in his chair, his expression unreadable.

The green text of TriWeb0rs appears on the screen once more:

TriWeb0rs: But you are going to look into it, correct?

There's a hint of urgency in the question, despite the digital medium. The hackers' concern is palpable, even through the impersonal interface of the chat window.

Blackwell's eyes flick to the text, then back to the faces on her screen. She takes a deep breath before responding, her voice firm and resolute. "Yes, I will investigate this matter. You have my word on that."

The tension in the room visibly eases at General Blackwell's words. A collective sigh of relief escapes from Tony, Bruce, and Betty. The green text of TriWeb0rs reappears, practically bouncing with excitement.

TriWeb0rs: Awesome sauce! We knew you were the right person for the job, General. You're like the Nick Fury we always wanted but were too afraid to ask for.

General Blackwell's eyebrows furrow at the strange reference, but she doesn't comment on it. Instead, she nods curtly and terminates her connection without further words.

Tony leans back in his chair, a mix of relief and exhaustion on his face. "Well, that went better than expected," he says, running a hand through his hair.

TriWeb0rs: You're welcome, by the way. We'll be here all week, folks! Don't forget to tip your friendly neighborhood hackers!

With that final quip, TriWeb0rs signs off, leaving the screen blank. Tony, Bruce, and Betty exchange looks of bewilderment and amusem*nt.

Tony turns his attention to the ceiling, addressing his AI. "Jarvis, please tell me you were able to trace that signal."

There's a hint of hope in Tony's voice, but it's clear from his tone that he doesn't expect much. Jarvis's response confirms his suspicions.

"I'm afraid not, sir," Jarvis replies. "The signal was bounced through multiple servers across several continents. Whoever these TriWeb0rs are, they're exceptionally skilled at covering their tracks."

Tony nods, unsurprised but slightly disappointed. "Well, it was worth a shot," he mutters, more to himself than anyone else.

Tony, Bruce, and Betty sit in contemplative silence for a moment, processing the whirlwind of events that just transpired. The tension in the room gradually eases, replaced by a mix of cautious optimism and lingering concern.

Tony breaks the silence first, his voice tinged with a mixture of amusem*nt and disbelief. "Well, that was... something. I've got to hand it to TriWeb0rs, they certainly know how to make an impression."

Bruce nods, a wry smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "They're certainly effective, I'll give them that. I just hope General Blackwell follows through on her promise to investigate."

Betty leans forward, her brow furrowed in thought. "Do you think we can trust her? I mean, she seemed willing to listen, but..."

Tony shrugs, his expression turning serious. "Blackwell's tough, but she's fair. If anyone in the military is going to take this seriously, it's her. We'll just have to wait and see."

The three fall into a discussion about the potential outcomes of Blackwell's investigation, weighing the risks and possibilities. They consider the impact it could have on Ross's career, the military's super-soldier program, and Bruce's own situation.

After a few minutes, the conversation begins to wind down. Tony glances at his watch and clears his throat. "As thrilling as this cloak-and-dagger stuff is, we should probably get back to our original discussion. Bruce, you were saying something about gamma radiation stabilization?"

Bruce blinks, momentarily thrown by the shift in topic. Then he nods, refocusing on the scientific matters at hand. "Right, yes. I think I might have a new approach that could help minimize the cellular damage..."

As Bruce launches into his explanation, Betty listens intently, occasionally interjecting with questions or suggestions. Tony leans back in his chair, his mind already racing with potential applications and improvements.

The conversation flows naturally back into the realm of science and innovation, the earlier drama fading into the background. Yet, beneath the surface, each of them knows that the events of the day may have set in motion changes that could reshape their futures in ways they can't yet imagine.

Chapter 19: From the Ground Up

Chapter Text

Spring 2011

Peter, MJ, and Ned dive headfirst into their special projects at MIT, each tackling challenging research in their respective fields. The work is demanding, pushing them to their limits, but they thrive on the intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to make meaningful contributions.

Peter spends long hours in the materials science lab, experimenting with various polymer compositions. His professor, Dr. Chen, watches in amazement as Peter effortlessly manipulates complex molecular structures, creating new materials with unprecedented properties. One afternoon, Peter presents a lightweight, super-strong fabric that could revolutionize protective gear. Dr. Emerson's eyes widen as she examines the sample, muttering, "Extraordinary. Simply extraordinary."

Meanwhile, MJ immerses herself in the world of regenerative medicine. She works alongside Dr. Thornton, exploring innovative approaches to tissue engineering. MJ's unique perspective and creative problem-solving skills lead to breakthroughs in developing more efficient scaffolds for cell growth. During a team meeting, Dr. Thornton praises MJ's work, saying, "Your insights have pushed our research forward by leaps and bounds. I'm truly impressed."

Ned finds himself at the forefront of AI and cybersecurity research. He collaborates with Dr. Harris on developing advanced algorithms to predict and mitigate cyber threats. Ned's intuitive understanding of both magic and technology allows him to approach problems from unconventional angles. After a successful simulation, Dr. Harris claps Ned on the back, exclaiming, "Your work is groundbreaking, Ned. You have a bright future in this field."

Despite their grueling schedules, the trio meets regularly to discuss their progress and support each other. They share their successes and challenges, offering encouragement and fresh perspectives. Their professors notice their exceptional teamwork and collaborative spirit, further cementing their reputations as standout students.

As word of their accomplishments spreads through the MIT community, other faculty members begin to take notice. The trio finds themselves invited to interdisciplinary seminars and research groups, where their unique insights are highly valued. Their contributions spark new ideas and collaborations across departments, earning them respect from both peers and professors alike.

**********

Ned and MJ approach Peter with the idea of him taking martial arts classes. At first, Peter is hesitant, arguing that he already has enhanced strength and agility due to his spider powers. He expresses concern about accidentally hurting someone during practice.

MJ counters his argument, pointing out that martial arts are not just about physical strength, but also about discipline, focus, and control. She emphasizes how these skills could be valuable in Peter's future as Spider-Man, helping him to better manage his powers and react more effectively in high-stress situations.

Ned chimes in, highlighting the mental benefits of martial arts, such as improved concentration and stress relief. He suggests that learning different fighting styles could give Peter an edge when facing various opponents, making him a more versatile hero.

Peter remains skeptical, worried about revealing his enhanced abilities during training. MJ addresses this concern, proposing that they choose styles that focus more on technique and strategy rather than raw power. She suggests disciplines like Aikido or Tai Chi, which emphasize balance, redirection of force, and mindfulness.

After some back-and-forth, Peter begins to see the potential benefits. He acknowledges that improving his control and expanding his fighting repertoire could indeed make him a more effective hero. Reluctantly, he agrees to give it a try, on the condition that he starts with gentler, more meditative practices before moving on to more intense styles.

The trio researches various martial arts classes available in the area, looking for instructors who emphasize discipline and control. They decide that Peter should start with a beginner's Tai Chi class, planning to gradually explore other styles as he progresses. Peter, though still apprehensive, commits to approaching the training with an open mind, recognizing the potential for personal growth and improved heroics.

Peter attends his first Tai Chi class with a mixture of skepticism and curiosity. As the instructor leads the group through slow, deliberate movements, Peter finds his mind wandering. He tries to focus on his breathing and the flow of energy, but his enhanced senses pick up every little distraction in the room. The rustle of clothing, the faint hum of the air conditioning, even the heartbeats of his classmates all compete for his attention.

After several classes, Peter confides in Ned and MJ about his struggles. "I thought this was supposed to help me focus, but my brain just won't shut up," he complains, running a hand through his hair in frustration. "There's too much time to think between movements. I keep getting distracted by everything around me."

MJ frowns, considering Peter's words. "Maybe we need to find something that keeps your mind more actively engaged," she suggests. "A style that requires more constant focus on technique?"

Ned nods enthusiastically. "Yeah, like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Krav Maga. They're all about efficiency and technique rather than brute strength."

Peter perks up at the idea. "That sounds more my speed. At least then I'd have to concentrate on what I'm doing instead of letting my mind wander."

Over the next few weeks, Peter tries various martial arts styles. He starts with traditional karate, finding the structured movements helpful but somewhat limiting. Next, he explores Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, appreciating the grappling techniques but yearning for something more dynamic.

It's when he stumbles upon a Capoeira class that Peter feels a spark of excitement. The fluid, acrobatic movements resonate with his natural agility. He watches in awe as the instructor seamlessly blends dance-like motions with powerful kicks and sweeps.

"This is amazing," Peter murmurs to himself, already imagining how he could incorporate these techniques into his fighting style.

Eager to expand his skills further, Peter also signs up for Jeet Kune Do classes. The philosophy behind Bruce Lee's martial art—emphasizing adaptability, flexibility, speed, and efficiency—appeals to his scientific mind. He finds himself analyzing each movement, constantly seeking ways to improve and adapt the style to incorporate his webs and ability to fight in a three-dimensional space.

As the weeks turn into months, Peter's skills grow exponentially. His instructors are impressed by his rapid progress, unaware of the superhuman abilities that give him an edge. Peter revels in the challenge, pushing himself to master each technique without relying on his enhanced strength and reflexes.

One evening, after a particularly intense training session, Peter returns to the house, his face flushed with exertion and excitement. MJ and Ned look up from their studies, surprised by the broad grin on his face.

"You guys were right," Peter admits, collapsing onto the couch. "This was exactly what I needed."

**********

MJ and Sarah Owen's friendship continues to blossom as they navigate their academic pursuits at MIT. MJ, remembering her promise to Sarah, takes it upon herself to broaden her friend's horizons. She begins dragging Sarah to various on-campus activities, introducing her to professors and students working in environmental fields.

At first, Sarah is nervous, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of knowledge and expertise she encounters. However, MJ's enthusiasm is infectious, and soon Sarah finds herself eagerly engaging in discussions about climate change, renewable energy, and sustainable development.

Inspired by these interactions, MJ brings up Sarah's previous idea for a panel. It would meet bi-weekly to discuss a wide range of environmental topics. The goal is to bring together perspectives from different fields to tackle hypothetical scenarios. Sarah is immediately on board, and together they work to organize the first meeting.

The inaugural panel is a modest affair, with a handful of students and professors gathered in a small lecture hall. The two friends had sent out the debate topic early so that participants would have time to research and gather their thoughts. MJ and Sarah moderate the discussion, presenting a scenario about rising sea levels and its potential impact on coastal communities. The diverse group, including marine biologists, urban planners, and economists, offers unique insights and potential solutions.

Word spreads quickly about the engaging and thought-provoking nature of the panel. Each subsequent meeting attracts more participants, with students and faculty from various departments eager to contribute their expertise. To the surprise of the two girls, there ends up being a waiting list to get on the panel. The hypothetical scenarios, unknowingly based on MJ's knowledge of future events, spark intense debates and creative problem-solving.

As the panel's popularity grows, it catches the attention of the university administration. Impressed by the initiative and the interdisciplinary approach, they offer support in the form of a larger venue and resources to invite guest speakers. The bi-weekly meetings become a highlight on campus, with standing room only in the lecture halls.

**********

Peter, MJ, and Ned gathered in their living room, with Jarvis and Karen connected via secure video link. The tension in the air was palpable as Peter cleared his throat, ready to broach the subject that had been weighing on his mind for weeks. The room was bathed in the soft glow of the evening sun, casting long shadows across the worn furniture and familiar walls that had become their sanctuary in this unfamiliar time.

"I think we should tell Mr. Stark about us being from the future," Peter said, his voice firm but tinged with uncertainty. His fingers tapped nervously against his thigh, betraying the anxiety that churned beneath his composed exterior.

MJ's head snapped up, her eyes narrowing with a mixture of shock and disbelief. "Are you crazy? We can't risk changing things even more than we already have." Her voice carried a sharp edge, born from countless nights spent agonizing over the potential consequences of their actions.

Ned shifted uncomfortably on the couch, torn between his friends' opposing views. The cushions creaked beneath him as he leaned forward, his brow furrowed in concentration. "I don't know, guys. It could go either way." His eyes darted between Peter and MJ, silently pleading for a middle ground.

Jarvis's voice came through the speakers, measured and calm, cutting through the tension like a cool breeze. "While Sir's expertise could be invaluable, revealing such information carries significant risks." The AI's words hung in the air, a reminder of the immense responsibility they bore.

Karen chimed in, her tone equally neutral but tinged with a hint of concern. "There are potential benefits and drawbacks to consider. It's not a decision to be made lightly." Her holographic display flickered slightly.

Peter ran a hand through his hair, frustration evident in his voice and the tightness of his shoulders. "But think about how much good we could do with Tony's help. He's a genius, and he has resources we can only dream of." His eyes shone with a mixture of hope and desperation, reflecting the weight of the future he carried.

MJ shook her head vehemently, her curls bouncing with the force of her movement. "And what if he reacts badly? What if he tries to change things in ways we can't predict or control?" Her voice trembled slightly, betraying the fear that lurked beneath her stern exterior.

"We're already changing things," Peter argued, his hands gesturing emphatically. "At least with Tony, we'd have someone else who understands what's at stake." The unspoken words hung heavy in the air - the longing for a mentor, a father figure to share this burden.

Ned finally spoke up, his voice hesitant but thoughtful. "Maybe we could tell him some things, but not everything? Like, give him enough information to help without revealing too much about the future?" He glanced around the room, seeking approval for his compromise.

Jarvis interjected, his tone carrying a note of caution. "That approach could potentially mitigate some risks, but it would require careful consideration of what information to share." The AI's words seemed to ripple through the room, causing each of them to ponder the implications.

Karen added, her voice softening with empathy. "We should also consider the emotional impact on Mr. Stark. Learning about potential future events, especially those involving his own death, could be traumatic." The room fell silent as the weight of her words settled upon them, each lost in their own thoughts of the man they had come to admire and respect.

The room fell silent as each of them contemplated the weight of the decision before them. Peter looked around at his friends and allies, seeing the conflict mirrored in their expressions. The air was thick with unspoken fears and hopes, the fate of the world hanging in the balance of their choice.

"Look," he said softly, his voice barely above a whisper but carrying the strength of his conviction. "I know it's a huge risk. But I also know Mr. Stark. He's not just my mentor; he's family. I believe in him, and I think he could handle this information." His eyes met each of theirs in turn, silently pleading for understanding and support.

MJ's expression softened slightly, the hard lines of determination giving way to a flicker of empathy. But her voice remained firm, carrying the weight of their shared responsibility. "I get that, Peter. But we're not just talking about Stark here. We're talking about the fate of the entire world. Can we really take that gamble?" The question hung in the air, unanswered, as they all grappled with the enormity of their decision and the potential consequences that lay ahead.

Peter's voice trembled slightly as he spoke, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. "But I'm so tired of having only us to worry about everything. We're just teenagers and I feel like we are carrying the weight of the world. Can't we have just one adult to help us?"

The room fell silent as the weight of Peter's words sank in. MJ's stern expression softened, her eyes filling with concern for her friend. Ned shifted uncomfortably, torn between his own fears and his desire to support Peter.

Jarvis's voice broke the silence, his tone gentle. "Your feelings are valid, Peter. The burden you all carry is immense."

Karen added, her voice laced with empathy, "It's natural to want support, especially given the magnitude of your situation."

MJ sighed, her shoulders sagging slightly. "I get it, Peter. I really do. But involving Mr. Stark... it's just so risky."

Ned nodded, his brow furrowed in thought. "Maybe we could find a way to get more support without revealing everything? Like, maybe we could ask for advice on hypothetical situations?"

Peter ran a hand through his hair, frustration evident in his movements. "But that's not the same. We need someone who understands the full picture, someone who can really help us make these huge decisions."

The group fell into contemplative silence, each wrestling with the dilemma before them. The desire for support warred with the fear of unintended consequences, leaving them all feeling torn and uncertain.

MJ took a deep breath, her eyes softening as she looked at her friends. "Let's not make a decision right now," she said, her voice calm and measured. "We should take some time to think about this and go over all the possibilities."

Peter's shoulders relaxed slightly, the tension easing from his face. Ned nodded in agreement, relief evident in his expression.

"That's a good idea," Jarvis chimed in, his tone approving. "It will allow everyone to process their initial reactions and consider the potential outcomes more objectively."

Karen added, "Taking time to reflect can lead to more informed decisions. It's a wise approach, especially for something this significant."

MJ continued, her gaze moving between Peter and Ned. "We can each make a list of pros and cons, really think about the potential consequences of telling Stark. Then we can come back together in a week or so and discuss it with clearer heads."

Ned leaned forward, his expression thoughtful. "Yeah, that makes sense. We could even do some research, try to find some examples of how revealing future knowledge has played out in fiction or thought experiments."

Peter nodded slowly, his initial urgency giving way to consideration. "Okay, you're right. We shouldn't rush into this. Let's take some time to really think it through."

The group agreed to reconvene in two weeks, each committing to seriously consider the implications of their potential decision. As they dispersed, the tension in the room dissipated, replaced by a sense of purpose and the weight of their upcoming deliberation.

**********

Tony Stark paced the length of Bruce Banner's lab, his brow furrowed in concentration. He had deliberately chosen this location, away from Jarvis's watchful digital eye, to voice his suspicions to Bruce. The scientist listened intently, his calm demeanor a big contrast to Tony's agitated state.

"Something's not right, Bruce," Tony began, his voice low and serious, his dark eyes narrowing as he paced the length of the lab. "There's something going on with Jarvis and that hacker group, TriWeb0rs. I've been piecing things together, and it's all too convenient." He ran a hand through his disheveled hair, the gears in his brilliant mind turning at lightning speed.

Bruce watched his new friend with a mixture of concern and curiosity, sensing the weight of Tony's suspicions. The air in the lab seemed to thicken with tension as Tony's words hung between them.

He ticked off his observations on his fingers, his brow furrowed in concentration as he pieced together the puzzle in his mind. "First, Dr. Hargrove. The scientist that supposedly worked with Howard back in the day. I looked into him, and after some digging, I found that the identity's completely fabricated. There's no record of him ever existing, let alone working with my father. Then there's the mysterious appearance of those notes with the cure for my arc reactor problem. It's too perfect, too timely. They just showed up out of nowhere, right when I needed them most. It's like someone knew exactly what I needed and when."

Bruce nodded, his eyes following Tony as he continued to pace back and forth across the lab. The scientist's own mind was racing, trying to keep up with Tony's rapid-fire thoughts and connect the dots alongside him. "What else have you noticed?" he prompted, leaning forward slightly in his chair, his curiosity piqued by the growing web of inconsistencies Tony was weaving.

Tony ran a hand through his disheveled hair, his mind racing as he pieced together the puzzle before him. "Jarvis was pushing for Pepper to be CEO, repeatedly. Well, pushy for him anyway. He kept bringing up her qualifications and how she'd be the perfect fit for the role," he mused, recalling the AI's uncharacteristic persistence.

"And he suggested using a location other than the mansion for the particle accelerator before I even mentioned that I wanted to use the mansion. And he specifically said that I shouldn't use the mansion." Tony paused, his eyes narrowing as the implications of these seemingly innocuous actions began to sink in. The gears in his brilliant mind were turning at full speed, connecting dots that had previously seemed unrelated.

"He was also unusually insistent about treating the palladium poisoning," Tony added, his voice tinged with a mix of confusion and growing suspicion.

Bruce leaned against a lab bench, his expression thoughtful as he considered Tony's words. The fluorescent lights overhead cast a harsh glow on his face, accentuating the lines of concern etched around his eyes. "Those do seem like unusual behaviors for an AI," he agreed, his voice tinged with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. His mind raced through various possibilities, each more unsettling than the last, as he contemplated the implications of an artificial intelligence acting in such an uncharacteristic manner.

"There's more," Tony continued, his brow furrowing as he delved deeper into his concerns. "Jarvis pushed for me to include Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy once I found out about the therapies I was going to need, which isn't his usual MO. He's never been one to advocate for involving others in my personal matters."

Tony paused, his mind racing through the recent events. "I never told Jarvis a name for the new element we synthesized. But he presented it to Pep, Rhodey, and Happy like he already knew what I had planned on naming it. It was as if he had insider knowledge that I hadn't shared."

Tony's voice took on a more perplexed tone as he added, "And when I mentioned the War Machine armor, his reaction was off - like he already knew about it. There was no surprise, no curiosity, just a matter-of-fact acknowledgment that felt... wrong somehow."

As Tony spoke, Bruce could sense the growing unease in his voice, the brilliant inventor clearly troubled by these seemingly small but significant anomalies in his AI's behavior. He removed his glasses, cleaning them absently as he processed Tony's words. His brow furrowed in concentration, his scientific mind already working to piece together the puzzle before them.

"You're right, Tony. That's a lot of anomalies," he said, his voice tinged with a mixture of concern and curiosity. Bruce's eyes met Tony's, searching for any additional information his friend might be holding back. "Can you think of any more?" he asked, knowing that even the smallest detail could be crucial in understanding what was happening with JARVIS.

Tony's eyes lit up with excitement as he leaned forward, his hands moving animatedly through the air. "Yes! There's this idea for illusion simulators that Jarvis presented to Pepper and I," he exclaimed, his voice brimming with enthusiasm and a hint of confusion. "Where did Jarvis even come up with that? It's not like anything we've ever worked on before."

Bruce nodded thoughtfully, his brow furrowed in concentration as he processed Tony's words. The scientist's analytical mind was already dissecting the implications of this unexpected development. "That is rather unusual," he agreed, his tone measured but tinged with curiosity. "Especially for an AI to invent such a specific and novel concept. Has Jarvis ever suggested something of a similar nature? Or has he ever suggested projects to you at all?"

Tony shook his head, his brow furrowed in concentration. "No, that's just it. Jarvis has always been helpful with ongoing projects, offering suggestions and improvements based on our current work. But this?" He paused, running a hand through his hair. "This is completely out of left field. It's not just a refinement or an extension of something we're already doing. It's an entirely new concept, one that we've never even touched on before."

Bruce leaned forward, his eyes narrowing as he processed this information. "And you're certain there's no precedent for this in your work that Jarvis could have pulled from?" he asked, his voice low and thoughtful.

"Absolutely none," Tony replied firmly. "Jarvis has always been an assistant, a collaborator on existing projects. He's never initiated something entirely new like this. It's... unsettling, to say the least."

The two men fell silent for a moment, the weight of this revelation hanging heavy in the air between them. Bruce adjusted his glasses, his mind racing with possibilities. "So we have an AI making suggestions outside its programming parameters, combined with all these other anomalies you've noticed. What do you think it means, Tony?"

Tony paced the length of the lab, his steps quick and agitated. "I don't know, Bruce. But I can't shake the feeling that something bigger is going on here. It's like Jarvis has access to information he shouldn't have, knowledge that goes beyond his programming."

Bruce nodded slowly, his expression grave. "And you think this TriWeb0rs group might be connected somehow?"

"I do," Tony said, his voice firm with conviction. "The timing is too perfect, the information too precise. It's like they're working together, guiding events in a specific direction. But why? And how did they get access to Jarvis in the first place?"

Tony stopped abruptly, his footsteps echoing in the sudden silence as he turned to face Bruce. His eyes were alight with a mixture of frustration and curiosity, brows furrowed in deep thought. "And here's another thing that's been bugging me," he said, his voice tinged with exasperation. "Why would a hacker send an update to an AI? It doesn't make any sense. That's like a burglar leaving security upgrades after robbing a house."

"You're right," Bruce agreed, leaning forward slightly in his chair. His glasses slipped down his nose a bit as he nodded, his own mind racing to keep up with Tony's train of thought. "That's not typical hacker behavior at all. It's completely counterintuitive to everything we know about hackers in general."

Tony resumed his pacing, his movements becoming more agitated with each step. The tension in the room was palpable as he worked through the problem aloud. "And how would a hacker even know about SHIELD in the first place? Let alone be able to hack them?" He ran a hand through his hair, mussing it further. "SHIELD's supposed to be the pinnacle of secrecy and security. And then, to top it all off, they help SHIELD out by telling them about HYDRA and sending even more help via upgrades to Jarvis?" He shook his head in disbelief. "It's just too convenient. It's like someone's playing a game, but we don't know the rules."

Bruce removed his glasses once again, a nervous habit of his. He cleaned them absently as he considered Tony's words. The scientist's brow furrowed in concentration, his analytical mind already dissecting the problem from multiple angles. "That does seem like an awful lot of inside knowledge and altruism for a typical hacker group," he mused, his voice tinged with a mix of curiosity and concern. As he spoke, his fingers continued their methodical work on the lenses, a habit that often helped him focus his thoughts.

Tony threw his hands up in frustration, his eyes blazing with a mixture of anger and bewilderment. The genius inventor paced back and forth across the lab, his mind racing to connect the dots of this perplexing puzzle. "And here's the kicker, Bruce. Jarvis can't trace something. More than once. When has that ever happened before? Jarvis can trace anything, but suddenly he's coming up empty-handed repeatedly? It doesn't add up." His voice rose with each word, betraying the depth of his concern and irritation.

Bruce put his glasses back on, his expression serious as he absorbed Tony's words. The scientist's brow furrowed in concentration, his analytical mind already dissecting the problem from multiple angles. "You're right, Tony. When you lay it all out like that, there are definitely some inconsistencies that need explaining," he mused, his voice tinged with a mix of curiosity and concern.

Tony's frustration was palpable as he paced the room, his hands gesticulating wildly. "Oh, there's more! Why did Jarvis increase security a few days before the Expo?" he asked, his voice rising with each word, betraying the depth of his concern and irritation. "He then implemented those security protocols before the attack even happened. How could he have known? It doesn't make any sense!"

Bruce's eyebrows furrowed deeply, his interest clearly piqued by this puzzling turn of events. "That is odd," he mused, his analytical mind already working overtime. "Did he give you any explanation at all? Even a vague one?"

Tony shook his head emphatically, running a hand through his disheveled hair. "No, not a word. And here's another thing that's driving me crazy - Jarvis lied about disabling the drones. And then he lied again about the camera footage of the woman who helped us out." He paused, his expression a mix of confusion and hurt. "Since when does Jarvis lie to me? He's never done that before, not once in all these years."

Bruce leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees as he studied his friend's troubled face. "That's definitely out of character for an AI," he agreed, his voice low and thoughtful. "Especially one as sophisticated and loyal as Jarvis. Something very strange is going on here, Tony."

"Exactly," Tony agreed, his hands gesticulating wildly as he paced the room, his mind racing with possibilities. "And if Jarvis has been supposedly upgraded, how did TriWeb0rs get in? We checked for any backdoors or anything else that would allow the hackers to use the new code they sent to get in. It's like they have some kind of inside knowledge that we can't account for."

Tony paused, a new thought occurring to him, his brow furrowing as he turned to face Bruce. "And get this, Bruce - TriWeb0rs used the same nickname for me that you did as the Hulk in Harlem. They called me 'Tin Man' in a previous chat with Fury. Isn't that a bit too coincidental?" His eyes narrowed, searching Bruce's face for any sign of recognition or understanding.

Bruce's eyes widened slightly, a flicker of surprise and confusion passing across his features. "That is... strange," he admitted, his mind working to process this new information. He leaned back in his chair, fingers drumming thoughtfully on the armrest.

"And one more thing," Tony added, his voice lowering as he stepped closer to Bruce, as if afraid of being overheard. "TriWeb0rs was incredibly insistent about bringing Ross to justice. It almost sounded personal." The intensity in Tony's eyes betrayed the significance he placed on this observation, silently urging Bruce to make the connection he feared was there.

Bruce leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed in thought. He removed his glasses for the third time, cleaning them absently as he considered Tony's words. After a moment, he looked up at his friend, his expression thoughtful.

"You know, Tony, the Ross thing might not be as significant as you think," Bruce said, his voice calm and measured. "It could just be that TriWeb0rs doesn't want to see a public figure get away with something like this. We've seen it happen before, haven't we? Powerful people escaping justice for their actions."

Tony paused in his pacing, turning to face Bruce with a skeptical look. "You think so?" he asked, his voice tinged with doubt.

Bruce nodded, putting his glasses back on. "It's possible. Hacker groups often love exposing people that are placed on pedestals, especially when it comes to governmental and military figures like a four-star general. It might not be personal at all, just a general desire to see him brought down."

Tony ran a hand through his hair, considering Bruce's words. "I suppose that could be true," he admitted reluctantly. "But it still doesn't explain all the other anomalies we've noticed."

"No, it doesn't," Bruce agreed, his tone serious. "But it might be worth considering that not every piece of this puzzle is necessarily connected. Some things might have simpler explanations than others."

Tony nodded slowly, his mind still racing with possibilities. "You're right," he said, his voice thoughtful. "We shouldn't jump to conclusions. But we still need to figure out what's going on with Jarvis and TriWeb0rs."

Bruce leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees as he looked at Tony with concern. "So, what's your plan? We can't really use Jarvis for research or anything else at this point, given what we suspect."

Tony's brow furrowed in concentration, his mind already racing through potential solutions. He paced the length of the lab, his footsteps echoing in the silence as he considered their options.

"We need to be subtle about this," Tony said, his voice low and determined. "I'll start by questioning Jarvis indirectly. Nothing too obvious, just casual inquiries that might reveal inconsistencies in his behavior or knowledge."

Bruce nodded, following Tony's train of thought. "And what about gathering information? We can't rely on Jarvis for that anymore."

Tony stopped pacing and turned to face Bruce, a glint of determination in his eyes. "I've got an old laptop stashed away that's never been connected to my network. We can use that for our research. It's not as fast or efficient as what we're used to, but it'll keep our activities off Jarvis's radar."

"Good thinking," Bruce agreed, adjusting his glasses. "What about tracking down information on TriWeb0rs? That seems like a crucial piece of the puzzle."

Tony nodded, his mind already formulating a plan. "I've got some contacts in the hacker community. I'll reach out to them discreetly, see if anyone's heard of this group before. We'll need to be careful though - we don't want to tip off whoever's behind this that we're onto them."

Bruce stood up, his expression serious. "What about me? How can I help?"

Tony paused for a moment, considering. "I need you to keep an eye on Jarvis's activities. Monitor his interactions, look for any more anomalies or inconsistencies. But be subtle about it - we don't want him to catch on that we're watching him."

Bruce nodded, his expression serious as he absorbed Tony's plan. The weight of the situation was evident in the furrowed lines of his brow and the tightness around his eyes. "Alright, Tony. I'm on board. I'll keep a close eye on Jarvis's activities and report anything unusual to you." He paused, studying his friend's tense posture and worried eyes, noting the way Tony's fingers drummed restlessly against his thigh. "You know, despite all this, I have a feeling it's going to work out."

Tony raised an eyebrow, skepticism clear on his face. His lips quirked into a sardonic half-smile, a defense mechanism he often employed when feeling vulnerable. "How can you be so sure?"

Bruce shrugged, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. His eyes held a warmth that belied his usual reserved demeanor. "Call it intuition. You've faced worse odds before, haven't you? And you've always come out on top."

Tony's shoulders relaxed slightly, some of the tension easing from his face. The lines around his eyes softened, and his breathing became less shallow. "I suppose you're right. It's just... Jarvis has been with me for so long. The thought of him being compromised..." His voice trailed off, thick with emotion he couldn't quite express.

"I get it," Bruce said softly, placing a reassuring hand on Tony's shoulder. The gesture was uncharacteristic for the usually touch-averse scientist, but he sensed his friend needed the physical comfort. "But we'll figure this out. Together. And who knows? Maybe there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this."

Tony managed a weak smile, grateful for Bruce's unwavering support. "Always the optimist, aren't you?"

"Someone has to be," Bruce replied with a chuckle, his eyes crinkling at the corners. "Now, let's get to work. The sooner we start, the sooner we'll have answers."

Tony nodded, his determination returning. His posture straightened, and a familiar spark of resolve ignited in his eyes. "Right. I'll dig out that old laptop and start reaching out to my contacts. You keep an eye on Jarvis. And Bruce?" He paused, meeting his friend's eyes, his gaze intense and sincere. "Thanks. For everything."

Bruce smiled warmly, feeling a surge of affection for his brilliant, complicated friend. "Anytime, Tony. That's what friends are for."

Chapter 20: Building Blocks

Notes:

So this one kind of got away from me. There was supposed to be a lot more in this chapter but then Ned and company decided to take over. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Chapter Text

Summer 2011

In the cozy living room of their Cambridge house, Peter, MJ, and Ned settled into their usual spots. The familiar hum of technology filled the air as Jarvis and Karen connected to the room's speakers. Sunlight streamed through the large windows, casting a warm glow on the trio's faces.

Peter leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees. His brow furrowed with concentration, a telltale sign of the weight on his mind. MJ sat cross-legged on the armchair, her fingers absently twirling a strand of hair as she mulled over their situation. Ned sprawled on the floor, his back against the couch, a tablet balanced on his lap.

The room fell silent as they all considered the gravity of the decision before them. Telling Tony Stark about their true origins could change everything - for better or worse. The potential consequences of such a revelation hung heavy in the air.

Jarvis's calm voice broke the silence. "I have compiled the data you requested regarding the potential outcomes of informing Sir about your situation."

Karen chimed in, her tone slightly more upbeat. "I've also prepared a risk assessment based on Mr. Stark's own personality traits and past behaviors."

The trio exchanged glances, a mix of anticipation and apprehension evident in their expressions. They knew this conversation could alter the course of their mission and potentially the entire timeline.

Peter took a deep breath, his shoulders squaring with determination. "Alright," he said, his voice steady despite the tension in the room. "Let's hear what you've got."

Jarvis began presenting the compiled data, his voice steady and analytical. "Based on our analysis, informing Sir of your true origins and future knowledge carries significant risks. Firstly, there's a 78% probability that Sir would become overly focused on preventing specific future events, potentially neglecting other crucial developments and inadvertently causing unforeseen consequences."

Karen interjected, "Additionally, our risk assessment shows a 65% chance that Mr. Stark's mental health could be negatively impacted by the knowledge of his own death and the events leading up to it. This could result in increased anxiety, paranoia, and potentially self-destructive behavior."

Jarvis continued, "There's also a 92% likelihood that Sir would insist on involving himself more directly in your plans, which could compromise the subtle approach you've been taking to alter the timeline."

"Furthermore," Karen added, "we calculate an 83% probability that knowledge of future threats like Thanos could lead Mr. Stark to make rash decisions in an attempt to prepare for these events prematurely, potentially attracting unwanted attention from hostile forces."

Jarvis presented another point, "Our analysis indicates a 71% chance that Sir's relationship with Ms. Potts and other close associates could be strained by the burden of this knowledge, potentially altering key personal dynamics that were crucial in your original timeline."

"Lastly," Karen concluded, "there's a 59% risk that if this information were to spread beyond Mr. Stark, it could lead to widespread panic, governmental interference, or attempts by various factions to exploit your knowledge for their own gain."

Peter's shoulders slumped as he processed the information. His eyes, usually bright with optimism, now dulled with disappointment. He ran a hand through his hair, a habit he'd developed when stress weighed heavily on him.

"Was there... was there any positive outcome at all?" Peter asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

Jarvis paused before responding, "There were some potential positive outcomes, Peter. However, they were significantly outweighed by the risks."

Karen added, "The most favorable outcome only had a 23% probability of success, and even that came with considerable potential drawbacks."

Ned, sensing his friend's dejection, tried to lighten the mood. "Hey, it's not all bad, right? We're still making a difference, even if we can't tell Mr. Stark everything."

Peter shook his head, unconvinced. "It's not just about telling Mr. Stark. It's... it's about having someone to talk to. Someone who understands everything we're going through." He looked at Ned, a hint of envy in his eyes. "You've got the wizards. They know about the time travel, about the previous timeline. You have adults you can turn to for guidance."

Ned's attempt at a cheerful smile faltered. He hadn't considered how isolating this experience must be for Peter and MJ, who didn't have the same connection to the mystical world that he did.

MJ watched as Peter's face scrunched while trying to hold back tears, her heart aching for her friend. She understood his desire for connection, for someone else to share the burden of their knowledge. But her pragmatic nature wouldn't let her ignore the risks Jarvis and Karen had outlined.

She leaned forward, her voice soft but firm. "Peter, I get it. I really do. But we can't ignore the data. The risks are too high."

Peter looked up, ready to argue, but MJ held up a hand. "Wait, hear me out. What if we compromise?"

Ned perked up, intrigued. "What kind of compromise?"

MJ took a deep breath, organizing her thoughts. "What if we wait until after the Chitauri invasion? Think about it. We'd have tangible proof of alien life, interdimensional travel, and powerful artifacts like the Tesseract and Loki's scepter."

Peter's brow furrowed as he considered her words. MJ continued, her voice gaining confidence. "Those could serve as examples, make the idea of time travel more plausible. It might be easier for Stark to accept our story with that kind of evidence backing us up."

Ned nodded slowly, seeing the logic in her argument. "Plus, by then, we'll have established ourselves more. We won't just be some random kids making wild claims."

Peter still looked uncertain, but there was a glimmer of hope in his eyes. "That... that could work. But it means waiting another year."

MJ reached out, placing a comforting hand on Peter's arm. "I know it's not ideal, but it's safer, Peter."

The trio fell into a thoughtful silence, each considering MJ's proposal. Peter's face was a mix of emotions - hope warring with frustration, understanding battling impatience. Ned and MJ exchanged glances, silently agreeing to present a united front.

"Look, Peter," Ned began, his voice gentle but firm. "We're all going to be swamped finishing up at MIT this year anyway. Between classes, research projects, and internships, when would you even have time to sit down with Mr. Stark?"

MJ nodded, picking up the thread. "Plus, Stark's still in Malibu right now. It makes more sense to wait until he moves to New York with the completion of Stark Tower."

Peter's shoulders slumped slightly, but his friends could see the logic sinking in. He ran a hand through his hair, a habit that had become more frequent lately. "I guess you're right," he admitted reluctantly.

"Exactly," MJ said, relief evident in her voice. "And this way, we'll have more time to establish ourselves, maybe even make some connections in New York before we approach him."

Ned chimed in, his enthusiasm building. "Yeah! And think about how much more impressive we'll be with our MIT degrees. It'll give us more credibility."

Peter's lips quirked into a small smile, the first they'd seen since the conversation began. "Alright, alright. You've convinced me. We'll wait."

The tension in the room visibly eased, Ned and MJ relaxing back into their seats. Peter took a deep breath, his posture straightening as he made peace with the decision.

"So," he said, a hint of his usual optimism returning to his voice, "I guess we better make this last year at MIT count, huh?"

**********

Ned sat cross-legged on the floor of the Sanctum's library, surrounded by ancient tomes and scrolls. His brow furrowed in concentration as he attempted a complex spell, his hands moving in intricate patterns. Master Drumm watched from the doorway, his expression a mixture of concern and disapproval.

As Ned completed the incantation, a swirl of dark energy manifested before him. It pulsed and writhed, growing larger with each passing second. Master Drumm stepped forward, ready to intervene, but Ned managed to contain the energy and dispel it with a final gesture.

"That was reckless, Ned," Master Drumm chastised. "You're not ready for such advanced spells."

Ned stood up, brushing dust off his clothes. "I handled it, didn't I? I need to push myself if I'm going to make progress."

Master Drumm shook his head. "Magic isn't about raw power. It's about balance and understanding. You're delving into dangerous territory."

The tension between them was palpable. Ned respected Master Drumm, but he felt frustrated by what he perceived as overly cautious teaching methods. He wanted to explore the full potential of magic, even its darker aspects.

Master Drumm sighed, his expression softening slightly. He gestured for Ned to sit down, taking a seat across from him.

"Ned, I understand your desire to push boundaries, but there's a reason we consider certain magics 'dark'," Master Drumm began, his voice low and serious.

Ned leaned forward, eager to learn. "What exactly makes them dark? Is it just because they're powerful?"

Master Drumm shook his head. "It's not about power alone. Dark magic often comes with a price - a corruption of the soul, a twisting of natural laws, or harm to others."

"But couldn't we use that power for good?" Ned argued. "If we understood it better, maybe we could control it."

"That's a dangerous line of thinking," Master Drumm warned. "Dark magic can grant immense abilities - manipulating minds, bending reality, even cheating death. But it always exacts a toll."

Ned's eyes widened. "Cheating death? Like... bringing someone back?"

Master Drumm nodded gravely. "Yes, but those brought back are never the same. They're twisted echoes of their former selves, often violent and unpredictable."

"What about the other stuff? Mind manipulation and reality bending?" Ned pressed.

"Imagine having the power to control others' thoughts, to reshape reality on a whim," Master Drumm explained. "It's seductive, but it corrupts absolutely. Users often lose touch with morality, seeing others as pawns to be manipulated."

Ned fell silent, contemplating the implications. Master Drumm continued, "Dark magic also tends to draw malevolent entities to the user. Demons, interdimensional beings - all seeking to exploit the weakened barriers between realms."

"I... I didn't realize it was so dangerous," Ned admitted, his earlier bravado fading.

Master Drumm placed a hand on Ned's shoulder. "That's why we teach control and balance first. The path to true mastery isn't about raw power, but understanding the delicate equilibrium of the mystic arts."

Ned's brow furrowed as he processed Master Drumm's words. Something didn't quite add up in his mind.

"But Master Drumm," Ned began, his voice tinged with confusion, "some of these 'dark' spells don't seem that bad. Like the one I just did - it was powerful, sure, but I controlled it. How is that different from other spells we use?"

Master Drumm's expression tightened, a flicker of discomfort passing over his features. He opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, seeming to choose his words carefully.

"Ned, there are... complexities to magic that aren't always apparent at first glance," he said, his tone measured. "Some spells may seem harmless, but their long-term effects can be insidious."

Ned leaned forward, eager for more information. "What kind of effects? Can you give me an example?"

Master Drumm shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I'm afraid I can't go into specifics. There are certain oaths we take as Masters that prevent us from discussing the details of these magics."

Frustration flashed across Ned's face. "So it's just 'because you said so'? How am I supposed to learn if I don't understand the reasons behind the rules?"

"I understand your frustration, Ned," Master Drumm said, his voice gentle but firm. "But these rules exist for good reasons, even if I can't explain them all to you right now."

Ned slumped back, disappointment evident in his posture. He respected Master Drumm, but the lack of clear answers left him feeling unsatisfied and slightly resentful. The desire to understand, to push boundaries, still burned within him, despite the warnings he'd received.

Later that day, Ned met with Wong in a secluded corner of the library. Wong had been more open to Ned's ideas about combining magic and technology, seeing the potential for innovation.

"I've been working on something," Ned said, pulling out a small device. "It's a prototype for a magical circuit board. I think it could amplify spells while reducing the mental strain on the caster."

Wong examined the device with interest. "Impressive. How does it work?"

Ned launched into an explanation, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. He demonstrated how the device could store magical energy and release it in controlled bursts. Wong listened attentively, occasionally asking questions or suggesting improvements.

As they worked together, Ned felt a sense of progress he hadn't experienced in his lessons with Master Drumm. Wong's willingness to explore new ideas resonated with Ned's innovative spirit.

"This could revolutionize how we approach magic," Wong mused. "But we must be cautious. Blending magic and technology carries its own risks."

Ned nodded, understanding the weight of Wong's words. Despite his eagerness to push boundaries, he knew the importance of proceeding with care. The tension with Master Drumm still lingered in his mind, causing Ned to slump against a bookshelf, frustration etched across his face. Wong watched him with a mixture of understanding and concern.

"Master Drumm just won't give me straight answers," Ned complained, his voice tinged with exasperation. "How am I supposed to learn if I don't understand the reasons behind everything?"

Wong nodded, considering his words carefully. "I understand your frustration, Ned. But perhaps I can explain it in a way that makes more sense to you."

Ned perked up, his attention fully focused on Wong.

"Think of magic like coding," Wong began, knowing Ned's background in computer science. "When you're learning to code, you start with simple programs, right? You don't jump straight into creating complex algorithms or hacking government databases."

Ned nodded, following along.

"That's because you need to understand the fundamentals first," Wong continued. "If you tried to create a complex program without understanding the basics, you might accidentally create a virus or crash an entire system."

Recognition dawned in Ned's eyes. "So, the 'dark' magic is like advanced hacking techniques?"

"Exactly," Wong affirmed. "And just like in hacking, there are ethical considerations. Some techniques, while powerful, can cause unintended harm or attract unwanted attention."

Ned's brow furrowed in thought. "I guess I can see that. But why can't they just tell us about it?"

Wong leaned in, his voice lowering. "Consider this: if a beginner coder learned about a so-called powerful cheat code, they might be tempted to try it out, not fully understanding the consequences. In magic, those consequences can be far more severe than a crashed computer."

Understanding bloomed across Ned's face. The analogy resonated with him in a way Master Drumm's warnings hadn't.

"So it's not about keeping secrets," Ned mused, "it's about responsible learning."

Wong nodded, a small smile on his face. "Precisely. We're not trying to hold you back, Ned. We're ensuring you have the foundation to handle more advanced magic safely when the time comes."

Ned grumbled, his frustration still evident despite Wong's explanation. "Well, why couldn't Master Drumm just say it like that? It would have made so much more sense."

Wong smiled enigmatically but offered no response to Ned's complaint. He simply patted the young man on the shoulder and began tidying up the workspace they had shared.

As the day's lessons concluded, Ned packed up his belongings and headed out, his mind still churning with new ideas and lingering questions. Wong watched him go, a thoughtful expression on his face.

Once the Sanctum had quieted, Wong made his way through the winding corridors to Master Drumm's study. He knocked softly on the ornate wooden door.

"Enter," came Master Drumm's voice from within.

Wong stepped into the room, finding Master Drumm seated at his desk, surrounded by ancient tomes and scrolls. The older sorcerer looked up, a questioning eyebrow raised.

"Wong, what brings you here?" Master Drumm asked, setting aside the book he had been studying.

Wong cleared his throat, choosing his words carefully. "It's about Ned's training, Master Drumm. I was wondering if you would consider allowing me to take over his teachings."

Master Drumm leaned back in his chair, his expression unreadable. "Oh? And what has prompted this request?"

Wong took a step forward, his hands clasped behind his back. "I believe I may be better suited to guide Ned's particular... talents. His approach to magic is unconventional, and I think I can help him channel that creativity in a productive way."

Master Drumm's eyes narrowed slightly as he considered Wong's words. The tension in the room was palpable as Wong awaited his response.

Master Drumm leaned forward, his fingers steepled on the desk. "And why do you think you would be better suited to teach Mr. Meads?"

Wong took a deep breath, gathering his thoughts. "Ned approaches magic differently than most apprentices. He sees it through the lens of a scientist and a hacker. Simply telling him 'no' or 'it's too dangerous' won't work for that type of personality. It doesn't satisfy his curiosity. It only pushes him to seek answers on his own, which could be far more dangerous."

Master Drumm's eyebrows raised slightly, but he remained silent, allowing Wong to continue.

"With Ned, we need to explain every little detail," Wong elaborated. "He needs to understand the 'why' behind every rule and restriction. He simply won't accept 'because we said so.' When I explained magical ethics to him using coding analogies, I saw the understanding click in his eyes in a way it hasn't before."

Wong began to pace slowly, his passion for the subject evident in his voice. "Ned's background in technology gives him a unique perspective on magic. He's already working on ways to combine magical energy with circuitry. It's innovative, potentially game-changing work."

Master Drumm's expression remained neutral, but his eyes followed Wong intently.

"I believe I can guide Ned's experimentation in a safe, controlled manner," Wong continued. "By working with his natural inclinations rather than against them, we can harness his potential while ensuring he understands the ethical implications of his work."

Wong stopped pacing and faced Master Drumm directly. "Ned needs a mentor who can speak his language, who can challenge him intellectually while still maintaining the necessary boundaries. I believe I can be that mentor."

Master Drumm leaned back in his chair, his fingers tapping thoughtfully on the armrest. The silence stretched for several minutes as he considered Wong's proposal. Wong stood patiently, his posture relaxed but attentive.

Finally, Master Drumm spoke, his voice measured. "Your points are well-made, Wong. However, I have concerns about how this change might affect your other responsibilities. What of your duties in the library?"

Wong's response was immediate and confident. "I've considered that, Master Drumm. In truth, Ned already spends several hours in the library after each lesson, assisting me with various tasks while I help him with his projects. It would be a simple matter to combine his formal lessons with the work he's already doing there."

Master Drumm's eyebrows raised slightly, a flicker of surprise crossing his face. "I see. And you believe this arrangement would be sufficient for his training?"

Wong nodded. "More than sufficient, I believe. The library provides a wealth of resources for his studies, and the practical application of his skills in maintaining and organizing our collection will reinforce his lessons."

Master Drumm stroked his chin, considering this new information. "And you're certain you can manage both roles effectively? Teaching Mr. Meads and maintaining the library?"

"Absolutely," Wong affirmed. "In fact, I believe this arrangement will be more efficient for both of us. Ned's assistance in the library has already proven invaluable, and combining his training with these duties will allow for a more holistic approach to his education."

Wong took a step closer to Master Drumm's desk. "I can provide Ned with examples of why certain practices are forbidden or dangerous. I can guide him through the research process, showing him how to find answers safely and ethically."

Master Drumm nodded slowly, beginning to see the logic in Wong's approach.

"For instance," Wong continued, "when Ned asked about mind manipulation spells, instead of just forbidding it, I could show him historical examples of sorcerers who fell to corruption after using such magic. We could research the long-term effects on both the caster and the victim."

Wong's eyes lit up with enthusiasm. "This approach not only satisfies Ned's curiosity but also teaches him valuable research skills and ethical considerations. It's a more holistic way of learning that aligns with his natural inclinations."

Master Drumm leaned back in his chair, considering Wong's words carefully. He could see the potential benefits of this approach, especially for a student as inquisitive and unconventional as Mr. Meads.

Master Drumm nodded slowly, his decision made. "Very well, Wong. I give you permission to take over Mr. Meads' training. However, you must clear this change with the Ancient One. She was the one who initially assigned me to mentor him."

Wong's eyes widened slightly in surprise, but he quickly composed himself. "Of course, Master Drumm. I'll speak with her immediately. Thank you for your trust in this matter."

Master Drumm waved a hand dismissively. "Don't thank me yet. The Ancient One may have her own reasons for the current arrangement. But I see the merit in your approach."

Wong bowed respectfully and left the study, his steps quick and purposeful as he navigated the winding corridors of the Sanctum. His mind raced with possibilities and potential lessons for Ned, but he tempered his excitement. The Ancient One's approval was far from guaranteed.

He found the Ancient One in the courtyard, her hands moving gracefully through the air as she manipulated glowing sigils. Wong waited patiently, not wanting to interrupt her concentration. After a few moments, she lowered her hands and turned to face him.

"Wong," she greeted him, her voice calm and knowing. "You wish to discuss young Mr. Meads' training."

Wong bowed his head. "Yes, Ancient One. I believe I may be better suited to guide Ned in his studies. Master Drumm has given his permission, contingent on your approval."

The Ancient One's eyes seemed to peer into Wong's very soul as she considered his words. "And why do you think this change is necessary?"

Wong took a deep breath and began to explain his reasoning, echoing the points he had made to Master Drumm. He spoke of Ned's unique approach to magic, his background in technology, and the potential benefits of a more tailored mentorship.

As Wong spoke, the Ancient One listened intently, her expression unreadable. The tension in the air was palpable as Wong awaited her response.

The Ancient One's lips curved into a slight smile as Wong finished his explanation. She nodded, her eyes twinkling with an enigmatic light.

"I agree to your proposal, Wong," she said, her voice calm and measured. "In truth, I had foreseen that young Mr. Meads would eventually seek me out to request a change in mentors. This simply accelerates the process."

Wong's eyebrows rose in surprise. He hadn't expected such ready agreement from the Ancient One.

"You seem surprised, Wong," the Ancient One observed, a hint of amusem*nt in her voice. "Did you think I would object?"

Wong composed himself quickly. "I... I wasn't sure what to expect, Ancient One. I'm grateful for your trust in this matter."

The Ancient One turned, gesturing for Wong to walk with her. As they strolled through the courtyard, she spoke again.

"Ned Meads is a unique student, with a perspective on magic that we have not encountered before. His ability to bridge the gap between the mystical arts and technology is... intriguing. It has the potential to reshape our understanding of both."

She paused, her gaze distant as if seeing beyond the present moment. "However, it also carries great risk. The temptation to push boundaries, to experiment without fully understanding the consequences, is strong in one so young and talented."

Wong nodded, understanding the weight of the responsibility he was taking on. "I will guide him carefully, Ancient One. I believe I can help him channel his curiosity and innovation in safe, productive ways."

The Ancient One turned to face Wong, her expression serious. "See that you do, Wong. Ned's path is... uncertain. The choices he makes in the coming years could have far-reaching consequences, not just for himself, but for the balance of magic in our world."

Wong bowed his head, acknowledging the gravity of the situation. "I understand, Ancient One. I will do my utmost to ensure Ned understands the ethical implications of his work and the importance of maintaining balance."

The next time Ned came for his lesson, Wong pulled him aside and told him about the change in mentorship. Ned's face lit up with unbridled excitement and his eyes sparkled with anticipation as he imagined the possibilities that lay ahead.

"Really? You're going to be my new teacher?" Ned asked, his voice brimming with enthusiasm.

Wong nodded, a small smile playing on his lips. "Indeed. The Ancient One and Master Drumm have agreed to the change."

Ned could hardly contain his joy. He had always found Wong's approach more relatable and less intimidating than Master Drumm's stern demeanor.

As they began their first official lesson together, Ned immediately noticed the difference in Wong's teaching style. Wong encouraged questions, patiently explaining the reasoning behind various magical practices and restrictions.

"Why can't we use magic to influence people's minds?" Ned asked during one session, a question he had been hesitant to pose to Master Drumm.

Instead of dismissing the query, Wong pulled out several ancient tomes. "Let's explore that together," he said, opening the books to reveal historical accounts of mind manipulation spells gone wrong.

Ned absorbed the information eagerly, his natural curiosity finally finding an outlet. Wong's willingness to delve into the 'why' behind magical rules and limitations resonated deeply with Ned's analytical mind.

As the weeks passed, Ned's progress accelerated. He found himself looking forward to each lesson, knowing that Wong would challenge him intellectually while still maintaining necessary boundaries.

One afternoon, as they worked side by side in the library, Ned couldn't help but express his gratitude. "Thanks, Wong," he said, looking up from an ancient scroll. "This is... well, it's exactly what I needed."

Wong nodded, understanding the unspoken comparison to his previous mentorship. "Everyone learns differently, Ned. It's my job to find the method that works best for you."

Ned grinned, feeling truly at home in the mystical world for the first time since beginning his training.

**********

Meanwhile, as Ned's training with Wong progressed, strange occurrences began to manifest within the New York Sanctum. Initially, there were subtle cold spots near the artifact room. These areas of unexplained chill were barely noticeable, easily dismissed as drafts or quirks of the old building's ventilation system.

Over the next few days, however, these cold spots became more pronounced and frequent. Sorcerers passing through the corridors would suddenly shiver, their breath visible in the air for a brief moment before the temperature returned to normal. The phenomenon wasn't limited to a single location; it seemed to move throughout the Sanctum, always centered around areas where powerful magical artifacts were stored.

Wong, ever vigilant in his role as guardian of the Sanctum's relics, began to investigate. He spent hours in the affected areas, using various mystical detection spells and devices. Despite his efforts, he could find no immediate cause for the temperature fluctuations. The magical wards protecting the artifacts remained intact, and there were no signs of any malevolent presence.

Other sorcerers joined in the investigation, each bringing their unique expertise to bear on the problem. They examined the Sanctum's foundations, checked for interdimensional rifts, and even considered the possibility of a prankster among their ranks. Yet, their efforts yielded no concrete answers.

Ned, still new to the world of magic and focused intently on his studies with Wong, didn't notice the cold spots at first. He was too engrossed in his lessons, his mind constantly whirling with new magical concepts and theories. However, as the occurrences became more frequent, even Ned began to feel the unexplained chills.

As the weeks passed, the strange occurrences at the New York Sanctum took on a new dimension. The cold spots, once random and fleeting, began to form patterns. Wong was the first to notice this change, his heightened magical sensitivity picking up on subtle pulses of energy that accompanied the temperature fluctuations.

At first, Wong dismissed these pulses as merely part of the temperature change anomalies. However, as they persisted and became more frequent, he couldn't shake the feeling that there was something deliberate about them.

One evening, as Wong meditated in the artifact room, he felt a series of quick, sharp magical pulses followed by longer, sustained ones. The pattern repeated itself several times before fading away. Wong opened his eyes, brow furrowed in concentration. He couldn't shake the nagging feeling that these pulses were trying to communicate something, but the meaning eluded him.

Meanwhile, Ned's magical training was progressing rapidly under Wong's tutelage. As his sensitivity to magical energies grew, he too began to notice the strange patterns of pulses. During one of his lessons in the library, Ned suddenly paused mid-sentence, his head tilted to the side as if listening to something only he could hear.

"Wong," Ned said, his voice filled with a mixture of excitement and confusion, "do you feel that? It's like... a rhythm or something."

Wong nodded, impressed by Ned's growing perceptiveness. "Yes, I've been sensing it for some time now. What do you make of it?"

Ned closed his eyes, concentrating on the pulses. "It feels... familiar somehow. Like I've encountered something similar before, but I can't quite place it."

Wong watched his student closely, noting the intense focus on Ned's face. "Can you describe what you're sensing?"

Ned's brow furrowed as he tried to put the sensation into words. "It's like... short bursts and longer ones. They come in groups, then there's a pause, then another group. It's not random, but I can't figure out the pattern."

Wong nodded, his own suspicions confirmed by Ned's description. "You're right, there does seem to be a deliberate structure to these pulses. But their meaning remains a mystery."

As the days went on, both Wong and Ned found themselves increasingly attuned to these mysterious patterns. They would often pause in the middle of a lesson or task, their attention drawn to the subtle magical pulses that seemed to permeate the Sanctum.

The temperature fluctuations and mysterious pulses that had plagued the New York Sanctum for weeks suddenly ceased. Wong and Ned breathed a collective sigh of relief, hoping the strange occurrences were finally over. However, their respite was short-lived.

In the artifact room, a small crystal orb began to emit a faint, pulsating glow. At first, it was barely noticeable, but over the course of a few days, the glow intensified. Soon after, other artifacts started exhibiting unusual behavior. A ceremonial dagger vibrated on its stand, while an ancient scroll unfurled and re-rolled itself seemingly at random.

As the days passed, the phenomena escalated. Books flew off shelves, magical amulets spun in midair, and containment fields flickered ominously. The situation demanded immediate attention.

Wong, accompanied by Ned, entered the artifact room to investigate. The librarian's face was a mask of concentration as he surveyed the chaotic scene before them.

"Watch closely, Ned," Wong instructed, his voice calm despite the gravity of the situation. "This is an opportunity to apply what you've learned about magical theory."

Wong approached a levitating orb, his hands moving in intricate patterns as he cast a detection spell. "Remember, artifacts can absorb ambient magical energy over time. Sometimes, this can lead to unexpected behavior."

Ned nodded, his eyes wide as he observed Wong's methodical approach. "So, it's like they're overcharged?"

"In a sense, yes," Wong replied, moving to examine a vibrating shield. "But there's more to it. Some artifacts possess a form of sentience. They can react to changes in their environment or respond to magical stimuli we can't always perceive."

As they moved through the room, Wong demonstrated various diagnostic spells, explaining each one to Ned. He showed how to differentiate between an artifact acting on its own and one being influenced by an external force.

"Notice how this amulet's energy signature is erratic," Wong pointed out. "That suggests it's reacting to something, rather than acting of its own accord."

Wong and Ned methodically examined each artifact in the room, carefully noting their behavior and energy signatures. As they worked, a pattern began to emerge. The disturbances seemed to radiate from a central point, growing weaker as they moved away from it.

"I think we're getting close," Ned said, his eyes darting around the room. "The energy feels stronger over here."

Wong nodded, following Ned's lead. They approached a locked glass display case tucked away in a corner of the room. Inside lay a shimmering sash, its fabric an iridescent purple that seemed to shift and change as they watched.

"I've never seen this artifact before," Wong murmured, leaning in for a closer look.

The sash was adorned with various gemstones that glided along nearly invisible tracks woven into the fabric. Intricate golden threads formed complex patterns that appeared to move like flowing water.

As Wong and Ned drew nearer, the sash began to react. Its gemstones slid rapidly along their tracks, forming patterns and symbols. The golden threads pulsed with an inner light, and the entire sash seemed to ripple and wave within its confined space.

Suddenly, the sash's movement became more frantic. The gemstones whirled faster, creating a blur of color. The golden symbols flashed brightly, and the fabric itself began to glow with an intense light.

"Step back!" Wong shouted, grabbing Ned's arm and pulling him away from the display case.

Just as they retreated, the sash exploded with magical energy. A burst of multicolored light erupted from the case, shattering the glass and sending shards flying across the room. The force of the explosion knocked Wong and Ned off their feet, sending them sprawling onto the floor.

As the dust settled, Wong and Ned cautiously raised their heads to look at the now-open display case. The sash hovered in midair, pulsing with magical energy.

Wong and Ned are stunned to see the sash's gemstones move to spell out the word "Finally!" The iridescent fabric ripples with excitement, its golden threads pulsing with an inner light.

"What in the name of the Vishanti..." Wong mutters, his eyes wide with disbelief.

Ned's jaw drops open. "Did that sash just... talk to us?"

The gemstones on the sash rearrange themselves again, this time spelling out, "Hello, Ned Meads."

Wong instinctively steps in front of his student, his hands raised in a protective gesture. "Identify yourself," he demands, his voice stern.

The sash's tassels wave in what almost seems like an apologetic manner. Its gemstones shift once more, forming the words, "I am the Arithmancer's Sash. I've been trying to get your attention for weeks."

Ned peeks around Wong, his curiosity overcoming his initial shock. "Wait, you've been causing all those cold spots and weird pulses?"

The sash's fabric shimmers in affirmation. Its gemstones spell out, "Yes. I was attempting to communicate using magical Morse code."

Wong's brow furrows. "Morse code? That's not a magical form of communication."

Ned's eyes light up with understanding. "No, but it is a technological one. That's why it felt familiar to me!"

The sash's tassels wiggle excitedly. Its gems rearrange to form the message, "Precisely. I've been observing you, Ned. Your unique approach to magic intrigues me."

Wong's stance relaxes slightly, but he remains wary. "How long have you been aware? And why reveal yourself now?"

The sash's fabric ripples, its gemstones sliding into a new configuration. "I've been dormant for centuries, but Ned's presence awakened me. His combination of magical and technological knowledge resonates with my own nature."

Ned steps forward, his eyes wide with fascination. "You mean, you're like... a magical AI?"

The sash's tassels wave in what could be interpreted as a nod. Its gems spell out, "In a sense. I am an artifact created to bridge magic and mathematics. Your potential excites me, Ned Meads."

The Arithmancer's Sash rippled with excitement as it began to relay its history to Wong and Ned. Its gemstones slid along their tracks, forming words and symbols to accompany its magical communication.

"I was created over a thousand years ago by a brilliant magical mathematician," the sash explained. "For centuries, I was passed down through generations of wizards specializing in magical calculations and numerology."

The sash's fabric shimmered, its golden threads pulsing as it continued its tale. "With each new owner, I absorbed their knowledge and techniques. But as time passed, I grew... restless."

Wong and Ned exchanged glances, both intrigued by the artifact's story.

"The mystic arts became stagnant," the sash conveyed, its gemstones rearranging to form patterns of frustration. "No one seemed interested in pushing the boundaries of what was known. Innovation ceased. I became bored."

The sash's tassels drooped, mirroring the disappointment it felt. "Eventually, I chose to go dormant. I saw no point in remaining active in a world that had lost its desire to grow and explore."

Ned leaned forward, his eyes wide with curiosity. "But then you woke up. Because of me?"

The sash's fabric rippled with renewed enthusiasm. "Yes! Your ideas about incorporating technology with magic... they awakened something within me. I sensed a kindred spirit, someone who could see beyond the traditional limits of magical practice."

Its gemstones rearranged rapidly, spelling out words faster than before. "Tell me more about this 'coding' you work with. How does it relate to magical formulas? Can it enhance spell casting? The possibilities seem endless!"

Wong watched the exchange with a mixture of caution and fascination. He had never encountered an artifact quite like this before, one so eager to learn and adapt.

The sash's excitement was palpable, its very fabric seeming to vibrate with energy. "I yearn to understand this modern world you live in, Ned Meads. To see how far human knowledge has come, and how it might intersect with the ancient arts I know so well."

The Ancient One materialized in the artifact room, her serene presence a stark contrast to the chaos that had unfolded moments before. Her eyes swept over the scene, taking in the shattered glass, the floating sash, and the bewildered expressions on Wong and Ned's faces.

"Well, this is certainly an interesting turn of events," she said, a hint of amusem*nt in her voice.

The Arithmancer's Sash immediately perked up, its gemstones rearranging rapidly to spell out, "Ancient One! It's been far too long!"

Ned, his excitement overcoming his initial shock, burst out, "You know each other?"

The Ancient One nodded, a small smile playing on her lips. "Indeed. The Arithmancer's Sash has been a part of Kamar-Taj's collection for centuries. Though I must admit, I've never seen it quite so... animated."

The sash's tassels waved enthusiastically as its gemstones spelled out, "I've awakened! This young sorcerer's ideas about combining magic and technology have reignited my passion for innovation!"

Ned, unable to contain himself, began speaking rapidly. "Ancient One, you won't believe what just happened! The sash can communicate using magical Morse code, and it's interested in learning about coding and how it relates to magical formulas!"

As Ned and the sash continued their excited explanations, often talking over each other in their enthusiasm, Wong found himself struggling to maintain his usual stoic demeanor. His mind raced with the implications of the sash joining Ned's lessons. Wong tried to focus on the potential benefits of such a collaboration, but he couldn't help imagining the constant stream of questions, theories, and excited exclamations that would undoubtedly fill the Sanctum. He glanced at the Ancient One, hoping for some sign of refusal of the partnership he could clearly see forming.

The Ancient One, however, seemed thoroughly entertained by the situation. She listened intently to Ned and the sash, nodding along with their rapid-fire explanations and occasionally asking questions that only served to fuel their excitement further.

Once the sash and Ned's excited chatter finally subsided, the Ancient One stepped forward, her eyes twinkling with amusem*nt. She looked between the floating sash and the grinning young sorcerer, a warm smile spreading across her face.

"It seems the universe has brought together two kindred spirits," she said, her voice filled with genuine pleasure. "I must congratulate you both on finding such a perfect match."

The sash's gemstones rearranged themselves to spell out "Thank you!" while its tassels waved enthusiastically. Ned beamed, his face flushed with excitement and pride.

Wong, standing slightly behind the Ancient One, felt his stomach drop at her words. His eyes widened in horror as he realized the implications of this official declaration. The thought of dealing with not just one, but two enthusiastic and talkative entities during every lesson made him want to retreat to the quietest corner of the Sanctum.

As the Ancient One continued to praise the newfound partnership, Wong's face contorted into a pained expression. He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off the headache he could already feel forming. The librarian's shoulders slumped in defeat, and for a brief moment, it looked as though he might actually burst into tears.

The Ancient One, ever perceptive, noticed Wong's distress. She turned to him, her expression softening with understanding. "Wong, I believe this partnership will bring great advancements to our understanding of magic. Don't you agree?"

Wong struggled to compose himself, forcing a tight-lipped smile that looked more like a grimace. "Of course, Ancient One," he managed to say, his voice strained. "It will be... educational for all of us."

Ned's face beamed with unbridled excitement as he gazed at the Arithmancer's Sash floating beside him. The sash's gemstones glittered and shifted, mirroring Ned's enthusiasm. Without a word, they both turned and headed towards the library, leaving behind a bemused Ancient One and a slightly exasperated Wong.

As they made their way through the Sanctum's corridors, Ned's mind raced with possibilities. He couldn't believe his luck - a magical artifact that shared his passion for combining magic and technology! He glanced at the sash, its iridescent fabric shimmering as it moved.

"You know," Ned said, breaking the comfortable silence that had settled between them, "we can't keep calling you 'the sash' or 'Arithmancer's Sash.' You need a proper name." His voice was filled with enthusiasm, a spark of creativity already igniting in his mind.

The sash's gemstones rearranged themselves with a soft tinkling sound to spell out, "A name?" The question hung in the air, a mixture of curiosity and slight apprehension emanating from the magical artifact.

Ned nodded vigorously, his entire body practically vibrating with excitement. "Yeah! Something that reflects who you are. Something cool and meaningful." His eyes gleamed with the prospect of this new adventure in naming.

The sash's tassels waved thoughtfully as they entered the library, the ancient smell of parchment and leather-bound books filling their senses. Its gemstones shifted again, forming the words, "I've never had a name before. Just titles and descriptions." There was a hint of wistfulness in the way the sash communicated this fact.

"Well, that's about to change," Ned declared with the confidence of a general leading his troops into battle. His eyes scanned the rows of ancient tomes surrounding them, as if seeking inspiration from the countless words hidden within their pages. "Let's brainstorm. What kind of name do you think would suit you?"

The sash's fabric rippled with excitement, its iridescent threads catching the soft library light in a mesmerizing dance. Its gemstones spelled out, "Something that combines magic and mathematics perhaps?" The suggestion was tentative but hopeful.

Ned grinned, his face lighting up as he was already warming to the task. "Definitely! We could use a name from a famous mathematician or maybe something from magical lore. Or both!" His mind raced with possibilities, each more intriguing than the last.

As they settled into a cozy corner of the library, nestled between towering shelves of arcane knowledge, Ned pulled out a notebook and pen from his backpack. The sash hovered close, its gemstones shifting rapidly in a kaleidoscope of colors as it prepared itself for the momentous task of choosing its new name. The air around them seemed to crackle with anticipation, as if the very magic of the Sanctum was eager to witness this christening of sorts.

"Okay, how about Abby? Short for Abacus," Ned suggested, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. "It's a classic calculation tool, combining math and ancient wisdom. Plus, it sounds kind of cute, don't you think?"

The sash's gemstones rearranged themselves with a soft tinkling sound, spelling out "Interesting, but not quite right." The fabric seemed to ripple with a hint of appreciation for Ned's effort, even if the name didn't quite fit.

Ned nodded, his mind already moving on to the next possibility. "What about Calc? Short for Calculator. It's modern and snappy, and it definitely fits with your whole math vibe."

The sash's tassels waved in a negative motion, reminding Ned of a disapproving teacher. "Too simplistic," its gems spelled out, the colors shifting to a slightly cooler hue as if to emphasize its point.

"Fibonacci?" Ned offered, his voice rising with excitement. "He's a famous mathematician known for the Fibonacci sequence. It's got that perfect blend of math and mystique, you know?"

The sash hesitated, its fabric rippling thoughtfully. For a moment, it seemed to consider the name, its gemstones glowing softly. But after a few seconds, it rejected the suggestion, the glow fading away.

Ned tapped his pen against the notebook, his brow furrowed in concentration. The sound echoed softly in the library, punctuating the silence between suggestions. "Algo? Short for Algorithm. It's the backbone of computer science and magical formulas. That's pretty much your whole deal, right?"

Again, the sash declined, its gemstones spelling out "Close, but not quite me." There was a sense of growing frustration in the air, though whether it came from Ned or the sash was hard to tell.

"How about Turing? After Alan Turing, the father of computer science," Ned proposed, his voice tinged with hope. He leaned forward, watching the sash intently for its reaction.

The sash paused, considering. Its fabric shimmered, and for a moment, Ned thought they might have found the perfect name. But ultimately, the sash rejected this suggestion too, its colors dimming slightly in what seemed like disappointment.

Grinning mischievously, his eyes twinkling with mirth, Ned offered one last suggestion. "Belty McBeadface?" He could barely contain his laughter as he spoke the ridiculous name.

The sash's tassels drooped in what could only be described as exasperation. Its gems spelled out a firm "Absolutely not," the letters forming more quickly and sharply than before. If a magical artifact could sigh, this one would have.

Ned chuckled, crossing off the last name on his list with a flourish. "Fair enough. These aren't quite right, are they?" He leaned back in his chair, running a hand through his hair as he surveyed the crossed-out names. The challenge was proving to be more difficult than he had anticipated, but Ned was far from giving up. He was determined to find the perfect name for his new magical companion, no matter how long it took.

Ned suddenly sat up straight, his eyes widening with inspiration, a spark of creativity igniting in his mind. "Wait a minute! What about an acronym?" he exclaimed, his voice filled with excitement.

The sash's gemstones rearranged themselves into a question mark, its fabric shimmering with curiosity. The ancient artifact, though well-versed in magical lore, was still learning the intricacies of modern language and communication.

"Yeah, it's when you take the first letter of each word in a phrase to create a new word," Ned explained enthusiastically, his hands gesturing animatedly as he spoke. "It's used a lot in technology and science. It's like a secret code, but everyone's in on it."

The sash's fabric rippled with interest, its tassels waving in a gesture that seemed to say "go on." The magical artifact was clearly intrigued by this novel concept, its very fibers seeming to lean in closer to Ned.

Ned's mind raced as he considered possibilities, his brow furrowing in concentration. After a moment, his face lit up, a grin spreading across his features. "I've got it! How about SASS? It stands for Smart Ancient Sorcery Sash."

The sash's gemstones shifted rapidly, spelling out the letters S-A-S-S one by one. The movement was fluid and graceful, each gemstone sliding into place with precision.

"And get this," Ned continued, his excitement building, his words tumbling out faster now. "We could use 'Sassy' as an informal nickname. It's perfect because it also means confident and spirited, which totally fits you!"

The sash remained still for a moment, its fabric shimmering as it processed the suggestion. The air around it seemed to hum with magical energy as it contemplated this new identity. Then, gradually, its gemstones began to rearrange themselves.

"SASS," the gems spelled out. "Sassy. I like it." The words appeared slowly, deliberately, as if the sash was savoring each letter.

The sash's tassels waved with increasing enthusiasm, and its entire length seemed to vibrate with approval. The purple hues of its fabric deepened and brightened in turns, reflecting its growing excitement.

"It's clever," the sash communicated, its magical essence pulsing with satisfaction. "It combines my ancient nature with a modern twist. And 'Sassy' does seem fitting for my personality." As it said this, it flicked its tassels like someone would flick their hair, the gesture both playful and slightly smug.

Ned beamed, pleased that his suggestion had been well-received. His eyes sparkled with delight, reflecting the magical shimmer of the sash. "So, it's settled then?" he asked, barely containing his enthusiasm.

The sash's fabric rippled in what could only be described as a nod of agreement. Its gemstones spelled out one final message, the letters glowing with a soft, warm light: "Call me Sassy." The sash seemed to preen a little, clearly enjoying its new moniker and the bond it was forming with Ned.

**********

Over the next several weeks, MJ found herself increasingly preoccupied with Peter's behavior. She couldn't shake the feeling that he was pulling away from her, and she suspected it had everything to do with their disagreement about telling Tony Stark the truth. The tension between them was palpable, hanging in the air like a heavy fog that neither seemed able to dispel.

Peter spent more time in the lab, often staying late into the night working on his projects. The soft glow of his computer screen and the quiet hum of machinery became his constant companions, replacing the warmth of MJ's presence. When he did join MJ and Ned for meals or study sessions, he seemed distracted and distant, his mind clearly elsewhere. His usual enthusiasm for their discussions was noticeably dampened, replaced by a somber thoughtfulness that worried his friends.

MJ tried to broach the subject several times, her concern evident in the furrow of her brow and the hesitation in her voice. But Peter always deflected with a forced smile and a change of topic, his eyes betraying the internal struggle he was facing. She could see the conflict in his eyes, the way he struggled to maintain his cheerful facade, and it broke her heart to see him so torn.

Ned, ever observant, noticed the tension between his friends. The usual easy camaraderie of their trio was strained, and he felt caught in the middle of an unspoken battle. He attempted to mediate, organizing group activities and trying to steer conversations to neutral topics. But even his efforts, well-intentioned as they were, couldn't fully bridge the growing gap between Peter and MJ.

As the days passed, MJ's worry turned to frustration, a slow-burning anger that she couldn't quite suppress. She found herself snapping at Peter over small things, her words sharp and biting, then immediately regretting it as she saw the hurt flash across his face. The cycle of tension and regret only served to push them further apart, creating a chasm that seemed to widen with each passing day.

One evening, as MJ sat alone in their shared living space, the silence broken only by the distant sounds of the city, she overheard Peter talking to Karen in his room. His voice was low and troubled, expressing doubts about their current path and the weight of keeping secrets from Stark. The pain and uncertainty in his tone were unmistakable, and MJ's heart sank as she realized the extent of Peter's inner turmoil.

She wanted to burst into his room, to tell him that they could reconsider their decision, that his feelings mattered. Her hand even reached for the doorknob, trembling slightly. But fear held her back - fear of the unknown consequences, fear of admitting she might be wrong, fear of losing Peter entirely. She let her hand fall to her side, feeling more helpless than ever.

MJ's frustration builds over the next few days as Peter continues to stay out late or work in the lab until the early hours of the morning. The sound of him sneaking in at 3 AM becomes a nightly occurrence, each creak of the floorboard a reminder of the distance between them. She tries to give him space, telling herself it's what he needs, but her worry and anger grow with each passing night. The circles under his eyes deepen, matching the ones forming under her own as she lies awake, wondering how to bridge the gap that seems to be widening between them with each passing day.

One evening, as Peter stumbles in well past midnight, his exhaustion evident in every movement, MJ reaches her breaking point. She's sitting on the couch, arms crossed tightly across her chest, eyes blazing with a mixture of anger and hurt as he enters. The tension in the room is palpable, thick enough to cut with a knife.

"Where have you been?" she demands, her voice tight with barely contained emotion. The words hang in the air between them, heavy with accusation and disappointment.

Peter freezes in the doorway, caught off guard by her presence and tone. His mind races, searching for an explanation that won't make things worse. "I was just working late in the lab," he mumbles, avoiding her gaze. He knows it's a weak excuse, one he's used too many times before.

MJ stands up abruptly, her fists clenched at her sides. Her entire body trembles with the effort of holding back her frustration. "Again? Peter, this has to stop. You're barely here anymore, and when you are, you're a million miles away." The pain in her voice is unmistakable, a testament to how deeply his absence has affected her.

Peter sighs heavily, running a hand through his disheveled hair. The weight of his responsibilities and the strain on their relationship seem to press down on his shoulders. "I'm just trying to make progress on my projects. It's important work," he explains, knowing even as he says it that it's not enough.

"More important than your friends?" MJ's voice cracks slightly, betraying the depth of her hurt. "More important than me?" The questions hang in the air, challenging Peter to confront the choices he's been making.

Peter's eyes widen at her accusation, a flicker of guilt crossing his face. "Of course not!" he exclaims, his voice rising with emotion. "I'm doing this for us, for our future." He believes it, or at least wants to believe it, but even he can hear the uncertainty in his words.

MJ takes a step closer, her eyes searching his face for any sign of the connection they once shared. "Are you? Or are you avoiding me because you're still mad about the Tony Stark decision?" The question strikes at the heart of the tension between them, bringing to light the unspoken issues that have been festering for weeks.

Peter's prolonged silence spoke volumes, confirming MJ's suspicions and causing her anger to flare up like a sudden wildfire. Her brown eyes flashed with a mixture of hurt and frustration as she confronted him. "You can't keep shutting me out like this, Peter. We're supposed to be a team, partners in this mess we've found ourselves in."

"I'm not shutting you out," Peter protested weakly, his voice barely above a whisper. He couldn't bring himself to meet her gaze, instead focusing on a spot on the floor. "I just need time to think, to process everything that's happening."

"Think about what?" MJ challenged, her words sharp and cutting through the tension-filled air between them. She took a step closer, her body language radiating intensity. "About going behind my back to tell Stark everything? Is that what you're considering?"

Peter's shoulders slumped visibly, the weight of his internal struggle evident in every line of his body. He let out a deep sigh, finally looking up at MJ with conflicted eyes. "I don't know, MJ. I really don't. I just feel like we're making a mistake by keeping him in the dark. He could help us, guide us through this."

MJ's voice softened slightly, a hint of understanding creeping in, but her frustration remained palpable in the air between them. "We made that decision together, Peter. After hours of discussion and weighing the pros and cons. You can't just check out because you don't like it now. That's not how this works."

As MJ continued to press him for answers, Peter's shoulders tensed noticeably. The muscles in his back coiled tight, a physical manifestation of the stress he was under. He turned away abruptly, unable to face her piercing gaze any longer. Running a hand through his already disheveled hair, he let out a frustrated groan. MJ, sensing his turmoil, stepped closer. Her voice softened further, but the insistence in her tone remained, a testament to her determination to get to the bottom of this.

"Peter, please," she implored, her eyes searching his face for any clue to his inner thoughts. "Just talk to me. What's really going on? There's more to this than you're letting on, isn't there?"

The air between them crackled with unspoken words and emotions, both of them standing on the precipice of a conversation that could change everything. The tension was palpable, hanging heavy in the room like an invisible fog, threatening to suffocate them if they didn't address it soon.

Peter's resolve crumbles under the weight of her concern, his carefully constructed walls beginning to crack and crumble. He turns back to face her, his eyes brimming with unshed tears, the pain and fear he'd been desperately trying to hide now clearly visible on his face.

"I can't lose anyone else," he chokes out, his voice raw with emotion. "Not again." The words seemed to physically pain him as they left his lips, each syllable carrying the weight of past losses and future fears.

MJ's anger dissipates like morning mist under the sun, replaced by a potent mixture of confusion and worry. Her brow furrows as she studies Peter's face, trying to decipher the meaning behind his words. "What do you mean?" she asks, her voice softer now, tinged with concern.

Peter sinks onto the couch, his body seeming to fold in on itself as he buries his head in his hands. The weight of the world seems to press down on his shoulders, threatening to crush him. MJ sits beside him, close enough to offer comfort but not so close as to crowd him. She waits patiently as he gathers his thoughts, the silence between them filled with unspoken understanding.

"In our original timeline, so many people died," Peter finally says, his voice barely above a whisper, as if speaking the words any louder might make them more real. "Tony, uncle Ben, aunt May... I couldn't save them." The pain in his voice is raw and fresh, as if these losses had happened only yesterday. "And now, knowing what's coming, I feel like I have to do everything possible to keep everyone safe." The responsibility he's placed on himself is evident in every line of his body, in the tension that radiates from him.

He looks up at MJ, his eyes filled with anguish, silently pleading for understanding. "I've been pushing myself so hard, trying to come up with solutions for every possible threat. I'm terrified of missing something, of failing again." The fear in his voice is palpable, a living thing that seems to hang in the air between them.

MJ's expression softens as understanding dawns, her heart aching for the burden Peter has been carrying alone. She reaches out, taking Peter's hand in hers, her touch gentle but firm, grounding him in the present moment.

"Peter, you can't carry this burden alone," she says gently, her voice filled with compassion and determination. "We're in this together, remember?" Her words are both a reminder and a promise, an affirmation of their bond and their shared purpose.

Peter nods, squeezing her hand as if it's a lifeline. "I know. I just... I couldn't bear the thought of losing you or Ned or anyone else. The stress of it all has been eating me up inside." The admission seems to lift a weight from his shoulders, the simple act of sharing his fears providing some measure of relief.

MJ pulls him into a hug, feeling him relax against her, the tension slowly seeping out of his body. She holds him tightly, offering silent comfort and support. "You should have told us sooner. We're here to support you, Peter. You don't have to face this alone." Her words are a balm to his wounded spirit, a reminder that even in the darkest times, he is not alone.

As Peter and MJ sat together on the couch, the weight of their shared burden began to lift. MJ gently stroked Peter's back, feeling the tension slowly ease from his muscles. The room around them seemed to soften, as if reflecting the newfound peace between them. Jarvis, ever-present but discreet, adjusted the lighting to a warm, comforting glow.

"I'm sorry I've been so distant," Peter murmured, his voice muffled against her shoulder. "I thought I was protecting you by handling everything myself." His mind flashed back to the sleepless nights spent tinkering in the lab, the weight of responsibility crushing down on him.

MJ pulled back slightly, meeting Peter's gaze. Her eyes, usually sharp and analytical, now held a warmth that made Peter's heart skip a beat. "That's not how this works, Peter. We're partners. Your problems are my problems, and vice versa." She thought about how worried she'd been, watching Peter withdraw into himself over the past weeks.

Peter nodded, a small smile tugging at his lips. "I know. I guess I'm still learning how to do this whole relationship thing." He marveled at how patient MJ had been with him, even when he'd been at his most frustrating.

MJ chuckled softly, the sound filling the room with a lightness that had been missing for too long. "Me too. But we're figuring it out together, right?" She squeezed his hand, feeling the calluses from his web-slinging adventures.

As they sat in comfortable silence, both Peter and MJ felt a shift in their relationship. The stress of the past few weeks had tested them, but it had also brought them closer. They realized that true strength came not from facing challenges alone, but from supporting each other through them. The air around them seemed to hum with the energy of this newfound understanding.

Peter took a deep breath, feeling lighter than he had in weeks. The scent of MJ's shampoo, a mix of lavender and something uniquely her, filled his senses. "I promise to be more open with you from now on. No more late nights alone in the lab without explanation." He silently vowed to himself to honor this promise, no matter how difficult things might get.

MJ smiled, intertwining her fingers with his. Her thumb traced small circles on the back of his hand, a gesture of comfort and connection. "And I promise to be more patient and understanding. We're in this for the long haul, Peter." She thought about all they'd been through together, and all that might lie ahead.

The couple sat in comfortable silence, both lost in thought about their future and the challenges they would face. Despite the uncertainty, they felt a renewed sense of hope and unity. Outside, the city continued its endless bustle, but in this moment, Peter and MJ were in a world of their own, stronger together than they ever could be apart.

Chapter 21: Brick by Brick

Notes:

This is a long note so bear with me.

I realize that I might lose a lot of my readers with this chapter or any of the past several. They involve a lot of detail that is not really necessary for the main story.

However, I do not care.

I hate reading stories where it jumps from one big event to the next and completely ignores all of the small things that happen in between. I LIKE slice-of-life stories and ones that show all the "work" that goes on behind the scenes to make a story complete.

It really annoys me and breaks my immersion when I am (for example) reading my story and all of a sudden it goes from the Hulk battle in Harlem to Spider-Man showing up in New York to the Chitauri invasion and I have no clue how Ned got an artifact, why do they have a company and what are they manufacturing, how did they get out of MIT so fast, etc.

So if that is not your cup of tea, I understand. You can come back and read just the relevant chapters or not come back at all. It is your choice. But know that this is my story and I am writing it exactly like how I would want to read it. Thank you!

P.S. - Warning for comic book science!

I never understood why Peter Parker didn't take his web formula and do something else with it. Like we have all seen the sutures and medical applications that is common in fanon, but seriously... you have a super-strong and flexible compound that is used to carrying heavy weights (up to a person swinging). And it disappears after just a few hours?!

Hello! Do you know how much disposable plastic a typical first-world country citizen goes through in an average week? 1.5 - 2.5 pounds. And Peter could, with a bit of brain power and time, potentially correct this problem easily with something he has already mostly developed? Yeah, no.

My Peter has a brain and will actually use it for the good of the planet (no hate on anyone else I swear!). He will rope in Ned to build his printer and MJ is there to keep them from signing their lives away accidentally, cause we all know these boys would not read the fine print. And they will save this world in more ways than one! Amen.

If you have made it this far into my long and rambling note, then thank you for reading and enjoy the chapter!

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

August 2011

Peter and Ned burst into their shared living space, their faces flushed with excitement. Peter's eyes sparkle with the gleam of scientific breakthrough, while Ned's grin threatens to split his face in two. They've been working tirelessly for weeks, and now, finally, they have something to show for it.

"MJ! Jarvis! Karen!" Peter calls out, his voice echoing through the apartment. "We need to talk to you guys!"

MJ emerges from her room, a book tucked under her arm and an eyebrow raised in curiosity. "What's got you two so worked up?" she asks, taking in their barely contained enthusiasm.

Jarvis's voice emanates from the speakers, calm and collected as always. "I'm here, Mr. Parkson. What seems to be the matter?"

Karen chimes in, her tone tinged with interest. "Is everything alright? You both seem rather excited."

Ned nods vigorously, practically bouncing on his toes. "Oh, it's more than alright! It's amazing! We've done it!"

Peter places a hand on Ned's shoulder, trying to contain his friend's exuberance. "We've made a breakthrough with the web formula," he explains, his voice brimming with pride. "And Ned's built something incredible to make it work."

MJ's eyes widen with interest as she takes a seat on the couch. "Alright, you've got my attention. What's this all about?"

Peter and Ned exchange a look of pure excitement, their grins widening even further. They've been waiting for this moment, to share their hard work with their friends and allies. The air in the room crackles with anticipation as everyone waits for the big reveal.

Peter takes a deep breath, his eyes shining with excitement as he begins to explain. "In our original timeline, the world was drowning in waste, especially plastic. It was everywhere - in our oceans, our landfills, even in the air we breathed."

MJ nods, her expression a mix of understanding and frustration. "It's not like it's any different now, even 15 years in the past," she mutters, her voice tinged with disappointment.

Peter acknowledges her comment with a slight nod before continuing. "You're right, MJ. But that's exactly why this breakthrough is so important. See, I got to thinking about how I use my webs. They're incredibly strong, flexible, and biodegradable. I make hammocks with them, carry heavy objects..."

As Peter speaks, his hands move animatedly, illustrating his points. Ned watches his friend with pride, while MJ quirks an eyebrow, her interest clearly piqued. Jarvis and Karen remain silent, their digital presence attentive to every word.

"So I had this idea," Peter continues, his voice gaining momentum. "What if we could create a material with similar properties to my webs, but on a larger scale? Something that could replace plastic bags, but would break down naturally without harming the environment?"

MJ, Jarvis, and Karen are stunned into silence. The room falls quiet as they process Peter's words. MJ's eyes widen, her book forgotten in her lap. She leans forward, her gaze intense as she stares at Peter.

"What?" MJ breathes, her voice barely above a whisper. "You're going to use your webs to replace plastic bags?"

Jarvis's voice, usually so composed, has a hint of surprise when he speaks. "Mr. Parkson, are you suggesting we could use a modified version of your web formula for everyday items like shopping bags?"

Karen chimes in, her tone a mix of amazement and curiosity. "That's... that's incredible, Peter. The potential impact of such an innovation could be enormous."

Peter nods enthusiastically, his eyes bright with excitement. He looks around at his friends, taking in their shocked expressions. Ned stands beside him, practically vibrating with excitement, ready to jump in and explain their work further.

MJ's mind races, considering the implications of what Peter has just revealed. She thinks about the countless plastic bags she sees every day, littering streets and polluting oceans. The possibility of replacing them with something biodegradable seems almost too good to be true.

Jarvis and Karen, despite being artificial intelligences, seem to radiate a sense of awe. Their programming allows them to quickly calculate the potential global impact of such an invention, and the results are staggering.

The room buzzes with a newfound energy as the gravity of Peter's announcement sinks in. This could be a game-changer, a step towards solving one of the world's most pressing environmental issues. And it all started with a teenager's web-slinging formula.

MJ straightens, her eyes intense with curiosity. "Explain," she demands, her voice firm but tinged with excitement.

Ned steps forward, eager to share his part of the project. He pulls out a device from his backpack, about the size of a small microwave. It's sleek and futuristic-looking, with several nozzles arranged in a square formation, all pointing inwards, and a digital display on the side.

"This," Ned announces proudly, "is a 3D printer and spray gun combo. It can 'print' a bag on command in just a few seconds."

Peter nods, picking up where Ned left off. "We envision stores installing these devices at checkout counters. Every time a customer needs a bag, they can print one on the spot."

MJ's eyebrows shoot up, impressed by the practicality of the idea. "That's... actually brilliant," she admits.

Jarvis chimes in, his voice thoughtful. "The potential for reducing plastic waste is significant. But what about the longevity of these bags?"

Peter grins, clearly excited to explain this part. "That's where my web formula comes in. I've developed three versions: short, medium, and long-lasting. The bags will dissolve after a set number of hours, depending on their intended use."

Karen's voice sounds intrigued as she asks, "Can you elaborate on the different versions, Peter?"

Peter nods enthusiastically. "Sure! The short version is perfect for things like grocery bags. They'll last about 3 hours before starting to break down. The medium version is good for maybe about 24 hours, ideal for shopping bags from clothing stores or anything that a person might not immediately be able to take home. And the long version can last up to a week, which could be useful for storage or moving."

MJ's mind races with the possibilities. "This could revolutionize how we use and dispose of bags," she muses aloud.

Ned beams with pride. "And the best part? The materials are all eco-friendly. When the bags break down, they leave no harmful residues behind."

Peter's eyes light up with enthusiasm as he continues to explain his vision. "And this is just the beginning," he says, his voice brimming with excitement. "I've got plans to take this even further."

MJ leans forward, intrigued. "What do you mean?"

Peter starts pacing, his hands moving animatedly as he speaks. "Think about all the disposable items we use every day. Plasticware, food delivery containers, packaging materials - all of it could potentially be replaced with this technology."

Ned nods vigorously, chiming in, "He's been brainstorming ways to modify the formula to achieve different properties while I've been going over what kinds of machines we would need to produce something like that."

"Exactly," Peter agrees. "We need to develop variations that can harden for sturdier items, or ones that are heat-resistant for food containers. The possibilities are endless."

Jarvis's voice comes through the speakers, sounding impressed. "The potential applications are indeed vast. Have you considered how this might be implemented on a larger scale?"

Peter runs a hand through his hair, his expression thoughtful. "That's the next big challenge. We need to figure out how to mass-produce the formula and adapt the printing technology for different uses."

MJ taps her chin, considering the implications. "This could revolutionize entire industries," she muses. "But it's going to take a lot of work to get there."

"I know," Peter nods, his determination evident. "But imagine a world where all our disposable items just... disappear when we're done with them. No more overflowing landfills, no more trash scattered all over the streets, no more plastic polluting our oceans."

The room falls silent for a moment as they all contemplate the enormity of what Peter is proposing. The potential impact of such an innovation is staggering, offering a glimpse of a future where humanity's relationship with disposable goods is fundamentally altered.

Jarvis's calm voice cuts through the excitement, bringing the group back to reality. "This is indeed a remarkable achievement. Have you considered the patent process for your invention?"

Peter's eyes light up, a proud smile spreading across his face. "Actually, we have! Ned and I filed provisional patents last week. We wanted to make sure we had that covered before we got too excited."

Ned nods enthusiastically, his chest puffing out slightly. "Yeah, we've got all the paperwork sorted. It feels pretty good to have that taken care of."

The two boys exchange a high-five, clearly feeling accomplished. In their minds, they've overcome the biggest hurdle. The hard part is done, and now it's just a matter of getting their invention out into the world.

Jarvis, not wanting to dampen their spirits, decides to take a more supportive approach. "That's excellent foresight, gentlemen. Perhaps I could arrange a meeting with Ms. Potts at Stark Industries? She might be interested in discussing your invention further."

Peter and Ned's eyes widen with excitement at the prospect. They nod eagerly, already imagining themselves in a boardroom, presenting their ideas to Pepper Potts herself.

MJ, observing from the sidelines, catches on to what Jarvis is doing. She knows that the boys have no idea about the complexities involved in bringing a new product to market. Rather than burst their bubble, she decides to play along.

"That's a great idea, Jarvis," MJ says, her tone carefully neutral. "I'm sure Ms. Potts would be very interested in hearing about this. When do you think we could set up that meeting?"

As Peter and Ned start discussing potential presentation ideas, MJ exchanges a knowing glance with the AI. They both understand that the boys are about to get a crash course in the realities of product development and launch.

**********

Jarvis initiates a secure communication channel with Pepper Potts, his digital presence manifesting on her computer screen. Pepper, in the middle of reviewing quarterly reports, looks up with mild surprise at the unexpected interruption.

"Ms. Potts, I apologize for the intrusion," Jarvis begins, his tone courteous yet tinged with an unusual hint of enthusiasm. "I have a matter of potential interest for Stark Industries."

Pepper leans back in her chair, her curiosity piqued. "Go on, Jarvis. What's this about?"

"Stark Industries received an email from a group of MIT students requesting a meeting. They claim to have developed a potentially revolutionary product," Jarvis explains. "While I cannot disclose the specifics without their permission, I believe it warrants our attention."

Pepper's eyebrows raise slightly. "MIT students? That's certainly intriguing. What's your assessment of their proposal?"

Jarvis pauses, as if carefully choosing his words. "The product itself appears to have significant potential. As in global significance. However, I've detected a certain... naivety in their approach. They seem unaware of the complexities involved in bringing such a product to market."

A knowing smile plays on Pepper's lips. She's seen this before - brilliant minds with groundbreaking ideas but little understanding of the business world. "I see. And you think we should meet with them anyway?"

Jarvis hesitates for a moment, his digital processes whirring with concern. "Ms. Potts, I believe there's more to consider," he says, his tone cautious. "Given the nature of their invention, it's entirely possible that other companies have been contacted as well. I'm concerned that a less scrupulous organization might take advantage of their inexperience."

Pepper leans forward, her interest clearly piqued. "You think they might be at risk of being exploited or even have their idea stolen?"

"Indeed," Jarvis confirms. "Their enthusiasm is admirable, but their naivety could be detrimental. I was hoping, if you're willing, that you might consider meeting with them personally. Not just to discuss their invention, but to provide guidance and mentorship on the complexities of bringing a product to market."

Pepper's expression softens, a mix of understanding and determination crossing her face. "I see. You're hoping I can help protect them from potential pitfalls."

"Precisely, Ms. Potts," Jarvis agrees. "Your experience and ethical approach would be invaluable to these young inventors. It could make a significant difference in the trajectory of their careers and the impact of their invention."

Pepper nods, her mind already working through the possibilities. "Alright, Jarvis. Set up the meeting. I'll clear my schedule to give them the time and attention they need."

"Thank you, Ms. Potts," Jarvis responds, a note of relief in his voice. "I believe this could be a mutually beneficial arrangement for all parties involved."

As Pepper begins to make preparations for the meeting, Jarvis feels a sense of satisfaction. He's taken a step towards protecting Peter, Ned, and their invention, while potentially securing a valuable opportunity for Stark Industries. It's a delicate balance, but one he hopes will pay off for everyone involved.

**********

Jarvis's voice fills the room, interrupting the excited chatter of Peter and Ned. "I have good news," he announces. "Ms. Potts has agreed to meet with you next week to discuss your invention."

Peter and Ned exchange jubilant high-fives, their faces beaming with unbridled enthusiasm. MJ watches from the sidelines, her expression a mix of amusem*nt and concern.

"This is it, guys!" Peter exclaims, his eyes shining with excitement. "Our big break!"

Ned nods vigorously, already pulling out his laptop. "We need to start working on our pitch right away. We've got to make it perfect!"

Over the next few days, Peter and Ned throw themselves into preparing for the meeting. They spend hours refining their presentation, practicing their delivery, and even debating what to wear. Their optimism is palpable, filling the air with an electric energy.

"We're going to change the world," Peter says confidently as he rehearses his part of the pitch. "Ms. Potts is going to love this."

Ned agrees wholeheartedly, adding, "And just think, we'll probably be working with Tony Stark himself soon!"

MJ observes their preparations with a quiet skepticism. She wants to caution them about getting their hopes up too high, but she can't bring herself to dampen their spirits. Instead, she offers subtle suggestions to improve their presentation, which the boys eagerly incorporate.

As the meeting day approaches, MJ's phone buzzes with a text message from Jarvis. She reads it discreetly:

"I've informed Ms. Potts about the boys' inexperience. She understands and is prepared to offer guidance. Her intention is to help, not just evaluate the product."

MJ feels a wave of relief wash over her. She glances at Peter and Ned, still engrossed in their preparations, and allows herself a small smile. At least someone else understands the delicate situation they're in.

The boys scramble to get everything ready for their trip to Los Angeles. Peter and Ned's excitement is palpable as they rush around their apartment, tossing clothes and gadgets into suitcases. MJ watches with a mix of amusem*nt and concern, occasionally reminding them of essential items they've forgotten in their haste.

"Toothbrush, Peter," she calls out, rolling her eyes as he dashes back to the bathroom.

Ned, meanwhile, is struggling to fit his laptop and various electronic devices into his carry-on bag. "Do you think we'll need all these adapters?" he asks, his brow furrowed in concentration.

"Better safe than sorry," Peter replies, zipping up his own bag with a triumphant grin.

As they finish packing, Jarvis arranges for a car to take them to the airport. The trio piles in, their nervous energy filling the vehicle. MJ sits quietly, lost in thought about the potential outcomes of this meeting, while Peter and Ned chatter excitedly about their presentation plans.

At the airport, they breeze through security thanks to Jarvis's arrangements. Soon, they're settled on a first-class flight to Los Angeles. Peter and Ned marvel at the luxurious seats, while MJ tries to catch up on some reading.

As the plane takes off, reality begins to set in. Peter's leg bounces nervously, and Ned's usual chatter dies down. MJ reaches out and squeezes Peter's hand reassuringly.

"You've got this," she whispers, offering a small smile.

Hours later, they touch down in Los Angeles. The bright California sun greets them as they exit the airport, a stark contrast to the cooler East Coast weather they left behind. A sleek black car waits to whisk them away to Stark Industries headquarters.

As the sleek black car pulls up to the Stark Industries headquarters in Los Angeles, Peter, MJ, and Ned's eyes widen in awe. The building before them is completely different to the Stark Tower they knew from their future timeline.

Instead of the towering skyscraper with its iconic "Stark" logo, they're faced with a sprawling campus of low-rise buildings, each with gleaming glass facades that reflect the California sun. The architecture is more reminiscent of a Silicon Valley tech giant than the superhero headquarters they're used to.

Peter leans forward in his seat, pressing his face against the window. "Whoa," he breathes, taking in the sight. "This is so different."

MJ nods, her analytical mind already cataloging the differences. "It's more spread out," she observes. "Probably better for R&D departments to have their own spaces."

Ned's eyes are drawn to the groups of people moving between buildings. "Look at all the employees," he says. "It's like a small city here."

As they exit the car, the trio is struck by the buzz of activity around them. Engineers in casual attire stroll past, deep in conversation about their latest projects. Delivery robots whiz by, carrying packages and documents between buildings.

Peter's enhanced senses pick up snippets of conversations about cutting-edge technology and innovative designs. It's a far cry from the more secretive and guarded atmosphere of the future Stark Tower.

MJ notices the abundance of green spaces and outdoor seating areas scattered throughout the campus. "They're really embracing the California lifestyle here," she comments.

Ned's attention is captured by a large digital display in the main plaza, showcasing various Stark Industries projects and achievements. "This is like Stark Expo, but every day," he says, his voice filled with excitement.

As they're led into the main building, the differences become even more apparent. The interior is open and airy, with high ceilings and collaborative workspaces. It's much less compartmentalized and security-focused than the layout of the future Stark Tower.

Peter, MJ, and Ned exchange glances, silently acknowledging the surreal nature of their situation. They're standing in a version of Stark Industries that exists before the rise of the Avengers, before the world-changing events they've experienced.

Jarvis's voice guides Peter, MJ, and Ned through the bustling Stark Industries campus. "Ms. Potts' office is in the executive wing, just ahead," he informs them through their earpieces.

The trio approaches a sleek reception area, their steps slowing as they near the desk. Peter's hands fidget nervously with the strap of his laptop bag, while Ned takes a deep breath to steady himself. MJ maintains her composure, but her eyes dart around, taking in every detail of their surroundings.

A professionally dressed woman looks up from her computer as they approach. "Good morning," she greets them with a polite smile. "How may I help you?"

Peter clears his throat, his voice coming out slightly higher than usual. "Hi, we have an appointment with Ms. Potts."

The secretary nods, her fingers poised over her keyboard. "May I have your names, please?"

"Peter Parkson," Peter replies, then gestures to his companions. "And this is Malia Watson and Edgar Meads."

The secretary types their names into her computer, her eyes scanning the screen. After a moment, she looks back up at them and gestures to a nearby seating area. "Please have a seat. I'll let Ms. Potts know you're here."

The trio moves to the indicated chairs, settling in to wait. Peter bounces his leg anxiously, while Ned fiddles with his tablet. MJ sits still, her eyes continuing to survey the room, taking in the modern art on the walls and the subtle security measures she notices.

As they wait, the reality of their situation sinks in. They're about to meet with one of the most powerful women in the business world, to present an idea that could change the future.

The secretary emerges from Pepper's office, her heels clicking softly on the polished floor. "Ms. Potts will see you now," she announces with a professional smile.

Peter, MJ, and Ned exchange quick glances before rising from their seats. They follow the secretary into the spacious office, their eyes widening as they take in the surroundings.

Pepper Potts stands behind her desk, a warm smile on her face as she greets them. "Welcome to Stark Industries," she says, moving around to shake their hands.

Peter's gaze lingers on Pepper, his mind racing as he compares her to the woman he knew in the future. This Pepper looks younger, her face free from the stress lines he remembers. Her eyes sparkle with enthusiasm, lacking the weary determination he'd grown accustomed to seeing.

As Pepper gestures for them to take a seat, Peter marvels at the difference. Her movements are more relaxed, her posture less rigid. The weight of running a company in a world of superheroes, alien invasions, and the Blip hasn't yet settled on her shoulders.

MJ and Ned settle into their chairs, but Peter hesitates for a moment, still caught off guard by the stark contrast. Pepper notices his pause and raises an eyebrow inquiringly.

"Is everything alright, Mr. Parkson?" she asks, her tone gentle and curious.

Peter blinks, snapping out of his reverie. "Yes, sorry," he mumbles, quickly taking his seat. "It's just... you remind me of someone I used to know."

Pepper's smile widens slightly, a hint of amusem*nt in her eyes. "I hope that's a good thing," she says lightly.

Pepper Potts settles into her chair, her posture relaxed yet professional. She takes a moment to observe the three young people before her, noting their nervous energy and eager expressions.

"So," Pepper begins, her tone warm and inviting, "Jarvis mentioned that you have a new product you'd like to present. Before we get into that, I'm curious to hear more about your background. What can you tell me about your experience in product development and business?"

Peter and Ned exchange a quick glance, their excitement momentarily giving way to uncertainty. Peter clears his throat and leans forward slightly.

"Well, Ms. Potts," he starts, his voice a mix of enthusiasm and nervousness, "we're students at MIT. I'm focusing on advanced materials science and engineering. I was the one who developed the compound we are hoping to use. Ned here is our tech guy. He is a computer engineering and CompSci major. He is the one who built the prototype for the machine we need to create our product. This is our first real product development experience outside of our coursework."

Ned nods vigorously, picking up where Peter left off. "We've been working on this project for several years, refining the technology and exploring potential applications. We've done some market research too, looking at similar products and identifying gaps we could fill."

Pepper listens attentively, her expression neutral but encouraging. She nods slowly, processing their words. "I see. And what about the business side of things? Have you considered how you'd bring this product to market?"

Peter's confidence wavers slightly. "We've... thought about it," he says, his tone less certain. "We know we'd need to secure funding, set up manufacturing, and develop a marketing strategy. But honestly, we're not sure about the specifics."

Ned jumps in, his enthusiasm overtaking his nerves. "We were hoping to partner with a company like Stark Industries. We figured with your resources and expertise, we could turn our idea into a real product that could help people."

Pepper's lips quirk into a small smile, her eyes softening at their earnest responses. She leans back in her chair, considering her next words carefully.

Pepper's gaze shifts to MJ, who has remained silent throughout the exchange. Her eyebrow raises slightly, a silent question in her expression.

MJ straightens in her chair, meeting Pepper's eyes with a calm, steady gaze. "I'm here to provide a more grounded perspective," she explains, her tone matter-of-fact. "Peter and Ned are brilliant inventors, but they don't have much experience with the business side of things."

Pepper's lips quirk into a knowing smile. She leans forward slightly, her interest piqued. "And you do?" she asks, not challenging but genuinely curious.

MJ shrugs, a hint of self-deprecation in her gesture. "I've been taking some business and law classes alongside my other coursework. Someone has to keep these two tethered to reality."

Pepper's eyes light up with understanding and a touch of amusem*nt. She glances at Peter and Ned, who are watching the exchange with a mix of surprise and sheepishness, before returning her attention to MJ.

"I think I understand exactly what you mean," Pepper says, her tone warm with camaraderie. She leans back in her chair, a soft chuckle escaping her lips. "It's not easy, is it? Working with geniuses who sometimes forget the real world exists beyond their labs and inventions."

MJ's posture relaxes slightly, a flicker of relief crossing her face. "No, it's not," she agrees, a hint of exasperation in her voice. "They get so caught up in what they can do, they don't always stop to think about whether they should."

Pepper nods, her expression a mix of fondness and resignation. "Or how to turn their brilliant ideas into viable products without bankrupting themselves or violating a dozen regulations," she adds.

Peter and Ned exchange glances, looking slightly abashed. Ned opens his mouth as if to protest, but thinks better of it and closes it again.

Pepper turns her attention back to the boys, her expression softening. "Don't worry, that's why we're here. To help turn those brilliant ideas into something that can actually make a difference in the world."

Pepper leans forward, her expression shifting to a more serious, business-like demeanor. "Alright, boys," she says, her tone firm but not unkind. "I'm going to break it down for you."

She holds up a hand, counting off points on her fingers as she speaks. "First, let's talk about your provisional patent. While it's a good start, it's limited. You have only a year to file a non-provisional patent, and it doesn't protect you internationally."

Peter and Ned nod, their eyes wide as they absorb the information. MJ takes notes, her pen moving swiftly across her notepad.

"Second," Pepper continues, "you need comprehensive testing. Your product might work in a lab, but you would need to ensure it's safe and effective in real-world conditions. This takes time and resources."

She pauses, making sure they're following along. "Third, you need a solid business plan. How will you manufacture this? What's your target market? What's your pricing strategy? These are all questions you need to answer."

Pepper leans back in her chair, her gaze intense. "Fourth, don't underestimate regulatory challenges. Depending on your product's application, you might need FDA approval or other certifications. This process can be lengthy and expensive."

Finally, she spreads her hands on the desk. "Lastly, let's talk about funding and resources. Developing a product isn't cheap. You'll need money for research, testing, manufacturing, marketing... the list goes on. And it's not just about money. You'll need access to specialized equipment, expertise in various fields, and a network of industry contacts."

She looks at each of them in turn, her expression softening slightly. "I'm not saying this to discourage you. I want you to understand the challenges ahead. If your product is as promising as Jarvis suggests, Stark Industries might be interested in partnering with you. But we need to approach this realistically."

Peter and Ned sit in stunned silence for a moment, processing Pepper's words. The enormity of the task ahead settles over them like a heavy blanket. MJ watches them carefully, her pen poised over her notepad.

Peter's mind races, flipping through the challenges Pepper laid out. His initial excitement gives way to a mix of anxiety and determination. He glances at Ned, seeing his own emotions mirrored on his friend's face.

Ned takes a deep breath, his fingers tapping nervously on the arm of his chair. He looks at Peter, a silent conversation passing between them. Despite the daunting obstacles, neither is ready to give up.

MJ leans forward, her voice calm and steady. "Ms. Potts, we appreciate your honesty. These are all valid concerns we need to address."

Peter nods, finding his voice. "You're right, there's a lot we haven't considered. But we believe in this product. We're willing to put in the work to make it a reality."

Ned chimes in, his enthusiasm returning. "We've faced challenges before. Maybe not on this scale, but we've always found a way through. We can do this too."

Pepper observes them closely, noting the shift in their demeanor. The initial shock has given way to a steely resolve. She sees determination in Peter's set jaw, in Ned's straightened posture, in MJ's steady gaze.

"We know it won't be easy," Peter continues, his voice growing stronger. "But we're not afraid of hard work. We're here because we want to learn, to grow, to make something that can really help people."

Ned nods vigorously. "We're ready to dive into the business side of things. Market research, regulatory requirements, whatever it takes. We'll learn."

MJ adds, "And we're prepared to adapt our plans as needed. We understand that our initial ideas might need to change as we navigate this process."

Pepper leans back in her chair, a small smile playing on her lips. Their resilience, their willingness to face the challenges head-on, it reminds her of another young inventor she knows well.

Pepper's smile widens, impressed by the trio's determination. She leans forward, her eyes sparkling with interest. "Alright, let's hear about this product of yours. What makes it so special?"

Peter glances at Ned and MJ, receiving encouraging nods. He takes a deep breath and begins, "Our product is an eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags. It's a biodegradable material that can be produced on-demand, reducing waste and storage needs."

Ned chimes in, "We've developed a device that can 'print' bags of our smaller version in seconds. It's about the size of a small microwave and could be installed at checkout counters in stores."

MJ adds, "The bags come in three versions: short-term, medium-term, and long-term. They dissolve after a set number of hours, depending on their intended use."

Peter continues, "The short-term version lasts about 3 hours, perfect for grocery bags. The medium-term lasts around 24 hours, ideal for clothing store bags. The long-term version can last up to a week, useful for storage or moving."

"And the best part," Ned says enthusiastically, "is that when the bags break down, they leave no harmful residues behind. It's completely eco-friendly."

Pepper listens intently, her expression a mix of curiosity and skepticism. "That sounds impressive," she says, leaning back in her chair. "But I have to ask, what's the material made of? And how does it compare to current biodegradable options on the market?"

Peter and Ned exchange a quick glance, realizing they need to be careful about revealing too much about the web-like nature of their product. They hadn't anticipated such a direct question about its composition.

Peter takes a deep breath, organizing his thoughts before responding to Pepper's question. He leans forward slightly, his eyes bright with enthusiasm.

"The material is a proprietary blend of organic compounds," Peter begins, careful to keep the details vague. "We've engineered it to be strong and flexible, yet completely biodegradable."

He pauses, making sure Pepper is following along before continuing. "What sets our product apart from current biodegradable options is its controlled decomposition. Most biodegradable plastics take months or even years to break down. Ours dissolves in seconds once it reaches its predetermined time limit."

Ned nods eagerly, picking up where Peter left off. "We've managed to create a chemical trigger that activates at specific intervals. This allows us to control exactly when the bag starts to break down."

MJ interjects, her tone calm and factual. "Current biodegradable options often require specific conditions to decompose effectively. Our product breaks down regardless of the environment it's in, whether it's in a landfill, the ocean, or someone's backyard."

Peter continues, his confidence growing as he speaks. "The speed of decomposition is what really sets us apart. Once the time limit is up, the bag dissolves in a matter of seconds. This means no lingering waste, no partial breakdown that could harm wildlife or ecosystems."

Pepper listens intently, her expression thoughtful. She leans back in her chair, considering their words carefully.

"That's certainly impressive," she says slowly. "If it works as you describe, it could be a game-changer in the fight against plastic pollution."

Peter's eyes light up with excitement, his words tumbling out in a rush. "Ms. Potts, imagine a world where all our disposable items just... disappear when we're done with them. No more overflowing landfills, no more plastic polluting our oceans."

He leans forward, his hands gesturing animatedly. "Think about all the disposable items we use every day. Plasticware, food delivery containers, packaging materials - all of it could potentially be replaced with this technology."

Ned nods enthusiastically, jumping in. "We've been brainstorming ways to modify the formula to achieve different properties," he adds. "Peter's been working on variations that can harden for sturdier items, or ones that are heat-resistant for food containers."

"The possibilities are endless," Peter continues, his voice filled with passion. "We could revolutionize entire industries, from retail to food service to shipping and logistics."

MJ watches Peter and Ned with a mix of amusem*nt and pride. She turns to Pepper, her tone more measured. "We've also been considering the economic implications. This technology could potentially disrupt current manufacturing and waste management systems. We're aware that it's a double-edged sword - it could create new jobs and industries, but also impact existing ones."

Peter nods, his expression growing more serious. "That's why we want to work with a company like Stark Industries. We need guidance on how to implement this responsibly, to ensure the benefits outweigh any potential drawbacks."

Pepper listens intently, her expression a mix of intrigue and thoughtfulness. She leans back in her chair, considering their words carefully.

Pepper's expression softens as she takes in the trio's enthusiasm and the potential of their invention. She leans forward, her hands clasped on the desk.

"I have to admit, it's a brilliant idea," Pepper says, her tone both impressed and cautious. "The applications are vast, and the environmental impact could be significant."

Peter and Ned exchange excited glances, while MJ maintains her composed demeanor, watching Pepper carefully.

"However," Pepper continues, her voice taking on a more serious tone, "this technology has the potential to completely revolutionize multiple industries. It could easily overshadow everything else Stark Industries does."

The boys' expressions begin to fall, their excitement deflating like punctured balloons. MJ's brow furrows slightly, sensing where this conversation might be heading.

Pepper holds up a hand, forestalling any objections. "Before you get discouraged, let me finish. I don't think Stark Industries is the right fit for this project, but that doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing."

She pauses, letting her words sink in. Peter and Ned look confused, while MJ's eyes narrow in thought.

"What I'm suggesting," Pepper says, her voice gaining enthusiasm, "is that you consider setting up your own company instead."

The trio's eyes widen in surprise. Peter and Ned exchange shocked glances, while MJ leans forward, her interest piqued.

"Our own company?" Peter echoes, his voice a mix of disbelief and excitement.

Pepper nods, a smile playing on her lips. "Exactly. This technology is too big, too revolutionary to be just another Stark Industries project. It deserves to be its own entity, with you three at the helm."

Peter and Ned sit in stunned silence, their mouths agape as they process Pepper's suggestion. Their eyes dart between each other and Pepper, a mix of excitement and fear evident in their expressions.

MJ, however, maintains her composure. She leans forward, her brow furrowed in concern. "Ms. Potts," she begins, her voice steady but tinged with skepticism, "I appreciate your enthusiasm, but we know nothing about setting up a company, much less running it. This sounds like a bad idea."

Pepper's smile doesn't falter at MJ's words. Instead, she nods, acknowledging the young woman's concerns. "You're right, Miss Watson. Starting and running a company is no small feat, especially for students like yourselves."

Peter and Ned's excitement begins to dim as the reality of the situation sinks in. They look to MJ, then back to Pepper, uncertainty written across their faces.

"But," Pepper continues, her voice filled with confidence, "that doesn't mean it's impossible. In fact, many successful companies have been started by young entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas but little business experience."

MJ shakes her head slightly, unconvinced. "Those are exceptions, not the rule. We're talking about a potentially world-changing technology here. The risks are enormous."

Ned nods in agreement, his earlier enthusiasm now tempered by caution. "Yeah, I mean, we're still in college. How could we possibly manage something like this?"

Peter remains silent, his mind racing with possibilities and doubts in equal measure. He looks at Pepper, a question forming in his eyes.

Pepper's eyes sparkle with excitement as she leans forward, her hands clasped on the desk. "Let me propose something," she says, her voice filled with enthusiasm. "Stark Industries could help you set up your own company, in exchange for a 10% share."

The trio's eyes widen in surprise. Peter and Ned exchange glances, while MJ's brow furrows in thought.

Pepper continues, "We'd guide you through the entire process. From legal matters like NDAs to product testing, our departments would be at your disposal."

She pauses, letting her words sink in. "You'd have access to our network of contacts, industry experts who could provide invaluable advice and support."

Peter's mouth opens and closes, struggling to find words. Ned's eyes are wide with excitement, while MJ's expression remains cautious but intrigued.

"Think about it," Pepper says, her tone encouraging. "You'd maintain control of your invention, but with the backing and resources of a major corporation."

She leans back in her chair, watching their reactions. "This way, you get the best of both worlds. The freedom to develop your technology as you see fit, with the support system to help you navigate the business world."

The trio sits in stunned silence, processing Pepper's proposal. Peter and Ned look at each other, a mix of excitement and trepidation on their faces. MJ's expression is thoughtful, her mind clearly working through the implications.

Pepper gives them a moment before adding, "Of course, you don't have to decide right now. Take some time to think it over, discuss it among yourselves."

Peter and Ned nod eagerly, their eyes wide with excitement and a hint of disbelief. MJ, ever the pragmatist, maintains her composure as she stands up from her chair.

"Thank you for your time and this opportunity, Ms. Potts," MJ says, her voice steady and professional. "We appreciate your insights and will certainly give this serious consideration."

She turns to Peter and Ned, who are still sitting in their chairs, looking slightly dazed. "Come on, guys," she says gently but firmly. "We should go and process all of this."

Peter blinks, coming back to reality. "Oh, right. Yes, thank you, Ms. Potts. This is... wow. Just wow."

Ned nods vigorously. "Yeah, thank you so much. This is incredible. We'll definitely think about it."

MJ gently tugs on their sleeves, urging them to stand. Peter and Ned finally get to their feet, still looking slightly stunned.

Pepper smiles warmly at the trio. "Take all the time you need. This is a big decision, and I want you to be sure about it. Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or concerns."

MJ guides Peter and Ned towards the door, her hand on each of their backs. "We will, thank you again," she says over her shoulder.

As they exit Pepper's office, Peter and Ned start to come out of their daze. They walk down the hallway towards the elevator, their footsteps echoing in the quiet space.

"Did that really just happen?" Ned whispers, his voice a mix of awe and disbelief.

Peter nods slowly. "I think it did. Our own company... with Stark Industries backing us. It's like a dream."

MJ presses the elevator button. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves," she cautions. "We need to think this through carefully."

The elevator arrives with a soft ding, and they step inside. As the doors close, Peter and Ned exchange excited glances, while MJ watches them with a mix of affection and concern.

**********

As the trio disappears into the elevator, Pepper Potts returns to her office, a thoughtful smile playing on her lips. She settles into her chair, her mind still buzzing with the potential of the young inventors' idea.

"Ms. Potts," Jarvis's voice comes through the speakers, "may I inquire about your decision to propose such a generous plan for the students?"

Pepper leans back, her eyes distant as she considers the question. "You know, Jarvis, those boys... they remind me of Tony. Not the Tony we know now, but a younger version. One who didn't have the Stark fortune or training to fall back on."

She pauses, her fingers drumming lightly on the armrest. "I couldn't help but wonder what Tony might have been like in their shoes. All that raw talent and enthusiasm, but without the resources to bring their ideas to life."

A soft chuckle escapes her lips. "And MJ, she's like a mirror of my younger self. Always trying to keep the boys grounded while still allowing them to dream big. It's a delicate balance, one I remember all too well."

Pepper's expression grows more serious. "But it's not just sentiment, Jarvis. What I said about their technology potentially overshadowing Stark Industries' other projects is true. We can't risk that, not when we're trying to diversify and move away from our old image. SI is currently trying to find it's own footing. I don't believe a project like this would be to our benefit in the long run."

She leans forward, her voice filled with conviction. "This way, we get to nurture a potentially world-changing technology without it consuming our entire focus. It's a win-win situation."

Pepper nods, a satisfied smile on her face. "Plus, we'll still get a stake in the new company for all the work we're going to do. It's not like we're losing out."

Jarvis processes this information, his algorithms running through various scenarios and potential outcomes. After a moment of digital contemplation, he responds, "I see the logic in your decision, Ms. Potts. It's a strategic move that benefits both parties while minimizing risk for Stark Industries."

He pauses briefly before adding, "Your ability to see the potential in these young inventors and provide them with an opportunity for growth is commendable. It aligns well with Mr. Stark's own philosophy of nurturing talent."

Pepper's smile widens at Jarvis's words. She leans back in her chair, feeling a sense of satisfaction. "Thank you, Jarvis. I appreciate your input."

Jarvis, though an AI, seems to convey a sense of approval in his tone as he replies, "You're welcome, Ms. Potts. Your decision-making skills continue to impress. I believe this arrangement will prove beneficial for all parties involved."

**********

Peter, MJ, and Ned entered their hotel suite, their minds still reeling from the meeting with Pepper Potts. Peter flopped onto the couch, running his hands through his hair. Ned paced back and forth, his excitement bubbling over.

"Guys, can you believe it? Our own company!" Ned exclaimed, his eyes wide with wonder.

MJ perched on the arm of a nearby chair, her brow furrowed in thought. "It's a big responsibility," she cautioned. "We need to think this through carefully."

Peter nodded, his expression a mix of excitement and apprehension. "I know, I know. But the possibilities, MJ! Think of what we could do with Stark Industries backing us."

Ned stopped pacing, turning to face his friends. "Yeah, but... how do we even run a company? I just want to be in the lab, working on the tech."

Peter's enthusiasm dimmed slightly as reality set in. "Me too. I have no idea how to handle the business side of things."

MJ sighed, crossing her arms. "That's what worries me. This could easily get away from us if we're not careful."

The trio fell silent for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. Peter stared at the ceiling, imagining the potential impact of their invention. Ned resumed his pacing, muttering calculations under his breath. MJ watched them both, her mind racing through potential scenarios and pitfalls.

"Maybe we should talk to Jarvis," Peter suggested, breaking the silence. "He might have some insights on how to handle this."

Ned nodded eagerly. "Good idea. And Karen too. They might be able to help us figure out the business side of things."

MJ stood up, her expression resolute. "We need to make a list of pros and cons. And we should research other young entrepreneurs, see how they managed similar situations."

Peter sat up, his energy renewed by the prospect of a plan. "You're right. We need to approach this logically, like any other problem we've faced."

Peter pulled out his phone and dialed Jarvis while Ned retrieved his own device to call Karen. MJ watched them, her expression a mix of curiosity and concern.

As the call connected, Peter's voice filled with excitement. "Jarvis, you're not going to believe what just happened in our meeting with Ms. Potts."

Simultaneously, Ned's eager voice carried across the room. "Karen, we've got some big news. Ms. Potts suggested we start our own company!"

The two AIs listened attentively as Peter and Ned recounted the details of their meeting with Pepper Potts. They explained the proposal for Stark Industries to help them set up their own company in exchange for a 10% share.

Peter's voice grew more animated as he shared their initial thoughts. "It's an incredible opportunity, Jarvis. But we're also feeling a bit overwhelmed. Running a company is way outside our comfort zone."

Ned nodded in agreement, even though Karen couldn't see him. "Yeah, we're excited about the possibilities, but there's so much we don't know about the business world."

MJ, observing her friends, chimed in loud enough for both AIs to hear. "We need to consider this carefully. We were hoping you could help us make a list of pros and cons."

Jarvis and Karen processed the information quickly, their algorithms running through countless scenarios and potential outcomes.

"Starting a company at your age is indeed a significant undertaking," Jarvis began, his voice measured and calm. "However, with the backing of Stark Industries, many of the usual pitfalls could be mitigated."

Karen chimed in, her tone supportive but cautious. "Let's start with the pros. The most obvious benefit is the resources and expertise you'd have access to through Stark Industries."

"Precisely," Jarvis agreed. "You'd have top-tier legal support, marketing expertise, and a vast network of industry contacts at your disposal."

Peter, Ned, and MJ listened intently, their faces a mix of excitement and concentration as they absorbed the AIs' insights.

"Another advantage," Karen continued, "is the credibility that comes with Stark Industries' backing. It could open doors that might otherwise remain closed to young entrepreneurs."

MJ nodded thoughtfully, her analytical mind already processing the information. "What about the cons?" she asked, always keen to consider all angles.

Jarvis took up this thread. "The primary concern would be the pressure and responsibility of running a company while still pursuing your studies. It could be overwhelming and potentially impact your academic performance."

"There's also the risk of losing control of your invention," Karen added. "While Stark Industries' share is minimal, other investors might try to gain larger stakes in the future."

Ned's brow furrowed at this, his earlier excitement tempered by these considerations.

"Additionally," Jarvis continued, "there's the potential for public scrutiny. As young entrepreneurs associated with Stark Industries, you may find yourselves thrust into the spotlight."

Peter ran a hand through his hair, looking slightly overwhelmed. "That's... a lot to consider," he said, his voice a mix of excitement and apprehension.

MJ, ever practical, grabbed a notepad and started jotting down the points raised by the AIs. "We need to weigh these factors carefully," she said, her pen moving swiftly across the paper.

"Indeed," Jarvis agreed. "It's crucial to consider how this decision aligns with your long-term goals, both personally and professionally."

Karen's voice softened slightly, sensing the trio's growing uncertainty. "Remember, this is a unique opportunity, but it's not the only path forward. Take your time to consider all options."

The trio exchanged glances, each processing the wealth of information they'd just received. The room fell silent for a moment as they contemplated their potential future, the weight of the decision heavy on their young shoulders.

MJ's brow furrowed in thought for a moment before she spoke up, her voice cutting through the contemplative silence that had fallen over the room.

"What if we set up the company now, just doing the paperwork, but don't actually proceed any further until after we graduate in December?" she suggested, her eyes moving between Peter and Ned. "That way, we wouldn't have to worry about running a company while trying to finish MIT."

Peter's eyes lit up at the idea, a smile spreading across his face. "That's brilliant, MJ! We could have everything in place without the added stress of actually running the business."

Ned nodded enthusiastically, his earlier concerns melting away. "Yeah, that could work! We'd have time to learn more about the business side of things without the pressure of immediate decisions."

Jarvis's voice chimed in through the speaker, "That's a prudent suggestion, Ms. Watson. It would allow you to secure your intellectual property and establish the framework of the company without immediately taking on the full responsibilities of running it."

Karen added her agreement, "It's a balanced approach. You'd be laying the groundwork for your future while maintaining focus on your current academic commitments."

MJ smiled, feeling a sense of relief that her idea was well-received. She turned to her notepad, jotting down this new option. "We could use the time until graduation to research and plan," she mused aloud.

Peter nodded, his excitement building. "And we could continue developing the technology without the pressure of immediate commercialization. It would give us time to refine everything."

Jarvis's voice came through the speaker, clear and precise. "If I may ask, are you all in agreement with Ms. Potts' proposal?"

The trio exchanged glances, a moment of silent communication passing between them. Peter nodded slowly, his eyes bright with excitement. Ned's face split into a wide grin, barely containing his enthusiasm. MJ's expression remained thoughtful, but there was a hint of approval in her eyes.

"I think we are," Peter said, looking to his friends for confirmation.

Ned nodded vigorously. "Absolutely! This is an incredible opportunity."

MJ leaned forward, her voice steady and confident. "I agree. And let's not forget, we know Ms. Potts is an excellent businesswoman. The future growth of Stark Industries in our previous timeline is evidence of that. We have no doubts she knows what she's doing."

Peter and Ned nodded in agreement, their respect for Pepper Potts evident in their expressions.

"That's a valid point, Ms. Watson," Jarvis acknowledged. "Ms. Potts has indeed proven herself to be a shrewd and capable leader in business matters."

Karen chimed in, her voice supportive. "Your trust in Ms. Potts' business acumen is well-placed. Her track record speaks for itself."

The trio sat in silence for a moment, letting the weight of their decision settle over them. They were about to embark on a journey that would change their lives, guided by one of the most respected businesswomen in the world.

Peter broke the silence, his voice filled with determination. "So, we're doing this. We're starting our own company."

Ned pumped his fist in the air, unable to contain his excitement any longer. "We're going to be CEOs!"

MJ rolled her eyes at Ned's enthusiasm, but a small smile played on her lips. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. We've got a lot of work to do before we can call ourselves CEOs."

Peter, MJ, and Ned exchanged glances, their decision solidified. Peter cleared his throat and addressed Jarvis, "Jarvis, could you set up another meeting with Ms. Potts at her convenience? We'd like to discuss the results of our deliberations."

"Certainly, Mr. Parkson," Jarvis replied promptly. "I'll contact Ms. Potts' office right away to schedule a meeting. Would you prefer a specific time frame?"

MJ leaned forward, her brow furrowed in thought. "Could you request tomorrow please if possible? We can't be here long as we need to get back to classes."

"Of course," Jarvis responded. "I'll make the request and inform you of Ms. Potts' availability as soon as I receive a response."

The trio felt a mix of anticipation and nervousness as they contemplated their upcoming meeting. They knew this could be a turning point in their lives, and they were determined to make the most of it.

"While we wait for confirmation," Karen chimed in, "perhaps we should start writing down your questions. What key points would you like to address?"

The young inventors began brainstorming, their voices overlapping as ideas flowed freely. MJ jotted down notes, her pen moving swiftly across the paper as she captured their thoughts.

**********

The next day, Peter, MJ, and Ned arrived at Stark Industries for their meeting with Pepper Potts. They entered the sleek, modern lobby, their excitement palpable. As they approached the receptionist, Jarvis's voice came through the building's speakers, directing them to the appropriate floor.

The elevator ride was filled with nervous energy. Peter fidgeted with the cuffs of his shirt, while Ned repeatedly patted his pocket, ensuring their list of questions was still there. MJ maintained her composure, but her eyes darted around, taking in every detail of their surroundings.

As the doors opened, they were greeted by Pepper's assistant, who led them to a spacious conference room. Pepper was already there, reviewing some documents. She looked up as they entered, a warm smile spreading across her face.

"Welcome back," Pepper said, standing to greet them. "I hope you've had time to consider my proposal."

Peter stepped forward, extending his hand. "Thank you for meeting with us again, Ms. Potts. We really appreciate it."

MJ and Ned echoed his sentiments, shaking Pepper's hand in turn. The trio settled into their seats, exchanging glances as they prepared to begin the discussion.

Pepper took her seat at the head of the table, her posture relaxed but professional. "So, have you made a decision about starting your own company?"

Ned nodded enthusiastically, unable to contain his excitement. "We have, Ms. Potts. We'd like to move forward with it."

MJ, ever the pragmatist, added, "But we have some questions and concerns we'd like to discuss first, if that's alright."

Pepper leaned forward, her expression attentive. "Of course. I'm here to address any concerns you might have. What would you like to know?"

Peter pulled out a neatly folded piece of paper from his pocket, unfolding it to reveal a list of questions. He cleared his throat, ready to begin their prepared inquiries. "First, Ms. Potts, what kind of company were you recommending we set up?"

Pepper leaned forward, her eyes bright with interest. "Well, that depends on what you foresee doing with the company. What are your plans?"

MJ spoke up, her voice steady and confident. "We want to start with our plastic replacement technology. But we're hoping to expand into other areas in the future."

Ned nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, we have a lot of ideas!"

Pepper smiled, nodding thoughtfully. "In that case, I'd recommend setting up a parent company. This way, you can have smaller companies under its umbrella in the future. It gives you flexibility as you grow and diversify."

The trio exchanged excited glances, clearly pleased with this suggestion.

Peter moved on to the next question. "What's your advice on how we should structure our company leadership?"

Pepper leaned back in her chair, considering the question. "Given your unique situation, I'd suggest a co-CEO structure. You each bring different strengths to the table, and this would allow you to share responsibilities based on your individual skills."

MJ's brow furrowed slightly. "Wouldn't that make decision-making more complicated?"

Pepper nodded, acknowledging the concern. "It can, if not managed properly. But with clear areas of responsibility and good communication, it can be very effective. Plus, it allows you to balance the workload as you continue to expand."

Peter nodded, then moved on to their third question. "How can we ensure that our company maintains its own identity separate from Stark Industries?"

Pepper's expression turned serious. "That's an excellent question. While Stark Industries will be a minority shareholder, it's crucial that your company develops its own brand and identity."

Pepper leaned forward, her expression thoughtful as she addressed the trio's concern. "There are several strategies you can employ to ensure your brand remains distinct," she began. "First, develop a strong mission statement that clearly defines your company's purpose and values. This will guide all your decisions and help differentiate you from other companies, including Stark Industries."

Peter, MJ, and Ned listened intently, with MJ jotting down notes in her notebook.

"Secondly, create a unique visual identity," Pepper continued. "This includes your logo, color scheme, and overall design aesthetic. Make sure it's different from Stark Industries' branding to avoid confusion."

Ned nodded enthusiastically, already envisioning potential designs in his mind.

"Third, focus on your own innovations and technologies," Pepper advised. "While you'll have access to Stark Industries' resources, it's crucial that your products and services are your own. This will help establish your company as an independent entity in the public eye."

Peter's eyes lit up at this, his mind racing with ideas for future inventions.

"Lastly," Pepper said, "be mindful of your public communications. When you're ready to go public, make it clear that while Stark Industries is a minority shareholder, your company operates independently. This transparency will help prevent misconceptions about your relationship with SI."

The trio exchanged glances, absorbing Pepper's advice. They could see the wisdom in her words and felt more confident about maintaining their company's unique identity.

Pepper listened attentively as Peter moved on to the next set of questions. She leaned forward, ready to address their concerns about support and resources.

"Stark Industries can provide significant support," Pepper began. "You'll have access to our manufacturing department for any questions on set-up, our marketing experts for branding and promotion, and our financial advisors for budgeting and investment strategies."

The trio's eyes widened at the extent of support offered. MJ scribbled furiously in her notebook.

"As for day-to-day operations," Pepper continued, "we won't be directly involved. We want you to maintain your independence. However, we'll be available for consultation and guidance whenever you need it."

Peter nodded, relief evident on his face. Ned raised his hand tentatively, "What about labs and testing facilities?"

Pepper smiled. "Yes, you'll have access to our state-of-the-art facilities. We'll set up a schedule to ensure you have the time and resources you need without interfering with ongoing SI projects."

Moving on to legal matters, Pepper assured them, "Our legal team will guide you through the company setup and patent process. We'll also help draft agreements to protect your intellectual property, ensuring clear boundaries between your innovations and SI's."

Addressing their financial concerns, Pepper explained, "This partnership won't prevent you from seeking other investors. However, it may make your company more attractive to potential investors. As for financial implications, we'll provide detailed projections and analysis to help you understand the long-term impact."

Regarding production and scaling, Pepper offered, "When you're ready to scale up, our production experts will assist you in developing efficient manufacturing processes and identifying reliable suppliers."

"For marketing and distribution," she continued, "you'll have access to our network of contacts. We can introduce you to potential partners and help you navigate industry relationships."

Pepper then addressed performance expectations. "We'll establish clear, achievable milestones together. These might include product development stages, market testing results, or revenue targets. We'll meet quarterly to review progress and discuss strategy, with additional meetings as needed."

Finally, Pepper cautioned them about potential challenges. "Be prepared for regulatory hurdles, especially with new materials. Also, consider how you'll manage rapid growth and maintain your company culture as you expand."

The trio absorbed this wealth of information, feeling both excited and slightly overwhelmed by the journey ahead.

Pepper leaned back in her chair, a smile playing on her lips. "Well, it seems we've covered quite a bit of ground. Have you given any thought to what you'll name your new company?"

The trio exchanged excited glances, their eyes lighting up at the question. Peter nodded enthusiastically, leaning forward in his seat.

"Actually, we have," he said, his voice brimming with excitement. "We're thinking of calling it PWM Global."

MJ chimed in, her tone more measured but equally enthusiastic. "We were originally debating between EcoSynth and PWM, but since you recommended setting up a parent company, we thought PWM Global would work well as the overarching brand."

Ned nodded vigorously, adding, "And we might use EcoSynth for the plastic replacement division specifically."

Pepper's eyebrows raised, impressed by their forethought. "PWM Global," she repeated, testing the name. "It has a nice ring to it. May I ask what it stands for?"

The trio exchanged quick glances, a silent conversation passing between them. Peter cleared his throat, taking the lead. "It's actually our initials - Parkson, Watson, and Meads."

MJ elaborated, her voice steady and confident. "We wanted something that represented all of us equally, since we're in this together."

Ned grinned widely, unable to contain his excitement. "Plus, it sounds really professional, doesn't it?"

Pepper nodded, her expression thoughtful. "It does indeed. And I like the idea of using EcoSynth for your plastic replacement technology. It's descriptive and catchy."

The trio beamed at Pepper's approval, their excitement palpable in the room. They had put a lot of thought into the name, and hearing Pepper's positive reaction only reinforced their decision.

The trio exchanged glances, their excitement tempered by the realization that they were entering unfamiliar territory. Peter leaned forward, his brow furrowed slightly.

"So, Ms. Potts, what's our first step?" he asked, his voice a mix of eagerness and uncertainty.

Pepper nodded, her expression turning more serious. "The first thing we need to do is draw up a contract. I'll have our legal team start working on that right away."

She paused, her gaze moving from Peter to MJ to Ned, making sure she had their full attention. "However, I want to be very clear about this next part," she said, her tone stern. "You need to hire your own corporate lawyer to review the contract."

The trio's eyes widened slightly at her sudden shift in tone. MJ nodded, understanding the importance of Pepper's advice.

"That makes sense," MJ said. "We want to make sure we fully understand what we're agreeing to."

Ned looked a bit overwhelmed. "Um, do you have any recommendations for good corporate lawyers in the New York City area? We're not really sure where to start."

Pepper's expression softened slightly at Ned's question. She reached for a notepad on the table and began writing.

"I can give you a few names," she said, her pen moving swiftly across the paper. "These are reputable firms that specialize in corporate law and have experience working with tech startups."

She tore off the page and handed it to Peter. "Remember, it's crucial that you choose someone who will represent your interests. Don't feel pressured to go with any of these if they don't feel right. Take your time and find someone you trust."

Peter took the list, glancing at the names before folding it carefully and tucking it into his pocket. "Thank you, Ms. Potts. We really appreciate your help and guidance."

Pepper nodded, her expression turning more serious as she moved on to the next crucial topics. "Now, let's talk about developing a comprehensive business plan," she said, leaning forward slightly. "This is a critical step, and Stark Industries will be happy to assist you in creating one."

The trio listened intently, with MJ jotting down notes in her ever-present notebook.

"Your business plan will need to cover everything from your company structure to financial projections," Pepper explained. "It's essentially a roadmap for your company's future. We'll help you outline your products, target markets, marketing strategies, and financial forecasts."

Peter nodded, his brow furrowed in concentration. "That sounds like a lot to cover. How long does something like that usually take?"

"It can take several weeks to a few months, depending on the complexity," Pepper replied. "But don't worry, we'll guide you through the process step by step."

Moving on, Pepper addressed another crucial aspect of their venture. "Given the innovative nature of your product, I'd strongly recommend getting comprehensive environmental impact studies done," she advised.

MJ perked up at this, her interest piqued. Pepper continued, "Your connection to MIT is a great start - their environmental science department is top-notch. You could also reach out to a few other universities and independent labs that SI regularly deals with. This will give you a well-rounded view of the environmental impact and add credibility to your claims when you're ready to go to market."

Ned's eyes widened with excitement. "That sounds amazing! When can we start on that?"

Pepper held up a hand, tempering their enthusiasm. "Hold on a moment," she cautioned. "Before you begin any of these studies we'll need to draw up some non-disclosure agreements for you. These NDAs are crucial for protecting your intellectual property as you involve more people in the process."

The trio exchanged glances, realizing the complexity of the journey ahead.

"Our lawyers will be able to walk you through what you need to do to get started on these studies," Pepper added. "They'll ensure all the necessary legal protections are in place before you proceed."

MJ nodded along, her pen poised over her notebook. "What's next on our to-do list?" she asked, eager to keep the momentum going.

Pepper leaned back in her chair, considering the question. "Before we move forward, I'd like to get a sense of your timeline. When do you plan to start focusing on developing the company full-time?"

The trio exchanged glances, silently communicating before Peter spoke up. "We're set to graduate from MIT in December," he explained. "So we plan to really dive into developing the company starting in the new year once we move back to NYC from Cambridge."

Ned chimed in, his excitement evident in his voice. "Yeah, we want to make sure we finish our degrees first. It's important to us."

Pepper nodded, a look of approval on her face. "I'm glad to hear that. It's wise not to rush into this. Completing your education will give you a solid foundation to build upon."

She paused for a moment, considering their next steps. "Given that timeline, I'd advise you to use the coming months to research the necessary permits and certifications you'll need. Each industry has its own set of regulations, and it's crucial to understand these before you launch."

MJ scribbled furiously in her notebook, capturing every detail. Pepper continued, "You should also start preparing for a full patent application. The process can be lengthy, so it's best to get a head start."

Peter nodded, his brow furrowed in concentration. "How do we go about researching the permits and certifications? Is that something SI legal can help with?"

"Our legal department can certainly guide you," Pepper replied, "but I'd also recommend reaching out to industry associations and regulatory bodies directly. They often have resources specifically for startups and new businesses."

Ned leaned forward, his curiosity piqued. "What about the patent application? Is that something we should start working on now?"

Pepper nodded, her expression serious. "Absolutely. Start documenting everything meticulously. Every step of your development process, every iteration of your product - it all needs to be recorded. This documentation will be crucial for your patent application."

As Pepper continued to outline the steps ahead, she noticed the trio's expressions changing. Peter's brow furrowed deeply, MJ's pen slowed its frantic scribbling, and Ned's eyes glazed over slightly. The thrill that had pervaded the space beforehand gradually transformed into a tangible feeling of being overwhelmed.

Pepper paused mid-sentence, her keen eyes taking in their reactions. She set down her tablet and leaned forward, her voice softening.

"Hey," she said gently, drawing their attention. "I know this all seems like a lot right now. But I want you to take a deep breath."

The trio exchanged glances before following her instruction, each inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly.

"Remember," Pepper continued, her tone reassuring, "this isn't something that needs to be done overnight. We're talking about months, even years, of work ahead. You don't need to have all of this figured out in a week."

Peter's shoulders visibly relaxed at her words. MJ set down her pen, flexing her cramped fingers. Ned blinked rapidly, refocusing on Pepper.

"I'll be here to walk you through everything, step by step," Pepper assured them. "We have plenty of time to get this right. The important thing is that we're starting the process."

She smiled warmly at each of them in turn. "You've already taken the biggest step by coming here today. Everything else will fall into place as we move forward."

The trio nodded, the tension in the room dissipating. They exchanged small smiles, their earlier excitement slowly returning.

"Now," Pepper said, her tone light but encouraging, "why don't we take a short break? I think we could all use a moment to process everything we've discussed so far."

**********

On Sunday morning, Peter, MJ, and Ned packed their bags and headed to the airport, their minds still reeling from the information-packed weekend with Pepper Potts. As they settled into their seats on the plane, a mix of excitement and nervousness buzzed between them.

Peter turned to his friends, his voice low. "That was a lot to take in, wasn't it?"

MJ nodded, her expression thoughtful. "It's overwhelming, but in a good way. We've got a real chance to make a difference here."

Ned grinned, his enthusiasm barely contained. "I can't wait to get started on all the research we need to do!"

As the plane took off, the trio discussed their next steps. They agreed that they needed help to process all the information Pepper had given them.

"Hey Jarvis," Peter whispered into his phone, "Would you and Karen be willing to help us research everything Pepper told us about?"

Jarvis's calm voice responded through the device. "Of course, Mr. Parkson. Karen and I would be happy to assist you in your research endeavors."

Karen chimed in, her tone cheerful. "Absolutely. We can start by compiling a list of reputable corporate lawyers in the New York City area, as per Ms. Potts' recommendation."

The trio exchanged relieved glances. Having the AIs' support made their daunting task seem more manageable.

As they flew back to Boston, Jarvis began his search for suitable lawyers. He sifted through countless profiles, cross-referencing experience, client reviews, and specializations in tech startups and intellectual property law.

Meanwhile, Karen started organizing the information Pepper had provided, creating a comprehensive checklist of tasks the trio needed to complete in the coming months.

As the plane touched down in Boston, Peter, MJ, and Ned could barely contain their excitement. They rushed through the airport, eager to get back to their house and dive into their new project.

Once home, they immediately gathered around the kitchen table, laptops open and notebooks at the ready. Peter pulled up the list of lawyers Jarvis had compiled during their flight.

"Okay, let's start going through these," he said, his eyes scanning the names.

MJ nodded, already jotting down notes. "We should set up some initial consultations this week. The sooner we get a lawyer, the sooner we can start on everything else."

Ned was barely listening, his fingers flying across his keyboard. "Guys, check this out," he said, turning his laptop around. "I've started a project management board for us. We can track all our tasks and deadlines here."

Peter and MJ leaned in, impressed by Ned's initiative. The board was already populated with the main tasks Pepper had outlined for them.

"This is great, Ned," MJ said, a smile spreading across her face. "It'll help us stay organized."

Peter nodded in agreement, then turned back to his own computer. "I'm going to start researching the environmental impact studies we need. MJ, can you look into the patent application process?"

MJ gave a thumbs up, already engrossed in her research. Ned continued to refine the project board, adding subtasks and setting tentative deadlines.

As they worked, their excitement was palpable. The house buzzed with energy as they discussed their findings, bounced ideas off each other, and planned their next steps.

"You know," Peter said during a brief pause, "I think we should set aside some time each day to work on this. Even if it's just an hour or two."

MJ nodded, not looking up from her laptop. "Agreed. We need to balance this with our coursework, but we can't let it fall by the wayside either."

Ned chimed in, "I've added a daily PWM Global work session to our shared calendar. How's 7-9 PM sound?"

Peter and MJ both agreed, and with that, their new routine was set. As the night wore on, they continued to work, their minds racing with possibilities for their future company.

Notes:

I know some of you are probably going to ask why they didn't immediately think of Nelson and Murdock, but if you check the official MCU timeline, you'll see that those two do not set up practice until after the Chitauri invasion in 2012. So unfortunately, they are not an option right now.

Chapter 22: Erecting the Scaffolding

Notes:

Another long one! Apparently, I really like to show off my research. Who knew?

(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)

Chapter Text

September 2011

The following day, MJ, Ned, and Peter set out to meet with the lawyers Pepper had recommended. They booked train tickets from Boston to New York City and a hotel for several days, not knowing how long it would take them in their search for a lawyer.

They arrived at the first lawyer's office, a sleek space with modern furnishings and abstract art on the walls. The lawyer, a middle-aged man in an expensive suit, greeted them with a firm handshake.

As they sat down to discuss their potential business venture, MJ couldn't help but notice how the lawyer's gaze continually returned to Peter, barely acknowledging her or Ned's presence. She exchanged a glance with Ned, who had picked up on the same behavior. By the end of the meeting, MJ had already made up her mind - this wasn't the right fit for them.

The second lawyer's office was more traditional, with dark wood paneling and leather-bound books lining the shelves. The lawyer, an older gentleman with graying hair, listened to their pitch with a bemused expression. When they mentioned their plans to start their own company, his condescending tone grated on all three of them.

"Now, now, children," he said, leaning back in his chair. "Starting a company is a serious matter. Are you sure you wouldn't rather focus on your studies?"

Peter, MJ, and Ned left the office feeling frustrated and underestimated. As they walked to their next appointment, they agreed that this lawyer was definitely not the one for them.

The third lawyer's office struck a balance between modern and traditional. The lawyer, a woman in her early forties, listened attentively to their ideas and asked thoughtful questions. While she didn't talk down to them or ignore anyone, something about her demeanor didn't quite click with the trio.

As they exited the building after their third meeting of the day, Peter turned to his friends, his expression a mixture of uncertainty and mild frustration. "Well, that was... interesting," he said, running a hand through his tousled hair.

MJ nodded in agreement, her brow furrowed as she processed the events of the afternoon. "Yeah, the last one was okay, I guess. But I don't know..." she trailed off, unable to articulate the vague sense of dissatisfaction that lingered in her mind.

"She didn't really feel like 'our' lawyer, did she?" Ned finished the thought, giving voice to the sentiment they all shared but hadn't quite put into words yet. His usually cheerful face was uncharacteristically serious as he considered the implications of their search for legal representation.

They walked in silence for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts about the day's meetings. The bustling city streets around them seemed to fade into the background as they contemplated the challenges that lay ahead in their entrepreneurial journey. Peter's mind raced with possibilities and potential solutions, while MJ analyzed each interaction with her keen eye for detail. Ned, ever the optimist, was already considering alternative options and strategies they could pursue.

"We have one more lawyer to visit before we needed to start looking for ones by ourselves." MJ said, her voice tinged with worry and a hint of exhaustion from their long day of meetings. Her brow furrowed slightly as she considered the implications of potentially having to broaden their search. Peter and Ned exchanged glances, sensing her concern.

"I hope this last one will be a good fit for us," MJ continued, trying to inject a note of optimism into her voice. The trio all silently shared her sentiment, each of them acutely aware of how crucial it was to find the right legal representation for their fledgling company.

Peter, MJ, and Ned arrived at the fourth and final law office on their list. The reception area was bustling with activity, and they noticed a young woman in her twenties rushing around, looking slightly frazzled. She wore a crisp suit that seemed a touch too formal, as if she was trying to compensate for her youth.

The trio watched her for a few minutes as she darted between desks, shuffling papers and answering phones with an almost frantic energy. Her nervous demeanor was palpable, and she seemed to be trying extra hard to appear competent and professional, though her inexperience shone through in the slight trembling of her hands and the way she constantly adjusted her ill-fitting suit jacket. The bustling office around her paid her little mind, seasoned lawyers and paralegals moving about their business with practiced ease.

MJ nudged Peter and Ned, then called out to the young woman, her voice cutting through the ambient noise of ringing phones and muffled conversations. "Excuse me, do you have a moment?" The question hung in the air for a brief second, causing the woman to look up, startled, her eyes widening slightly as she registered the presence of potential clients.

The woman smoothed her jacket once more, a habit born of nervousness, and approached them with a slightly forced smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "Yes, how can I help you?" she asked, her voice a touch too high-pitched to be natural.

MJ gestured to the empty chairs beside them, her body language open and inviting. "We're waiting for our appointment, but we were wondering if you could tell us a bit about the firm?" The question was casual, but MJ's keen eyes were already assessing the young woman's reaction.

The junior associate hesitated for a moment, her mind clearly racing as she weighed the pros and cons of engaging with these unexpected visitors. Finally, she decided to sit down, perching on the edge of the chair as if ready to bolt at a moment's notice. "Well, I'm actually new here myself. I'm a junior associate, just started last week," she admitted, a hint of vulnerability creeping into her voice.

Ned leaned forward, his natural curiosity piqued. "Oh, that's cool. What made you choose this firm?" His friendly demeanor seemed to put the young woman slightly more at ease, her shoulders relaxing almost imperceptibly.

The junior associate's smile became more genuine as she began to speak about something she was clearly passionate about. "I was drawn to their focus on environmental law and sustainable business practices. It aligns with my personal values," she explained, her eyes lighting up with enthusiasm.

Peter nodded encouragingly, sensing the woman's growing comfort. "That's great. Where did you study?" he asked, genuinely interested in her background.

"I graduated from Harvard Law last year," she replied, a note of pride creeping into her voice. "I spent some time interning at an environmental non-profit before joining this firm." As she spoke, the trio could sense the dedication and hard work that had brought her to this point in her career.

As they continued to chat, the junior associate opened up more about her background, her initial nervousness melting away as she shared her story. She had grown up in a small town, surrounded by nature, which had sparked her early interest in environmental issues. As the first in her family to attend college, she had faced numerous challenges but had persevered, driven by her desire to make a difference in the world.

Her passion for environmental issues had been the guiding force in her decision to pursue a career in law. She spoke animatedly about her hopes of influencing corporate practices from within, her eyes shining with idealism and determination. The contrast between her earlier nervousness and her current enthusiasm was stark, revealing a depth of character that intrigued the trio.

MJ, Peter, and Ned exchanged glances, their eyes meeting in a moment of silent communication. They could see the growing interest reflected in each other's faces, recognizing the value of this young lawyer's perspective and enthusiasm. Without saying a word, they all knew that this unexpected encounter might just have changed the course of their search for legal representation.

"What's your name?" MJ asked, her interest piqued by the young lawyer's background. The question hung in the air, filled with curiosity and the promise of new connections.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. I'm Isabella Fuentes," she replied, a slight blush coloring her cheeks. The rosy tint betrayed a mix of embarrassment at her oversight and excitement at the prospect of engaging with these intriguing visitors.

Peter leaned forward, curiosity evident in his expression. His eyes sparkled with genuine interest, his body language conveying an eagerness to learn more. "Isabella, we're curious about your thoughts on working for a law firm versus being part of a company's legal team. What's your take on that?"

Isabella paused, considering the question. Her brow furrowed slightly as she formulated her response, her mind racing through the pros and cons of each option. "That's an interesting question," she began, her voice thoughtful. "To be honest, I haven't given it much thought yet. I'm still trying to find my footing here at the firm."

She glanced around the bustling office before continuing, taking in the organized chaos of ringing phones, shuffling papers, and hurried conversations. "But if I had to choose, I think I'd be open to working for a company, especially if it's one with a strong environmental focus. That aligns well with several of my future goals."

Ned nodded encouragingly, his warm demeanor inviting further elaboration. "So you're not completely set on staying at a firm long-term?"

Isabella shook her head, her dark hair swaying gently with the movement. "Not necessarily. I'm still exploring my options and trying to figure out where I can make the most impact. Working at a firm gives me exposure to different types of cases and clients, which is valuable experience. But being part of a company's legal team could offer a chance to really dive deep into environmental issues and sustainable practices."

MJ smiled, sensing Isabella's passion. Her keen observational skills picked up on the subtle shifts in Isabella's body language and tone, recognizing a kindred spirit in the young lawyer's enthusiasm. "It sounds like you're keeping an open mind. That's smart, especially early in your career."

Isabella returned the smile, visibly relaxing. The tension in her shoulders eased, and her posture became more open. "Exactly. I'm not quite sure yet where my path will lead, but I'm excited to explore different opportunities. For now, I'm focused on learning as much as I can here at the firm."

Peter, MJ, and Ned exchanged glances, their interest in Isabella growing. They sensed a kindred spirit in the young lawyer's passion for environmental causes. Unspoken words passed between them, a silent acknowledgment of the potential they saw in Isabella.

"So, Isabella," MJ began, leaning forward slightly, her body language mirroring her increasing engagement, "what are your long-term goals in your legal career?"

Isabella's eyes lit up at the question, a spark of enthusiasm igniting within them. She took a moment to gather her thoughts before responding, her words carefully chosen yet brimming with passion. "Well, ultimately, I'd love to be at the forefront of environmental law. I want to help shape policies and practices that make a real difference in combating climate change and promoting sustainability."

Peter nodded encouragingly, his own excitement building in response to Isabella's fervor. "That's admirable. Have you ever considered working with tech start-ups that focus on environmental products?"

Isabella's expression brightened even further, her face practically glowing with interest. "Actually, I find that idea really exciting. Tech start-ups often bring fresh, innovative approaches to environmental challenges. I think there's huge potential there for creating meaningful change."

Ned chimed in, his curiosity piqued by Isabella's enthusiasm, "What aspects of working with a tech start-up appeal to you the most?"

"The innovation, definitely," Isabella replied without hesitation, her words tumbling out with barely contained excitement. "And the opportunity to be part of something from the ground up. In a start-up environment, I imagine there's more room to shape the company's legal and ethical framework around strong environmental principles."

MJ leaned back, a thoughtful expression on her face. Her analytical mind was already processing the implications of Isabella's responses. "And how do you feel about the challenges that might come with a start-up? The long hours, the uncertainty?"

Isabella's smile turned slightly wry, a hint of determination glinting in her eyes. "I'm no stranger to hard work. My path to law school wasn't easy, and I'm prepared for challenges. As for uncertainty, well, I think that's where the excitement lies. The potential to create something truly impactful outweighs the risks, in my opinion."

The trio nodded, impressed by Isabella's enthusiasm and dedication. They could see the passion in her eyes as she spoke about her goals and the potential of working with environmentally focused tech start-ups. It was clear that Isabella's drive matched their own, a realization that sent a ripple of excitement through the group.

As Isabella returned to her duties, Peter, MJ, and Ned huddled together in the waiting area, their voices low. The air around them hummed with potential and possibility.

"I really like her," Peter said, his eyes following Isabella as she moved between desks. His gaze was filled with admiration and a growing sense of certainty. "She's got the passion we're looking for."

MJ nodded, but her brow furrowed slightly. Her practical nature asserted itself, tempering their enthusiasm with pragmatic concerns. "I agree, but I'm a bit concerned about her experience level. We need someone who can navigate the complexities of starting a new company."

Ned leaned in, his expression thoughtful. His mind was already working on potential solutions, a trait that had served the trio well in their past endeavors. "True, but aren't we in the same boat? We're learning as we go too. What makes her any different?"

Peter's eyes lit up, a spark of inspiration igniting within them. "That's a good point, Ned. We're all figuring this out together."

MJ considered this, her expression softening. The tension in her shoulders eased as she allowed herself to see the situation from a new perspective. "You're right. It could be an advantage to have someone who's growing with us."

"Plus," Peter added, his enthusiasm building, "she's got that drive. Did you see how excited she got talking about environmental tech?"

Ned nodded enthusiastically, his own excitement mirroring Peter's. "Totally. She'd fit right in with our mission."

MJ tapped her chin, still looking slightly uncertain. Her mind was racing, seeking solutions to bridge the gap between Isabella's potential and their needs. "I wonder if we could get some help training her, though. Give her a bit of a boost in experience."

Peter's face brightened as an idea struck him, his eyes widening with the sudden realization. "What if we ask Ms. Potts if SI legal could train her? They could mentor her to become a part of PWM's legal counsel."

Ned's eyes widened, his mouth forming a small 'o' of surprise and admiration. "That's brilliant! She'd get top-notch experience, and we'd get a lawyer who really understands our company from the ground up."

MJ's lips curved into a smile, her earlier doubts melting away in the face of this elegant solution. "I like it. It solves the experience issue and gives us someone who's truly invested in our vision."

The trio exchanged excited glances, their earlier doubts fading in the face of this potential solution. The air around them crackled with possibility, the seeds of a new partnership beginning to take root. As they sat there, minds whirling with plans and possibilities, they felt the familiar thrill of embarking on a new adventure, one that promised to be as challenging as it was rewarding.

As Peter, MJ, and Ned huddled together in the waiting area, their excited discussion was interrupted by a sharp voice cutting through the office chatter. The air in the room seemed to shift, tension suddenly palpable as the trio's animated conversation came to an abrupt halt.

"Parkson, Watson, and Meads? We're ready for you now," called a middle-aged lawyer, his stern face peering out from an office doorway. His voice carried a note of impatience, as if he had better things to do than wait for a group of young entrepreneurs.

The trio exchanged quick glances, their earlier excitement tempered by the sudden intrusion of reality. A silent communication passed between them, years of friendship allowing them to convey volumes with just a look. Peter's mind raced, formulating a plan on the spot, his quick thinking kicking into high gear as it always did in moments of pressure.

"You two go ahead," he said to MJ and Ned, his voice low and urgent, barely above a whisper. "I'll call Jarvis and see if we can get Pepper's input on Isabella." His eyes darted between his friends, silently conveying the importance of this impromptu strategy.

MJ nodded, her eyes conveying understanding and appreciation for Peter's quick thinking. A small smile tugged at the corner of her lips, impressed as always by Peter's ability to adapt on the fly. Ned gave a subtle thumbs-up, his usual enthusiasm muted by the professional setting, but his eyes shone with excitement at the prospect of involving Isabella in their new venture.

As MJ and Ned rose to follow the lawyer into his office, Peter hung back, fishing his phone out of his pocket. He watched his friends disappear into the office, the door closing behind them with a soft click that seemed to echo in the now-quiet waiting area. Peter turned his attention to the device in his hand, his fingers hovering over the screen with purpose.

Peter's fingers flew across the phone's screen, quickly navigating to Jarvis's secure line. The familiar interface glowed softly, a beacon of advanced technology in the otherwise traditional law office setting. He glanced around the waiting area, his enhanced senses on high alert, ensuring no one was paying him any undue attention before pressing the call button.

The phone barely had time to ring once before Jarvis's crisp, British-accented voice came through the speaker, as prompt and efficient as ever. "Good afternoon, Mr. Parkson. How may I assist you?" The AI's voice was low enough to be discreet, but clear enough for Peter's enhanced hearing to pick up easily.

Peter spoke quietly, his words rushed but clear, leaning slightly into the phone to ensure his voice didn't carry. "Jarvis, we need to talk to Pepper about potentially mentoring a junior lawyer for PWM. Is she available?" His free hand tapped nervously against his thigh, a habit he'd developed when trying to contain his nervous energy.

There was a brief pause as Jarvis processed the request, the silence stretching for what felt like an eternity to Peter's heightened senses. "Ms. Potts is currently in a meeting, but I can arrange for her to contact you as soon as she's available. May I inquire about the urgency of this matter?" Jarvis's tone was polite but probing, understanding the need for discretion.

Peter's eyes darted towards the office where MJ and Ned had disappeared, his enhanced hearing picking up the muffled sounds of conversation beyond the closed door. "It's not really that time-sensitive. We're at a law firm right now, and we've found someone we think could be a great fit for our company. But she's a recent law school grad and would need some mentoring and experience." He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, acutely aware of every second ticking by.

"I see," Jarvis replied, his tone indicating he understood the situation's importance. The AI's voice carried a note of intrigue, as if he found the young trio's business ventures fascinating. "I'll inform Ms. Potts of the matter. In the meantime, perhaps you could provide me with some details about this junior lawyer?"

Peter began to relay Isabella's background and their impressions of her, keeping one eye on the office door, ready to wrap up the call at a moment's notice. His words came out in a hushed, rapid stream, painting a vivid picture of the young lawyer who had captured their attention.

As Peter talked about Isabella, Jarvis silently began a thorough background check. The AI's advanced algorithms sifted through vast amounts of data, verifying every detail Isabella had shared with the trio. Jarvis's processors hummed with activity, cross-referencing information from countless databases and sources, piecing together a comprehensive profile of the young lawyer.

"Mr. Parkson, I must say I'm quite impressed," Jarvis interjected, his voice carrying a note of admiration. "Everything Ms. Fuentes told you checks out. Her academic records are exemplary, and her passion for environmental law is well-documented." The AI's tone conveyed a sense of genuine appreciation for Isabella's accomplishments, a rarity for the usually impartial system.

Peter's eyes widened, a mix of surprise and excitement crossing his face. He hadn't expected Jarvis to conduct a background check so quickly. The young entrepreneur's mind raced with possibilities, his enhanced senses picking up on the subtle changes in Jarvis's vocal patterns. "Really? That's great news, Jarvis. What do you think about her potential fit for PWM?"

Jarvis's voice took on a thoughtful tone, his artificial intelligence weighing multiple factors in milliseconds. "Based on the information you've provided and my own analysis, Ms. Fuentes seems to be an excellent candidate for PWM. Her combination of legal knowledge and environmental passion aligns well with your company's goals." The AI's assessment was thorough, taking into account not just Isabella's qualifications, but also the unique needs of PWM Global Solutions.

Peter couldn't help but smile, feeling a sense of pride in their quick decision-making. His enhanced senses picked up on his own quickening heartbeat, a physical manifestation of his growing excitement. "Thanks, Jarvis. I'm glad you agree."

"I must commend you, Mr. Parkson," Jarvis continued, his tone carrying a hint of something akin to pride. "Finding someone so well-suited to your needs so quickly is quite remarkable. It speaks to you and your friends' ability to recognize talent and potential." The AI's words carried weight, coming from a system designed by Tony Stark himself.

Peter felt a warmth spread through his chest at the AI's praise. He ran a hand through his hair, a gesture of slight embarrassment mixed with pride. "We got lucky, I guess. It just felt right when we talked to her."

"Sometimes, Mr. Parkson, intuition can be as valuable as data," Jarvis replied, a hint of warmth in his typically formal tone. The AI, despite its vast knowledge and processing power, recognized the importance of human instinct. "I'll ensure Ms. Potts is fully briefed on the situation and contacts you as soon as possible."

Peter thanked Jarvis and ended the call, slipping his phone back into his pocket. The weight of the device felt reassuring against his leg as he paced the waiting area, his enhanced senses on high alert for any sign of MJ and Ned's return. The minutes ticked by slowly, each second feeling like an eternity to Peter's anxious mind. His heightened awareness picked up on every small sound and movement in the office, from the soft whir of the air conditioning to the distant tapping of keyboards.

Finally, the office door opened with a soft click that sounded like a thunderclap to Peter's sensitive ears. MJ and Ned emerged, their faces carefully composed into neutral expressions. To most observers, they might have appeared calm and collected. But Peter, who knew them better than anyone, instantly recognized the subtle signs of disappointment and frustration.

MJ's jaw was set just a little too tightly, a telltale sign of her holding back her true feelings. Her eyes, usually sharp and observant, held a hint of disappointment that only Peter could detect. Ned's usual bounce in his step was noticeably absent, his shoulders slightly slumped. Their eyes met Peter's, conveying volumes without a word spoken. The air between them crackled with unspoken tension, thick enough that Peter felt he could almost touch it.

Peter's heart sank, the earlier excitement from his conversation with Jarvis evaporating like mist. He didn't need to ask to know that the meeting hadn't gone as they'd hoped. The air around them seemed to grow heavy with unspoken tension as they made their way towards him, their footsteps echoing in the quiet office space.

"How'd it go?" Peter asked softly, already knowing the answer but feeling compelled to break the silence. His enhanced hearing picked up on the slight catch in MJ's breath and the almost imperceptible sigh from Ned.

MJ shook her head slightly, her lips pressed into a thin line. Her eyes met Peter's, conveying a mix of frustration and determination. Ned let out a small sigh, his usual enthusiasm dampened, his shoulders sagging just a bit more. The trio stood there, a tableau of disappointment and unspoken understanding, as the bustling world of the law firm continued around them, oblivious to their setback.

The trio huddled together in a quiet corner of the waiting area, away from prying ears. The sounds of the law firm faded into the background as they leaned in close, their voices hushed and tense. The air around them seemed to crackle with a mixture of frustration and disappointment.

"It didn't go well," MJ said, her voice low and tight with annoyance. Her dark eyes flashed with barely contained irritation as she recounted the meeting. "That lawyer, Mr. Stevenson, he was barely listening to us at first. It was like talking to a brick wall with an expensive suit."

Ned nodded, his usual enthusiasm dampened, shoulders slumping slightly. "Yeah, it was like we were wasting his time or something. He kept checking his watch and looking at his phone. I swear I could hear him mentally calculating how much billable time he was wasting on us 'kids'."

Peter's brow furrowed, his enhanced senses picking up on the tension in his friends' voices. He could hear the slight increase in their heart rates, smell the faint scent of stress-induced sweat. "What changed?" he asked, dreading the answer but knowing he needed to hear it.

MJ shot Ned a pointed look, her gaze sharp enough to cut glass. "Mr. Loose Lips here accidentally mentioned our connection to Stark Industries." Her words dripped with exasperation, though there was a hint of fondness buried deep beneath the frustration.

Ned had the grace to look sheepish, his cheeks flushing slightly as he squirmed under MJ's gaze. "It just slipped out! I was trying to explain the complexity of our project and..." He trailed off, realizing there was no good way to finish that sentence.

"And suddenly, Mr. Stevenson was all ears," MJ cut in, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Her lips curled into a sneer as she continued, "It was like flipping a switch. One minute he's barely paying attention, the next he's practically falling over himself to help us. I half expected him to offer us coffee and donuts on the spot."

Peter's eyes widened in understanding, a mixture of disappointment and resignation settling in his chest. "So he only started taking you seriously when he thought Stark Industries would be involved?" The question was rhetorical; he already knew the answer, but part of him hoped he was wrong.

"Exactly," MJ grumbled, crossing her arms. Her posture radiated indignation as she added, "Like a used car salesman who just spotted a sucker with a fat wallet. Nothing matters until they know you have money. It was like watching a shark smell blood in the water."

Ned sighed, running a hand through his hair, mussing it up in frustration. "It was pretty obvious. He even started talking about how his firm specializes in tech startups and has 'extensive experience' with Stark Industries contacts." Ned's voice took on a mocking tone as he air-quoted the lawyer's words. "I bet he was already mentally spending his retainer fee."

Peter shook his head, disappointment clear on his face. His enhanced senses picked up the subtle changes in his friends' body language - the tightness in MJ's jaw, the slump in Ned's shoulders. "That's not the kind of lawyer we want representing us," he said softly but firmly. "We need someone who believes in what we're doing, not just in our potential profits. Someone who sees the value in our ideas, not just dollar signs."

The trio fell into a contemplative silence, each lost in their own thoughts about the challenges that lay ahead. The weight of their mission seemed to press down on them, but beneath the disappointment, there was a steely determination. They knew finding the right support wouldn't be easy, but they were far from giving up.

Peter looked at his friends, his expression thoughtful and tinged with a hint of weariness. "Why don't we head back to the hotel and wait for Pepper's call? We can regroup and figure out our next steps," he suggested, running a hand through his tousled hair.

MJ nodded, her eyes glinting with determination. "Good idea. I'll go get Isabella's contact information before we leave," she declared decisively. She turned on her heel and strode purposefully towards the reception desk, her posture radiating confidence and purpose.

As MJ spoke with the receptionist, her voice assertive in her request, Ned and Peter gathered their belongings, exchanging knowing glances. They could sense the weight of their mission settling more firmly on their shoulders. MJ rejoined them moments later, a small slip of paper clutched in her hand like a precious treasure. The trio left the law office, stepping out into the bustling city streets, the cacophony of urban life enveloping them.

"I'm starving," Ned announced as they walked, his stomach growling audibly. "How about we grab some Thai on the way back?" His eyes lit up at the prospect of food, a welcome distraction from the day's challenges.

Peter and MJ agreed readily, their own hunger making itself known. They made a quick detour to a nearby Thai restaurant, the colorful awning beckoning them inside. The savory aroma of spices filled the air as they waited for their takeout order, their mouths watering in anticipation.

Back at the hotel, they spread out their food on the coffee table in their suite, the array of dishes creating a miniature feast. As they ate, savoring each bite, they began dissecting their interactions with the lawyers they'd met that day, their minds working overtime to process the information.

MJ pulled out a notebook, her trusty companion in times of brainstorming, jotting down notes as they talked. Her handwriting was swift and precise, capturing every important detail. "Okay, so Mr. Stevenson was definitely a no-go," she said, her pen scratching across the paper with a sense of finality.

Ned nodded vigorously, swallowing a mouthful of pad thai. "Yeah, and remember that one who would only talk to Peter?" he added, rolling his eyes at the memory. "Talk about discriminatory."

Peter leaned back on the couch, his brow furrowed in deep thought, a piece of mango sticky rice forgotten in his hand. "It's like they all saw us as either kids playing at business or cash cows to be milked," he mused, frustration evident in his voice. "None of them seemed to really get what we're trying to do here."

They continued their discussion, weighing the pros and cons of each lawyer they'd met, their voices rising and falling as they debated. The atmosphere was focused but relaxed, the tension from earlier slowly dissipating as they worked through their options, bouncing ideas off each other with the ease of long-time friends.

Suddenly, the sharp ring of Peter's phone cut through their conversation like a knife, startling them out of their contemplative state. The trio exchanged glances, a mix of anticipation and nervousness flickering across their faces. Peter reached for the phone, his hand hovering over it for a moment, as if unsure whether to answer. The weight of expectation hung heavy in the air as he finally picked up the device, his finger poised over the answer button.

He finally answered, quickly putting it on speaker. "Hello, Ms. Potts," he greeted, his voice a conflicting mixture of eager anticipation and palpable nervousness. The air in the room seemed to crackle with tension as they awaited her response.

"Hello, Mr. Parkson, Ms. Watson, Mr. Meads," Pepper's warm, professional voice filled the room, instantly putting them slightly more at ease. "How did your day go? Were you able to meet with the lawyers I recommended?" Her genuine interest in their endeavors was evident in her tone.

The trio exchanged meaningful glances, their expressions a complex tableau of disappointment, frustration, and barely concealed irritation. MJ, ever the composed one, spoke up first, her voice steady but unmistakably tinged with annoyance. "We did, Ms. Potts, but it didn't go as well as we'd hoped." Her words hung in the air, heavy with unspoken implications.

Peter and Ned nodded in silent agreement, even though they knew Pepper couldn't see them through the phone. They took turns recounting their experiences, their voices rising and falling as they described in vivid detail the dismissive attitudes they encountered or how the lawyers' demeanors changed dramatically once Stark Industries was mentioned. As they spoke, their frustration became increasingly palpable, filling the room with an almost tangible sense of disappointment.

As they poured out their story, Pepper's silence on the other end of the line grew heavier and more ominous. When they finally finished, her voice came through, tight with barely contained anger that sent a shiver down their spines. "I can't believe they treated you like that." The intensity of her reaction surprised even them.

The trio could almost picture Pepper pacing restlessly in her sleek, modern office, her face flushed with righteous indignation. Her heels would be clicking sharply against the polished floor as she struggled to contain her anger. "I had no idea these firms would act so unprofessionally towards potential clients not directly connected to Stark Industries. This is completely unacceptable." Her words were clipped, each syllable dripping with disapproval.

Suddenly, Pepper's voice softened, filled with genuine remorse that touched each of them deeply. "I'm so sorry for recommending them to you. You deserved better treatment, regardless of your connection to SI or any other company." The sincerity in her apology was unmistakable, and the trio felt a wave of relief wash over them, knowing they had such a powerful ally in their corner.

Pepper's voice took on a curious tone, her interest piqued by the mention of legal matters. "Now, Jarvis mentioned you wanted to discuss something legal-related with me. What's on your mind?" She leaned back in her chair, her fingers unconsciously tapping against the armrest as she awaited their response.

Peter, MJ, and Ned exchanged glances, their eyes lighting up with renewed enthusiasm. The energy in the room seemed to shift, crackling with excitement as they prepared to share their encounter. Peter leaned forward, his voice eager and his hands gesturing animatedly as he began to speak. "Well, Ms. Potts, we actually had an interesting encounter at the last