CHAPTER TWO

...to physical trials

Part One

The exercise center at Avengers' Compound was outfitted like three different kinds of professional sports teams', combined with a fight training facility, plus some odd pieces of specialty equipment besides. It was all arrayed in a wing off the main building, three glass walls offering commanding views of the river, the facility grounds, and the forest beyond. Reactive temperature controls and air flow kept the large room comfortable and fresh.

Currently, several Avengers and about a dozen Avengers Foundation employees (most of them former SHIELD personnel) stood around a resistance machine in use by a guest to the compound. Most of them alternated shouting encouragement, then cheering wildly as Spider-Man — wearing gray SHIELD workout clothes over his full red and blue suit — tested his strength by bench pressing an industrial grade hydraulic arm.

Sam Wilson stood beside the apparatus to oversee the resistance controls, and to make sure Spider-Man used the machine correctly. For all the fun they were having, the gym was a serious place. Using the equipment incorrectly could cause injuries. They were there to test their new associate's strength, not his ability to heal.

That would come later.

Colonel James Rhodes appointed himself master of ceremonies, directing the activity and keeping things relatively organized. "What do you say, Spider-Man? Ready to go for three?"

"Yeah, I can do three." He shook his arms and resumed his grip on the bar.

"You're sure, now? No one would think any less of you if you wanted to stop." Sam's tone was light. Everyone in the room already knew Spider-Man's strength was super-human. The real question was how close he might come to Thor's and Vision's class. A fair amount of money was riding on the answer to that question, in the form of private bets made among the observers. Even as Sam joked he entered three thousand on the control pad.

"I can do three! I got three! Let me do three!" Spider-Man's enthusiasm was only slightly exaggerated for Sam's benefit, and the crowd's.

"All right. Controls are set."

Rhodey picked up the patter again. "You are go for three! Thousand! Pounds!"

The small crowd cheered.

Despite his continued reservations about Spider-Man's age and lack of training or experience, Clint Barton found himself rooting for the kid. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement. And it seemed that Spider-Man had no idea what his physical limits were, so strength trials were absolutely necessary. Both to keep him from accidentally doing more damage than he intended, and to keep him from getting in over his head by overestimating his own power. Not that either seemed a great risk. The kid had demonstrated excellent control so far; no broken glassware at Tony's, no too-firm handshakes, no accounts of household mishaps or schoolyard incidents. So far.

Tony Stark and Bruce Banner monitored Spider-Man's physiological performance on a tablet linked to telemetry from a network of sensors under Spider-Man's suit. They originally planned to set the machine to measure his strength on a single continuous push against steadily decreasing resistance. They hadn't reckoned on audience participation, though.

When Spider-Man entered the room and approached the weightlifting stations, curious onlookers issued friendly challenges to beat their own personal bests on the machines. Clint held the gym record among the un-enhanced Avengers for bench press (drawing the bow took a surprising amount of upper body strength) so they started there. Then one of the former SHIELD agents suggested going for Captain America's personal best; Spider-Man beat it one-handed, and the Captain shook that hand with a (somewhat rueful) smile. Since then they increased the weight in increments of one hundred pounds.

Steve Rogers grinned and shook his head at the goings-on. He went through much the same thing when he awoke from the ice five years previously. Both under controlled conditions at a SHIELD lab, and later on free weights when he joined a boxing gym in Brooklyn. He didn't go all out at the boxing gym — no need to make his limits public knowledge, after all — but he'd made a great impression on his fellow gym members. He wondered if Spider-Man realized he was gaining respect from everyone in the room, not only for his physical abilities, but also for cooperating so cheerfully in this impromptu challenge.

Tony regarded the data on the pad, tried to adjust the display only to be waved off by his colleague. "What do you think?"

Bruce double checked the readout, then regarded the young man who was successfully overcoming a ton and a half of resistance. "Based on what I'm seeing here, I think he'll top out somewhere around thirty-three, thirty-four hundred pounds."

"Really? I think he could go higher."

"Ennh, maybe, but look at his lactic acid and inorganic phosphate levels." Bruce noticed an uncharacteristic look of confusion cross Tony's face before he schooled himself back to his usual, casually smug expression. "His, um, fatigue toxins. They're produced by muscle stress, and they're finally starting to build up. If his powers came from a derivative of Erskine's formula, he's approaching his limit."

"Huh." Biology wasn't his field, so he deferred to Bruce's expertise. "Want to try him on overhead press next, or dead lifts?"

"I'd actually like to come back to it tomorrow, without the audience. Use the diminishing continuous resistance settings at each station, maybe thirty minutes apart so he's fresh for each one. Don't get me wrong, this is good data, and this," he gestured at the demonstration and its carnival atmosphere, "is obviously great for team spirit. But it's not exactly optimal for results."

Tony tried to give Bruce puppy dog eyes, but he was no longer able to muster the innocence necessary to pull them off. "Aw, please, Dad, can't we play for a little while longer?" He chuckled when Bruce glared at him briefly over his glasses. He raised his voice to carry over the chatter around the hydraulic bench press. "Hey, Simon Says! Roll it back to plus fifty pounds each time, please. We need to flatten the curve."

———

———

As this went on, Natasha Romanoff and Wanda Maximoff ran on treadmills at the other side of the gym, enjoying the view of the river and sparing an occasional glance toward the noisy crowd when their volume peaked. While they ran they discussed recent events in Sokovia.

When Ultron destroyed Novi Grad, relief flooded in from around the world, but the damage to the city and surrounding countryside was irreparable. Or so it seemed until the neighboring country of Latveria began purchasing land for seventy cents on the euro — a vast improvement over the ten and fifteen percent offers made by other parties — and secured salvage and mining rights for its Sokovian holdings. Victor von Doum, sitting King of Latveria, sent machinery and supervisors but hired only Sokovian labor to separate debris from the earth, slowly reclaiming many of the building materials needed for reconstruction efforts while restoring arable soil for badly needed farmland. The world publicly applauded Latveria's efforts, but every government on the planet knew von Doum's real purpose was to collect as much vibranium as possible. King T'Challa sent edicts to Latveria, Sokovia, and the United Nations declaring any and all vibranium found in Sokovia the stolen property of Wakanda, to be returned forthwith.

Latveria had not, as yet, responded.

Natasha pressed a button on her treadmill's console, allowed her pace to slow until the surface under her feet moved gently enough to let it carry her to the back of the machine, where she stepped off lightly. She dabbed perspiration from her brow and her neck. "So what do you think of von Doum's offer to grant Sokovians dual citizenship in Latveria?"

The second machine slowed to a halt as well. "I think he's setting up a power grab." Wanda took a swig from her gym bottle. "If enough Sokovians become Latverians as well, he can contest Sokovian policy on the basis that it affects his subjects' well-being. With enough support, he might even be able to install a representative in the Cabinet of Ministers."

"Tempted?"

Wanda's disbelief was obvious. "To become a loyal subject of Latveria? Please!" She patted her face with her own towel. "I'm not even sure I'm still a citizen of Sokovia, after my part in the destruction..." She trailed off for a moment, then forced a smile back on her face. "I'm happy where I am now."

They stood for a few moments in comfortable silence, watching a sailboat drift down the river.

Natasha took a deep breath and sighed it out. "Ready to ooh and aah over the muscle-bound he-men?"

Wanda looked at her sidelong. "I'll ooh. But I won't aah."