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Closing Time

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All around him, the Avengers were waging a losing battle. As far as Peter could see, his allies and friends’ energies were fading. Things sped towards the same conclusion as before: complete failure. This time, it would be even uglier than a blanket of ash around the world.

The gauntlet felt cool between his hands, its gemstones glowing by the smog-filtered light.

Peter’s legs pittered to a pause. He had an idea. Stupid, yes it was. But what was he and what did he stand for if he disregarded his whole life’s philosophy? What would he be to his friends, his family, to Tony or his Uncle Ben, the man whose primary lesson was to take responsibility if you had it in your grasp?

And Peter certainly had a world of responsibility tucked under his arm as the other swung him around the action.

He landed on the rugged ground three feet from a battle-made cliff. He stumbled backwards. Eyes widened s far as they'd go for the two seconds during which he imagined a spill down the ten foot ravine. With inhuman reflexes, he got ahold of his balance and rushed to safer ground. Five feet more inland, he stopped and looked around.

Now what? Peter thought.

Everyone was busy. Cap and Falcon fought back waves of Thanos’ cronies with the help of the off-worlders. Scarlet Witch held some of the cronies at bay in order for the Wakandans to have a better opportunity at killing them. Doctor Strange – whatever his real name is – fought with orange light shields around his hands, portals behind him, and the other dude – what was his name?   wondered Peter. He didn’t know half of these heroes’ names, and it hurt him to realise that he while he was fighting with them, he couldn’t recite a personal fact about them; he could only guess. He glanced again at the figure of Iron Man catching some cronies alight with a blast from the chest. A blue-clad figure of the same design flew at his side. He saw a beam of light tackling the Mad Titan himself. He saw a girl who could not be much older than Peter himself having the back of none other than Black Panther. Suddenly, Peter felt selfish for standing motionless with the world’s most advanced technology in his grip and merely watching the carnage play out.

Guilt gnawed at him, precious seconds he could not take back. Time wasted.

But how could he fight when he knew anything he had to contribute would be just as futile everybody else’s attempts?

Peter glanced down at the gauntlet. His idea – edit, crazy idea came soaring back and struck him full force. He fumbled with the invention at hand, scrambling to find the opening. He twisted it left, right, and over again before freezing. He found it: the correct orientation. Before jamming it onto his fingers, he reflected on what he was doing:

What was he thinking?

Saving the world, that’s what.

This isn't something you can manage and walk away from, kid. If you do this, you'll die!

I’m going to save the Avengers! I’m going to save my friends!

You don’t even know half of their names! Superhero names don't count.

Peter let out a sigh and closed his eyes. His senses weren’t detecting anything life threatening in his immediate radar. He had a few seconds to breathe – to think – and he vowed to use them, not waste them as he gawked at the Avengers’ might.

You’re not responsible for this. This isn’t your mess to clean up. Pass the gauntlet on, come on, just like throwing a football.

For some reason, the inner voice – the one guiding him to take the safer, less involved action – sounded a lot like Mr. Stark.

And, thinking of Mr. Stark, he made up his mind.

Peter opened his eyes and, through the haze, made out each individual shape for one last time. Then, he took the gauntlet and pulled it over his hand the best he could. He managed to get it halfway on when the nanotechnology took care of the rest. It closed snugly around his fingers, wrist, and forearm. A beautiful design , remarked Peter. He had to. The gauntlet was designed to respond to anyone’s arms, meaning it wasn’t coded to any one person. The creator didn’t have any one person in mind when he made it, most likely because he didn’t like the consequences which would follow should someone use it. Peter knew instinctively who made it. The design was too perfect, too signature for anyone else’s handywork, even another genius’s. Any panic felt within him was quelled by the notion that Tony was still with him, still holding him and guarding him, even if he fought a football field away on the battlefield and Peter stood on a small cliff.

As soon as the last nanobit linked with the rest, an incredible burst of light – pure white as all the stones’ colours bled together – rippled from the gauntlet. Peter’s veins boiled with heat. The gemstones’ power overtook any blood he had left and turned it to pure energy. A shockwave of power rippled over the entire scene. Peter collapsed to his knees, screwed his eyes shut, and grinded his teeth all before letting out a piercing cry in pain.

It was as if someone flicked a switch to ‘off’: the battle died. Enemy and allied troops alike fell to a standstill. Peter could feel each and every set of eyes on him, every pair too shocked to continue. Horror he could feel in their stunned gazes, or was that the horror he felt himself? His fate was sealed, now. There was only one way Peter would be seeing this all the way through. Yet the worst of all things wasn’t the towering Titan who expelled his shock fast enough to begin advancing on the spiderling. The worst of all was the figure glinting red and gold who didn’t seem to know how not to be a statue. Peter eyed the glimmering metal. A wave of assiduity found him again and swept him out to sea.

A thundering voice taunted, “Who do you think you are?” and Peter mustered enough dauntlessness to stare Thanos down.

“S-someone,” Peter began, gulped, and hardened his voice again, “Just someone.” The pain had dulled to a tickle, if being tickled by a thousand knife points and sprinkled by searing hot water droplets all over his body counted as 'dull'.

“You do not know what you’re wielding, little one.”

A breath or maybe two expanded between the Titan's words and Peter's reply.

“Responsibility,” Peter said, trying to keep up the appearance of confidence. He thought himself foolhardy, of course, as there was no escaping this kind of end to his story. On the other hand, he saw himself shove the gauntlet over his fingers and he felt the power running up and down his limbs. His brain fired not only with the overwhelming intensity but with his fear. He knew one last thing: an indescribable driving force which moved him along with the impromptu plan.

He bit down on his tongue to keep from crying out again.

"Why hand it off when you can just…" – he summoned another breath, another bout of courage, and sent a silent apology to the mechanic down below. Before it became intolerable, he had to pull through – "...when you can just do it yourself?”

I'm so sorry.

“And if you can, you should.”

Then, he snapped.

— —

When the light finally died, he lay on the ground. With his head propped against a piece of debris, he could see faces around him and behind them even thicker smog. Clouds drifted in and out, hanging low to the ground; it took a few seconds to realise the clouds weren’t clouds but ash. Was it proof? Had it worked?

There was a thump to his left. Something hit the dirt – a body part, a knee, another knee. Peter heard the sound of laboured breathing and of tiny metal particles folding in on themselves to reveal actual flesh. Hands were upon him. Dirty, sweaty hands grabbed Peter’s own and pressed against his chest. Someone’s breath heaved in and out, and a split-second whine of a stifled sob caught in Peter’s ear.

“Hey. Heyheyhey, Peter, kid, kid .”

Peter refrained from turning his head and risking the question he knew would be asked. He didn’t have the will to answer or to meet those sad, brown eyes.

The face leaned closely, a move which coaxed Peter to focus on it. Brown eyes sang in sadness, demanding an answer or a miracle, whichever happened to come first, but Peter couldn’t bare the anguish in Tony’s eyes. He rolled his head away and stared into the sky instead.

“Did we– did we win?” Peter choked out. “Mr. Stark, di-did we win?”

A hand fell on Tony’s shoulder, he saw that in his periphery, its fingers clad in blue. Peter shifted his head a fraction of an inch and registered the unmistakable glint of orange. Miss Potts. Her eyes sparkled with an unquenchable kindness. The first time Peter saw the sparkling kindness within her with at the Avenger’s compound; Peter recalled the scene albeit hazily. It was well into the night, Peter was half-asleep from the plane ride back from Germany, and Happy was having trouble getting him down the private jet steps. Peter collapsed into the exasperated redhead’s arms, and the next thing he knew, he was awakening in a spare bedroom at the compound with a fresh loner shirt and jeans too big for him at the foot of the bed. They never held another full conversations after that morning, but Peter never forgot the way her eyes held steady on his face as she listened about boring stats class and boring dumpster-diver side projects over cereal. She stared at him the same way – present and patient – yet now her lips did not incline ever so slightly upward and neither did the corners of her eyes wrinkle with amusement. Her lips were sealed in a flat line, her expression somber, her eyes pained.

“Yeah, buddy. We won,” Tony spoke in a hushed, raspy timbre. In spite of his swagger and confidence on the battlefield, his voice shook. The grip on Peter’s hand tightened as if to beg him to hold on. “Just you wait.. Just wait ‘til you tell May.”

“I can’t…”

“Yes, you will. D amn it , you will.”

Moisture leaked out of his eyes and trailed Peter’s cheek. Tony never cried! Peter's subtle head shake was hardly detectable. He knew the chances of surviving were inconceivable. He was no Hulk or Thanos; he didn't have the mass to tolerate such destructive capability. He was just a boy from Queens who wanted to help the little guy but saw how much more he could be doing and took a shot.

Pepper kneeled by Tony’s side. With her free hand, she rested her blue-clad palm on the side of his head. The metal’s coolness soothed Peter’s feverish skin. But as for the storm in his mind, nothing but the end would ever silence the panic.

He faced Tony properly, at long last. It was what his mentor deserved; not cowardly glances, not passive comments, but a proper goodbye. He deserved a thank you as the man who saw a hero in a web-slinging kid. A thank you to the man who taught him so much.

The untold question still hung in the air between them. They both breathed it in like they were the ash of Thanos’ army.

Why did you do it? pleaded the eyes of a mechanic.

Peter urged himself to answer. He could not let himself go without trying to express this. He might not have had very long under the mentorship of mister Stark, but he understood the extent of the man’s self-reflective thoughts. Just once, Peter wanted to convey to Tony a single truth: meaning. At the end of the day, Peter did what any good man would have done; Peter did what Tony would have done.

“Peter…”

Tony couldn't even bring himself to ask! The boy in question bit his lip.

“I just wanted to be like you.”