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how to win friends and influence people

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In Peter’s defence, he didn’t start the fight.

 

But it’s not really fair to say it was the shaggy-haired kid either – and never mind that he was the one to throw the first punch.

 

No – Peter is placing the blame very definitively at the feet of Mick Manning, who’s currently holding an icepack to his bloodied nose, courtesy of the afore-mentioned shaggy-haired kid.

 

Peter nudges the kid in question with his shoulder, and then gestures with his chin to Mick.

 

“Good shot,” he mutters under his breath to the other teen, who grins brightly and pulls his own icepack away from his lip, ignoring the way the split there immediately starts sluggishly dribbling blood again.

 

“Thanks,” the kid says in the same undertone as Peter, and then tilts his head towards one of the other boys on the other side of the room, who’s holding an icepack to his jaw (they’ve all got icepacks – all seven of them – but Peter’s is  mostly for appearances sake by now; his cheek stopped stinging ages ago). “You too.”

 

Peter grimaces.

 

“I didn’t mean to hit him so hard,” he says, because it’s true. He pulled his punches the whole way through the fight, feigning the slower reflexes and significantly lesser strength of a regular teenage boy, making sure to let their assailants get a few good hits in – because ordinary teenage boys don’t come out of a two-against-five fight without a scratch, so neither should Peter – but then Dan, Mick’s right hand man, had tried to punch the shaggy-haired kid in the back of the head, and Peter had reacted instinctively, only managing at the last second to reign in some of the strength, but still hitting the other kid with enough force that it had knocked Dan flat on his back. He’ll be fine – he’ll just have a hell of a shiner – but still. Peter shouldn’t have hit him that hard.  

 

Peter’s shaggy-haired fight-partner shrugs.

 

“I’m not complaining,” he says, and then extends his hand. “I’m Harley, by the way.”

 

“Peter,” Peter replies, and reaches back to shake Harley’s hand.

 

……………………………………………………

 

Peter’s been thrown a lot of flack, since he started the internship at Stark Industries.

 

(Well. “Internship.” Not that anyone at the school other than Ned knows that.)

 

It’s weird – kids who used to think that Iron Man was the coolest thing ever suddenly decide that, hey, if it means they can deride Peter, they’re willing to act like Tony Stark is the lamest adult to ever exist.

 

It’s remarkable, how much sway someone as insignificant as Peter Parker can have if it means that some low-rung bullies can have a bit of cheap fun. Apparently, his nerdy un-coolness is enough to put a damper on Mr Stark’s reputation for awesome, simply because Mr Stark’s company hired Peter for the Junior Program.

 

Tony Stark and Stark Industries can’t be that cool, apparently, if they hired Parker.

 

As if most of the morons at this school wouldn’t go faint with awe if they were merely standing in the same Convention Centre as Tony Stark.

 

Whatever, teenagers are fickle cretins; it doesn’t actually bother Peter.

 

It honestly doesn’t. He’s not insecure enough to be worried about a couple of small time morons who think that dissing the Stark Internship just because Peter has it is high-brow bullying. Honestly, it’s pathetic.

 

Even if the internship was what everyone at school thinks it is – even if Peter were just a regular teenager who’d somehow managed to get into the Junior Program with SI; even if he weren’t Spiderman and if he hadn’t fought the Vulture and stopped an entire planeload of sensitive tech from being stole, even if he hadn’t been offered a place on the Avengers Team, and even if he didn’t see Tony every week for time spent training and experimenting with his suit – well, it would still be an internship at the most sought after company in New York. A few kids being dumb wouldn’t lessen the significance or pride of that.

 

And besides – “People are idiots,” as May always says. “And you shouldn’t waste your breath on idiots.” And usually Peter doesn’t.

 

But Mick – Mick has never liked Tony Stark. His dad’s a military man, and he’s been saying since Mick was a kid that Mr Stark betrayed America by stopping weapons manufacturing. Mr Manning says that it’s Mr Stark’s fault that the US Military has been forced to use sub-par weaponry since 2008 – relying on companies like Hammer, for heaven’s sake – and that every death in the military since then is on Stark’s head. Mick’s dad was one of a number of voices calling for Mr Stark to hand over the arc reactor and the repulsor tech a few years ago, and the guy hates Mr Stark for refusing to share his advancements.

 

And he successfully passed on that hatred to his son, who doesn’t miss an opportunity nowadays to deride Mr Stark to Peter – the more viciously, the better.

 

So Mick is looking for a fight, today in the crowded hallway – because that’s the kind of guy Mick is. He bullies people smaller than him, or smarter than him, or poorer than him, simply because he likes to.

 

Mick and four of his goons corner Peter, and it starts with the usual – bit of a shove and some books knocked to the floor (Peter could catch them, if he wanted to, but only because he’s Spiderman, so he lets them fall), and some derogatory comments.  

 

All the other students in the vicinity stop what they’re doing and pause to watch the confrontation because the only thing teenagers like more than an unexpected snowday is a potential fight, and all of Peter’s attempts to quietly leave the area are blockaded by Mick or one of his cronies as they shove him none-to-gently backwards. And again – if Peter used his Spidey abilities, he could push through these guys with no problem, but Peter really is trying to fake being a normal, unenhanced teenager, and a normal unenhanced teenager would not be able to shove past these guys successfully, so Peter is kind of stuck.

 

The heckling continues – escalating with each moment that Peter refuses to be drawn into it as the crowd around them grows even further, teenagers drawn like flies to a piece of meat as they see the forming crowd and rush over to see what’s happening for themselves – but things really start to take a turn for the worse when Mick shoves Peter’s shoulder roughly and says, “Hey, next time you see Stark remind him of all the soldiers we’ve lost since he started flying around in a metal suit. Remind him whose fault that is. Tell him he should go back to making weapons, and maybe then he can start to pay off the debt he owes us all.”

 

“If you think I could convince Mr Stark to do anything, you’re seriously overestimating my importance,” Peter says, and he really wants to challenge the comment about all the soldier deaths being on Mr Stark’s shoulders (they’re not, it’s not even remotely Tony’s fault), but he’s still trying not to engage, trying not to make this situation even more charged than it already is. Mick is spoiling for a fight, Peter knows it. He wants Peter to lash out – verbally or physically – because then it would give Mick an excuse to try and break Peter’s nose.

 

Peter won’t give him the satisfaction, regardless of how much he wants to defend Mr Stark from these bullshit accusations. He tries to eel out from the circle they’ve trapped him in, but one of them uses his shoulder to hit Peter in the chest to block him and force him back. He wants to badly to use his Spider-powers, but a normal kid would be completely trapped here, so as much as Peter wants to, he can’t.

 

“Of course, what am I saying,” Mick says with a scoff, as Peter staggers to keep his feet in the wake of the most recent shove. “As if Stark has ever even been in the same room as you. And even if you ever had been, as if the Great Tony Stark would listen to the likes of you.

 

“Arrogant fucker,” Dan – cronie number one, and Mick’s best friend – mutters derisively.

 

“And besides,” Mick continues. “I was wrong. Even if he started making weapons again, he wouldn’t clear his debt. Reckon the only way he could do that is if he died himself. A life for a life, right?”

 

Peter glares furiously, mouth opening without his consent as a biting response forms at the back of his throat, and to hell with not responding – but Mick continues without pause, a dark grin on his face as he presses forwards and gets into Peter’s face.

 

“Saw that shiner he came back with after he trashed that airport back when the Avengers had their big breakup,” the guy says, voice cruel and sharp. “Cap shoulda hit him harder – caved his skull in and got rid of him for us.” 

 

Peter feels hot anger flash through him at that –

 

(how dare this idiot say something like that; doesn’t Mick know where he’d be without Mr Stark? Where everyone in New York would be? Doesn’t he know they’d all be dead? Several times over? How can he say something like that?)

 

– but he doesn’t even get a chance to open his mouth before someone from the ring of observers is saying, furious, “You wanna say that again?” and everyone’s twisting around to see who it is that spoke.

 

It’s not hard to work out who it was – the kid in question is shoving forwards out of the crowd and into the clear space surrounding Mick and Peter and the others.

 

The kid’s maybe Peter’s age – about the same height, with shaggy dirty-blonde hair that’s maybe overdue for a cut – and Peter can tell from a single glance that the kid is spitting mad. His face is set in furious lines and he’s staring hard at Mick, fists clenched at his sides, silently daring the guy to repeat himself.

 

Mick obliges.

 

“‘Nother Stark fan, huh?” Mick says, a leering grin stretching his lips unpleasantly as he steps forward, closer to the new kid. “Geez, we got an infestation. Well since you’re hard of hearing, sure, I’ll say it again. Cap should have done us all a favour and killed Stark when he had the chance. Woulda made a lotta people happy, me included.”

 

“Huh. You included,” the kid echoes, and then grins suddenly, the expression bright and surprisingly sharp and fierce in his otherwise baby face. “Guess I’ll start with you, then.”

 

And then he takes one firm step forward and punches Mick in the face.

 

It’s all quite fast moving after that.

 

Mick reels backwards under the force of the blow, but Dan and one of Mick’s other friends react instantly, throwing themselves at the nameless kid without hesitation. The last two of Mick’s buddies are a bit slow off the mark, which means Peter has ample time to throw himself into the fray.

 

What? He’s Spiderman. He’s not going to let some skinny teenager take on five older teens at the same time. That’s just not a fair fight. Especially since it wasn’t the skinny kid’s fight to start with. It was Peter they were trying to pick a fight with, not this new guy. Peter’s not in the habit of letting other people fight his battles, especially when he’s got healing abilities and faster reflexes.

 

Mick takes a second, reeling backwards from the kid’s punch and with his hand to his nose, and then his face transforms into one of furious anger and he launches himself back at the kid, and then it’s two to five, and the kids in the observatory ring are all hollering, and the shaggy-haired kid is fighting like a scrappy little street-dog – quick and vicious and barely even registering it when any of the older boys’ hits land.

 

And the fight is harder than it should be for Peter, because he has to remember that he’s not wearing his mask right now. He’s not Spiderman right now. He can’t twist out of the way of a punch he can sense coming but shouldn’t be able to see, and he can’t hit these guys with any of the strength he usually has at his disposal. He has to devote half his attention to fighting like a regular, unenhanced, angry and reckless teenaged boy – which, his distraction actually helps with his act, and it means that Mick and his buddies get in a few hits of their own throughout the fight.

 

It hardly matters; any hits Peter takes here will be healed up within an hour or so, if that, but his cover as a “regular, unenhanced teen” will still be intact.

 

The other kid though – the one now fighting side by side with Peter as the five Seniors attempt to flatten them both into the shitty school corridor lino – will not heal in a mere hour from any of the injuries he gets in this fight.

 

Which is why Peter reacts with more force than he should when he sees Dan – who has managed to eel behind the scrappy kid – gearing up for a punch that would catch the new kid in the back of the head with no warning.

 

Dan’s punch is well on its way, and Peter knows at a glance what its trajectory is, and he knows that if the hit lands – at the back of the shaggy kid’s head, just behind his ear – that kid will either wind up with a serious concussion, or will be knocked out cold.

 

So it’s instinct that has Peter forgetting about his restrained reflexes – has him just reacting, his own fist flying faster than it should be able to to catch Dan in the jaw. Peter remembers a split second before his own strike lands that a full-strength hit from him could do a lot of damage to a teenager, so he pulls his punch at the last possible moment – but even so, there’s enough force behind it that Dan is knocked clean off his feet.

 

The guy lands on his back with a thud that makes Peter wince, and makes all the watching crowd go “Ooh,” in unison – and that’s when the teachers burst onto the scene.

 

Which is why the seven of them are now sitting outside the principal’s office, waiting for Morita to see them.

 

The kid – Harley, Peter knows his name now – doesn’t look remotely phased by the fact that he’s sitting outside the Principal’s office, slumped casually in his chair with his icepack pressed against his lip again. He looks alright, all told. Split lip, and he’ll probably have a black eye, going by the bright red patch of skin at the peak of his cheekbone, but otherwise he looks alright. But maybe he’s just good at faking.

 

“Hey,” Peter says, drawing Harley’s attention, and the kid looks over languidly. “You uh – you did pretty well, for five against two. You’re not hurt anywhere other than your lip, right?”

 

Harley grins around his split lip again.

 

“You weren’t too bad yourself,” he compliments. “And nah, I’m fine. They only landed a couple. Nothing a few days won’t fix up. And I’ve lived through bruises before.”

 

Peter frowns.

 

“Lived through bruises?” he asks, concerned.

 

“Oh, yeah – small town bullies, you know,” Harley replies, casual, and then laughs lightly. “They were good for one thing – I sure learned how to dodge.”

 

Peter’s not quite sure how to respond to that, but it turns out he doesn’t need to, because that’s when Principal Morita comes out of his office and looks down on the seven of them in disappointment.

 

“Boys,” he greets heavily. “I’ve called all of your guardians. They’re on their way here now.”

 

Shit. That means May has been called away from work. Damn it. Peter’s gonna have to do something to apologise to her.

 

“My mom’s at work, so I doubt you got a hold of her,” Harley says, not even bothering to straighten up from his casual slouch in the uncomfortable waiting room chair.

 

Morita’s face flickers with a frown.

 

“I left a message on her phone,” Morita says. “I’m sure she’ll receive it soon, if she hasn’t already.”

 

“Not likely,” Harley says. “She doesn’t keep her phone on at work, and she’s not off til five. Besides. It’s her first day at her new job. Even if she did hear the message, she’s not gonna leave work just ‘cause I got into a scrape with some lowlife muscle-headed morons.”

 

“Hey!” Mick says, outraged, echoed by his buddies.

 

Peter is blinking wide eyes at Harley, jaw slightly slack at the kid’s gall.

 

“Ok, let’s not make a bad situation worse by throwing insults,” Morita says, stern.

 

Harley shrugs casually, dismissive.

 

“Alright,” Morita says, voice level and calm. “Now I understand that there was a fight. Who wants to tell me what happened?”

 

Unsurprisingly, Mick is the first to speak up, before anyone else even has the chance to draw in a breath.

 

He started it,” the guy says immediately, pointing viciously at Harley, and his voice sounds thick and blocked thanks to his injured nose. Peter wonders mildly if it’s broken. He wouldn’t be upset if he found out it was.

 

Harley, in response to Mick’s accusation, simply shrugs.

 

“Talk shit, get hit,” he says, unrepentant.

 

“I will have none of that language, thank you,” Morita says, sharp, and Harley rolls his eyes.

 

“Harley didn’t really start it,” Peter says, pitching in before Harley can say anything else. “He was only stepping in to help me. Mick and his gang had me trapped against the lockers and weren’t letting me leave, and they were trying to start a fight. Ask anyone who was in the hall – they’ll confirm it. Harley was only helping me.”

 

“Be that as it may,” Morita sighs. “From all accounts, Harley was the first one to escalate things to physical violence. I can’t condone that, Peter, even if it was in defence of a fellow student.”

 

“Oh ok, so at this school it’s fine for five seniors to surround and intimidate a sophomore, but it’s not ok for another sophomore to intervene. Interesting philosophy, but sure, ok. Got it,” Harley says, and his voice is acerbic.

 

“Young man, you are on thin ice,” Morita says, stern, and that’s just not fair.

 

“But it’s true,” Peter protests. “You aren’t saying anything to them for bailing me up against the lockers and trying to start a fight, but you’re coming down on Harley for standing up for me? How is that fair?”

 

Morita sighs, looking to the ceiling.

 

“Alright, I think we should split this up. Peter, Harley – I recommend that you take this chance to calm down, and I’ll speak to you both second. Mick, Dan, you lot – come in to my office and you can tell me your version of events.”

 

Harley scoffs derisively but doesn’t actually say anything, and Mick and the others dutifully get up out of their chairs and stream past, shooting vicious looks at Peter and Harley whenever Morita isn’t looking, and wincing pitifully and limping like wounded soldiers whenever he is looking in their direction.

 

Peter rolls his eyes.

 

“Abigail, if any of these boys’ parents get here while I’m talking to them, please send them in. If Peter and Harley’s guardians get here in that time, have them wait out here,” Morita says to the receptionist as he ushers the last of the senior boys into his office. She nods, and then the principal sends a stern look at Harley and Peter. “Behave,” is his parting comment, like they’re gonna start a brawl in the waiting room or something, and then he steps into his office and shuts the door, deliberately ignoring Harley’s eyeroll.

 

After the door shuts with a click, Peter lets his head drop back against the wall behind him.

 

“May is gonna kill me,” he says, morose.

 

“May?” Harley asks, shifting his icepack from his lip up to his cheekbone.

 

“My aunt,” Peter explains. “I live with her. She works shifts at the hospital, and she’ll have to leave halfway through. Which means she’ll only get paid half a shift.”

 

Harley pulls a face.

 

“That sucks,” he says, sympathetic but pitiless, which Peter appreciates. He hates pity. “I wasn’t kidding about my mom,” Harley continues. “She needs this job; she won’t leave it on her first day just over this, even if she does get the voicemail in time.”

 

“Single mom?” Peter asks, because pointed lack of mention of a dad and the implied financial stress both kind of point to that, and Harley quirks a sideways grin at him.

 

“Yup,” he says. “And she does great, really – my sister and I never go without anything we actually need – but yeah. I mean – if you’re stressed about your aunt missing half a shift then I’m guessing you probably know what it’s like.”

 

“I’m here on a scholarship that only covers the tuition, and even so, last year May had to take extra shifts for two weeks just to be able to get my school books. Whenever there’s anything extracurricular like a camp or an excursion she has to take extra shifts to cover those too. So yeah, I know exactly what it’s like.”

 

“Yeah, same. About the partial scholarship, I mean. Mine’s for just the tuition too, and I actually was meant to be here for the start of the school year, but with mom having to save up for the move and for all the books, we asked if we could defer my start date by a few months.”

 

“Saving for the move?” Peter echoes. “Where’d you come from?”

 

“Middle of nowhere, Tennessee,” Harley grins. “Mom wasn’t sure about moving, but considering that this school is way better than the one back home, plus it being a feeder school to MIT – which is where I’m planning on going – when I got the partial scholarship, she couldn’t really say no. Plus, there’s a chance we can get Soph – my sister – in here too in a few years, if she qualifies for the scholarship too, and that’s gonna be way better for her than the school she’d have gone to otherwise.”

 

“Tennessee to New York,” Peter says. “That’s a big move. What do you think about New York so far?”

 

Harley laughs, shifting his icepack against his cheek.

 

“Well, it’s a hell of a lot busier than Rose Hill, for a start!” he says. “I reckon the entire town’s population could probably fit into our apartment building here. And do people ever sleep here? Doesn’t matter if it’s 3am or 3pm, it’s noisy.”

 

Peter chuckles.

 

“Yeah, it’s kind of packed,” he says. “I like it, though – how busy and noisy it is. You’ll get used to it.”

 

Harley hums.

 

“That, or I’ll invent some kind of soundproof foam I can spray over my bedroom windows to keep the noise out,” he says, and Peter brightens.

 

“Ooh,” he says. “That sounds like fun, can I help?”

 

“Sure!” Harley chirps, pleased. “I know there’s this foam you can get already, but it’s solid, and I still wanna be able to see out my window. I wanna see if I can get the noise cancellation properties of the foam but the visibility of, like, glass – and then I could spray it all over the window without losing my charming view of the trash-strewn back alley.”

 

Peter laughs, and that’s how the next fifteen minutes pass – them spitballing ideas back and forth about the translucent soundproofing foam they’re going to invent – and during that time a couple of the other boys’ parents arrive and are ushered through to the Principal’s office by the receptionist, where his lengthy talk with the boys in there gets even lengthier each time a parent arrives and goes through the usual “What do you mean my son was in a fight, who did this to my poor baby?” song and dance. That’s exactly how it sounds, too, every time. Peter could hear the conversation through the walls quite clearly even before any of the newly arrived parents started shouting.

 

Four of the five other boys’ parents have arrived and Harley and Peter are in the middle of a spirited debate about product-to-bubbles density ratio when Tony Stark himself walks through the school office’s front door, and Peter’s words dry up in his mouth as he stares in shock.

 

“There he is – Mr Tyson himself, or so I hear,” Mr Stark says, a wryly amused twist to his lips as he crosses the room.

 

“Mr Stark?” Peter asks, speechless. Over Mr Stark’s shoulder, the receptionist does a double take at the new arrival who she hadn’t properly looked at before, and she stares with a slack jaw, fingers frozen over the top of her keyboard as she blinks wide eyes at Mr Stark, apparently just as shocked by his sudden appearance as Peter is.

 

“In the flesh,” Mr Stark replies, and then raises a challenging eyebrow. “Now. FRIDAY tells me you’ve been getting in fights at school. And honestly? This was something I had to see with my own two eyes, because I straight up can’t believe it.” 

 

“What – what…” Peter asks, flabbergasted. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Your aunt’s at work, so the school called me,” Mr Stark says, casually, as though that makes any kind of sense.

 

“What – why? And – how did they even have your number?” Peter asks, because no, for real, Peter didn’t even have Mr Stark’s direct number until after the Vulture thing.

 

“Well, they didn’t call me, not directly, at least, but they called FRIDAY – I may be your emergency contact, but I’m still not giving out my direct number to just anyone – and then FRIDAY contacted me and told me to wing my way over here lickedy split. Had to get out of a tedious meeting first, hence the delay – which, by the way, my eternal thanks to you for that, Scrappy. I was about to throw myself out the window just to escape the tedium when FRIDAY’s call came in. You actually gave me a valid escape route.”

 

“You’re my – what?” Peter asks, flabbergasted, parsing through the babble and focusing on the one part that makes the least sense. He could have sworn that Mr Stark just said –

 

“Kid,” Mr Stark says, peering at him over the top of his reflective purple sunglasses. “Did you not know this? I’ve been your emergency contact since like a week after half my tech got burned to a crisp just off Coney Island. May got the school to add me onto your file, so if they ever can’t contact her they’ll call me.”

 

“Huh,” Peter says. “She, uh. Didn’t mention that.”

 

Harley chooses that moment to insert himself into the conversation, apparently tired of being on the sidelines.

 

“Hey Tony,” the guy says lightly, which – ok, wow, that’s… super casual and unaffected for someone meeting Tony Stark for the first time. Even if you didn’t like Mr Stark at all you’d still be pretty star struck by him if you suddenly met him, and Peter’s going out on a limb here, but going by the way Harley threw himself into a fight in defence of Mr Stark, Pete thinks that Iron Man is probably something of an idol for the kid. Such a casual, unaffected response isn’t remotely what Peter would have guessed Harley’s reaction would be to seeing his idol in the flesh for the first time.

 

Only, Mr Stark practically trips over his own feet at the sound of the kid’s voice, apparently only just registering the second person sitting in the “You’re in trouble with the Principal” chairs, and he whirls on the spot to stare in shock at the kid.

 

“Harley?” he asks, and ohhh, they know each other. Ok, everything makes so much more sense now. Harley throwing that first punch with such vicious rage – it wasn’t just rage over an abstract concept of a favourite hero; it was personal.  

 

Harley grins brightly, and the split in his lip opens up again and wells with blood. Peter wants to put some sticky tape on it just to stop it from constantly cracking open.

 

“Surprise!” Harley chirps, cheerful, and Mr Stark just gapes.

 

“You – what?” he splutters, and Peter watches with open curiosity; he doesn’t think he’s ever seen Mr Stark speechless with surprise before. “You’re – in the wrong state!”

 

Harley laughs, bright.

 

“Yeah – Mom, Soph and me were gonna surprise you this weekend; just rock up to your Tower and be like ‘Hey guess who got a scholarship and moved to New York’ but hey – this is way easier!”

 

“Huh,” Mr Stark says, rocking back on his heels. “Good on you. I mean, I wouldn’t say that me being called to the school because you got into a fight in your – what, first first week? – is the best way of breaking the news to me, but still. Good job on the scholarship, kid.”

 

“Thanks,” Harley grins.

 

“Where is your mom, anyway? Should we be expecting a Mandy-Keener-shaped hurricane to arrive in a moment?”

 

“Nah, she just started today at the Crosstown Diner on Bruckner – she won’t be coming. She won’t even get the message until after her shift ends.”

 

“Right,” Mr Stark says, pulling out his phone and typing something out rapidly before tucking it back into his pocket.

 

“So on that note – which of you is gonna tell me what this fight was about?” he asks, bringing the conversation back to the topic at hand and eyeing them both with a raised eyebrow, and then he straightens suddenly. “Wait. You weren’t fighting each other, were you?”

 

“No, no,” Peter assures, as Harley scoffs at the suggestion.

 

“Nah, it was some older guys. Dicks being dicks, you know?” the kid elaborates, with a gesture towards the office where the five seniors and their four parents can been seen as blurry shapes through the frosted glass windows.

 

“Uh huh,” Mr Stark says, eyeing the blurs and sounding disapproving. “So, what, you took on – four, five guys? Just the two of you? Looking back on that, would you say that was a good idea, or nah?”

 

“I regret nothing,” Harley says airily. “They were being dicks to Peter. They had it coming.”

 

“I see,” Mr Stark says, and turns his full attention to Peter. “I thought you were a bit beyond high school bullies,” he says, eyebrow raised. “Wouldn’t have thought that was something that was a problem for you.”

 

“I didn’t care about that,” Peter says, a twist to his lips as he thinks about Mr Stark leaving this conversation believing that Spiderman can’t handle a couple of pathetic teenaged bullies. “They’re jerks, sure, but that’s nothing new. They’re always saying crap, but I stopped paying attention to them a while ago.”

 

A while ago. Around about the same time Peter started moonlighting as Spiderman, if anyone wants to get specific.

 

“So, what changed today then?” Mr Stark asks. “You never pay attention to them, but today you ended up in a brawl with them? What gives.”

 

“He didn’t start the fight, I did,” Harley says, and when Mr Stark turns to look at him the kid’s face is unrepentant. “And I’m not sorry, and I would do it again.”

 

“Being altruistic, were you?” Mr Stark asks. “Saw a fellow teen in distress and you had to fly to his defence?”

 

Harley snorts.

 

“He was hardly in distress,” he says, which Peter’s grateful for. “Nah, I wasn’t gonna get involved, but then I heard what they were saying.”

 

“And what were they saying?” Tony asks, eyebrow raised and expression unimpressed, like he just can’t wait to hear what it was that the teenaged idiots were saying that was apparently worth getting into a fight over.

 

Peter and Harley trade a glance.

 

“They were talking shit about you,” Harley says after a moment, and leaves it there.

 

“Um, since when do you swear?” Tony demands, and Harley rolls his eyes so forcefully and in a manner that’s so like Mr Stark that Peter does a double take.

 

“I’m fifteen,” is all Harley says as an explanation.

 

This time it’s Mr Stark who does a double take.

 

“You are fucking not,” he says, and Harley flashes a smug grin.

 

“Um, since when do you swear?” the kid parrots, mocking, and Mr Stark pauses, then scowls. Harley grins.

 

“Whatever, moving on. So. Talking shit about me,” Mr Stark goes on, sounding unimpressed, and apparently deciding to gloss over the whole swearing issue. “What kind of shit?”

 

“The kind of shit that got them punched in the eye,” Harley replies, obstinate and clearly not planning on elaborating.

 

Peter’s kind of glad about that, really. ‘Cause the final straw that resulted in Harley decking Mick in the face was when Mick said that Cap should have done everyone a favour at the airport fight and punched Mr Stark hard enough that his head caved in, and said that it would have been a service to America.

 

But he doesn’t think it would be very kind to say any of that to Tony.

 

“To be fair, I wanted to punch him for what he said too,” Peter adds, because it’s true. “But then Harley did it, and I didn’t need to.”

 

“Geez, it’s like trying to get sweat from a stone with you two,” Mr Stark says, frustrated. “Fine, don’t tell me. So they were ‘talking shit about me’ and so you punched one of them in the eye, and then –” he turns back to Peter “– you just, threw yourself into the fray cause it’s, what, been a while between fights and you were bored, or?”

 

“No,” Peter says. “I couldn’t let Harley fight them all by himself. There were five of them. That’s not fair. And besides,” he adds, a tad belligerent, cause he won’t apologise for getting involved in the brawl, not even to Mr Stark. It was the right thing to do. “They were picking on me, not him. As if I was gonna let Harley take them all on when it wasn’t even his fight.”

 

Mr Stark squints at Peter and then at Harley.

 

“How long have you two even known each other?” he asks. 

 

“We don’t,” Peter says, at the same time that Harley says, “How long ago was the fight?”

 

Mr Stark blinks at them both.

 

“You’ve never met?” Mr Stark clarifies.

 

“Not before we got into a fight with some jerks to defend your honour,” Harley says, cheerful. “I like him though. Good choice of intern, Tony. This one’s a good’un, I can tell.”

 

Mr Stark folds a hand over his eyes and mutters something under his breath that includes the words mayhem and chaos.

 

“Ok,” he says, visibly steeling himself and pulling his hand away from his eyes. “Run me through this again. Comprehensive overview, from the top, go. All details included.”

 

Peter trades a glance with Harley.

 

“There’s… not really that much else to tell,” he says. “They were being jerks, and they said a bunch of crap, and – ”

 

“Where were you, when was it. Details, kid, I need details. They don’t have you waiting to see the principal because they want to give you medals of valour – they can’t have kids brawling in school and let them get away with it, it would be anarchy. So you’re here for disciplinary action. I need the full story so I can mitigate what you get.”

 

“Alright, alright, keep your hair on,” Harley says. “Bunch of seniors bailed Peter up in a corner in the corridor outside the cafeteria just after lunch. Five of them, one of him. They knocked all his shit out of his hands and were trying to get a rise out of him – kept shoving him, saying all kinds of crap. He kept trying to leave, they didn’t let him. Then they started talking about you. I didn’t like what they were saying, so I asked them to say it again – you know, just in case I’d misheard them – and he said it again, so I told him I was gonna punch him, and then I did. And now here we are.”

 

“And one of them tried to punch Harley in the back of the head,” Peter adds, because he’s still mad about that and it deserves to be highlighted.

 

“Yeah, and then Peter flattened him,” Harley chirps, delighted. “It was so cool.”

 

“Right,” Mr Stark says, rubbing at his eyebrow. “So you didn’t say anything to them to start out? They instigated the whole thing?”

 

“I didn’t say anything to them,” Peter confirms. “I didn’t even see them coming until they had me squared into the corner.”

 

“Ok, well, that’s a start point, then – that you didn’t instigate it. I can work with that.”

 

“What do you think they’re going to do?” Peter says, an inkling of worry threading through him for the first time, because Mr Stark is talking like this is way more serious than Peter thought it was.

 

“At the very least? They’ll be angling for suspension. Like I said, it’s not like they’ll just let a bunch of kids start a brawl and then not punish any of you. All the other teens will be rioting in the halls within 24 hours, if they let you all off without consequence.”

 

“Oh,” Peter says, and is thinking Well a suspension doesn’t seem too awful when Mr Stark continues.

 

“But for Harley, well. It’s your first week here, kid, and you’re already getting in fights? They’re gonna want to come down hard on you in particular. Not to mention, suspensions of three days or more go onto long term records, and I happen to know that you two are both eyeing MIT. Suspensions don’t look good on college applications.”

 

“Oh,” Peter repeats, more heavily this time.

 

“That’s such bullshit though,” Harley says angrily. “Five seventeen year olds bail a kid up in a corner and we’re the ones facing consequences for it?”

 

“I didn’t say it was fair,” Tony says. “It is bullshit, which is why I’m trying to mitigate it. Or at least make sure everyone gets the same thing, since, a suspension won’t look good on the seniors’ college applications either, and the other guys are all way closer to actually trying to get into college than you two are. Their parents won’t want a blemish on their records any more than I want it on yours.”

 

It’s then that the office door opens behind Mr Stark, and Mick’s dad strides in, looking angry already.

 

“I’m here for my son – I got a call saying he’d been attacked,” he says to the receptionist, and Mr Stark turns around at the voice.

 

“Well if it isn’t General Manning, the General Pain In My Ass,” Mr Stark greets, a charming smile on his face that anyone would believe was genuine if they hadn’t heard the words he’d just spoken.

 

“Stark?” General Manning grunts, surprised, and also looking about as pleased to see Mr Stark as Mr Stark sounded to see him. Read: not remotely pleased. “What the hell are you doing here?” 

 

“Oh, you know – some little snot-nosed son-of-a-pest was harassing my intern and picked a fight with him. School called me to see if I want to press charges or not.”

 

Peter is… pretty sure that isn’t true, but the exaggeration is worth it for the way it makes Manning’s face go a little bit purple.

 

“From what I hear, it wasn’t my kid who was starting fights,” the guy says, and Mr Stark raises an eyebrow.

 

“I find it interesting that you immediately assumed that your son is the snot-nosed son-of-a-pest that I was referring to,” he says, and then shrugs. “But anyway, you know what they say – there’s three versions to every story; person one’s, person two’s, and the truth.”

 

“And you know what else they say,” Harley chirps, cause the kid has no sense of self preservation, apparently. “Truth will out.”

 

Peter isn’t sure that that’s the best thing to say, considering that technically it was Harley who threw the first punch, but – well, it’s said now. Manning turns his glare from Mr Stark to Harley, and then eyes both him and Peter darkly.

 

“So which of these brats is your intern?” Manning asks, and wow, Peter can see where Mick gets his charm from.

 

“Both of them,” Tony says, which makes Peter blink in surprise. Harley looks surprised for a second too, and then he grins fiercely, staring challengingly at Manning. Manning glares right back at him.

 

“So now that the whole gang is here, shall we get this over with?” Mr Stark says, moving towards the Principal’s door, and the receptionist squeaks and scurries out from behind her desk.

 

“Principal Morita wanted to meet with both sides of the disagreement separately,” she says, part-apologetic and part-mortified, like she can’t believe she’s telling Tony Stark what not to do.

 

Mr Stark grins apologetically at her.

 

“I’m a big believer in hashing things out with all parties involved,” he says, and moves around her to knock once on the door before opening it and striding in.

 

“Principal Morita, bullies, associated family members,” he greets cheerfully, and Peter wants to facepalm in mortification.

 

“I’m sorry, Jim, I tried to convince him to wait – ” the receptionist starts, hurrying after Mr Stark, as Harley darts into the room after them both. Peter debates for half a second, wondering if he should adhere to Morita’s request that he stay in the waiting room, and he then gives up and follows.

 

“Don’t worry, Abigail, it’s fine,” Morita says to the receptionist, waving a dismissive hand while eyeing Mr Stark with astonishment that he tries mostly-successfully to hide. “Mr Stark, what a… surprise. We weren’t expecting you.”

 

“Few people ever are,” Mr Stark says cheerfully, leaning casually against the wall. Harley joins him a second later, the kid looking like he’s very much enjoying himself already, and Peter shrugs mentally and follows, standing on Mr Stark’s other side.

 

“Did you just call our sons bullies?” one of the parents asks, and Mr Stark shrugs.

 

“If the shoe fits,” he says casually, and then looks back at Morita while the assembled parents make noises of offence. “Now, I stepped out of a dreadfully important meeting to be here, so how about we get this show on the road.”

 

“Mr Stark – I,” Morita says, floundering a little bit, and then starts over. “Thank you for coming all the way down here, but this is a matter for guardians, not… employees. I’m afraid I can’t involve you in this conversation.”

 

“If you check your records, you’ll find I’m the emergency contact for both these students,” Mr Stark replies. “So therefore – since both their guardians are unavailable – I am, in fact, going to be involved in this conversation.”

 

Morita blinks in disbelief, and then turns to his computer. Peter sees Harley eyeing Mr Stark out the corner of his eye, masking his look of what are you doing much better than Morita hid his surprise at Mr Stark’s arrival.

 

“Huh,” Morita says, sounding stumped. “Mr Anthony E. S.”

 

“I wasn’t going to add my full name and contact details to a database that civilians I haven’t cleared can access,” Mr Stark says. By his side, Harley is biting his lip to hide his entertained smile. “But call that number and you’ll find it’s my phone that rings.”

 

Principal Morita looks hesitant for a moment, and then says, apologetic, “I need to just check – ” and picks up his handset.

 

“Feel free,” Mr Stark says, as Morita dials the number. Peter glances down and attempts to wrangle his expression back under control. Mr Stark may have already been Peter’s emergency contact (which is still blowing Peter’s mind, a little bit) but it’s obvious that he had FRIDAY hack the school’s database while they were in the waiting room to add himself to Harley’s record – Peter remembers him doing something with his phone after finding out that Mrs Keener was at work – and Peter’s amused grin at that realisation is totally not appropriate to the situation, so he bites down on it until he can will his expression back to neutral.

 

It only takes a few moments for Morita to dial the number, and then the phone in Mr Stark’s pocket starts ringing.

 

“Well now, who could that be,” Mr Stark wonders, a single eyebrow raised, and he pulls the phone out and swipes the screen. “Yes hello – I’m in a very important meeting regarding my interns, so make this call snappy,” he says into it, and Peter hears the echo of his voice coming out of Morita’s phone as Harley snorts inelegantly.  

 

Morita puts the handset down in its cradle, expression pinched.

 

“There’s no need for sarcasm. I need to ensure my student’s privacy,” he says reproachfully, and Mr Stark nods earnestly.

 

“No, absolutely, I completely support your fact checking,” he says, putting the phone back into his pocket. “Now the question is, do you protect your student’s physical and emotional wellbeing as much as you protect their privacy?”

 

Morita’s face flickers with an offended frown.

 

“We take all matters regarding student welfare seriously here. From their security to their emotional wellbeing,” he says, and Mr Stark nods, looking pleased.

 

“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” he says. “So what punishments are you going to be handing out to these less-than-charming Seniors for their assault on my interns?”

 

The reaction is, predictably, explosive.

 

Their assault?” one of the parents yelps, as Mick splutters through his bloodied nose with an outraged “He’s the one who started it!” while his father rears back and snarls “How dare you accuse –” while Dan, the one who’d tried to hit Harley in the back of the head, cries “We didn’t even do anything!”

 

The Seniors and their parents are a cacophony of upset – denials and offended exclamations flying from each of their mouths in a torrent.

 

“Bunch of babies,” Harley mutters in disgust, under his breath enough that Tony and Peter are the only ones that hear him. Mr Stark’s mouth flickers with a supressed smirk Peter makes eye contact with him behind Tony’s back with an expression that conveys his wholehearted agreement.

 

“If everyone would calm down,” Morita says sternly, raising his voice above the din with a volume and tone that must have been honed over years of yelling at students.

 

It takes a few moments, but the older boys and their parents all reluctantly subside, and once they have, Morita turns to pin a disapproving expression on Mr Stark.

 

“We are yet to get to the bottom of what happened, and making baseless accusations is not going to help resolve this situation,” he says reproachfully.

 

“They’re not baseless accusations if they’re the truth,” Harley pipes up, and honestly, Peter wants to stuff a sock in his mouth. He was the one to throw the first punch; he’s digging his hole deeper every time he speaks up.

 

“Young man, I believe I have already warned you that you’re on thin ice,” Morita says, sharp, and Harley opens his mouth to retort, but Mr Stark gets there first – for which Peter’s grateful, cause he doubts that whatever Harley was going to say was gonna make the hole he’s dug any shallower.

 

“No, no, he’s right,” Mr Stark says, and turns an unimpressed eye over the other five boys. “From what I’ve been told, this lot were harassing my intern – just because they felt like it, apparently – and it all escalated from there. My understanding is that they’re the ones who started it.”

 

“As I said,” Morita replies, a bite to his voice, speaking before any of the parents can get loudly offended again. “We are yet to get to the bottom of what happened. Thus far, it’s each of their word against the other. These boys say that it was Mr Keener that started the altercation.”

 

“And you trust their word, do you?” Mr Stark says, eyebrow raised dubiously. “They’ve all shown themselves to be exemplary young men, I gather? No history of lying or blurred truth amongst any one of them? Certainly no history of fighting or bullying, I assume?”

 

The parents start making noises of offense again, but Morita speaks sharply over the lot of them.

 

“That kind of attitude is not helpful, Mr Stark. I’ll thank you to refrain from such comments, or you’ll have to leave the room.”

 

“Hey, it wasn’t a statement – I was just asking some generalised questions,” Mr Stark says, hands raised placatingly as he casts his gaze over the assembled parents. “After all, I don’t know your sons. Maybe they are pinnacles of honesty, I wouldn’t know. But I do know these boys, and I know that neither Harley or Pete would lie to me. So you’ll understand why I take their word over your lot.”

 

Morita sighs tiredly as the protests from the parents start back up.

 

“If we could get back on track, please,” he announces, using his stern teacher voice again, and strongly eyes the protesting parents until they all subside again. “Now, I’ve heard these boys’ version of events. Mr Keener, Mr Parker – please tell me your version.”

 

Peter speaks up, quickly and loudly enough to cut off Harley, who had also been opening his mouth.

 

“They cornered me after I was coming back from lunch and they started hassling me. They wouldn’t let me leave and they were saying a bunch of stuff, and it all escalated when they said something super rude that Harley heard.”

 

“That’s not what happened!” one of the thugs – Adam, if Peter remembers right – interjects.

 

Morita holds up a hand to stop any further interruptions.

 

“You’ve had your say – now it’s their turn,” he tells the boy sternly. He turns back to Peter. “What was it that was said, and who said it?”

 

“It was Mick, and – and I’m not gonna repeat it.”

 

“I stand by it,” Mick says stubbornly, and his father cuffs him around the head.

 

“You’ll hold your tongue,” General Manning says, glaring down at his son.

 

“So something offensive was said, then?” Morita asks, eyeing Mick shrewdly. “And it was after this that Harley punched Mick and escalated to physical violence?”

 

Peter hates that he has to say it, and he casts an apologetic at the other boy, who shrugs casually at him with a go on expression.

 

“….Yes,” Peter says, and Morita nods.

 

“I see,” the Principal says. “Well, there is quite a difference between physical violence and verbal violence, and I can’t condone Harley escalating from one to another. Words are just words, but fists can do lasting damage.”

 

Wow, Peter disagrees with that statement a lot. Words can do lasting damage, too – can do worse damage, even, than fists. But he doesn’t get a chance to say anything before Harley is piping up again, sounding pissed.

 

“You were just told that five seniors trapped a kid against a wall and were verbally hassling him, but you’re hung up on the part where I punched one of them,” Harley says loudly, disgusted. “What happened to taking all aspects of your students’ welfare seriously? What about Peter’s right to, I don’t know, walk to class from lunch  without being intimidated by a bunch of steroid junkies?”

 

“Harley, it’s fine,” Mr Stark says before Morita can chastise Harley, which makes Peter look at him sideways. It doesn’t sound fine to him. Harley’s right. It’s bullshit that the brunt of this is coming down on him just cause he threw the first punch. Harley didn’t start the situation, and it wasn’t even his fight! This isn’t fair at all. Peter would say so, but Mr Stark continues before anyone else can.

 

“I feel like this whole situation is missing a bit of colour, wouldn’t you say?” he says, talking to the room at large. “It’s all a bit black and white at the moment. We have the bare bones, but it’s all a bit he-said-she-said right now. Say! You have cameras in all your hallways, right? Friday, do me a solid and bring up the footage from the hallway the fight went down in. Let’s just watch it, and see for ourselves what happened.”

 

“Accessing the footage now, Boss,” FRIDAY says from Mr Stark’s phone, as Morita splutters.

 

“Mr Stark,” he says. “That really isn’t how we do things here.”

 

“No?” Mr Stark echoes, fishing his phone out and holding it face-up in his palm. “How do you do things here then?”

 

“We like to give the students the opportunity to come forward with the truth before resorting to security footage,” Morita says, clipped and irritated.

 

“Uh huh. Ok then. Well, we’ve heard both versions of events already, and they don’t match, and I’m a busy man, so,” Mr Stark says, and then swivels to point at Harley and Peter. “You two. Got anything to add before we watch this? Anything you’ve left out of the story so far?”

 

“No sir,” Peter says, earnest, as Harley grins cheerfully and says, “Nope!”

 

Mr Stark turns to the five senior boys, who shrink a little under his unimpressed glare. Peter notices with quiet vindication that they’re starting to look a little uncomfortable, all of a sudden, now that the words security footage have been uttered.

 

“And what about you lot? Honesty hour, come on. Anything that video is going to show us that you haven’t mentioned yourselves yet?”

 

Four of the five seniors glance at each other, uncertain and waiting for someone else to make the first move, but Mick glares at the ground.

 

“Piss off,” he mutters under his breath as he glares at his shoes, and Mr Stark raises a single eyebrow.

 

“Real young gentleman you got there, General Manning,” he says to Mick’s father, who scowls, but doesn’t get to say anything before FRIDAY is piping up from Mr Stark’s phone.

 

“Found it, Boss,” she chirps, and then the phone projects a hologram of a screen up into the air, upon which is a moving shot of a crowded hallway.

 

“Footage starts from fifteen seconds before the alteration,” FRIDAY says, and then six circles come up on screen. “I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the perpetrators and their target,” she adds, and sure enough, one gold circle is hovering over Peter’s image on screen, and another five red circles are over Mick and his friends.

 

“Mr Stark,” Morita says again, cross, but Mr Stark just says “This is the fastest way of getting the truth, Principal Morita,” and doesn’t do anything to stop the footage playing. Short of coming out from behind his desk and knocking the phone from Mr Stark’s hand, there isn’t really anything that Morita can do to stop the footage from playing, and he subsides into his chair with an irritated huff as he appears to realise this.

 

The boys on the other side of the room are looking increasingly uncomfortable, and their parents gazes are all riveted to the screen as they wait to see the fight unfold – all of them probably steadfast in the belief that they’re about to see their son’s story, whatever it was, be confirmed.

 

Peter turns to watch the footage himself, and catches the moment that Mick sees Peter – walking along with his books in his arms – and gestures to his buddies. They all weave through the crowd of students and converge on Peter, catching up to him and grabbing his attention when Mick knocks all his books out of his hands with a hard swipe.

 

“Oop!” Mr Stark says. “What was that? Could that be… physical violence? Tut tut.”

 

Peter casts a quick glance at Mick, who’s not even watching the footage and is instead glaring at the carpet below his feet. General Manning is alternating between glaring at his son and glaring at the footage, a vein pulsing furiously in his temple.

 

“Whoop, that’s two,” Mr Stark says, and Peter turns back to see the recording of himself stumbling backwards in the wake of Adam shoving him against the wall.

 

“Three,” Mr Stark narrates, as Peter tries to leave the circle of aggressors he’s found himself in, and instead gets shoved backwards by Dan.

 

The footage continues for a few long seconds, with Mr Stark counting aloud each time one of the older boys shoves at Peter. There’s no audio, but it’s clear that words are being traded between them, and it’s also clear that Peter isn’t engaging, and is trying to leave.

 

A new golden circle appears on screen as Harley arrives in the corridor, and in the time it takes him to weaves curiously through the circle of onlookers to a spot where he can see what’s going on, Peter’s been shoulder-checked by Adam again to prevent yet another attempt at leaving.

 

He’s only there watching for a couple of moments, before he suddenly shoulders his way out of the circle of watchers and into the empty space surrounding Peter and the Seniors, and the set of his shoulders is rigid as he squares up against the older boys, who all turn to look at him.

 

After a second, Mick swaggers forward and says something to Harley – and Peter is newly glad that there’s no audio on this recording, because otherwise Mr Stark would have heard the awful words that Mick had spewed – and there’s a weighty pause for a long second before Harley calmly replies, and then punches Mick in the face.

 

The watching parents all gasp at the sudden strike, but Peter can see Harley on Mr Stark’s other side, and he’s repressing an unapologetic grin.

 

Projection-Mike reels backwards as the images of Dan and Adam surge forwards to attack Harley together, and then it all devolves into a messy flurry of flying limbs and snarling faces. Peter watches himself critically, watching for any sign that he’s overstepped the line of “ordinary teenager,” and he thinks he does alright. He wouldn’t guess, looking at this footage, that Spiderman is in the fight.

 

The only questionable moment is when Dan gears up to punch Harley in the back of the head, and Peter reacts by punching Dan in the face a split second before the other boy’s hit can land. If Peter’s being critical (and he is) he moved just a smidge too fast for that to be classified as entirely within the realm of “ordinary.” He thinks he’s ok though. The rest of the fight, he’s pretty ungainly and slow to react. That last moment can easily be dismissed with the excuse of desperate instinct.

 

The parents all gasp aloud again as the footage of Peter’s hit plays, and Dan goes sailing backwards to land on his back in a crumpled heap. The teachers finally arrive as Dan starts rolling sluggishly to his feet, and as they start breaking up the fight onscreen, the hologram shrinks back down into the phone and Mr Stark tucks it away and looks over at the Principal.

 

“What were you saying, Mr Morita?” he asks, bright and cheerful. “That Harley was the first to escalate to physical violence, right? Well, as we’ve all just seen, that’s not the case, is it. In fact, I think every single one of you lot got in at least one shove against Peter before Harley even arrived on the scene.”

 

He casts an unimpressed expression over the assembled parents, who’s faces are showing various different kinds of anger as they look from Mr Stark to their sons. Some look like they’re going to be grounding their kids for life, and some look like they’re going to dig their heels in and defend their children.

 

Peter’s assessment is proven right not even a second later, as General Manning speaks up before Morita has the chance to.

 

“You would equate a bit of friendly shoving to that little troublemaker punching my son in the face?” he demands, furious.

 

Friendly shoving?” Peter squawks, disbelieving.

 

“A bit of roughhousing between boys is meaningless, but outright assault – ” Manning goes on, and this time it’s Harley who interrupts him.

 

“I’d say that slapping his books out of his hands and shoving him multiple times against the wall counts as assault, and if you don’t think so, then I’m a bit concerned for what your standards of assault are,” the kid says, sounding pissed, and Manning puffs up angrily.

 

“I’m with Harley on this one,” Mr Stark adds, and he sounds much sterner than Peter’s used to hearing him. “And I’d consider how you want to handle this situation, General, because I’m yet to decide whether or not we’ll be pressing charges.”

 

“Pressing charges!” Dan’s mother nearly shrieks, and points furiously at Peter. “That boy punched my son so hard he knocked him to the floor!”

 

“Yes,” Mr Stark agrees coolly. “In an attempt to stop your son from hitting Harley in the back of his unprotected head. That was really well intercepted, by the way,” he says in an aside to Peter, his voice full of approval. “Good job.”

 

Peter blushes at the praise as Dan’s mother splutters in rage and Morita pipes up angrily.

 

“I hardly think that praising him for punching another student in the face is an appropriate reaction!” he says, sharp.

 

“Oh?” Mr Stark asks mildly. “So Peter should have just let Harley get attacked from behind? You know that punches to the back of the head can kill, right? It’s pretty common, even. Harley was at risk of serious injury in that moment, and Peter intervened. You bet I’m going to praise him for that.”

 

He turns to Dan’s mother, his calm exterior cracking for a moment to show true anger on his face.

 

“Your son could have killed my intern with a hit like that,” he says sharply. “You should be thanking Peter for stopping it. If not for Pete, your boy might otherwise be sitting here staring down the barrel of a manslaughter charge.”

 

Dan’s mother blinks in surprise, but Mr Stark isn’t done.

 

“There’s also a charge intending to hit someone with a strike like that and failing,” he says coldly. “It’s called Intent to cause grievous bodily harm, and it’s a charge that that I’m still very seriously considering.”

 

That shuts the mother up, who seems to realise all of a sudden just how serious what her son nearly did was, and how much trouble he could still be in.

 

“I don’t think that pressing charges is necessary,” Morita says, trying to sound stern as he attempts to calm the situation down and retake control of the conversation.

 

“I’d like it if they weren’t,” Mr Stark concedes, leaning back against the wall casually. “Blood runs hot at their age, and things can get out of control. It’s no excuse for what happened, but fortunately – ” he continues, with a pointed glance at Dan “– no one was seriously injured today. As long as everyone involved learns their lessons and resolves to keep their teenaged tempers at bay next time, I’d like to think we could put this behind us without involving the police.”

 

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” General Manning sneers. “You don’t have any respect for law enforcement or the right way of handling things. It’s all about under the table pay offs, for you. How much are you thinking of bribing us with, so that we’ll let this go?”

 

Mr Stark laughs as though Manning just said something hilarious.

 

“You think I’m trying to bribe you?” he laughs. “You think we’re the one who’ll come off worse if everyone here decides to press charges?”

 

“I think that one of your brats is the one who threw the first punch, and I think that the other one hit a kid so hard that he fell over. I think that what my son and his friends did was defend themselves against your trigger-happy little interns, and I think that we’re the ones who should be considering charges.”

 

“Oh, we can go all out if you want to, General,” Tony says, perfectly pleasant, ignoring Morita’s increasingly urgent requests for them all to calm down.

 

“I’ll lay charges for physical assault and intimidation, for a start,” Mr Stark says. “I’ll have FRIDAY scan through the rest of the security archives too, because I doubt this is the first instance where your kid has bailed mine up in a corner, and I promise you that I’ll be holding your son accountable for every moment he’s ever made Peter feel uncomfortable at school. And the media will hear about it, because they’re vultures like that and the security surrounding this school’s systems is laughable, so I’m sure someone will manage to get a hold of the footage. And how will your family come out looking after that breaks, General? You’re thinking of running for the Sentate, aren’t you? How do you think your run will go when everyone’s seen the footage of your almost-College-aged kid bailing up a fifteen year old? With the backup of four other Seniors? I doubt it will go over well with people.”

 

“Are you threatening me?” Manning demands, taking a step forward.

 

“Not even a little bit,” Mr Stark replies, not moving from his casual lean against the wall. “I’m just describing how the dominoes will fall if you want to push the first one over. The media are like bloodhounds, and there were a whole lot of witnesses who saw what happened today and who will probably be quite happy to talk about it to any nice reporter with a microphone. The papers will hear about this in no time even without me telling them directly, and from there, they’ll get their hands on the footage even more easily than I did. Me telling you what will happen is a prediction, not a threat. So, sure. You can charge Harley, if you want. And you can charge Peter. But just be aware that I’ll be charging your kid, and all his buddies, for everything they’ve done to Peter so far.”

 

“I think we all need to calm down,” Morita says again, sounding stressed and irritated, as Manning glares furiously and Mr Stark stares right back at him with an aggressively pleasant expression on his face.

 

“Obviously it’s up to yourselves if you want to press charges or not, but I do think we can handle this internally,” Morita says. “Mr Stark, please think of these boys’ futures before you make any decisions. They’re all due to apply for College this year, and having active assault cases being pressed against them will ruin many of their opportunities.”

 

Many of the assembled parents startle at that, like that particular consequence hadn’t occurred to them yet.

 

“Yes, I imagine it would,” Mr Stark says coolly, not looking away from General Manning.

 

“I’m thinking a two-day suspension will suffice,” Morita continues, manfully pressing on as though the tension in the room wasn’t thick enough to cut with a knife. “For all involved parties. Two days is enough time for you all to reflect on your actions, and think about what you could have done differently that might have prevented what happened today. When you return, I want assurances from all of you that nothing like this will ever happen again.”

 

“My son nearly got a broken jaw, and you want the perpetrator to spend two days lounging at home as punishment?” Dan’s mother demands, looking furious again.

 

“I want all of the perpetrators to have the same punishment, and preferably one that won’t ruin their chances at College,” Morita replies. “The fault was evenly distributed amongst every student here. The footage clearly showed that your son was one of those who instigated the altercation. If the initial altercation hadn’t happened, then the brawl that followed would never have occurred either. Yes, Mr Keener threw the first punch, but as Mr Stark pointed out, he was not in fact the first to escalate to physical violence. Now I can make it a three-day suspension if you want, or longer, but bear in mind that Dan will be receiving the same, and that three-day suspensions go onto College applications.”

 

He leaves that hanging there for a long moment, and eventually Dan’s mother drops her gaze away from his.

 

“Two days should be fine, I suppose,” she says, reluctant and irritated.

 

“Wonderful. Are we all happy with this punishment?”

 

“It’s fine by me,” Mr Stark says, and Peter nods once when Morita turns expectantly to him. Harley rolls his eyes and shrugs when it’s his turn, which makes Morita’s face twitch in irritation before he moves on. The Principal casts his gaze over the older boys on the other side of the room, and one by one each of their parents nods a reluctant agreement to the terms of the punishment.

 

“And what about charges?” Morita questions. “Will any of you press charges?”

 

“I won’t press charges against your sons as long as none of you press charges against my interns,” Mr Stark says without hesitation. “But if you press, well, so will I.”

 

There’s a long silence at that, wherein the other parents trade glances with their sons and each other, and weigh up their options.

 

“Fine,” Manning spits after a long moment, looking furious. “This time, I won’t press charges.”

 

With Manning’s concession, the other parents follow his lead and all agree that they won’t press charges for the brawl, and Mr Stark nods once in agreement when Morita turns questioningly to him.

 

“Great,” the Principal says, once everyone has agreed. “Well, I think we can call this meeting concluded. Boys, your suspension starts now and includes tomorrow. I’ll see you all back here after that, and I don’t want to hear a peep of fighting between any of you, is that understood?”

 

There’s a round of sullen nodding, and Morita nods briskly.

 

“Wonderful,” he says, and stands up. “Thank you all for coming in. Hopefully next time we all see each other, it’s under better circumstances. Mr Keener, Mr Stark, if you wouldn’t mind staying behind for a moment?”

 

Mr Stark’s eyes narrow slightly, but he nods, and then all the Senior boys and their parents get up and start filing towards the door.

 

“Oh hey, you, whats-your-name; mini-Manning,” Mr Stark says, just as the General reaches for the door handle, and Mick glances in Mr Stark’s direction with a glare, while his father spins on a heel with a fierce scowl.

 

Mr Stark points at Mick, expression serious.

 

“Stay away from these two, you got it? If there’s even one more incident where you harass either of them, I won’t be talked out of pressing charges. For everything. That goes for all of you.”

 

General Manning’s own glare of hatred increases.

 

“Same goes for your brats, Stark,” he threatens. “They lay a hand on my kid again, there’ll be hell to pay.”

 

“Might be best if we leave Michael and co off the birthday party invite list, then,” Mr Stark replies, glib, and Manning sneers at him before opening the door and striding out of the room.

 

The rest of the boys and their parents file out too, and its not long before it’s just Morita, Mr Stark, Harley and Peter in the room.

 

“Peter, if you wouldn’t mind stepping out for a moment?” Morita asks, leadingly, and Peter jumps.

 

“Oh, yeah – uh, sure thing, uh – ” he says, and scurries out of the office, pulling the door shut behind him and slipping into the nearest seat. The Seniors and their parents are all already out of the reception area – Peter can see them all striding down the corridor, several of them being berated by their parents as they go.

 

And Peter doesn’t mean to eavesdrop on the conversation in Morita’s office, but with his enhanced hearing and nothing else to distract him aside from the typing of the receptionist’s keyboard, he can’t help it.

 

“Harley,” Morita is saying, swapping to first names now that it’s one-on-one. “I have to be honest with you. This is not a good start to your career here.”

 

There’s the beginning of a sound and then Mr Stark is talking, slightly louder than usual, and Peter suspects that he’s just cut off whatever Harley was about to say. 

 

“He knows,” Mr Stark says. “I think we can put this down to extenuating circumstances and new friendship loyalty. I doubt it will happen again.”

 

New friendship loyalty. As though Peter and Harley didn’t meet literally because of that brawl. But Morita probably doesn’t know that, so implying that Harley was defending his new friend is a good move, Peter thinks.

 

“Be that as it may, it was an extreme reaction, and one I’m very concerned about seeing in someone who hasn’t even been here a week,” Morita says, sounding disapproving. “The situation didn’t need to turn into an all out fight, but it did, and you’re the one who took it there.”

 

“I was defending Peter – ” Harley starts, outraged, which isn’t entirely true – he was defending Mr Stark more than Peter, but then it turned into Peter-and-Harley against everyone else, so by the end of the fight, at least, they were defending each other.

 

“You still threw the first punch,” Morita interrupts. “You could have gotten a teacher, or done any number of other things to help Peter that didn’t include any kind of violence. Now, you’re still on probation here. This is your one chance, and you’re only getting it because you weren’t the instigator of the fight. If I find you starting brawls again, you’ll be out, do you understand?”

 

There’s a long silence, and then Harley replies, “Yes,” in a sullen, furious tone.

 

“Ok then,” Morita says. “Good. I hope not to see you in my office for this kind of situation again, then.”

 

“I hope it’s not necessary either,” Mr Stark says, and for a second Peter thinks his words are directed at Harley, which is confusing, because he was standing up for them earlier, but then he continues. “The behaviour those Seniors exhibited today was pretty confident, which tells me that it’s not the first time they’ve done it. I hope to never be in this office again because your staff missed signs of blatant bullying that could have been nipped in the bud.”

 

“Mr Stark, that is hardly fair,” Morita starts to say.

 

“What’s not fair is a kid being bailed up against a wall by five guys bigger than him, and the one person who comes to his aid gets raked over the coals for it. Now I get it. You have to make an example of all those involved – you can’t let kids get into brawls and then do nothing about it. But this situation today wouldn’t have happened if your staff had noticed sooner something that’s obviously been going on for a while.”

 

“We have a no bullying policy at this school – ”

 

“Every school has a no bullying policy. There isn’t a school that exists that promotes bullying. But ‘no bullying’ policies are only worth something if they’re enforced, and it appears that there are at least five bullies who have slipped through whatever detection nets you have set up. So I request that you tighten your nets, Principal Morita. Because Harley wouldn’t have been involved in a fight today if Peter hadn’t been being bullied.”

 

There’s a rather sour silence.

 

“I understand your concerns, Mr Stark,” Morita says eventually. “And you’ll be pleased to know that I already intended raising the matter of bullying at our next staff meeting. I don’t think you need to worry about this situation going undetected again.”

 

“I sure hope not,” Mr Stark says. “But Harley, just so you know – I’m sure we can set up some kind of home schooling program, if you ever need it. MIT doesn’t have a huge percentage of homeschoolers, but I think if you were homeschooled by me, you’d probably be fine. And I won’t expel you for standing up for a fellow student.”

 

“Good to know,” Harley says, and the delighted grin is clear in his voice.

 

“So, is that all, Principal Morita?” Mr Stark asks, pleasantly.

 

“It is,” Morita says, striving for professionally pleasant but missing by a mile and coming out through gritted teeth, instead. “Thank you for coming in, Mr Stark.”

 

“I was glad to,” Mr Stark says breezily, and there’s the rub of a wooden chairleg skidding across carpet as he gets up and makes his way towards the door. “We’ll get out of your hair now and get started on that suspension. Enjoy the rest of your day.”

 

He doesn’t wait for a response, and it’s a split second later that Mr Stark opens the door.

 

Peter grins up at him, uncaring of the fact that by doing so he’s probably giving away that he’s been evesdropping, and Mr Stark’s own lips twitch in response as he exits the Principal’s office. Harley, grinning hugely himself, is a step behind him.

 

“Alright, Edge and Christian,” Mr Stark says, and Peter snorts at the wrestling tag-team reference. “Your guardians are still at work, so you’re both coming with me. Where are your bags and books and crap? I assume homework still applies when you’re on house arrest? Lead the way – go get your shit.” 

 

Mr Morita appears in the doorway behind them, and he sends an unimpressed scowl at Mr Stark’s back for the casual swearing, but Mr Stark doesn’t notice as he ushers both students ahead of him towards the reception doors.

 

“I want you two on your best behaviour when you return,” Morita calls out to them as they go, because he has to have the last word, apparently.

 

“Yes sir,” Peter replies, as Harley sends a sloppy salute in Morita’s general direction, and then the door is shut behind them and they’re in the corridor.

 

Peter leads the way towards his lockers – he doesn’t know where Harley’s is, exactly, but they’re in the same year, so they’ll be in the same corridor; the one outside the science classroom – and he turns and starts walking backwards so he can face Mr Stark as they move.

 

“So – uh. I mean, I think I know the answer to this, but I just wanna make sure – ” he starts, and Mr Stark rolls his eyes.

 

“Spit it out, kid,” he says.

 

“You’re not mad, are you? At us? For the fight?” Peter asks, because he doesn’t think they’re in trouble for it, but he just needs to make sure.

 

Mr Stark stares at him for a long moment in silence, still walking along, and ignoring Harley’s raised eyebrow which is half-curious and half-challenging, like if Mr Stark says he is mad at them, then he’ll have Words To Say about it.

 

“No,” Mr Stark answers eventually, after he’s held them in suspense for a few long seconds, and then the man’s lips quirk in amusement at Peter’s relieved exhale.

 

“You didn’t start it, and you didn’t fight back even when they were clearly goading you,” he elaborates. “And then when the fight did start, you both held your own damn well despite being out numbered and outweighed. And I shouldn’t say this, because it will only encourage you, but Harley, you getting involved was pretty justified. There were five of them, and one of Peter. I’d say I’m surprised that no one else stepped in before Harley got there, but hey, children are vultures.”

 

“Hey,” Peter complains.

 

Most children, not you two. You two are child-prodigy homing beacons, apparently. I can’t believe you met while getting in a fight against a bunch of low-class thugs. The two kids in the whole world that I actually like, and this is how you meet.”

 

“Getting in a fight to defend you from low-class thugs,” Harley corrects. “And I think it’s pretty perfect, actually,” he continues. “Can you imagine if we’d met some other way? Like – imagine if you had introduced us. Ugh, how boring would that have been? This is a way better story.”

 

“Yeah, are you ever going to tell me what exactly it was that they said about me?” Mr Stark asks, as they turn into their corridor.

 

Peter and Harley both reply with “Nope,” in unison, and Mr Stark glares between them.

 

“Is this gonna be a thing now?” he demands, as they come to a stop next to Peter’s locker and he sets about getting it open. “You two teaming up together?”

 

“I think we make a pretty good team,” Peter says, shooting a grin at Harley, where he’s continued down eight lockers or so.

 

“Yeah, we sure proved that today!” Harley replies, grinning back, and mimes a one-two punch. “Two against five, boom! They didn’t stand a chance!”

 

Mr Stark sighs dramatically.

 

“I can’t believe I’m buying you ice-cream for this,” he says, and both boys perk up.

 

“You’re buying us ice-cream?”

 

“Of course I’m buying you ice-cream; how else am I supposed to reward you for being loyal and kicking ass? Unless you think you’re too old for ice-cream?” That last part is said teasingly, as though there’s a chance in hell of Harley or Peter telling him that going out for ice-cream isn’t cool any more.

 

“Anyone who says they’re ‘too old’ to go out for ice-cream is both immature and sad,” Harley says, yanking his bag out and shoving a few books inside it, and Peter nods in agreement.

 

“Great, well, hurry up, so I can go be an irresponsible adult and buy you a treat for getting in a fight,” Mr Stark says, making a chop chop motion with his hands.

 

Peter shoves what he needs into his (new, cause he lost another one recently) backpack, and slams his locker shut.

 

“So what are we gonna be doing after ice-cream?” he asks, slinging his bag over his shoulder and pausing next to Mr Stark to wait for Harley.

 

“Well, you’re on suspension for the rest of today and all of tomorrow,” Mr Stark says, as Harley approaches them. “And it would be a total waste if you spent the time doing boring teenaged shit like sleeping in and playing video games. Just cause you’re not in school doesn’t mean you get to waste a chance for education. That would be irresponsible.”

 

“Are we gonna spend a day and a half blowing shit up in your lab?” Harley asks, grinning hugely.

 

“It’s been a while since DUM-E’s gotten to use the fire extinguisher,” Mr Stark says seriously. “He could do with the practice.”

 

Yes,” Harley crows, and holds out his hand for a high five. Peter obliges, grinning.

 

“Alright, alright, get a move on,” Mr Stark grumbles, but his twitching lips are giving away his amusement.

 

“Who are you telling to get a move on, old man?” Harley asks, darting past Mr Stark and Peter so he can lead the way down the corridor. “You’re the one lagging.”

 

“Little shit,” Mr Stark mutters with a grin, as Harley disappears around the corner, and then he glares at Peter. “Don’t think you can start talking to me like that,” he warns. “One of you has to treat me with the respect I deserve.”

 

Peter folds a hand over his heart, burying his grin with a solemn expression.

 

“I would never, Mr Stark,” he assures, and then his composure cracks and he grins as Mr Stark snorts and reaches out with one hand to scuff playfully at Peter’s hair.

 

“Letting you two meet was a mistake,” he says, as though he had anything to do with letting it happen at all. “Now quit dawdling. My ice-cream is out there somewhere, melting.”

 

Peter laughs and turns to leave, and in doing so, notices the science classroom for the first time. The science classroom, which has windows all along its length looking out onto the corridor, and which is the classroom that Peter is supposed to be in right now; that Peter would be in right now if he hadn’t been otherwise occupied getting suspended for fighting. The science classroom which has a whole lot of his classmates in it, all of whom are staring at Peter and Mr Stark with slack jaws and dumbfounded expressions. Even the teacher is staring in shock.

 

Ned and MJ are the only ones who don’t look utterly floored with disbelief. Ned is waving enthusiastically and grinning so widely that it’s a wonder he hasn’t sprained a muscle in his face, and MJ just looks bored and like she doesn’t get why everyone is staring out into the corridor. Flash’s expression is something that Peter knows, in a heartbeat, that he will cherish for all eternity.

 

Peter waves awkwardly to them all, and Mr Stark follows his gaze.

 

“Your classmates, I assume?” he asks, and Peter glances at him and nods. Mr Stark gives a brief wave to the class. Peter hears Ned’s shriek through the glass.

 

“Yeah – uh. The enthusiastic one is Ned. My guy in the chair, you know. I’ve mentioned him to you?”

 

“The one that hacked your suit?” Mr Stark clarifies, and Peter pauses.

 

“Uh. Yes. That one,” he says, awkward.

 

“Hm,” Mr Stark hums, thoughtful. “I think I need to meet a kid who can hack my tech. Shoulda done it sooner, really. Get him to check with his mom, then bring him around some time.”

 

“Oh, uh, sure! Yeah, I’ll – yep, I’ll do that!” Peter says, trying to think of how to pass this news on to Ned in a way that won’t make him pass out on the spot from excitement. (Who is he kidding; Ned passing out over this is a foregone conclusion. Peter will just make sure the kid is sitting down before he breaks the news.)

 

“Ok, well, hurry up – I endured a meeting with a Principal for you; I need ice-cream as a reward,” Mr Stark says, planting a hand in the middle of Peter’s back and propelling him forward.

 

“I thought the reward was for me and Harley for being – what did you say? For being loyal and for kicking ass?”

 

“Why can’t it be a reward for all of us?” Mr Stark asks. “Now let’s go find your little partner in crime and make sure he’s not hotwiring my car. He’s been unsupervised for too long.”

 

“It’s been like, two minutes,” Peter says, confused.

 

Exactly,” Mr Stark says.

 

When they make it to the car (a sleek silver thing that’s probably the most expensive thing that’s ever been parked outside this school), they find Harley in the divers’ seat, halfway to hotwiring it.

 

“You took ages,” is his excuse, as Mr Stark shepherds him out of the seat.



“Did you want your ice-cream in a cup or a cone?” Mr Stark asks, which Peter thinks is a weird and abrupt change of subject.

 

“Cone, duh,” Harley replies, scooting into the passenger seat.

 

“Well, for this hotwiring crap, you’re getting it in a cup now,” Mr Stark informs Harley, starting the engine as Peter opens the back door and climbs in.

 

(Later, in the lab, when Mr Stark is distracted by U yanking on a lead he wasn’t meant to, Harley confides in Peter that “I wanted it in a cup anyway – I just knew what he was planning. You get way more icecream in a cup, and you can ask for it with a piece of waffle, so joke’s on him.”

 

Later again, Peter tells Ned that Mr Stark wants to meet him.

 

Surprising absolutely no-one, and making Peter glad that he came into this conversation armed with a pillow and quick reflexes, Ned faints.)