Peter’s eyes widen.
He’d never dreamed his world would expand so much in one day. The trip to MoMA itself was enough excitement after a certain Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man came to the rescue of a few visiting kids who thought it would be smart to get their first taste of parkour on the museum roof.
Who would be dumb enough to even do that?
During the trip home, he’d kept his head down and his nose in a book – namely, Doctor Banner’s newest thesis on quantum physics – in an attempt to keep the danger-attracting capacity of his Parker luck from doing any more damage than it needed.
Then, with the least comedic comedic timing ever, he’d felt the hairs on his arms prick up, taken one glimpse at the colossal flying doughnut descending on the city, and cursed internally.
And yet, the notion of pulling down the window of the school bus and soaring into the (hopefully very metaphorical) jaws of death – and the pride he hoped would paint across Mister Stark’s face after they’d cleaned everything up – was too enticing to resist. So out of the claustrophobic yellow piece of junk he’d dived, taking only a moment to pull his mask and backpack on before he was free-swinging under the bridge and towards the danger.
From that moment on, the stakes had only escalated (figuratively and literally). He’d fought a bunch of creepy-looking aliens and ended up in outer space; he’d crash-landed aforementioned colossal doughnut ship with Mister Stark and Doctor Strange; he’d almost been killed by the Guardians of the Galaxy, who turned out to be good guys after all; he’d been introduced to the mind-bending world of Infinity Stones and Mad Titans, piecing together evidence from the exposition Mister Stark threw about.
And now Thanos himself is there, the figure that had so distressed Mister Stark while he argued with Strange, and something of the dull gleam in his eyes unsettles Peter to the core - except he’s a little preoccupied right now.
It’s not every day that he gets a moon thrown at him.
The already-barren landscape of Titan is transformed; it’s a minefield, a hauntingly, terrifyingly beautiful myriad of flames and flying dust.
The lack of gravity in Titan’s atmosphere, miraculously, works in his favour; he launches himself through the air, increasing velocity with an airborne double backflip, and shoots a web to attach to a relatively stable-looking structure to his right in order to steer himself that way.
Under different circumstances, Peter would be reeling with how insanely cool the meteoric projectiles currently launching in their hundreds at the surface of the planet were, but a twang at the back of his neck alerts him to the unconscious Mantis hurtling past floating debris and he is jarringly reminded of the severity of the situation.
Shit, shit, shit - there’s more of them-
But, for all his acrobatics and cries of effort as he twists and leaps through the suspended wreckage, Peter can only save one person at once. Once he has Mantis safely webbed away from the meteorites, he allows the extendable arms of his suit to keep him secured and aims his webshooters frantically at the guy Mister Stark had called Mr. Clean – again, comedy at the worst time – and Mister… that guy who’d threatened him.
As he collects the unresponsive Guardians together with multiple strands of webbing, he rambles: “I’ve got you! – I’ve got you!... Sorry, I can’t remember anybody’s names.”
He’d chosen to briefly screen out the noises of conflict below, clearly audible to his enhanced ears, but now the Guardians are out of imminent danger, his thoughts fly irrepressibly to Mister Stark.
Peter can’t make out any figures through the haze of smoke and fire; he forces down a shudder of terror at how vulnerable he is right now without vision. “Karen? What’s going on down on the surface?”
“I’m detecting three heat signatures at ground level: two seventy-nine feet to your ten o’clock, and one just under the surface, which matches up to the signal of the Iron Man suit. Two hundred and fourteen feet, six o’clock.”
Two hundred and fourteen feet, six o’clock.
Peter’s extendable suit arms retract, and he dives for the ground.
It grates at his nerves to call out loud for his mentor while Thanos is so close at hand, but a primal instinct has pumped him full of too much adrenaline to make a smarter choice.
“Mister Stark? Mister – Karen, is he getting out? Is he – is the suit reporting injuries?”
“Just bruises. He’s alright.”
A terse nod, and Peter skids to a halt as the display lights up to inform him that Mister Stark is… somewhere?
He yelps as a shower of earth erupts from beside his ankle, very nearly webbing Iron Man’s fist into a ball and inconveniencing them both.
Juddering into action, Peter near claws at the ground, tossing aside metal debris and chunks of earth, until Mister Stark’s head and shoulders are exposed. From there, he doesn’t hesitate before kneeling before his mentor and hooking his arms under the armpits of the Iron Man suit to pull him swiftly free.
A grunt of surprise emanates from the Iron Man suit; only after he’s set Tony back down on the ground does Peter consider how strange it is that he, a twink of a fifteen-year-old, just lifted a fully grown man – plus heavy metal armour – out of a hole.
Right now, that’s the least of his worries.
The Iron Man mask briefly retracts; Peter misses the defeat stirring in his eyes, and that’s exactly what Tony intends. Hide it. Keep morale up. Don’t depress the kid. We might have lost, but I’m winning as long as he’s smiling. “Kid. You alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m good.” In response, Peter’s own mask melts away.
“Listen –“ a slight vibration in the ground stops Tony in his tracks for a second; he continues more urgently. “I’m going for Thanos again. I want you to stand down. None of this self-sacrificial bullshit, okay?”
“But I’m fine, I can help—"
“No.” The fury in Tony’s voice is a quality Peter has never felt the direct force of before. And yet, when he haltingly meets the man’s eyes, he sees not anger but fear. “Promise me you won’t try and help. It’s… I’m not losing you, okay?”
Peter falters. The wound-up energy bundled up inside him is not helping him think straight.
Mister Stark claps a hand onto Peter’s shoulder, prompting him for a quick answer.
“Okay, okay. What do I do if… if you—"
“That won’t happen.” The sincerity in Tony’s raised eyebrows is enough to convince Peter, just for a second, until he is blasting away, a projectile gauntlet bursting from the suit and travelling in front toward Thanos, who has just tossed Doctor Strange aside where his face thuds against a rock shelf.
If the Sorcerer Supreme is that banged up, this is not going to go well.
Some childish yet firm-held belief persists that this is Iron Man, he’s the coolest superhero there is, no way will he lose a fight--
And yet the rapidly developing voice of caution (about time) at the helm of his mind mutters darkly that Thanos is on a whole different level. Maybe there’s a reason why he made you stay away. What if he gets hurt? Will you have to watch?
Peter hunkers down behind a crashed asteroid to torturously spectate.
The jet-powered gauntlet encloses around the Infinity Gauntlet. Landing in a stance of defiance directly in front of Thanos, Iron Man deadpans: “You throw another moon at me, and I’m gonna lose it.”
“Stark,” rumbles Thanos threateningly.
“You know me?”
“I do. You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge.”
“My only curse is you.”
As if waiting to make the perfect dramatic entrance, a host of small rockets eject from the upper back of the suit and whir in their collision course towards Thanos, who simply grits his teeth and holds the gauntlet in front of him.
A powerful yet contained explosion; the smoke takes too long to settle, and Peter is on the verge of returning to the childhood habit of nail-biting. Before even Peter can make out Thanos’ form clearly, Iron Man is jumping into battle, small wing extensions morphing out of the nanotech to allow him more momentum to kick Thanos back.
At the pure coolness of these ever-shifting nanobots, Peter can’t help but grin, no matter how out-of-place it feels on a battleground.
The cautionary fingers hovering over his webshooter relax slightly.
And, for these triumphant few moments, Tony is winning. Thanos is knocked back, and knocked back, and even when he lunges forward to tear the mask off, a new one bubbles upward to replace it before Peter can so much as blink.
Locking the Mad Titan’s hand to the floor, Iron Man aims a bludgeoned hit - and draws a drop of blood from his enemy’s cheekbone.
Peter allows himself, if not to believe, then to hope, that his mentor will make it out of this relatively unharmed.
All the same, he pulls up the display of Tony’s vitals to rest in the corner of his vision and turns the alerts on to monitor them better. Just in case. Just in case. Just in-
“All that for a drop of blood?” And Thanos smiles.
This is the moment when, like the force of a shard of glass piercing him, Peter knows that Iron Man alone can’t beat this monster. The childhood belief shatters before his eyes as he watches his hero tumble to the ground, Thanos’ fist following close behind.
Tony blocks the first hit with arms drawn up in front of him, lurching upwards on his elbows to get back to his feet, but Thanos is faster.
Down comes the muscled fist on Tony’s face. Peter counts six punches, each rocking Iron Man back with the brute force of the hit. Peter doesn’t pay any heed to the leaking of tears from his screwed-up eyes in the anguish that envelops him. Try as he might, he can’t turn away. His hand, still poised over the webshooter, edges inexorably nearer, although he’d never dream of disobeying Mister Stark.
Now, Thanos tires of the attack, and blasts Tony full in the stomach with a sudden flash of the purple stone on his fist. Tony lands crumpled as if irrevocably damaged.
Get up, Mister Stark. Please get up.
Behind his makeshift cover, Peter’s tempted to web himself down to stop himself from jumping in. His hands tear chunks of rock from the crashed asteroid; he is oblivious to the nervous habit, eyes bolted to the nightmarish snarl that crosses Thanos’ face as he steps back in to confront Iron Man.
Somehow, against the odds, Tony is back on his feet before his opponent can reach him, shooting out a hand in the iconic Iron Man pose to direct a defensive repulsor beam which blazes hot white. Thanos, however, barely thinks twice about blocking the blast with his gauntlet and slowly advancing on Tony.
With a writhing shift of nanotech from his leg which is now bereft of its armour, Tony raises his left hand and another beam joins the first. The thrown-out rays of light partially obscure the two figures locked in combat. And still, Thanos approaches, closer and closer to Tony and not deterred by his defence.
The rose-tinted picture in Peter’s mind of Iron Man, of an unconquerable hero, has been felled, and he swallows down the fact that his mentor is fallible.
And not just fallible but losing.
With a brutal strike, Thanos shatters the mask from Tony’s face, and the cuts and bruises and desperation staining his face are exposed.
“I want you to stand down.”
“What do I do if… if you…”
If you die?
But Peter won’t let that happen. Mister Stark dying is not an option.
A split second before Thanos can aim another hit to Tony’s now-bare face, he raises both arms in a criss-cross and blocks, but not without a grunt of effort as he strains against Thanos’ brute force. He’s run out of steam. He’s only human.
But Peter isn’t.
Spider-Man steps out of hiding.
Iron Man raises another fist in an attempt to fight back that he knows is futile. Peter can see it spelled across his eyes: he’s doomed, and he knows.
But Peter can change that.
Spider-Man runs to save his hero.
Tony calls the very last of his available nanotech. A sleek, sword-like extension morphs over his free hand; with a sudden reignition of strength, he drives it towards Thanos but misses.
It is at this very moment when Peter realises that the action he takes will determine Mister Stark’s future. Maybe whether he lives or dies – because, taking advantage of Tony’s hand which he has trapped in a much larger fist, Thanos breaks off the spear and reels his arm back.
Peter sees the planned trajectory of that shard, straight through Tony’s abdomen.
Peter couldn’t live with himself if he let that happen.
Spider-Man sticks his hand out and presses down on his webshooter.
Thanos starts as he finds the nanotech weapon wrenched from his hand and discarded a few feet away. Another set of webs quickly replaces it, imprisoning both of his fists and pulling him away from Tony.
“Don’t. Touch. Him.”
Thanos turns his head to meet his challenger and finds a kid at the end of the webbing.
A kid burning with protective fury.
A kid who won’t give up on saving people.
A kid who is about to suffer for the choice he’s just made.
Spider-Man and Thanos fly into action.