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“Avengers. Go!” Steve called over the comm and at his command they all started forward. Wasp’s small form winging its way across the open ground between the tree line and the Black Knight’s base. Ant-man ran after her at his normal size for the moment. A flash of blue and red told Steve that Spider-man was out of the trees and flipping towards the hangar door. Falcon cast a shadow on the ground as he swooped forward. “And don’t get hit.” Steve added.

They only had three seconds before one of the guards spotted them and raised the alarm, then it was shouting and the strange buzz zip of the Black Knight’s new energy weapons. Steve charged into the assembled soldiers bringing his shield down just in time to keep a sickly green ball of energy from hitting his leg. A breath and then he was flinging the shield to his right where it came between Wasp and another energy bolt, ricocheted off a rock and plowed into two henchmen before hitting the side of the hangar and bouncing to where Steve had run to intercept it.

Spider-man was cheerfully webbing anyone close enough and Falcon was strafing over the chaos taking out enemies with fists and feet. Ant-man started to grow to twice, then three times his normal size. Once the guards had their guns pointed his way he shrunk to the size of an ant in a split second, Steve took advantage of the distraction to take out another four of the guards. Falcon landed on two more and Jan blasted another with her stingers. Spider-man wrapped up the last man standing just in time for the second wave of guards to pour into the hangar.

The fight rolled into the strangely rhythmic chaos that characterized Avengers’ fights; Steve, Falcon, Wasp and Ant-man had been working together so long it took on a ballet-like choreography, Spider-man was the new one on the team but he was learning the dance quickly.

Steve caught his shield in an outstretched hand and looked around. He couldn’t see any guards that were still standing, just unconscious goons littering the ground. He was about to give the order to move deeper into the base when he heard the droning whir of an engine. He whipped his head around to see a sleek black plane was already pointed toward the hangar door and building up speed. “Stop him.” Steve ordered over the comm.

Everyone on the team ran for the hangar door, Ant-man and Falcon in the lead. The plane buzzed past them, lifting off the ground and gaining height as it reached open air. Ant-man quickly increased his size, almost scraping his antennae on the ceiling as he burst out of the hangar still growing in the few huge bounding leaps he took before he managed to reach out and curl his fingers around the tail of the plane. As he drew it in a black shape broke off. A second later the plane exploded in a plume of yellow and black in the palm of his hand. Ant-man yelped and dropped the burning mess, his voice echoing over the comm. “I think someone ejected from the plane.”

 

Steve barked “Find ‘em.”

He got a chorus of ‘yes’s’ before he sprinted into the jungle. He ran towards where he thought the person would have hit the trees. The forest stretched big and empty before him making him doubt he was going in the right direction. Then he heard yelling. He skidded to a stop in an open area to find Ant-man and Falcon opposing a third person.

“I am the Black Knight! Face me at your peril.” The beta roared.

Spider-man must have reached the clearing right behind Steve because he muttered. “Gee, I would never have guessed.”

Falcon snorted and Steve silently agreed that he had a point. The man was dressed in ornate 16th century armor all painted a matte black and over that was a black tabard with silver edging. The only real color on him was his longsword, if it could be called that; the blade was a silhouette of dark yellow light filled in with a vertigo inducing purple, yellow, gray energy.

Steve stepped up. “You’ve illegally seized control of this area. Please, surrender yourself to SHIELD custody.”

“I will never surrender. You must face me on the field of honor.” The Knight pivoted surprisingly quickly towards Steve and brought his sword up then down in a sweeping arc. Steve blocked and gritted his teeth at the grating shriek from the sword slicing across his shield. He caught a blur of blue and red, the Black Knight’s blade flashed and Spider-man yelped. It took Steve just a second to realize that the Black Knight had sliced the webline Spider-man had swung down on, his momentum had done the rest, pitching him awkwardly forward. He flipped mid air and managed to hit a tree trunk feet first and stuck.

“I shall squash you like the puny bugs you are!” The Black Knight cried with his feet planted and his sword in ready position.

Spider Man hollered back. “You think you’re creative? You’re not. That wasn’t a good line the first time.”

“Or the nine hundredth.” Wasp huffed.

She dived at the Black Knight, rapidly firing her stingers. The Black Knight half turned towards her, throwing an arm out. His black gauntlet caught her in the torso, flinging her back in an uncontrolled spin. Ant-man ran towards her, growing up from normal size. The Black Knight took advantage of his charge and brought his sword around in a low slashing arc across Ant-man’s thigh.

Steve froze. No one knew exactly what the Black Knight’s sword did. Ant-man blanched. Wasp screamed. “HANK!”

The Black Knight turned toward Steve, raising his sword again.

Ant-man, three times his normal size and ten times his normal weight, staggered and fell forward, right on top of the Black Knight.

Wasp slid up to her normal size and rushed to him. She put her hands on his cheeks. “Honey, are you okay? What did the sword do to you?”

“Ow, ow, ow.” Ant-man hissed.

Steve and Falcon hurried around the prone giant to look at his leg. Whatever the sword had done it hadn’t broken the skin. There was a thin black line on Ant-man’s uniform where the blade had passed through. Steve gingerly put his finger against it. “OW.” Ant-man said. The black stuff wiped away like soot.

Steve patted his side. “Do you think you can turn over?”

Ant-man flexed and trembled. “Ah. No.”

“How about shrinking down to normal size? Then Cap and I can lift you.” Falcon asked.

“I’ll try.” The transformation was slow, with Ant-man twitching and cursing along the way. Once he was finished Steve got him under the arms and pulled him to one side of the cleaning.

“Uh, guys. This doesn’t look good.” Spider-man said nervously.

Steve moved over to the Black Knight. It didn’t look good. It looked like the man’s armor had been crushed with him inside. The breastplate had collapsed and one of the leg guards had been driven up and into the betas pelvis. Blood had already pooled on the ground around him and to Steve’s eye it looked like a fatal amount. Falcon carefully searched for a pulse under the neck guard and shook his head when he didn’t find one.

Steve sighed and then turned to ask, “Ant-man, how are you doing?”

Ant-man winced but replied, “Better.”

“What does it feel like?” Spider-man asked watching him.

“The worst muscle cramp you’ve ever had with the worst pins and needles to follow. I think it’s wearing off.” He slowly flexed his leg and winced again. “Yeah. Better.”

“Do you need help back to the jet?” Steve asked.

Ant-man waved him away. “No. Just give me a minute.”

Steve went back to join Falcon studying the Black Knight. Wasp got Ant-man to rest his head on her shoulder and started petting his hair. Ant-man started flexing his leg more and finally managed to stand. After a few minutes he was walking with only a little limp. Spider-man just hung from a branch. He was looking at each of them but not saying anything.

The reverie was broken by two loud explosions.

Spider-man scurried up the tree to look. “They blew up the base.” He reported.

“No!” Steve started running, trusting the others to follow. “Falcon get the Black Knight’s body back to the jet. Wasp, Ant-man, Spider-man with me. We need to pull out anyone we can.”

Ant-man sprinted a bit clumsily. Wasp and Spider-man disappeared into the trees. Steve smelled smoke, then Spider-man’s voice came over the comm. “Crap.”

“Report!”

“That is really, really blown up. And on fire.” Spider-man told them in amazement. “I’m sorry, Cap. We’re not going to be able to get anyone out.”

Steve rushed past smoldering trees to see that the hangar had collapsed in on itself, and judging by the scorch marks on the rocks and trees, the first explosion had been a massive fireball that engulfed the hangar and set fire to everything up to the tree line. Steve closed his eyes with a groan. It rubbed him raw that the people he fought put so little value on human life, their enemies or their own.

He took a moment to mourn the lives lost then opened his eyes. “Everyone back to the jet. There’s nothing more we can do here.”

Ant-man, still three times the height of a normal man extended a hand to the pixie sized Wasp. She daintily stepped on, letting Ant-man carry her back to the jet. Spider-man kept pace with Steve slowly swinging from branch to branch.

Ant-man and Falcon were carrying the Black Knight’s body into the jet when they reached it. One of them, Falcon, Steve assumed, had laid the hilt of the Black Knight’s sword on his chest in the fashion of a medieval knight.

Wasp had resized and strapped herself into the pilot seat. Preparations and takeoff were done in silence. This hadn’t been a good mission, they had fought hard and gained little and it showed in the team’s spirit.

Technically the mission was a success; they had found and neutralized the Black Knight. SHIELD had been tracking the Black Knight for over a year, although it was only in the last few months that they had given a name to the criminal leader. Fury had claimed it was like chasing a particularly well-armed ghost.

To Steve the mission felt more like a failure. The Black Knight would never meet justice for the crimes he had committed. He would also never give SHIELD information about the breadth of his organization or the mind behind the weapons. He must have been a gifted engineer to create them.

Steve was no stranger to being out gunned but it seemed like recently the bad guys were always better armed than the Avengers. The military had all but given up fighting people like the Black Knight. Nick had gleefully picked up the slack, expanding the Avengers. But even so they had reached a stalemate of sorts, supervillains setting up bases and the Avengers methodically taking them out.

Jan startled Steve out of his dark musing.

“Ugh.” She said rubbing her shoulder. “I'm getting too old for this.”

Hank leaned back in his chair. “So am I.”

“Me too.” Sam agreed.

“It's been a hard day for all of us.” Steve said glancing around at them.

“It's been a hard mission.” Peter agreed.

Sam sighed. “It's been a hard year.”

Jan slumped back into her seat. “You know, when you’re coming up on the wrong side of forty a girl has to reevaluate her superhero career path.”

Peter chimed in, “Can I just say, you look amazing for your age.”

She gave him a fond smile. “Thanks, kiddo.” Steve was staring at her with his mouth slightly open. “What?” She asked.

“No. Sorry. I guess I hadn’t thought about it. I mean you’ve been having your thirtieth birthday party for the last five years. I didn’t realize how old you actually are.” Steve ran through the math, Jan had been twenty-three when he met her and, like the rest of them, painfully new to superheroing. That had been sixteen years ago.

“I am choosing to take that as a complement.” Jan said with a playful smile.

Sam was smiling too now. “I think we all acknowledge that Steve is the undisputed champion of looking decades younger than he is, but you, my dear, come in a close second.”

“Flatterer.”

“Back off, buddy, she’s mine.” Hank replied without any rancor.

“Can I just say I find this conversation deeply weird?” Peter asked.

“Can we stop you?” Sam wondered aloud.

Peter shrugged. “I grew up watching you guys. You’re what everyone thinks of when they think of superheroes. Listening to you talk about being old is, yeah, deeply weird.”

“It happens to us all. Some day it will happen to you.” Sam said with benevolent certainty.

Peter screwed up his face in a frown. “No. It won’t. I refuse. I’ll be twenty-five forever and ever like Cap.”

Hank looked over at Peter with a twinkle in his eye. “You know even the longest lived spiders only live thirty years or so.” Peter stuck his fingers in his ears. “In fact most spiders only live a year or two. Also in a lot of species of spiders the female will eat the male after mating.” Peter started going lalalala in an effort to drown Hank out.

Steve and Sam exchanged an amused look. Peter was easy to bait. Most of the Avengers could recite the lecture Hank was giving and had at some point to shut Peter up.