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The Less You Know

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Getting up at the buttcrack of dawn after fighting aliens with the Avengers so that he could ride back down to Queens and go to school was definitely not a high point in Peter’s life. Objectively it should be awesome, getting chauffeured in one of Tony’s fancy cars, but with every mile that Peter put between himself and the Avengers HQ, the more surreal the whole thing felt.

The impromptu sleepover had been amazing, of course. Once the Avengers had found out about his age, there hadn’t really been any reason to keep his mask on. Halfway through the party he had abandoned it, somewhat self-conscious about being the only masked person in the room.

Besides, he wasn’t famous or anything, and there was zero chance that any of the Avengers would know who he was, beyond him being a high schooler named Peter with some terrible mask-hair.

Taking off his mask had the added benefit of shushing Karen, who had started offering decidedly unhelpful things like “Do your Thor impersonation!” or “Ask Hawkeye to shoot an apple off your head!” He’d be angrier but he found it almost sweet that Karen remembered the things he idly commented on while in costume.

At one point Scarlet Witch had cornered him in the kitchen, approaching him just after he’d shoved an entire handful of cheese puffs in his mouth. He’d tried to say ‘Hi!’ anyway with predictable results, and then had frozen in terror when he realized that she could, like, send him flying into the moon or something for getting secondhand cheese puff on her jacket. Instead she had laughed, patted him on the head, and said, “Perhaps now I won’t be referred to as the kid.”

“You’re welcome?” Peter had said after hastily trying to swallow entirely too many cheese puffs --why was he the way he was? -- but she’d already turned away, joining Vision in front of a screen showing the Hulk tripping over a lamp post he’d just knocked over.

“You showed great valor today,” Thor had told him gravely, patting him on the shoulder hard enough to send him stumbling forward. “And I applaud your choice in entertainment.” He gestured to the screens, which were still rolling through what was essentially an hour-long blooper reel of superhero fails.

“No problem, just trying to do my part,” Peter had said, trying to figure out if he should be staring at Thor’s perfect face or his biceps, which were roughly larger than Peter’s entire torso.

Thor had laughed, a great booming sound, and offered up his hand for a high-five. It was the greatest high-five of Peter’s life.

The rest of the We-Saved-New-York celebration was a blur of Peter meeting lifelong heroes and laughing and he was pretty sure that he had challenged Black Widow to a dance-off at one point, obviously when he was giddy from exhaustion, and he was actually somewhat disappointed that she hadn’t taken him up on it.

Tony had, but the less he thought of that, the better.

He’d fallen asleep in the room Tony had intended to be his when he’d offered up a spot on the Avengers, only to have been awakened after too-little sleep by Tony’s A.I. informing him that Happy was ready to drive him to school.

He was set on clothes, at least -- Tony had given him a Stark Industries shirt that fit along with some plain black sweatpants that he strongly suspected belonged to Black Widow, given that they actually fit him, which was something he was definitely not going to think about all day.

The problem was that prior to battling aliens, he’d stashed his backpack -- and more importantly, his homework -- in an alley near Midtown.

He glanced at his phone again and decided it was a decent enough hour to wake Ned up.

“Peter!” Ned was breathless, like he’d been waiting for Peter to call. “Dude, I saw you on the news! And not like regular news, but freakin’ international news. You fought aliens!”

“Yeah I did,” Peter said proudly.

“Aliens! So awesome, dude. Did you punch one in the face and say, ‘Welcome to Earth?””

The smile fell off Peter’s face. “I didn’t!” He was so disappointed in himself. He’d had the opportunity of a lifetime and he hadn’t lived the dream.

“Peter, are you serious? We talked about this,” Ned sighed. “Next you’re going to tell me you didn’t ask what happened to Thor’s flowing locks.”

“It didn’t come up,” Peter admitted. “I did, however, ruin Captain America’s life, because apparently the Fitness Challenge was something he was keeping on the down low from the other Avengers.”

“Ballsy move,” Ned said. “Not sure I would have taken that route to friendship, but you do you, buddy.”

“I realize it was probably a mistake but it was my only move at the time,” Peter said. “Also, I need you to do something for me. I left my backpack in Midtown?”

“Dude, that’s so far out of the way,” Ned groaned. “Are you sure you can’t just web your way over?”

“Happy’s driving me to school,” Peter said. “No time for pit stops. You know what thin ice I’m on, attendance-wise.”

“You owe me,” Ned said.

“I’ll let you touch Black Widow’s pants,” Peter offered, neglecting to mention that he was currently inside them.

“Your life, my dude,” Ned said reverently before hanging up on him.

*

As tempting as it would have been to have Happy drop him off right in front of school, Peter had him pull over a block away. Ned was waiting on him there, shifting from foot to foot with a backpack slung over each shoulder. Peter gestured for him to climb inside, watching with a grin as Ned took in the ride.

“This is so much nicer than the train,” Ned said, checking out every compartment.

“Thanks for getting my stuff,” Peter said, opening his backpack and pulling out his sneakers. He squished his spider-suit into the zippered compartment, and double-checked that his homework was still there. “Come on.”

“What, we’re not riding to class in style? Peter, this is a golden opportunity,” Ned said, clearly unwilling to budge.

“Secret identity,” Peter said, waving his fingers expressively. “Everyone saw Iron Man on the news, no one would believe that I was doing internship work with him while he was battling aliens.”

“Besides, I’m kicking you out here,” Happy called from the front. “Can you kids scram already? I don’t want to spent my whole day in Queens.”

“There’s nothing wrong with Queens,” Ned said defensively as he climbed out of the car.

“Thanks for driving me, Happy,” Peter said, waving.

“Yeah, yeah,” Happy said, and drove off.

“He loves me, really,” Peter told Ned. “We have an unshakable bond.”

“Of course,” Ned said. “I bet he’s planning your birthday party right now.”

They began the walk to school. Peter had to admit that Ned’s sputters as he explained about fighting aliens and then hanging with the Avengers put a bounce in his step, right up until Ned asked how the PSAs had come up, anyway.

“Full disclosure,” Peter said, “is that the Avengers no longer think I’m some awesome adult superhero.”

“Did they ever? I mean, Peter, my man, I love you but you sound twelve,” Ned said.

“I do not!” Peter protested. Ned silently held up his phone and played it back at him, Peter’s own tiny I do not! sounding cartoonish even to his own ears. Peter hid his face in his hands. “I’m never talking again. I’m only using interrogation mode from here on out, seriously.”

Ned patted him on the shoulder. “I think it’s charming. No need to go full Christian Bale on the minor criminals of Queens.”

“I fight major criminals too,” Peter said. “And at least the criminals have never heard Iron Man lecturing me on my calculus grade.”

Ned was still laughing when they walked into Midtown High.

*

Peter was saved from having to share more of his humiliation with Ned at lunch by virtue of MJ sitting down beside him as though that were an everyday occurrence.

“I thought you required at least a four-seat bubble around you at all times to keep you from committing homicide,” Peter said, because that was what she had told them the last time he had offered her the empty chair beside him.

“You memorize everything I say? Sad,” MJ replied, arranging her food artfully around her book of the day.

Peter looked helplessly at Ned, who shrugged.

“Is your book good?” Ned asked after a moment, when it became clear that MJ was simply going to sit there wordlessly, eating chips and reading her book.

“Would be better if I could read it in peace,” MJ said, not looking up.

“You’re the one who---” Peter cut himself off. He already had enough on his mind; trying to figure out MJ was beyond him. Last night he had high-fived Thor. He had to focus on that feeling. He kept rubbing his hand, as though he could transport back to the night before instead of sitting here in the cafeteria, feeling completely like normal Peter Parker, instead of the surreal version that found himself hanging out with Avengers.

They managed to drag MJ into a conversation about their chances of winning the academic decathalon again, and while her leadership style was definitely going to be more hands-off than Liz’s, Peter was pretty sure that MJ was going to be a great leader.

She left a few minutes early, claiming she had a thing to do somewhere that wasn’t there, and Ned excitedly turned to Peter. “Okay, so you have to tell me everything else.”

Peter gave a rundown of the highlights, holding his phone under the table to show Ned a five-second clip of Thor being taught the Macarena by a clearly-evil Ant-Man.

Ned said seriously, “It is life’s greatest tragedy that you can’t use this to become internet-famous.”

“Right?” Peter said. “Secret identities totally suck.”

“You said something about Black Widow’s pants, earlier,” Ned said.

Peter stuck out his leg and patted Ned’s hand against his knee. “Promise kept.”

Ned stared at Peter’s totally innocuous black sweatpants. “No way.”

“Way.”

“You’re wearing her pants,” Ned said.

“Yep,” Peter said. Probably, anyway.

Ned opened his mouth, shut it, then clearly decided to just go for it. “I can’t believe you got into her--”

Peter slapped his hand over Ned’s mouth before he could finish. “Ned, seriously, do you want me to be murdered horribly? Got a new bff all lined up? She probably has ears everywhere.”

Ned laughed so hard that he didn’t even notice when Peter spitefully stole his last french fry.

*

A week later Peter was sitting in his first period class when Principal Morita came across the intercom. “Attention, attention, I have a very special announcement,” he said, sounding so chipper that Peter wondered if he’d been replaced by a pod person. Anything was possible. “We will be having an assembly directly after lunch to honor a very special guest. I hope you will all do Midtown High proud and be on your very best behavior!”

“You heard the man,” Mr. Harrington said from the front of the room. “Don’t be yourselves today. Be better.”

Peter didn’t really think about the announcement for the rest of the day.

Halfway through lunch, Betty stopped by their table and said, “What are you still doing here? Don’t you want a prime seat?”

“For what?” Peter asked through a mouthful of pizza.

“For Captain America,” she said, clearly judging them for not knowing already. “He’s giving a pep talk? I mean, I thought you would be tight with him, since you spend all that time with Tony Stark.”

“Captain America,” Peter said blankly. “He’s here? Like. Really here? Oh god.” He put his head in his hands. It had to be coincidence. Had to be.

“Excuse Peter, he’s had a crush since second grade,” Ned said helpfully. “He hasn’t met Captain Rogers yet and he’s thrilled for the opportunity.”

“You two are weird,” Betty said before hurrying off towards the gym.

Peter stared up at Ned. “I imagined that, right? I’ve just had one too many hits to the head?”

Ned turned and asked a nearby girl, “Hey, is Captain America here?”

“Yeah,” she said, “even though I thought he was, like, internationally wanted.”

“Hasn’t he always been internationally wanted?” her friend asked, wagging her eyebrows. “And I heard he got pardoned. Or something. Some superhero nonsense.”

Peter stared at the hallway leading to the gym, “I think I’m going to pass out. Ned, catch me, okay, don’t let me end up in my mashed potatoes.”

“You’re not going to pass out,” Ned said reassuringly, though he helpfully shifted so that he was in a better position to catch Peter. “Captain America doesn’t even know who you are. It’s ridiculous that he would show up just to fuck with you. He’s a busy man.”

“You’re right,” Peter said, taking a slow, even breath like Karen always advised. “I mean. This is just a coincidence. A terrible, terrible coincidence that proves that karma has it out for me.”

“Right,” Ned said. “So let’s go so we can get good seats.”

Peter followed Ned through the hall like he was heading to his own funeral. This was absolutely a coincidence, he told himself. Captain America had totally forgiven him for telling all his friends about the PSAs. Probably Falcon had forgotten about it already. Probably Captain America had forgotten it already. The man fought Nazis, there was no way he would reduce himself to torturing a high schooler.

The gym was already packed by the time they got there. Peter breathed a sigh of relief and started to head towards the back of the bleachers when Ned stopped him. “There’s room near MJ.”

Of course there was. MJ had a prime spot in the front on the far right side, and everyone had given her wide berth, presumably in order to avoid MJ drawing them and making faces at them during the assembly.

She didn’t protest when they sat down beside her, though she did show her teeth in what was almost a smile and flipped Peter off.

“Hey,” Peter said. “Thanks for letting us sit near you.”

MJ shrugged.

“This is so cool,” Ned said. “I mean. We’re going to be in the same room as a real hero!”

He caught the look Peter was giving him.

“I mean. It was real awesome that time Spider-Man saved my life,” Ned amended, but added, “Captain America, dude.”

MJ gave them some epic side-eye but stayed silent. She had a book held loosely in her hands but even Peter could tell she wasn’t actually reading it, given how often she kept looking at the entrance to the gym.

After what felt like an eternity but was actually only ten minutes, Principal Morita entered the room, walking briskly to the podium in the center of the gym. “Good afternoon, students. Earlier this week an old family friend contacted me and expressed some interest in sharing some wisdom with you.”

Peter turned to Ned. “I think I’m just going to leave. I’ll catch you after.”

Ned clutched his arm. “Don’t be a chicken.”

“I’m not a--” Peter began as the gym door swung open and Captain America strolled in. He wasn’t wearing his uniform and thankfully he had left his shield at home, but that did absolutely nothing to lessen the impact of Captain America standing there in the same gym where Peter had watched countless Captain America Fitness Challenge videos.

He seemed to be scanning the bleachers, smiling and waving, and then he made eye contact with Peter.

His smile widened, like a shark’s. Peter clutched at Ned’s sleeve. This was bad. This was really, really bad.

“I seriously need to leave,” Peter hissed, but he could see that the doors were being guarded by teachers. Trying to escape would only draw more attention to himself.

“You’re imagining things,” Ned hissed back.

Captain America shook Principal Morita’s hand and then took the podium. “Thank you, Principal Morita. As many of you know, your principal’s grandfather was one of my closest friends. He saved my life more than once…”

As Captain America started in on an anecdote that Peter would normally be on the edge of his seat to hear -- personal stories about the Howling Commandos, middle school Peter would be shitting his pants right now -- Peter tried to figure out how to subtly hide. Why were they in the first row? He couldn’t just slink down, that would only make him extra-noticeable. He wondered if MJ would let him hide behind her.

Captain America sent a dazzling smile out at the crowd, and Peter could hear Betty sigh from here. From a few rows behind them he heard Abe yell, “You’re beautiful!”

Captain laughed quietly, which didn’t seem to help the collective high school thirst level. Maybe this was it. He’d wrapped up his story about Morita and now he would leave and never come back.

“It’s important to persevere against all challenges,” Captain America continued. “For example, I met a guy from Queens recently.” He glanced in Peter’s direction and smiled. “You might have heard of him. Spider-Man?”

There was a smattering of cheers, especially from the academic decathalon team that Peter had saved from certain death. Right now, he’d much rather be standing on top of the Washington Monument because that was by far a less terrifying national icon than the one standing in front of his entire school.

“I had the honor of fighting beside him,” Captain America said. Now Ned clutched at Peter’s arm, like he couldn’t believe Cap was talking up his best friend. Peter couldn’t believe it either. Something terrible was about to happen. He was certain of it. “And he embodied the idea of perseverance. For example, I saw him swing right into the side of a building while fighting aliens last week. Splat! Right into it, like Wil. E Coyote.” Captain America clapped his hands together, as if to demonstrate how thoroughly Spider-Man had eaten shit during this collision.

“That didn’t happen,” Peter hissed at Ned. “Oh my god. He’s making this up.”

Everyone around him was laughing. They were all laughing their asses off as Captain America detailed exactly how terribly Spider-Man had failed. Peter couldn’t believe it.

“But did Spider-Man let this epic failure stop him? No,” Captain America said, smiling as though he was giving this speech for any reason other than roasting Peter Parker. “He persevered, and helped stop the alien invasion. That’s what being a hero is about.”

He smiled in Peter’s direction again as he wrapped up his speech and exited the gym.

“Well, that was fun,” MJ said as she stood up, shoving her book into her bag. “Good work, Hannah Montana.”

Then she walked off.

“There’s no way-- she didn’t--” Peter said, staring after her.

“I mean, surely not,” Ned said. “Even she wouldn’t be that cool about something that big.”

Peter had his doubts, though Peter had bigger things to worry about. “I can’t believe that Captain America just threw me under the bus like that.”

“You really didn’t do that?” Ned asked. “I mean, maybe you hit the wall so hard that you just don’t remember it? Captain America seemed to have a lot of details for that story.”

Peter stared at him. “Are you seriously doubting my word here? Betrayal hurts.”

“Sorry, it’s just-- Captain America! Truth, justice and the American way,” Ned said, waving his hands. Around them students were milling around, and Peter kept hearing snippets of laughing conversation about Spider-Man’s epic fails.

Peter slipped away to find a quiet corner, where he dialed Tony’s private number. He was only supposed to use it in emergencies, and Tony sounded breathless when he answered. “Kid? You okay?”

“Did you tell Captain America my secret identity?” Peter demanded.

“This doesn’t sound like an emergency,” Tony said.

“Captain America just gave an assembly at my school where he told a totally untrue account of Spider-Man face-planting into a brick wall,” Peter said. “That just happened.”

There was silence on the other end of the line, and for a moment Peter thought Tony had hung up on him, until there was sudden, violent laughter on the other end. “Oh my god. You’re shitting me, right? There’s no way Rogers is that big of a troll.”

“Mr. Stark, everyone was laughing,” Peter said, aware that he was whining and unable to stop it. “It’s going to go on the internet. The first time an Avenger talks publicly about Spider-Man and it’s this.”

“Tough break, kid,” Tony said.

“This is totally your fault,” Peter told him as sternly as he could. Tony had side-stepped answering the question. He had definitely let spill where Cap could find Peter.

“Is this going to turn into a thing? Please let this turn into a thing,” Tony said. “I will pay you actual dollars if you have a superhero feud with Cap. I’m good for it.”

“I don’t want a feud,” Peter said helplessly. “Why didn’t you warn me that he held a grudge?”

“You reap what you sow,” Tony said. “Aww, jeez, now you’ve got me saying stupid cliches. I’ve got to go before I start talking about how I had to superhero uphill both ways back in my day.”

Tony was still laughing when he hung up.

Peter glared at his phone. He wasn’t sure what he had expected Tony to do-- invent time travel? Even Peter knew that was drastic. None of his classmates even knew they were laughing at Peter, they just thought they were hearing a funny story about a new local superhero.

Probably it would blow over.

Eventually, anyway.