Author's Note: Ever since I first watched the movie, I've been wondering how the Council explained (to the public) its decision to launch a nuke at Manhattan.
Old habits die hard.
When Nick Fury summoned some of his agents to a meeting, he expected punctuality. In practice, this meant any SHIELD agent who knew what was good for her (or him) would be in the designated place at least fifteen minutes early, just in case their esteemed director were running ahead of schedule that day and wanted to maintain the trend instead of twiddling his thumbs while he waited for his minions to appear in their own good time.
The only valid excuse for showing late would have been something along the lines of a recently acquired bullet hole in one lung—mere flesh wounds in the arm or leg didn't qualify!
This was why Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff slid into adjacent seats at the big table in the Stark Tower boardroom at 1:45 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.
On Wednesday morning Tony Stark had left voice mails for both of them, as well as Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner, saying that Thor had recently returned from testifying at Loki's trial in Asgard; ergo, Tony thought it was time for a formal meeting of the full team roster at 2 PM the next day. He'd also mentioned that Director Fury had requested the chance to say a few words via video link whenever the Avengers got around to having such a meeting.
It was no surprise when Steve Rogers entered the room at 1:50; he wasn't the type to keep people waiting.
Bruce Banner made it into the room with at least half a minute to spare, and Thor was right behind him. But when a wall clock showed it was 2 PM on the dot . . . their host was still nowhere in sight.
Not that anyone missed him enough to complain about it right away.
Someone (probably Pepper Potts) had very thoughtfully arranged for a smaller table, over at the far end of the room, to be lavishly stocked with food and drink. So the Avengers made small talk while they nibbled on things, chatting about what they'd been doing during their recent vacations, recommending "classic" movies which Steve and Thor ought to see to bring them up to speed with modern Western culture, and otherwise passing the time.
Tony Stark finally ambled into the conference room a good twenty-eight minutes late, which was a particularly impressive case of tardiness when you reflected that his commute had been so much shorter than anyone else's. Specifically, he'd only needed to come up two floors from where he'd been designing something frightfully clever in a lab. Natasha wondered if he'd claim the traffic jam inside his private elevator had been just terrible . . .
She should have known better. Stark didn't even bother to offer an excuse; either he honestly didn't realize anyone might resent his keeping them waiting, or else he didn't care.
As they all settled into their seats at the main table, Clint gave Natasha a sour smile. They'd had a bet going on how late Stark would be to a meeting he had arranged to host in his own headquarters. Clint had argued that even such a self-centered flake as Stark wouldn't be more than a quarter-hour late under those circumstances unless an authentic life-and-death emergency arose.
Having worked undercover in Stark's office for a while, The Black Widow had begged to differ with that assessment.
So they'd agreed on terms: Less than fifteen minutes late, Clint won; more than twenty, Natasha won; between fifteen and twenty, a draw! (It also would have been a draw if Stark had been in the conference room at the designated time, but neither of them had been terribly worried about that contingency.)
Loser had to buy dinner for two at the winner's choice of restaurant after the meeting was over. She knew Clint didn't really begrudge the expense; it was just that he'd never acquired a proper enthusiasm for Russian cuisine and Natasha always insisted on touching base with her cultural roots whenever she won such a wager.
Slouching back in his chair, Tony Stark seemed to be speaking to thin air as he said, "JARVIS, get me Fury." There was a brief pause, then he continued: "Fury? We're all here. You wanted to make a few remarks?"
Nick Fury's face popped up on a wall screen, much larger than life. "First, for those of you who haven't been paying any attention to the news media lately, the official version is that a nuclear warhead was launched at Manhattan as part of a cunning strategy to save Manhattan. My superiors claim they knew all along that Iron Man would be ready, willing, and able to boost that rocket up through the portal and give the Chitauri a taste of their own medicine. Behind the scenes, it's a Mexican standoff. I've agreed not to publicly call the Council a bunch of panicky, trigger-happy liars, and they have agreed not to charge me with mutiny regarding my refusal to comply with their stupid launch order, so it looks like I'll be running things here at SHIELD for a while yet."
These joyous tidings did not exactly cause the room to fill with applause, but nobody muttered anything negative either, and Fury continued with his address.
"Just one suggestion, people, and then I'll get out of your hair. One of the first things I learned in my army days was the importance of a clear chain of command. That way, when it all hits the fan, you don't have the extra hassle of lots of people screaming contradictory orders in your ear. In other words, you Avengers need to choose a 'field leader' or 'chairman' or some sort of authority figure whose job will be to call the shots the next time you all head into action. Let me know what you come up with. Fury, out."
The screen went black before anyone could muster a response; Natasha figured that Fury was, as usual, bound and determined to have the last word. And she silently applauded his wisdom in not even hinting at which of the Avengers he hoped they would select as team leader . . . some of the rugged individualists in this room would have reflexively tried to find someone else to vote for instead!
Tony Stark touched something in the armrest of his chair, then said, "Okay, folks, we have some authentic privacy now. SHIELD thinks it successfully planted some bugs in this room during the recent renovations and repairs, but right now their audio feed is only giving them a conversation from an old movie which JARVIS has edited to replace the original cast's voiceprints with ours. It may take a while for Fury's surveillance technicians to figure out they don't have a clue what's really going on in here. Now that we can bicker to our hearts' content behind closed doors, just like any well-adjusted family, does anyone care to make a nomination?"
"I have already given this some thought," said Thor, rising to his feet. "Let me say plainly that I am not a candidate. I have led brave friends into battle in other realms, but there is still much I do not know about the modern ways of the peoples of Midgard." He smiled broadly as he added, "Besides, I think Director Fury would not care to have his 'Avengers Initiative' led by one with no natural loyalty to your 'United States of America.'"
None of his listeners felt the need to argue with any of those statements. Politically speaking, getting Uncle Sam to give lots of material support and sky-high security clearances to a force led by a mysterious extraterrestrial who called himself a god was simply a nonstarter.
(Likewise, Natasha didn't suppose there would be much enthusiasm in Washington for letting the most powerful special operations unit on the planet be led by a semi-reformed Russian assassin—so it was just as well that she didn't even want the job.)
While she thought about those things, Thor was pressing onward with his speech. "I have seen that SHIELD often prefers to work in the shadows—but the Avengers are meant to face the largest menaces, where the eyes of this world will be upon us. I say that we do not just need a leader with a stout heart that has been tested in battle, but someone who already has an excellent reputation among the common people; someone who inspires trust and belief when he stands in front of your 'television cameras' and explains what the Avengers are doing and why it must be done. I think we all know who among us best fits that description. Do any disagree?"
Thor Odinson paused dramatically—
And Tony Stark cleared his throat. "Look, I'm touched, I really am, but I'm already so busy, doesn't it make more sense to just let Steve take a shot at it?"
No living resident of Midgard had ever before experienced the special thrill of seeing a god of thunder do a classic double take. Incredulity was written all over his features as he stared at their billionaire host, too surprised for words.
Natasha and Clint glanced at each other . . . and rolled their eyes in perfect unison.
Steve, of course, was far too modest to come right out and say what he obviously was thinking: that Thor had meant him all along!
(Natasha briefly considered saying that, but decided that hot-tempered Asgardians probably didn't take kindly to other people shoving words into their mouths. Better to let Thor clarify his own meaning as soon as he recovered his aplomb.)
As it became clear that no one else was eager to speak right away, Bruce Banner opened his mouth . . . and then closed it without saying a word. Natasha speculated that the man was afraid of sounding petty and jealous if he were the first to suggest that his fellow (but much richer) scientific genius, Tony Stark, was not the best leadership material they had in the room.
The result of these diverse reactions was several seconds of awkward silence . . . before Tony grinned and said: "Just kidding, folks! Sheesh, am I the only one with a sense of humor?"
"You're the only one with your sense of humor," Bruce corrected. "I think most of us favor plain speaking when we're talking about serious business. Avoids awkward misunderstandings."
(That was rich, coming from the man who had deliberately pretended to throw a tantrum the first time Natasha spoke to him . . . just because he was curious to see how she'd react when she thought he was on the brink of becoming big, green, dumb, ugly, and the strongest thing alive.)
Tony brushed Bruce's comment aside. "Let's move on with the 'serious business,' then, if it makes you feel better. Thor has just nominated Steve to make the tactical decisions the next time the world needs saving. I hereby second the motion. Shall we have a show of hands?"
Tony waved his own right hand the air with wild abandon. Thor's hand went up, as did Bruce's. Out of the corner of her eye, Natasha saw Clint Barton's hand going up, which saved her the trouble of choosing whether or not to endorse her closest friend if he made a bid for the job himself. Her hand soared up as well, making it a clean sweep.
Steve, of course, would never be so crass as to vote for himself, but Tony didn't seem to appreciate that point. He asked: "Captain? I don't see your hand. Are you planning to vote against?"
"No," Steve said in a carefully controlled tone, "I'm willing to give it my best if that's what the rest of you want. But if anyone had objected to the idea of taking orders from me, I wanted to know right now and hash it out before we went any further with selecting a leader. Instead of just saying: 'Ha ha, you're outnumbered, so shut up and do as you're told!'"
Shaking his head and filling his voice with exaggerated mock sorrow, Tony said, "I don't know how you expect to get anywhere in the real world with that sort of attitude. I mean, General Eisenhower didn't poll the troops before telling them which beaches to hit on D-Day, did he?"
"Ike had hundreds of thousands of troops involved in Operation Overlord, and he knew some of them would die no matter what, but that didn't have to stop the others from winning anyway," Steve pointed out. "We only have six Avengers—who wouldn't be easy to replace. It makes a difference. If just a couple of us get killed by following the wrong orders during a mission—or by not following orders because they don't respect the guy issuing 'em—then the whole mission falls apart in a hurry. When I did commando raids during the war, I didn't want any soldier at my back who hadn't volunteered to follow my lead."
His sincerity was so palpable it filled the room. Natasha strongly suspected that in practice the Captain had never been handicapped by any shortage of volunteers after he started making a name for himself during the Great Patriotic War. If anything, he'd probably had to turn down thousands of American dogfaces who had wanted to transfer into his elite unit!
Showing his usual suave way of getting people's attention, Clint Barton grunted. Then he articulated: "Well, that didn't turn out to be a problem, Captain, so it looks like you're the poor fool who gets stuck with the job of riding herd on the rest of us." He grinned tightly. "Better you than me! Natasha, remind me to send our fearless leader a bottle of extra-strength antacid tablets for his birthday."
"And now that you've offered him that rousing pep talk, let's give our new chairman the floor!" Tony said briskly. "Is there anything special you want us to do while we're waiting for the next alien invasion, Captain?"
"Yes; let's talk about recruiting," Steve said immediately. "As I said, there's only six of us, and a whole planet to protect. It wouldn't hurt to round up a few more so a mission doesn't have to fall apart if a couple of us buy the farm at the worst possible time. But we're not the U.S. Army and I hear even they don't get to send out draft notices any more. The floor is open for suggestions: How do we find some more Avengers?"
"Well," Bruce said thoughtfully, "I think SHIELD has already done the best it can with what it knows. Tony, Thor, and I had each been in some high-powered battles in broad daylight with lots of witnesses. That was bound to put us on SHIELD's radar. Natasha and Clint are two of the best agents Fury ever had. And you caught his eye when you got defrosted from an iceberg and woke up good as new, but I doubt anyone else will do that in the near future. If other people are out there with freakish abilities, they've apparently been smart enough to avoid becoming front-page news."
"Don't give up on SHIELD's databases quite so quickly, doctor," Tony Stark said in an abstracted tone. "I was poking around in my downloaded copies the other day, and . . . well, let me show you."
The billionaire manipulated some controls, and flatscreens suddenly popped up out of the boardroom table in front of each Avenger's seat. "Okay, the first few names on your screens are the ones SHIELD has been seriously considering showing to us, the second bunch are the ones SHIELD has already rejected for one reason or another, and the two names down at the bottom are from a couple of dossiers which SHIELD has forgotten it even has!"
"How did that happen?" Bruce asked, obviously willing to play straight man.
"Looks to me like someone accidentally miskeyed a couple of digits when they e-mailed an encrypted report in from the field, and with the wrong classification code attached, the whole thing automatically got shunted into the footnotes attached to records of the helicarrier's food budget from six years ago, which no one in his right mind ever feels the need to go back and reread. Fortunately, when I told JARVIS to trawl through my downloaded copies of everything from their on-board servers, and then to construct a list of anything relating to people I didn't already know about who were suspected of having oddball, superhuman, and/or nonhuman capabilities, I didn't arbitrarily exclude old grocery bills from the search."
Steve was squinting at the bottom two lines of his display—then he touched the screen and more detailed information popped up. "So what you're saying is that someone from SHIELD observed these two, decided they had potential, typed up a report, and then nothing was done about it because Fury never saw that report? We could contact them ourselves without SHIELD's heavy-handed tactics giving them a bad first impression?"
"Couldn't have said it better myself! Although some SHIELD agents have better manners than others, frankly, so I was wondering if Natasha would like to make the first approach. These two youngsters aren't ethnic Russians, but they might trust a fellow Slav's assessment of the pros and cons of our little social club more than they'd trust the sales pitch of a gung-ho American boy."
Steve looked over at Natasha, who decided not to bother reminding everyone that historically the Russians had not always earned a reputation for being the best possible friends, neighbors, and advisors for other Slavic tribes to have. Instead, she just shrugged slightly and said, "If you want me to speak to them, Captain, I shall. A simple invitation to visit this building for a week or two, perhaps? Time for them to get to know us better, and vice versa?"
Steve glanced down at his screen again. "Sure, why not? I find I'm interested in meeting Wanda and Pietro Maximoff."
Author's Note: For anyone who isn't familiar with Marvel's regular comic book continuity about the Avengers, let me explain that Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are better known as "The Scarlet Witch" and "Quicksilver," and they were early recruits to the team, joining in Avengers #16 (published way back in 1965).
A few days ago, when I sat down to start typing out some rough ideas for a short story set after the movie, I thought it was going to be a funny little piece about Wanda and Pietro applying for membership with the Avengers. I typed several paragraphs of that.
Then it occurred to me that in the movie, we never actually saw the newly-formed Avengers agree on an official team leader. So I started jotting down some ideas for how that little detail might have been handled by the founding members before they got around to screening potential recruits.
Then, as I kept writing, the impromptu bit about the election got lengthy enough that I finally decided it deserved to be posted as a one-shot of its very own. So Wanda and Pietro barely get mentioned in this one . . . but I still have my notes for a short story showing them applying for membership, and maybe I'll finish that one up and post it at some later time!