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to adapt and ache

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For a single heartbeat, Tony was back on the cool concrete floor, back in Siberia. Friend-turned-foe looming over him, shield raised to deliver the fatal blow. His hands thrown up to protect himself, repulsors charged but not fired because that would have hurt Steve. He couldn’t hurt Steve, not even if the man was trying to murder him. He had shot Barnes’ arm off, for God’s sake—how was he supposed to cause more pain?

The metal of the suit pressed against him, bent plates and loosened screws ripping through the material of the undershirt, piercing his skin. The warm bloom of blood against his back, arms, and legs was the only heat he could feel. Sub-zero temperatures were unforgiving, harsh at the best of times, not unlike the thunder, the storm, the tsunami crossing over Steve’s features. Claiming them. Morphing them into something so distinctly not-Steve that Tony would have laughed had he been able to. But he couldn’t.

He hurt Barnes. He hurt a victim in a blind fit of rage. And it was too late to take that back, even if he had come to the realisation that he was the one destined to lose this battle after the fifth failed attempt at restraining the supersoldiers.

The hit—shield colliding with the arc reactor—never came.

Tony fired the repulsor, and the Doom Bot towering over him lost its head. He took a second and a breath, shaky, laboured. It was difficult to think in the middle of the chaos that had descended upon New York in the past two hours, the Bots that Doctor Doom deployed to take over the city under the cover of nightfall. Half the Fantastic Four were out of town, out of the country, consulting with the UN on matters regarding recent portal sightings and on matters regarding Wakanda, matters regarding—Yeah, best not to think about that.

Johnny and Ben, left with the vague hope that any attack on the city would be miniscule or aimed at the Avengers, had buckled under the pressure. Tony couldn’t blame them. He, too, would freak out and call the nearest superheroes in for back-up if he had been faced with more than two hundred of Doctor Doom’s insidious designs. So, he had answered the call, suited up, and flew out to help with the fight, calling in any nearby Avengers for assistance.

That…That had been easier said than done. Rhodey was overseeing missions for the Army; Natasha had disappeared, gone MIA one month after the Accords had been amended to better suit their needs, though Tony had his suspicions that she had joined T’Challa for a flight back to Wakanda; Vision had been in a mood as of late, sulking around the Facility in Upstate New York when he wasn’t lamenting in the Avengers Tower; Bruce was still missing, and Tony continued to act like he didn’t spend nights calculating different ways to track Bruce’s movements, most likely whereabouts, locate him on a goddamn map; Peter was a kid, who Tony wanted involved in as few missions as possible, high stakes or not; and there was nobody else. They were a fractured team, scattered across the globe even as the public revered them as the Mightiest Heroes.

So, Tony had placed calls to the few friends he had left, requested that Charles Xavier spare a couple of his students to prevent Doom from succeeding in his plans, and Xavier agreed. Surprisingly.

Peter had been dragged into the middle of battle, but only because a group of Doom Bots tracked Spider-Man down on his nightly patrol. Vision was…Tony didn’t know where Vision was. He was somewhere on the five block radius, whether it be on the ground or providing aerial support, but he wasn’t in Tony’s immediate line of sight. The comms were silent save for a curse from Peter every few mintues.

That was Tony’s main priority: Keeping an eye on Peter. He could see the kid swinging from building to building, using his webbing to restrain the Bots and give Johnny something stationary to set alight. Not that Tony doubted Johnny’s ability to hit moving objects, it was just that there were a lot of flammable objects on the streets of New York, and one lit gas tank could lead to a block-wide collapse. He needed minimal damage. Minimal civilian casualties.

If he strained hard enough, Tony could hear Deadpool’s manic laughter somewhere to his left. Never a good sign, given that the guy caused more damage to city blocks than he prevented, but he was ruthless and efficient. Exactly who they needed in this fight. Tony couldn’t claim to know how Deadpool got wind of the attack, because Xavier sure as hell didn’t contact him, but there was a small part of Tony’s subconscious that was glad for the mercenary’s presence. The more allies they had, the easier it would be to win.

The thrusters of the Mark XLVI struggled to start, compromised by being trapped under one too many pieces of rubble in the past few hours. Tony was grounded. He could work fine from the ground, but there was an uneasy feeling gnawing at his gut when he watched Peter and Johnny fly above the city. If Peter fell, Tony wouldn’t be able to catch him. He should have…Berating himself with ‘should have’s and ‘what if’s seemed all too easy, so he pushed himself to his feet, took out another two Doom Bots, and carried on with the fight.

“On your seven, Mr Stark!”

Tony spun around in the nick of time. Deadpool dispatched a Bot that looked to be larger than the rest, and he didn’t doubt that the thing would have killed him if it hadn’t been for Peter’s warning and Deadpool’s ability to see three steps ahead of everyone else. There was some teasing on the comms then, Johnny mocking Peter’s ‘Mr Stark!’ in a higher pitch of voice. Peter retorted with a warning that if Johnny didn’t shut up, he would make him, and Tony wondered whether or not he should scold them for chattering on the lines when it wasn’t strictly necessary.

He didn’t have the heart: They were making the best of a bad situation, and the right thing to do was to let them.

“Not to be the bearer of bad news—”

“You’re always the bearer of bad news, Torch.”

“Shut up, Spidey. Looks like we’ve got another round incoming from the West. Plan of attack, Iron Man?”

There wasn’t a lull in the battle, but the kids both had their attention on him, and Tony was suddenly overwhelmed by Xavier’s agreement to help. Cyclops and Phoenix were dismembering the Bots before they could reach the city block that he and the kids (and Deadpool) were on, which allowed them a few precious seconds to think things through. Not act on impulse. That never got him anywhere.

Tony turned to locate Ben, prayed that the comm-line connecting them both remained intact through a car landing on top of him. “What’s the civilian headcount, Grimm?”

“NYPD did a pretty good job of getting the majority of people outta the immediate danger zone—” He grunted, lifted two Doom Bots and smashed them into one another—“I’d hazard a guess around three hundred? Apartment building on your eight.”

“Spider-Man, I need you to keep the Bots away from the building. Thirty to forty foot radius, minimum. Think you can stop ‘em before they arrive?” Even though Peter couldn’t see it, Tony raised an eyebrow behind the faceplate. A challenge. Peter gave a thumbs-up, one hand keeping him stuck to the side of a deli, then detached and took off. “Torch, when he’s rounded them up, blow it all to Hell.”

It was impossible to tell with the distance between them, but Tony was convinced that Johnny smirked at the order. He was gone too quickly, however, rushing after Peter—from a desire to protect the younger boy or from a desire to outdo him in a fight, Tony was unsure. Perhaps, trusting two kids with the task of destroying an incoming army wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had.

“Uh, Iron Man?”

“You can’t have messed this up already, Torch. That’s just…” Tony trailed off with a sigh, and he would have pinched the bridge of his nose if the faceplate hadn't been down. “That’s not possible. Even for you.”

“Nope, didn’t mess it up. But…are they supposed to be beeping? Not, like, car-beeping, but like…like…”

Johnny struggled to find the right words. It didn’t take long for Tony to figure out why. There weren’t many Doom Bots left on the block with him and Deadpool, because the guy put bullets in them and sliced them in two faster than Tony could get a repulsor to power up, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t hear it. Almost like a heartrate monitor in the hospital, only faster, and faster again. A warning. A countdown.

“A bomb,” he whispered aloud. “Johnny,” he added immediately, and his voice jumped in volume, though he knew it wasn’t necessary with the comms. Terror seized his heart, unrelenting. “Get Spider-Man out of there. Now!

The one thing running through his head was a broken record imitation of it’satrapit’satrapit’satrap and Tony wasn’t sure how much his heart or his head could withstand before he broke. One of the thrusters on the suit was slowly coming back online, according to the display on the HUD. It wasn’t enough to extract Peter himself, and power was running low. In a few minutes, the repulsors would be rendered ineffective, and he’d be utterly defenceless.

These Doom Bots hadn’t been designed to incapacitate and conquer. No. They were designed to destroy. The Avengers and the Fantastic Four were never meant to make it out of this one alive, but Tony would rather walk through Hell than have that be the case. Their team consisted of two kids and five adults (if you could call Deadpool that). There was no chance that he would let Doctor Doom wipe them out.

Johnny mock-saluted and then he was off, the upper half of his body and arms regaining its normal form so that he could lift Peter out of the path of the oncoming blast. Peter either hadn’t heard the order on the comms or he had a deathwish; he moved further into the ranks of the Bots from above, shooting out webs to bind their feet together. It stopped the threat from advancing, but the kid was in the middle of everything and Tony heard Peter’s breath catch in his throat.

The beeps merged into a high-pitched whine. There was a shout of, “Spidey!” from Johnny. Forced to shut his eyes, Tony looked down and away from the blinding light that clouded his field of vision. The legs of the suit locked into place, helping him brave the inferno no more than seventy metres away. His fingers tingled with the faintest traces of heat, the suit altered in 2013 to be more resilient to explosions after…

Tony blinked his eyes open, able to hear only the ringing in his ears. When he squinted, he could see something being hurled out of the flames, propelled by the force of the explosion, and the flames chasing after it, desperate to claim another victim.

Shaking his head, Tony blinked and squinted again, nose scrunching with the effort. FRIDAY’s motion tracking went down with the decline in power, arc reactor flickering above his chest. There was something racing after the projectile, and the projectile looked infinitely more like—

Peter!

There was no time to scold himself for allowing the name to slip as he watched Johnny fly underneath Peter, latch onto and curl around him as they hit the ground. They bounced with the force of the impact, rolled a couple times before the flames covering Johnny’s lower half were extinguished. If Tony hadn’t known how Johnny operated, he would have assumed that this interpretation of ‘stop, drop, and roll’ had vanquished the fire, but Tony did know how Johnny and his powers worked, knew that he could keep the flames if he wanted to.

Johnny had allowed the flames die out to prevent further harm befalling Peter, remained curled around him even after they stopped rolling.

“Emergency services are on their way, Boss.”

“FRIDAY, let me out of the suit.” His voice was calm, neutral, betrayed nothing of what he felt.

“Boss, there’s ash and smoke in the air, and it would appear an unknown contaminant was released upon detonation. Prolonged exposure is—”

Tony made an irritated noise in the back of his throat. “I don’t care, FRI. Let me out. That’s my kid lying there. Let me out.

If FRIDAY had any more arguments, she kept them to herself. The softest hiss of air ghosted over his skin, followed by a loud click that indicated the faceplate was milliseconds away from retracting and several similar sounds as the front of the armour rearranged itself, allowed for him to step out onto the solid ground.

The dead heat was palpable on his skin, worse than it had been inside the suit, much like sitting in front of a roaring fire for too long, but he couldn’t step away from this. Couldn’t retreat to the cool air of the rest of New York. The stench of molten metal was, perhaps, the worst part. It was putrid, more overwhelming and all-encompassing than anything he’s ever experienced inside the workshop. It went straight to his head, brought on a bought of dizziness. A week-long nap sounded like the perfect solution to all his problems right about then.

Regardless, Tony staggered through the debris, squinted against the embers falling from the sky, pretended that one of the Doom Bots hadn’t damaged his left arm in the scuffle because Peter was more important than that. Johnny and Peter weren’t too far from where Tony had been standing, but the explosion hadn’t propelled them far enough to save them from any burns—save Peter from any burns, Tony reminded himself. The flames didn’t affect Johnny.

The flames wouldn’t have affected Peter, either, if Tony had been able to convince himself to work on the newest iteration of the suit. His workshop acted as his safe haven in recent months, more so than usual, but he remained unwilling to work on any of the team’s—old or new—weapons for too long. His hands always began to shake, and he messed up delicate wirework or intricate panelling, a detailed decal on vibranium. More often than not, he coded and recoded AIs that he would never use, ones he had planned on giving to Peter had the kid not chosen KAREN.

The decision to occupy his time with idle work had come back to bite him in the ass. Portions of Peter’s suit were burnt or missing, mostly spanning his torso and legs. The skin underneath wasn’t pretty. Tony knew that the kid would heal in a fraction of the time that it would take a normal man, but he would only heal if he was alive. And Tony couldn’t see his chest rising or falling, even as he dropped to his knees beside the boys.

Johnny moved slowly, careful to not jostle Peter as he laid him down on his back, as he knelt opposite Tony. He lifted up the Spider-Man mask before Tony could stop him, secret identities be damned, and gave a couple gentle slaps to Peter’s cheek. When that didn’t elicit a reaction, Johnny pressed an ear to Peter’s chest while Tony watched, petrified. He couldn’t lose Peter. He couldn’t.

“Hey, Spidey?” Johnny’s voice was indescribably soft—scared. He pat Peter’s cheek once more, eyebrows drawing together in concern. Over both the now-faint ringing and the heartbeat thundering in his ears, Tony heard sirens. “Wake up. C’mon. I know you’re still there.” He delivered a quick, merciless slap, one that jerked Peter’s head to the side with the force behind it.

Tony flinched at the sound, because there were about ten better ways to wake Peter back up. Waiting for the paramedics would be one. “Hey, kid, maybe—”

Peter mumbled something incoherent, turning onto his side and curling into a near-fetal position. His eyes were screwed shut after a single attempt to open them, nose scrunched up in protest to being brought back to the waking realm via slap. “Why does m’ face hurt? No. Wait. Why does m’ everything hurt?”

“Hit the ground hard.” Johnny glanced over to Tony, checking for any sign that the older man would mention exactly why Peter’s face hurt. That would be a one-way ticket to being strung up on the side of the Empire State Building.

Tony, ever the smart adult and wishing to avoid any more incidents involving webs and fire, focused on Peter’s second question. “Paramedics’ll be here in a minute, kid. Just hang in there. You did good today.”

Peter opened his eyes at that, but only so he could raise a sceptical eyebrow at Tony. An understandable reaction, given the few smaller buildings which had collapsed in the blaze. Tony could fund the repairs, knew that they would be up and running again by the end of the month, but he doubted that that knowledge made Peter feel any better.

He closed his eyes again, ducked his chin against his chest as he curled tighter in on himself. “I caused an explosion.”

“They were always gonna explode,” Johnny pointed out, stealing the words off the tip of Tony’s tongue. “Whether you were here or not. Could’ve been me headed in there. Could’ve been Ben. Hell, it could’ve been Deadpool.”

From across the street, there was an indignant yell: “I wouldn’t have nearly died!”

Johnny waved a dismissive hand. “Point is: Doom was trying to kill somebody in that. Whether it be one of us or whether it be civilians. Bots were rigged to explode, would’ve done so if you had stayed back with Stark, but you managed to restrain the majority of them and stopped them from getting any closer to more populated areas. Saved lives, Spidey, hence ‘you did good’.”

A grunt was all Johnny received in response to that.

The sirens were fast approaching, and Tony wanted to shy away from the noise of them, able to process loud noises properly now after the adrenaline of both the battle and the explosion subsided. He forced himself to remain where he knelt, reached a hand out and placed it tenderly on Peter’s upper arm, sure to steer clear of any remotely charred areas.

The Human Torch was all out of reassuring words as fire-engines raced around the three men in the middle of the road. Tony couldn’t wrap his head around the lack of serious debris, how enough of the road remained untouched to the point that emergency services could still use it, but he supposed it was a good thing. Less damage afterwards meant that the battle had gone better than their usual, right? No cities crashing down from the sky or genocidal robots attempting to wide out mankind.

But there was an injured Spider-Kid, and Tony had to question whether or not the lives of the many outweighed the life of this one.

An ambulance pulled up several feet behind them; Tony clenched his jaw at the sirens, the shouting, the paramedics hopping out and yelling orders to the nearby firefighters responsible for rescuing civilians from the apartment building, the firefighters yelling orders back. It was too much. He needed to get out. He couldn’t leave Peter. Couldn’t leave Johnny. Couldn’t even bring himself to leave Ben.

“Sirs? I’m gonna need you both to step back from the boy. You can…are you family?”

The paramedic had to know who Tony was, it simply wasn’t possible at this point in his life that anyone in New York wouldn’t know his name and his face, but there was a good chance she didn’t know Johnny. The Four’s involvement with the Accords and publicity had been minimal. Tony and Johnny exchanged a look.

“Yes,” Johnny said, enough force behind the single syllable to be convincing. He sounded like a blood-relation about to be separated from their injured loved one—concerned and distraught, mixed with a hint of rage. “He’s my brother.”

The paramedic—Beckett, if the shouts from her teammates unloading the ambulance were anything to go by—looked wholly unconvinced, complete with raised eyebrow, but there wasn’t time to run DNA tests on them. Taking Johnny at his word was the only option. “And him?” She jerked her chin in Tony’s direction.

“I’m his mentor,” Tony said, wiping a palm against the thigh of the undersuit. Tears littered the black material, and he was sure that he didn’t look professional or presentable, but he wanted to ensure Peter got the best possible care. “The Facility’s six minutes further away than the nearest hospital, assuming the roads are clear. Better medical equipment than the hospital though. Any chance I can persuade you and your team to take him there? Official Avengers business.”

The male paramedics lifted Peter onto a stretcher, both of them holding a conversation through eyebrow movement and eyebrow movement alone. It reminded Tony of Clint and Natasha, and he had to pretend that the thought didn’t feel like someone squeezing the life out of his beating heart.

“It’d break protocol, sir,” one of the men explained, sounding genuinely apologetic.

“Understood.” Tony tapped his fingers against his knee, then rose to his feet shortly after Johnny. Much as he wanted to wallow in self-pity for the outcome of the battle, he knew that it wouldn’t get them anywhere. Granted, he didn’t know where they needed to be, but focusing on his mistakes wasn’t going to help anyone. All he could do was move forward, work towards the future. As always.

Johnny paused, hand gripping the handle of the ambulance doors. His shoulders rose and fell, noticeable to the naked eye in a way that was unnatural, left Tony with an odd feeling in his gut. “You did all you could, Stark.” He didn’t even look over his shoulder as he said it, voice low, remorseful.

He hoisted himself into the back of the ambulance before Tony could contemplate saying anything in response, expression pensive as he sat down near the stretcher, willing to let the paramedics work on Peter without interference.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

The hospital room was quiet, never silent. Whether it be the steady beeping of the heartrate monitor, or the occasional grumble from Peter as he attempted to sleep, or Johnny’s sneakers hitting against the linoleum floors while he paced back and forth in front of the bed, there were always sounds. Tony slumped in a chair by his bedside, three hours after the battle turned south. A t-shirt and a pair of jeans had been thrown on over the undersuit in that time, but that was all he could convince himself to do before taking one of the older suits to the hospital to stay at Peter’s bedside, ensure that none of the hospital workers leaked any information about the fact that this kid came in wearing a charred and mangled Spider-Man suit. Maybe Tony could claim he was a cosplayer, that Peter didn’t actually have any connections to the web-slinger.

He needed to set up a press conference for that, clarify what had gone down in the battle and how an innocent teenager got caught up in all of it. The thought of May finding out about this made him grimace: She may have known who Spider-Man was, but that didn’t mean she was any less likely to spare Tony’s life for risking her nephew’s. He understood. He, too, would want to murder the man responsible for almost getting his child killed, because that child shouldn’t have been in the battle in the first place, much less sent into the heart of a Doom Bot army without so much as a quick scan from FRIDAY on Tony’s part.

Johnny stopped in his tracks for the thousandth time, stared at Peter for a few seconds before a crease formed between his brows and he continued to pace a hole into the hospital floor, now muttering incessantly to himself. He and Peter were good friends, Tony knew that much from Peter’s voicemails, and he would often stop by to help keep Peter company on a patrol. It was understandable that he would be torn up about Peter’s current condition, however promising said condition may be—the doctors claimed that, despite the burns and the broken and/or dislocated bones that had to be set and reset, Peter would make a full recovery—because if one thing had gone differently in that explosion, if Johnny hadn’t caught him when he had, they might not be in a small hospital room with the beginnings of a golden morning light filtering in through the blinds. If one thing had gone differently, they could have been standing in the morgue.

Shaking his head as if to force out the forlorn thoughts, Tony refocused on the now. On the steady rise and fall of Peter’s chest, on the little twitch that ran through Peter’s right index finger every couple of seconds, as though going to type something but stopping himself, on the way the corner of his lips tugged up in something of a smile, indicative that he was having a good dream.

Tony focused on the positives. The negatives would eat him alive.

There was a soft knock on the door and Tony turned in his seat, half-expecting to see Rhodey or Pepper despite knowing that they were both busy, occupied with their own lives and matters. Lives and matters that couldn’t be interrupted because Tony had (yet again) allowed one of his teammates to get hurt. Instead, Ben stepped into the room, three coffees on a tray in one hand, phone held loosely in the other.

“Gonna fall through into the room below us if you keep that up, Storm.” He set the tray down on the nightstand next to Peter’s bed, lifting his own cup of coffee up before claiming the only remaining chair in the room. Not that Johnny was using it. “Got you both coffee. Maybe not such a good idea given your apparent nerves.”

Johnny rolled his eyes at this, made a scene out of breaking the path he had been carving to snatch his paper cup up. He held it to his chest as he returned to the foot of the bed, eyes scanning over Peter’s features. The burns, the bruises, the gash that spanned the space just shy of his lips to above his left eyebrow. Some of the wounds, left by the shrapnel that had rained down on both boys in the explosion, had sliced through his skin, though seldom had the medics deemed them deep enough to require stitches. One on Peter’s abdomen, one on his right hand where a piece of metal had been stuck in the flesh, and three up his right arm and shoulder.

It could have been worse, Tony reminded himself. Peter could have died.

“Thanks, Ben,” was all he said, voice quiet and far away as he reached for the coffee and took a long drink. There wasn’t nearly enough sugar, a tad too much milk, but Ben didn’t know his coffee preferences and the mistakes were excusable. Besides, coffee was coffee, served the same damn purpose no matter how sugar he put in it.

A tinny thwing resounded through the room. Both Tony and Johnny glanced to Ben as he read over the text message, pursing his lips when he got to a section that Tony assumed he wasn’t fond of. From where he sat, a few feet away from Ben, he could see that the sender preferred winding paragraphs that were neatly spaced instead of shorter bursts of messages, sent in the dozens.

“Sue says that she and Reed should be back by tomorrow morning, provided all runs smoothly. Governments wanted them to take a look at some readings. High-energy cosmic storms are being picked up by NASA’s bots, but they can’t tell if they’re borne on solar winds or not. If they are, we’re looking at any space teams in the storm zone coming back like us, or not coming back at all. If they’re not…”

“We don’t know what they are,” Tony finished, taking a shorter sip of the coffee this time as he thought things through. It wouldn’t be so horrible to have more superheroes on hand, though there was a fifty-fifty chance that the affected humans would choose to be heroes and not villains, and he didn’t think he could deal with any more villains in the world. There were enough of them as it was, never mind cosmic storms gifting already-intelligent people with potentially deadly powers. “Is she allowed to be relaying this information to us?”

Ben smirked. “No. You know Susie.”

“And this is important,” Johnny pointed out, fingers drumming against the bottom of the cup now that he stood still. The look in his eyes seemed a million miles away. But he blinked, turned his head to face Ben, and it was gone. “Any news on—”

Ben’s phone gave several more thwing sounds in quick succession then, and Tony’s began ringing in his pocket. The two men exchanged a fearful look, tended to their respective devices. Before Tony could hit the ‘Accept’ button on the incoming call, he heard a horrified, “Oh, no,” from Ben. Biting the bullet, he pressed the phone to his ear and braced himself.

“Stark, this is urgent.” Councilwoman Knightley of the World Security Council, though the phone hadn’t displayed her contact, which he definitely did not pull from the CIA’s database. Just ‘unknown number’. His mind ran through fifty different scenarios before they spoke up again, the most prominent one being that there had been another attack, another bomb, a repeat of last year. Had something happened to Reed? Was the news already covering it? “Stark, are you there?”

He cleared his throat, nodded even though she couldn’t see him. “Yeah. Yes. I’m here. What’s wrong?” The ‘What can I do to help?’ went unspoken.

“This is…It’s going to sound insane—”

“Used to that.”

“—but there’s a meteor headed straight for Earth. Estimated to land in rural Nevada; I’ll have my men send you the exact coordinates.”

Tony raised an eyebrow at the jug of water across the room. “What exactly do you want me to do about this? Catch it?”

“It’s not disintegrating upon contact with the atmosphere, Stark,” she snapped. For someone who Tony knew to be a patient woman, this was a very bad sign. And it’s large. If it hits a small city…blocks will be wiped out, hundreds of people—”

“Alright, got it, got it. Spider-Kid’s out of commission, I’m gonna need to call in some other people for this job. That alright, or is this a tight-lip thing?” Both Johnny and Ben were watching him now, evidently trying to overhear the other side of the conversation. It shouldn’t have been too difficult, given that the Councilwoman sounded like she was trying to speak over utter chaos descending over the rest of the hall in the background. Tony thought he could hear Reed yelling at everyone to shut up (though he used more colourful terminology), but he couldn’t be sure.

“Call in anyone you want, Stark. We’re looking at loss of life if you don’t break that thing.”

With that, she hung up. Tony returned the stares Johnny and Ben were giving him for a few seconds before he could put his thoughts into order. Ben still beat him to the punch.

“I’ll go grab the Fantasti-Car.”

Tony smirked as he rose to his feet, easily finishing off his coffee and chucking the cup in the wastebasket. “Reed really needs to rename that thing.”

For this, he earned a punch to the shoulder from Johnny as they both left the hospital room. “Wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t have that dumbass name,” he muttered, leaving his coffee on one of the abandoned gurneys in the hallway. “C’mon, Stark, let’s fly.”

Tony had his suit down in the parking garage—the hospital staff wouldn’t let him keep it anywhere else—and all Johnny had to do was flame-on. Not trusting that a supervillain wouldn’t somehow get wind of Peter’s true identity and attempt to murder him while they were gone, or that Peter wouldn’t wake up and try to sign himself out despite being both a minor and a mess, Tony politely requested that the nurses kept a special eye on him.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

In the half an hour it had taken Tony and Johnny to fly to just outside of Ely, Nevada, the meteor had breached both the thermosphere and the mesosphere, and was fast approaching the stratosphere. Having FRIDAY run a few quick calculations to determine the current trajectory, Tony realised that the small town was inside the danger zone, and that he and Johnny had to act quickly.

Breaking the meteor up with repulsor beams would only serve to do more damage. This called for a different plan.

“Torch, we need to get up close and personal with that thing!”

All he received in response on the comm-line was a burst of static as Johnny brushed a fiery hand past his earpiece as he gave another mock-salute and took off, leaving Tony to trail behind him in the Iron Man armour.

“What’s the plan, Stark? Can’t exactly stop it in its path.” Johnny sounded how Tony felt: frightened, but trying to cover it up with thinly veiled agitation.

“We gotta move it.”

“Move it,” Johnny echoed, deadpan. “Move it. Oh, yeah, just let me give it a little tap in that direction. Fucking move it. Will you not burn up if you touch it?”

Tony smirked behind the mask, increasing the power in the thrusters so that he could catch up to Johnny. “Guess we’ll have to find out.”

“Neither of us have superhuman strength,” Johnny pointed out, sounding more unsure than sarcastic now. “How do you know we’ll even be able to move it?”

“If I increased the power in the thrusters to max, I should be able to at least budge it a few degrees away from the town, and that should be enough to stave off any major damage. Maybe one or two building collapses, but the local authorities have been alerted and told to evacuate in the opposite direction.”

“Too many ‘should’s in that sentence for comfort, Stark.”

“Got a better plan, Torch?” Tony raised an eyebrow, did a spin and roll to avoid a chunk of meteor that had, in fact, broken off, though it was no larger than his armoured fist. He looked away from Johnny, turned his attention back to the approaching meteor.

“Boss,” FRIDAY chirped in his ear, “I thought I made a mistake when calculating the trajectory, that my sensors were pickin’ something up wrong, measurements gone screwy, but that ain’t a meteor. It’s a spaceship.”

“A space—what?” Tony squinted, ignored the beep alerting him to the fact that this Iron Man suit was already down to 50% power because he hadn’t changed the arc reactor in its chest before using it, because it was the one he’d used in Siberia and there were still little bugs and technical issues that he couldn’t fix, such as the botched power expenditure. Maybe ‘couldn’t’ was the wrong word; ‘didn’t want to revisit this suit more than once’ was a better reason behind not tending to the minor issues.

He continued squinting, trying to make out the edges of a spaceship through the flames and the smoke trailing into the sky behind it. He needed to have his eyes re-checked, maybe get a stronger prescription, because the outline of anything was unidentifiable. Even FRIDAY could only give him a vague outline at best, one that looked like it could be a misshapen meteor. Like how, sometimes, you looked at a cloud and saw a rabbit.

Regardless, this had minimal impact on Tony’s plans. If it was a ship, there were likely people on board that he had to worry about, but that was the only new concern.

“Stark, I gotta go full flame.”

Tony resisted the overwhelming urge to mock Johnny for saying the words ‘full flame’ and sounding completely serious as he did so, because he knew what the kid was saying. Johnny was about to fly into the inferno of the spaceship (or meteor, or whatever), the comm lines would go down because Tony hadn’t created the earpieces he gave the Four to be fireproof, and they would have to rely on gut instinct alone to work together and manoeuvre the spaceship the right way.

“Just remember the plan, Storm.”

“Gotcha!”

The comms gave a brief burst of static, quickly falling to radio silence as Tony worked to keep up with Johnny. The kid was a lot faster than one of his suits, and didn’t seem to be in the business of slowing down any time soon. Still, the spaceship was less than 1000 metres away from them now, and Tony thought he might have been able to identify some distinguishing features that made it look more like a ship than a hunk of space rock. He also thought that his nerves might have been affecting his perception of the situation, so he wasn’t willing to make any calls for certain.

“FRIDAY, how far out’s Ben?”

“He’s being held back by the FBI and CIA on the ground, Boss. Brought in Cyclops and Phoenix after the battle, FBI believe they’ll be able to help should the inhabitants of the ship prove to be hostile.”

“You told them it was a spaceship?”

“Figured it was important they knew, Boss.”

“Great. FRIDAY, y’know the movies where the aliens invade, and we’re all convinced that the threat isn’t hostile at first because oh, hey, off that entire ship came one little alien dude. It’s probably fine. Nobody’s going to die. So everyone lets their guard down, not that they had nearly enough agents on the ground anyway, but—”

“Boss?”

“Yeah?”

“Other teams have been dispatched to the surrounding areas to prepare for a worst-case scenario.”

“Oh.”

Tony didn’t feel the need to ask what other teams had been dispatched because, as far as he was aware, there were very few left in the world. Yes, many superheroes had signed the Accords to assuage the public’s collective fear of them after what happened in Lagos (Malibu, DC, Sokovia, Berlin), but the remainder began to work underground, and the rise in vigilante justice was noticeable. Heroes who had never murdered before now had blood on their hands, all because it was either that or expose themselves, which led to the ultimatum of being arrested or signing.

Many teams had broken up in the wake of what the public were calling a ‘Civil War’ between the Avengers. There wasn’t any agreement or communication and, honestly, Tony was surprised that the Fantastic Four had managed to grit their teeth and fight for each other like they had nothing else. Sue and Reed had been at each other’s throats for months; Reed insisted that signing would protect them and that Tony wouldn’t let anything bad happen, while Sue insisted that not signing was the better option.

After Siberia, the Accords had been altered and they had been brutal, willing to rank and label superheroes, tear the teams limb from limb and reassign the individuals to different locations, reveal their secret identities if the government deemed it necessary, and take away all liberties and freedom if a hero was thought to be too much of a threat. Tony couldn’t blame Sue for hating the very idea of conceding.

If the Avengers had been presented with those Accords, Tony would have sided with Steve in a heartbeat. There was too much risk to the team there—too much risk to Wanda in particular, and Tony wouldn’t have signed, even if he disliked her.

But Reed and Tony had worked alongside the new Wakandan King, T’Challa, to reshape the Accords, rewrite them so that superheroes could still do their goddamn jobs without fear of being shipped off to the Raft after one fuck-up. It had taken sleepless nights spent reading and re-reading the documents, scribbling notes in the margins while he squinted through bleary eyes to make out the next few words; it had taken the Fantastic Four taking some time apart, Reed and Ben staying with Tony at Stark Tower while Sue and Johnny remained at the Baxter Building; it had taken countless days spent in the UN Headquarters, arguing with diplomats and dignitaries alike to reach a compromise that was actually a compromise; it had taken months, and it had taken everything they had, but they had taken coal and applied enough pressure that it resembled something a little more like a diamond. It still needed polishing in some places, but Tony knew that the current Accords were possibly the best version they would get.

“200 metres ‘til contact, Boss.”

Johnny performed a little twirl in the air, sending off a round of sparks that rained down from above them, and Tony wondered which of the other Four the kid had got his flair for the dramatic from.

“150 metres.”

Tony could feel the heat in the air now, crackling and alive. He flexed the fingers of one armoured hand, ensured that the repulsor was ready for use should the occupants of the spaceship—because that was definitely a spaceship—decide to attempt an attack. Unlikely as it was that any weapons on the exterior would still be working, Tony wanted to be prepared.

“100 metres.”

Looking down, he could see blinking red and blue lights, a perimeter set up around the town. There were SUVs and inconspicuous, unmarked, black vans, too, parked on the opposite side of the road, closer to where the landing site should be.

“50 metres.”

Johnny was ahead of him one second, gone the next, engulfed by the flames.

“40 metres.”

Tony wanted to back-pedal, wanted to reverse the direction he was travelling in and run the fuck away from this fight. He was tired and he was scared, and he was about to be burned alive. Not a great way to spend his morning.

“30 metres.”

Even without the comms, Tony heard a pained yell, a scream ripped from Johnny’s throat. The flames began to clear, a small area that couldn’t have had a diameter of more than 6 metres at a push, but it was enough. Tony’s eyes flickered to the power usage displayed inside the HUD: 30%. He kicked it up in the thrusters.

“10 metres, Boss. Brace.”

Tony held his palms out in front of him, grit his teeth as metal met metal and he pushed with everything he had.

28%.

“It’s not moving, Stark!”

“It will!” Tony increased the distance between his palms, resting one of them just at the edge of the so-called safe zone. He could feel the flames caressing the gauntlet, trying to get at his skin and burn him, but he couldn’t focus on that. Not right now. Not if he wanted to save that town. “FRIDAY, thrusters to max.”

“Boss, the power’ll—”

“I know, FRIDAY.” His voice was low, tone resigned. “I know.”

The AI obliged his request. Tony felt the ship slip beneath his grip. It moved. It moved.

24%.

“Ben! Ben,” Tony spoke into the comm, praying that the man on the ground still had his earpiece on him. “Ben, tell the FBI they need to move further into the town. Get them off that stretch of highway.”

The ship was large, gave resistance against Tony’s attempts to alter its course, kept billowing flames and smoke despite Johnny’s best efforts to stop it, but there was no doubt that it was moving. By a fraction of a degree, maybe, but moving nonetheless.

23%.

Tony tried for a different tactic, didn’t allow himself to look down to check whether or not Ben had received his message. He pulled back from the spaceship, allowing himself enough space between him and it to build up a decent speed, and flew back towards it, pushing the suit to the limits. He collided with the ship again, ramming into it with his shoulder this time.

A spark of pain coursed through his arm, and the HUD flashed warnings about damage to the suit. Johnny slipped where he was hanging onto the edge of a wing to gain leverage, and Tony knew he was doing something right.

19%.

“How much farther ‘til the town’s safe, FRI?”

“Another five degrees and it should touch down on the highway, Boss. Minimal damage to buildings. Majority damage to the road.”

“Yeah, well, I can pay for that.” He couldn’t pay if lives were lost. No amount of money brought a person back. And no amount of money could keep a person around, either. Learned that the hard way.

17%.

Tony slammed himself against the side of the ship a four more times, power falling each time he did so—both the suit’s and his own. The repulsors had shut off long ago, and the thrusters were soon to follow. The HUD flashed red.

9%.

“FRIDAY?”

“Should do it, Boss. Approximately forty seconds to touch-down. I’d advise that you and the kid get outta there.”

By the time Tony and Johnny made it to the ground, the suit was down to 5%. The repulsors could be restored in an emergency, but would be useless in the long run should a fight break out. The ship hit the ground just shy of the highway, as predicted, but the tremors that ran through the earth were strong enough to wipe out a few streetlights and signs.

One of the wings snapped off upon impact. Tony could see that several sections of protective plating were missing in the smouldering wreckage. But, in the silence after the crash, he heard noise. Not chatter from the FBI behind him and Johnny. No, this was someone complaining loudly, air being released, and…

The door for the loading dock of the ship opened with a hiss. Behind him, there was the sound of a hundred guns being raised in unison, safety flicked off, fingers hovering over the triggers. Nobody took a breath for the next five seconds, all agents on edge. To his right, Johnny’s flames rose like hackles on a dog as he adopted a more defensive stance, ready for what might come tumbling out of the alien ship.

They heard the invaders before they saw them.

“If you actually knew how to fly a plane, we wouldn’t be in this mess!” The voice was higher than Tony expected—though he also hadn’t expected aliens to speak English, so, hey—and had a distinct nasal quality to it. Not enough to annoy you, but enough that it was noticeable.

You were supposed to be the pilot! The one time I actually let you pilot, and we crash land. Great. Fantastic. And now—” The man—yes, definitely a human man. Maybe the aliens knew how to shapeshift—looked away from whatever he had been looking down at. His clothes were surprisingly intact, though torn in places, and several small cuts littered his face. A handful of emotions flickered across his face at once: indignation, upset, fear, confusion. Confusion alone remained as he surveyed the scene. The FBI, the CIA, the X-Men, and two of the Fantastic Four all standing ready, Tony at the front. “Hey, whoa.”

He held up a hand, a gesture Tony immediately recognised as something intended to be a peaceful gesture, but someone behind him fired a warning shot at the man. It hit the edge of the entrance to the ship, three inches shy of going straight through the guy’s skull. Damn trigger-happy agents.

This time, it was Tony who raised his hand. A signal to the government agencies to stand down, that he had this under control.

“Are you a threat?” The words ran through his head five times after he spoke them, increasingly annoyed at himself each time. Are you a threat? Who the fuck would answer ‘yes’ to that?

“Depends.” A raccoon toting a gun stalked into view. Tony wondered if this was all an absurd dream. A raccoon. Talking. Holding a gun. None of it computed in his mind. “This Earth?”

“No, it’s Mars.”

“No need for the sarcasm, matchstick,” the raccoon retorted, no qualms about interacting with a boy on fire.

The man glared at the raccoon at that, then turned to Tony. “We’re not threats, no. I don’t…I don’t know how to prove that to you. We’re the Guardians of the Galaxy—” Johnny snorted at that— “I’m Quill, the asshole’s Rocket.”

“Just the two of you?” Tony raised an eyebrow. “Two guardians for an entire galaxy?”

Quill frowned. “Well, no, the rest of our team’s on board. The crash…I think one of them might need medical attention, but—” He gestured vaguely to the area behind Tony again, earned him another warning shot. “Alright, geez.”

“We can get medics out,” Tony assured him, keeping his tone calm, reasonable. “We just need to know why you’re here.”

Quill looked him dead in the eyes, and the stare was chilling, even with the several metres that separated them. “Our scanners have been picking up strange electrical signals, frequencies, chatter from other groups out there in space. You’re all in danger. We’re all in danger.” He took a breath, lowered his gaze momentarily before he looked off into the distance behind Tony’s head.

And then he looked back. “There’s a war coming.”