Captain America and the Winter Soldier left behind a deafening silence. Iron Man and War Machine tried to give chase, but weren’t able to stop the jet without seriously injuring the two passengers. They were mad, yes, but they didn’t want anyone to end up dead, or paralysed, or maimed. The jet rose into the sky, higher and higher before disappearing over the horizon.
The barren airport was quiet. Peter was aching all over, still disoriented from the blow that knocked him through the air. The formerly building-sized guy that had hit him lay panting, limbs eagle-spread. Hawkeye sat nearby, rubbing at his back and grumbling under his breath. Scarlett Witch was cradled in Vision’s arms, the two murmuring quietly to one another.
Falcon touched down, spread wings retreating. Iron Man and War Machine followed his descent moments after. They refused to look at their former teammate.
Peter stumbled to unsteady, determined feet. His mask was rumbled, a little twisted, but pulled to his chin. Booted feet spun in a wobbly circle, taking in the entire airport, the burning husks of thrown cars, abandoned airplanes, and the dozen exhausted, resting heroes.
“We’re not going to start fighting again, are we?” Peter said. “Because sure, yeah, I’m ready to go again, but some of you guys look old and I don’t want to accidentally break some hips—”
“You are not ready to go again,” Mr. Stark told him firmly. His faceplate flipped up, and he looked weary and defeated in an achingly familiar way.
“I am,” Peter insisted. “Did you see me take down a guy that was the size of a building? A building!” Peter limped over to said Building Guy, who squinted up at the teenager, one hand shielded over his eyes. “Also, hey, I’m super impressed about the turning-into-a-building thing. Doesn’t that break all kinds of rules about the conservation of mass? How does that even work? Is it a superpower, or are you an alien like that Thor guy, or is it, like, science—”
“Where did you find this kid?” Hawkeye asked loudly.
Falcon was eyeing Peter with raised brows. “Man, even I know not to hire people off of craigslist.”
Peter jabbed a finger in his direction. “That’s rude. Who knew, other superheroes were rude. I thought that was just me.”
“Nope, you’re not special, pumpkin,” Mr. Stark said. “We’re all assholes.”
His worn, damaged suit creaked as he made his way to Peter. He wound himself down onto the cement ground, hands braced behind him, stubby metal legs sticking out in front of him. Peter shuffled closer to him. He couldn’t help it; there was something about the billionaire that drew him in. Made him feel giddy and desperate to connect, to impress.
Peter sat with his legs tucked, criss-cross, hands on his knees, and let the silence return briefly. It was a comforting blanket, balm after the burning, blistering heat of a fight. Peter liked watching the other heroes in this wavering aftermath. He liked seeing how their shoulders slumped and they rubbed at their tired, aching eyes, yawns splitting their jaws open. They were human, too. It made him feel less like a kid in dress up.
“SHIELD will be here soon,” Mr. Stark murmured to War Machine. The Colonel had slumped next to him, faceplate up, Rhodes’ sweaty face loose and open.
“Think we’ll have another fight on our hands?” Rhodes whispered back. Mr. Stark cocked his head discreetly, yes. Rhodes sighed. “Great. I’m definitely having a hot shower as soon as this is all over.”
“Um,” Peter said. He shifted, squirmed; his concussion made his vision swim, everything appearing a little wet, wobbly, but he ignored it in favour of a more pressing matter. “Are we going to back to New York, or…?”
“We still have stuff to—” Tony began.
Peter leapt up. The world swayed, but his sticky feet and strength kept him up. He pointed a firm, argumentative finger at his idol. “Ohhhh no. No, no, no. I’m sorry, Mr. Stark, but you promised you’d have me back.”
“Worried you’re going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight?” Rhodes teased with a tired smile.
Peter flapped his hands in the air. “Dude, it’s a school night!”
“School night,” Hawkeye murmured from his place several feet away, horrified. “Shit. They keep getting younger and younger…”
“No, you just keep getting older and older,” Scarlett Witch said loudly from her place in Vision’s arms. The artificial man looked pleased, at home with having his former enemy cradled to his chest. Peter wasn’t going to judge. It was 2016. Love was love, ect. ect.
“I have a Spanish test tomorrow,” Peter informed them. Vigilanting and grief had already made his grades dip dramatically. Aunt May was going to be furious if he failed. “I haven’t studied for it… at all…”
“Spanish test,” Rhodes told Mr. Stark flatly.
The billionaire shrugged, defensive. “I told you he was on the young side.”
“Guys, c’mon!” Peter said. He looked around at the group of superheroes. “Can someone give me a lift to New York? Does anyone have a secret plane tucked away? A spaceship?” Peter kicked Building Guy in the thigh. He’d fallen asleep since they’d last spoken. “You can turn into a giant, but can you fly? Could you fly me home? Hello?”
“No flying,” Building Guy grumbled, only half conscious.
Peter cast his eyes around at the other superheroes, searching. “Hey, can one of you guys—”
Black Widow stalked over from the rubble remains of an exploding garage, a layer of plaster and dust smeared over her uniform and burnt curls. Loudly, she said, “Not it.”
“Not it,” Hawkeye said.
“Not it,” Building Guy said into the ground.
“Oh, come on, really,” Mr. Stark said. “Are we doing this? Really? How old are we?”
“Not it,” Rhodes said.
“Not it,” Scarlett Witch said, as Vision agreed, “Not it, either.”
“Fine,” Mr. Stark said. “Fine. Fine.” Peter turned hopefully towards him, only for the billionaire to rise to his feet and say loudly, “Not it.”
“You were the one that took me here,” Peter argued, stabbing the man in the chest plate with a finger. It dented a little under his annoyed, desperate strength. He quickly withdraw his hand, guilty, embarrassed, but Mr. Stark only looked down at it, impressed.
“Can’t you give the kid a plane ticket?” Falcon asked.
Mr. Stark shook his head. “Not without a crap-load of paperwork. Kid doesn’t even have a passport. And I’m pretty sure minors aren’t supposed to be flying without an adult to hold their hand, or something? Don’t you have to book a special ticket or whatever if a toddler wants to fly in an aeroplane?”
“Why did I let you talk me into this,” Peter wondered. On the other side of the airport, Scarlett Witch was wincing, teeth gritted at her injuries. Vision took one look at her, adjusted his hold on the woman and, with a shine of yellow rock and the dramatic billowing of his cape, ascending vertically into the air, flying away from them with ease. “Oh, yeah. That’s why.”
Vision and Scarlett Witch disappeared into the vast blue sky as though they were never there. Peter stared after them with awe. So cool. So, so cool.
“Hey,” Peter realised, “he could’ve taken me, too.”
“Wait, shit,” Falcon blurted. “I’m not it.”
“Nope,” Mr. Stark said, waggling one metal finger. “You were the last person. Hope those wings of yours don’t melt over seawater, Wilson.”
Peter glanced from one to the other. “Weren’t you guys about to tear each other to pieces, like, half an hour ago?”
They ignored him. “He’s your pet project,” Falcon said.
“How dare you,” Mr. Stark said. “I have more than one pet project.”
“I am right here,” Peter said to the air. “And why do I suddenly feel like I’ve been cheated on, Mr. Stark, what the hell—”
“Don’t you have private jets—”
“Not one that I can send a teenager on pilotless. Not in Germany, anyway.”
“So fly home with him! I’m supposed to take the kid home so you can go after Steve? No way, Tin Man—”
“That is so cold of you. Look at him! Look at that face!” Mr. Stark grabbed hold of Peter’s chin and tilted it gently toward Falcon, so the other man could see how sad and adorable Peter theoretically was, even though he was wearing a thick, opaque mask.
Peter knocked the gauntlet away and grabbed Mr. Stark’s armoured shoulders. He shook him, and demanded, “Take me home, Mr. Stark!”
“You want me to violate the rules of ‘not it?’ How could you ask for such a thing—”
Peter pressed his hands over his face. His Aunt was going to kill him. “Ughhhhhhhhhhh!”
“I will make sure the child is escorted home.”
They turned and there, gleaming in the dwindling sun of the afternoon, stood Black Panther. He was holding himself stiffly, but his body armour was unmarred, without so much as a scratch.
“Thank you,” Peter quickly told his saviour. To Mr. Stark, he said, “He’s my new favourite superhero.”
“Hey—” Tony protested.
“This is what you get,” Sam told him, mercilessly.
“I will fight you again, Wilson—”
“Come along,” Black Panther said, gesturing Peter forward. “Are you injured?”
“A little concussed. A lot bruised.” Peter shrugged. “I heal quickly.”
“If you feel as though you need assistance, I can have someone look you over,” he said. Black Panther’s suit was full body, his mask giving nothing away, but the calm and gentle lull of his voice was reassuring. It made Peter edge closer, unafraid to follow the older man through the airport. “Someone I trust. Your secret identity will not be compromised under my protection.”
“We just met,” Peter said, wonderingly.
“We fought together,” Black Panther dismissed. “And you’re young. And you need assistance I can provide. I can help you, so it’s my responsibility to do so.”
“Yeah,” Peter said, “you’re definitely my new favourite hero.”