The thing about turning down Mr. Stark’s offer to be an Avenger is this: Peter still really wants to be an Avenger. He zones out in class, envisioning himself stood shoulder to shoulder with the team, shaking the Mayor Jameson’s hand and receiving the keys to the city.
But fame isn’t the reason Peter puts on the suit everyday. The Avengers aren’t the reason Peter puts his body between innocent people and harm. It’s about responsibility. If Mr. Stark asked him to join again, Peter would still say no.
But knowing that doesn’t stop the twist in his stomach when Karen says, “The Avengers are assembling in Greenwich Village. Tony Stark has requested your presence.”
Peter had pulled the mask on out of the boredom. May is at work, and Ned and MJ are at school. Karen is always there to talk to him, and her presence keeps his feverish thoughts from straying into weird or frightening territory. Peter props himself up on his elbows.
“He wants me there?” Peter asks, shoving off the sweat-damp blankets pulled up to his chin. “Me, specifically?”
“He has sent out the call for all current members and auxiliary staff to attend to the fight, yes.”
“Auxiliary staff,” Peter says.
“An inter-dimensional rift has opened above Dr. Strange’s place of residence. The creatures pouring out of the rift are attempting to tear down the neighbouring apartment buildings.”
“Inter-dimensional rift,” Peter says. He shucks off his pyjamas, and scrubs his face with force, trying to physically rub away the heat clinging to his skin. “That’s so cool.”
“Shall I let Tony Stark know you won’t be able to make it?”
“What? No!” Peter is glad that he hadn’t blabbed to Happy about falling sick a few days ago, even if his secretiveness was born almost entirely out of embarrassment. (Superhumans shouldn’t get sick. If he can catch a bus with his bare hands, the bug going around his high school should not be enough to leave him bedridden.)
“You’re sick, Peter.” Karen sounds like a calmer version of May. “You shouldn’t go out and fight inter-dimensional beings when you’re sick.”
“Mr. Stark needs me.”
“Tony Stark has a dozen or so heroes for these types of situations. You were one of the first people he called, but he’ll understand if you’re ill and can’t—”
Warmth bubbles up in Peter’s stomach. He smiles goofily at the tangled blankets spilling off his mattress. “I was one of the first people he called? Me? In a list that included, like, Black Widow?”
Peter pulls his spider suit out from beneath a pile of laundry, gives it a quick sniff—not great, but he’s worn worse—and tugs it on. The excitement keeps him from feeling cold and shivery, and the ache that’s settled deep in his bones is easy to ignore. He hops from one foot to the other as he shimmies it over his hips.
“You should get back into bed.”
“Pshaw, I’ll be fine.”
“You have a fever of 102.”
“Come on, Karen. This is worth pushing through a little cold for.”
“This is not a ‘little cold.’ If you exert yourself in this condition, you could raise your fever to near-deadly temperatures, or you might make a fatal mistake in battle because of your impaired judgement and slower reflexes.”
“You know, Karen, that’s what I love about you,” Peter says, as he slides open his window and crawls out of his bedroom, “you’re always so optimistic.”
It takes over an hour to get to Greenwich Village. Peter web-slings part of the way, and latches onto the back of cars and a train the rest, but he finally makes it. Iron Man is already there, along with Falcon, Vision, and Black Widow.
A spidery, psychedelic crack has splintered the sky. The hole is black and rimmed with stars. The beings that have crawled their way into this dimensional are scattered around the street, laying waste to the apartment buildings.
“Dr. Strange did this?” Peter asks, wiping at his covered temple with the back of his glove. It’s still winter, edging into spring, but it’s so hot. Global warming, such a bitch. “Man, his neighbours must hate him.”
“Several people have already filed lawsuits.”
A thing with a fleshy torso and at least eight arms collides with a Prius parked on the curb. Peter kicks off the ground, and restrains it with a burst of webbing. Another thing made of vicious, yellow paste tries to jump him, and Peter punches it away. Part of its body disconnects and splashes into a gooey heap.
“Did I just break it APART? With my FIST?”
“Don’t worry, that’s normal with fourth dimensional beings.”
“That’s gross, but also ridiculously cool.”
Another being leaps for him. He jerks aside, and stumbles over his feet. His heart is beating fast, and the skin around his ribs feels very thin. The stretched, shaky feeling is the excitement of a fight; the sweat building beneath the suit is from exertion; the hot tightness in his throat and behind his eyes is exhaustion. It’s a long way from Queens to Greenwhich. Of course Peter would be tired. It doesn’t mean anything.
“Your fever is rising,” Karen tells him. “You shouldn’t be fighting in this condition.”
“Your vitals would suggest—”
“Hey, there he is!” Iron Man flies in front of Peter and hovers there, repulsers keeping him airborne. “You know, a GPS is one of the first things I built into your suit. You could find a superhero suit with a GPS at Walmart. And yet, somehow, you still managed to get lost.”
“Queens is longer,” Peter says, and then frowns, and rethinks that sentence. “Uh. Further. Further away.”
Mr. Stark falls to the ground with a thud of metal against asphalt. His faceplate flips up. He looks Peter up and down, and says, “Uh huh.”
“Uh huh,” Peter echoes.
The rift shudders, and vomits up bubbly paste. It looks like the first time Peter did laundry by himself, and upended the entire box of washing powder into the machine. Froth cascades from the sky. When it touches the asphalt, it burns a hole through the road, exposing the sewer pipes below.
“Is that supposed to happen?” Peter asks. Mr. Stark jets down the street, hollering for Strange to come and fix the tear he opened, and Peter takes that as a resounding, No.
“Peter,” Karen says.
“There’s literally a rift to another dimensional threatening to dissolve New York, Karen. Can you, like, cool it with the nannying for a hot minute?”
She quietens down while Peter flips around the street and rounds up stray creatures. Black Widow is there. She backflips over a monster with three dozen eyes and then kicks its head clean off. It’s the single coolest thing Peter has ever seen.
Peter ends up crouched close enough to inform her, “I would die for you.”
She frowns at him. “Excuse me?”
Peter stands up, and is hit with a wave of dizziness that sends him back down again. His vision blacks out for a moment, and he can’t feel his hands. When his vision returns, Peter sees three things: a head without a body laying near his feet, purple spit drooling from its slack mouth; Black Widow peering down at him with furrowed brows; Iron Man, faceplate flipped up, frowning in the same way Aunt May frowns when she finds him rewatching superhero fights on YouTube rather than studying.
“Uh,” Peter says. His gaze drifts to the head. Its bloated body is over a metre away. Peter thinks he’s going to throw up. “How sentient are these creatures again? Do they have tiny, purple babies waiting for them to come home?”
Mr. Stark tells Black Widow, “I’ve got this.” She jogs down the street to join Vision near the rift. Mr. Stark crouches in front of Peter. He tries to stand up, but his legs won’t work right, and Mr. Stark pushes him back down. “Hey, hey.”
“The fight—I have to get back out there.”
“We’ve talked about this.” Mr. Stark presses a hand to Peter’s temple, and remembers a moment later that, in the suit, he won’t be able to feel anything. “Friday, how is he looking?”
Peter can’t hear the AI’s response, but Karen chimes in, “You instructed me never to say ‘I told you say,’ but … ”
Peter groans and flops back onto the pavement. He closes his eyes. Vaguely, he can hear Mr. Stark’s one-sided conversation with his suit (“Oh, really? That’s funny, Friday, because most teenagers with fevers that high would be bedridden. Hm.”), the dwindling fight down the street, and Strange’s magic, cracking like a campfire, warmth seeping down the street. It feels like slipping into a too-hot bath, and for Peter’s balmy skin, it’s hellish. He whines in the back of his throat.
“Hey, cool it, Cumberbun!” Mr. Stark yells. Strange shouts something back, but Peter misses it. Mr. Stark snorts, and says under his breath, “Jackass.”
“Did we win?” Peter asks.
“Of course we won,” Mr. Stark says. “Why don’t we celebrate? Here, I’ll call your aunt to let her know the good news—”
Peter jolts upright. The world spins, and he swallows down the urge to hurl. “Don’t,” he manages.
“And why’s that?”
Peter presses his forehead against his knees. Mr. Stark knows exactly why. “Let’s just clean up here,” Peter says, “and then I’ll catch a bus home or something.”
“You think I’m going to let you get up? This is your life now. You live here, on this exact stretch of sidewalk.”
Peter squints up at the strange sound of metal scraping against metal. Falcon lands a few feet again, wings retracting, and pushes his goggles up his forehead. “Stark, you want to explain who the hell that knock-off Harry Potter is over there? His goatee is worse than yours.”
“Later,” Mr. Stark says.
Falcon comes closer, but stops when he sees Peter. He looks Peter over—curled around his knees, arm wrapped around his spasming stomach, Mr. Stark crouched over him. “Is he okay?”
“I’m fine,” Peter says.
“You want to try that again?” Mr. Stark says.
“It’s just a cold,” Peter mumbles. The midday sun is way too bright. It glints off of Mr. Stark’s armour and Falcon’s wing pack. He closes his eyes again, head spinning. “Shit.”
“Hey.” Mr. Stark guides Peter’s chin up. “Look at me. How are you feeling?”
“Lets try that again.”
Peter muffles a cough in the crook of his arm. Ugh, his throat. “Like I got smushed by the Hulk.”
Mr. Stark places the back of his hand against Peter’s forehead, realises again he’s wearing gauntlets and Peter is wearing a mask, and retracts it. “Friday, does he have a fever?”
“Oh my god,” Falcon says. “What kind of hellscape did knock-off Harry Potter throw us into? Are you parenting him right now?”
Peter pushes Mr. Stark away, and gets to his feet. His knees wobble threateningly under him. Without the adrenaline and the threat of liquid-bodied, inter-dimensional beings trying to kill him, it’s hard to ignore how terrible he feels.
Mr. Stark follows him up. “Can’t you see I’m busy right now, Sam?”
“I have to tell Natasha about this immediately,” Falcon decides, and leaves them to find Black Widow.
Peter glances at the decapitated head. He’s going to have to talk to them about just how sentient those things were, and ways to lower casualties of anything, human or not. Later, though. When he’s not at risk of puking all over himself.
A self-driving car swerves around the corner, weaving expertly through the chunks of monster beings, and parks by a dented mail box.
“Come on,” Mr. Stark says, steering him with a hand on his shoulder. “We’ve got to get you home so we can get a head-start on the lectures.”
Peter lets himself be manhandled into the backseat. His eyes slip closed. He might as well get in a quick nap before he has to spend the rest of his teenage years confined to bed rest. He is so grounded.