Peter was just minding his own business when the interdimensional portal opened. It was perpendicular to the cargo bay decking, glimmering white and hazy at the edges; in the center it looked almost like the sky. Maybe even Earth's sky. A cloud drifted by.
He did what anyone would do in this situation.
"Rocket!" he yelled. "What the hell did you do now?"
There was the rattle and clang of someone dropping something at the other end of the ship.
"Hey, I didn't do nothing!" Rocket shouted back. "If you broke something, that's on you."
The portal was getting bigger. It had been maybe a foot wide before. Now it was more like two. He didn't particularly like the thought of it eating the ship.
"I didn't do it. But, uh, maybe you guys should come see this. Maybe really soon."
Drax and Gamora fell in first. Drax's knives were in his hands, and Gamora was covered in enough weaponry that she probably could have gotten to about five knives in under five seconds. Somehow he didn't think stabbing things was going to be the answer here.
Gamora raised an eyebrow. "A portal?"
"Not my fault," Peter said. "I was just sitting here, I swear."
Rocket was a little slower to arrive, carrying Groot's pot in his arms.
"I am Groot."
Rocket looked at the portal and then gave Peter a narrow snarl of a gaze, all pointed teeth, his tail on end.
Peter raised his hands in the air. "I am innocent. Innocent! Sheesh."
That was when the portal flared bright, brighter than anything, like a supernova in miniature, and he had to cover his eyes. When he opened them again there was a man lying there, face-down on the deck, and the portal was gone.
The stranger was dark-haired and pink-skinned -- probably Kree -- and was wearing most of what looked like a fairly expensive armored exoskeleton, one of the custom-fitted types, done up in black and gold, with glowing reddish circles at the shoulders, hips, and down his forearms. If there had been a helmet it was either missing or cloaked, but Peter considered claiming the whole thing under salvage rights anyway, even if the guy wasn't dead, because that was some nice armor.
The man coughed. Alive, then. He guessed he was okay with that.
Slowly, the stranger pushed himself upright, turning to face them. Blue eyes. Goatee. Another glowing circle in the middle of his chest. A fucking arrow sticking out from his side, an arrow that glittered with circuitry. And however bad Peter's day had been, what with the mysterious portal, this guy's day had clearly been worse: it looked like he had a massive black eye starting, his face swollen, the blood vessels in his eye broken.
He looked around the room, bewildered, and then suddenly his face cleared in recognition, and he was looking right at Peter.
"Peter! Buddy!" the man said, and there was a relieved smile on his face. "Great to see you again. Sorry to drop in on you like this. I have to say this really wasn't where I was expecting to end up."
Peter stared. The translator implant hadn't clicked in. This guy was speaking English. This guy was from Earth. This guy thought he knew him. And, sure, Peter actually did have long-lost relatives -- technically speaking, he was the long-lost relative -- but he was pretty sure none of them were this guy. But this guy knew his name.
He put his hand on his blaster. "How do you know who I am?"
The stranger gave an awkward chuckle, and his smile was considerably more tense. "Yeah, yeah, Quill, funny joke, pretend you don't know me, I get it. Can we move on now?"
"I don't know you," Peter said, more firmly. This was beginning to get weird. You heard things, mostly tall tales, friend-of-a-friend stories about spacers getting amnesia, but he was pretty sure he'd never heard of people waking up with extra memories.
"Come on," the stranger said, pleading. "It's me, Tony. Of course you know me. I spent six months with you guys. I'm not that forgettable." He met the eyes of each of the Guardians in turn.
Rocket shook his head.
"I am Groot."
"I have never met you before," Drax said.
Gamora stretched nonchalantly; she'd been leaning against the wall. "I do not know you either."
The stranger -- Tony? -- looked at Gamora and winced. "Small mercies," he muttered to himself. Then louder: "Okay, okay, maybe you just don't know me yet. Time travel. Goddammit. What year is it? Earth year?"
"2014?" Peter offered, and Tony frowned.
"No," Tony said, abstracted, "that's right, I was here last year, you guys should remember me. Why the hell don't you remember me?"
Rocket hopped up on one of the nearby crates. "If there's five of us and one of you, and none of us know you, I'm thinking the problem's with you."
"I agree," Drax said.
Tony looked at Peter, entreating, hopeful. "Come on, Peter, even if you've never met me you've heard of me, right? Tony Stark?"
Tony held out his hands, pleading. They both had the same glowing circles in the palms, but underneath one of them was a fainter red light, something else lit up beneath the armor. "Iron Man?"
He was positive his own face now had the same expression that he saw on most people, most of the times he'd tried introducing himself as Star-Lord. "Iron Man?"
The guy didn't even look embarrassed by the mockery; he looked like he sincerely thought people were going to call him Iron Man. Maybe Peter hadn't said "Star-Lord" with the right amount of panache. Tony looked like he could pull it off.
"No." Peter thought about it. "Snappy name, though. Wasn't that a TV show?"
Tony sighed. "Stark Resilient? Stark Solutions? Stark-Fujikawa? Stark Enterprises? Stark International? Stark Industries?"
This guy was a businessman? Peter opened his mouth to say no, but then a memory tugged at him: lazy afternoons with his grandpa, the smell of gun oil, Stark stamped into the grip. Grandpa had showed him every piece as he cleaned the weapon. "Do you-- do you make guns?"
He would have thought that would make the guy happy, that he remembered this at least, but Tony only sighed. "All this, and it's still my goddamn legacy," Tony said, under his breath, low and bitter. "Made guns. Not anymore. I've moved on. Or maybe I haven't." He laughed, a short, sharp bark of dismay.
Peter had no idea what that meant. "I think my grandpa had one of your guns. He was in the Army."
"Yeah," Tony said, and he just sounded sad. "He probably did."
"I haven't been to Earth in about twenty years. I'm not really up on current events."
"Haven't been to Earth," Tony said, thoughtfully, and then, in the universal "a great idea has dawned" motion, hit himself in the forehead with the palm of his gauntlet, and then winced as he hit a bruise. "Clint, you bastard, you utter bastard, it was dimensional travel?" He looked up, and his eyes were lit from within by an almost manic energy. "Is Earth here? Would you tell me if it wasn't? It still exists, right? What have you got in the way of sensors? I need data."
He leaped to his feet, and then staggered, wobbled, and nearly fell.
"There is an arrow in you," Drax said, very calmly. "You are experiencing blood loss."
Tony looked down at his side as if he hadn't once noticed this and he wiped two metal fingers against the wound. They came away blood-red. "I knew that," he said, and then he did fall over, unconscious.
In the armor Tony was really, really heavy, which Peter discovered when he tried to lift him and couldn't. Drax carried him down to medical like he weighed nothing. Of course.
And then Drax just left Peter alone with him.
"Whoa, hey! Where are you going?"
"Now I am going to the waste elimination facilities," Drax said.
"No, I mean, why aren't you staying to help me with him?"
Drax stared at him. "He is of your species. You are more capable of rendering aid."
Peter supposed he had a point. He sat down and got to work on the armor. It looked like the sort of thing that was all supposed to remove neatly on command, but if there were overrides, he didn't know them. He squinted at the gaps between some of the armor plates. Manual releases. Huh. He'd take it.
Five minutes of prying at panels later, he had a pile of armor in the corner and a still-unconscious man in torn pants and a blood-soaked shirt with "Resilient" printed on the breast. His chest was glowing blue-white where the circle in the armor had been, diffusing through the shirt. The red glow in his palm turned out to be numbers, slowly counting down. Peter wasn't going to ask. Luckily the entire arrow had come out with the chestpiece, arrowhead and all, and it wasn't even that pointy as these things went; it looked more like a small EMP device than anything.
He put gauze down over the wound, to at least get the blood away before starting anything more involved, and Tony's eyes flickered open.
"Hey, Quill," he mumbled. "Am I dead?"
Peter handed him a fistful of pills, the really good Xandarian analgesics, which Tony dry-swallowed.
Okay, so the mysterious stranger was also extremely depressed. Peter did not get paid enough to deal with this. He wasn't getting paid anything. He sighed. "Just hold still while I fix up your skin." He hadn't really had much practice using the regenerator on other people, but there was a first time for everything.
Tony stared at the regenerator, impressed. "You get the good tech, Quill. You always get the good tech."
The fact that this guy knew him was getting really unnerving.
Thankfully, it was then that the painkillers knocked him out.
Okay, so maybe Peter had a problem dealing with strangers.
When Tony woke up again the regen on his stomach had clearly taken, which was good.
"Sorry about the eye," Peter said. "This isn't really my specialty, and I figured I'd better not chance getting something wrong trying to fix that."
Tony reached up a hand to poke very gingerly at the darkened swelling of his cheekbone. "No problem."
"How'd you get it?"
Maybe if Tony explained how he'd been hurt, how he'd come here, it would give them some kind of clue for how to get him back to wherever he was from. Which was apparently another dimension.
Tony smiled. It wasn't a nice, friendly, open smile. It was sad, dark, and frankly, it was fucking terrifying. Peter began to wonder if they'd made a mistake helping this guy even this much.
"Captain America punched me," he said, and he looked away.
Maybe the guy was crazy after all. "Captain America punched you?"
"Oh, so you've heard of Cap but not me?" Tony sighed. "It figures."
"Sure," Peter agreed. "I had some of the comic books when I was a kid. He was a superhero back in World War II. But he's dead. He's been dead for years. Decades. He died in the war. Is that different where you come from?"
Tony looked off into the distance. "We thought he was dead too. And then about ten years back, we -- the Avengers -- found him, frozen. Still alive. If you know anyone on Earth, if they haven't found him yet, I can-- I have the coordinates memorized. Someone should find him. Get him out of the ice. I owe him that. In any universe." His face was twisted, pained, and he looked like he wanted to cry. "He is -- he was -- one of my best friends. Probably the best man I know."
"He hit you. In the face," Peter pointed out.
"Yeah, well," Tony said. "I had it coming."
Ten minutes later Tony was lying on his back with half of him wedged into a conduit, doing things with wires and power supplies that Peter hadn't even thought were possible.
"Well," Tony said, sliding out and squinting at a screen he'd rigged up. "On the plus side, I know which universe I'm in. And also, hey, you will no longer experience that intermittent power flow problem with the engine. You're welcome."
"What's the minus?"
Tony shrugged. "Not enough power to open a dimensional portal. Not one that goes as far as home, anyway." He glanced down at the numbers in his palm. "Which is unfortunate, because I kind of have somewhere to be soon."
"We could go back to Xandar. Ask to borrow the Orb of Morag back."
"What's the Orb of Morag?"
"Power source. Like, infinite power." He tried to remember what the Collector had called it. "An Infinity Stone?"
Tony stared, mouth open. Apparently that meant a lot more to him than Peter had thought.
"You had the Power Gem and you gave it away?"
Where did this guy get off criticizing his decisions? "The Nova Corps has it. It's safe."
Tony snorted. "You really think they'll do a good job protecting it on Xandar? You still have the Nova Corps?"
"What do you mean, 'still?'"
"Nothing," said Tony quickly. "Nothing. That's fine, that's great, hooray for the Nova Corps. Seriously, though, the Power Gem?"
"Thanos wanted it."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Tell me something I don't know."
"We... used it to destroy Ronan the Accuser?"
"You held an Infinity Gem?" Tony seemed stuck on this point. "You used an Infinity Gem?"
"Yeah?" Peter said, cautiously.
"I think," Tony said, "that we need to have a conversation about this. Over food. Is there food?"
Over lunch Tony explained the universe. The universes. And how they were all colliding in incursions where one Earth met another, where only one Earth could survive, and how the Infinity Stones -- except he called them gems -- had saved them, at least the first time.
At that point Peter's appetite was pretty much gone. Earth was his home, and nothing could happen to it while he was gone, right? It would always be there for him to come back to, but maybe it wouldn't be. He imagined another Earth looming over his Earth, coming ever closer, and all those people, two Earths full of people, who could all die, and he wouldn't be able to do a thing...
Tony explained that it would probably be a good idea to find the rest of the Gems, to make a gauntlet of some sort. He explained that it had meant something, something good, that Peter had used the Orb without it breaking or him dying. It meant things might go better here. For Earth. Maybe they could build a working Infinity Gauntlet.
"Ours broke. Our Gauntlet." Tony had stopped eating and was pushing the food around his plate. "It broke the first time we used it, when Steve--" He didn't finish his sentence, and pain washed over his face.
"Steve Rogers," Tony said, and his voice was like acid. "Captain America."
"Oh," said Peter, awkwardly, and he didn't know what else to say. "I'm sorry."
Tony looked at him, his face terrifyingly blank. "You really shouldn't be sorry for me."
Peter was beginning to think this was turning into the kind of conversation one or both of them should be drunk for. Time to hit up the blue alien booze. "Can I, uh, can I get you a drink?"
Tony looked for a second like he was considering it. "I think the most awful part of that suggestion is that it actually would not be the worst thing I've done today, if I did it. That's probably some kind of record."
Tony's eyes tracked the bottle with a hideous, longing intensity. Okay. In recovery, maybe. They were so not getting into this. Peter quietly slid the bottle back away.
"Do you know why I was so glad to see you?" Tony asked, finally, as if they'd been having a normal conversation, like they were friends who talked like this.
"Are we good friends in your universe, then?"
But Tony shook his head. "Acquaintances, maybe. I just looked at you and I thought, I thought, here's the only person I know who will understand why I did what I did to my best friend. You and the Illuminati, and, well, they drank the Kool-Aid with me." He smirked. It wasn't funny.
He was beginning to get the feeling that he really did not want to know what Tony had done. He also had the feeling that Tony needed to tell someone. He wasn't a therapist. What the hell. He could be a nice guy for once.
"What did you do?"
Tony folded his hands together, steepled his index fingers, and looked up. His eyes were the perfect vivid blue that Peter remembered from Earth, from crisp fall skies. "How did the Guardians come together? As a team?"
What did that have to do with anything? "We broke out of the Kyln together," Peter said. "And then we had to keep the Orb from Ronan and use it, and, well -- we stayed together. And now we're here." Five people locked together wielding the Orb had to count as the ultimate team-bonding experience, right? He smiled.
It was the wrong answer, somehow. Tony sighed.
"Why is this the nice universe?" he said, under his breath. "What the hell did I do to deserve this? I bet Steve rescues puppies here. No, I bet I rescue puppies. Steve would do that anyway."
Peter idly wondered if Tony had been dating Captain America. The bitterness started to sound justified then.
"What do you mean, the nice universe?"
"Do you want to know how the Guardians formed in my universe?" Tony chuckled. "You brainwashed them. You all were already together in some sense, I think, but you weren't getting along well, and you telepathically coerced them to join. You made them like each other. Well, you had Mantis do it -- where is Mantis, by the way? -- but it was pretty much your idea, Star-Lord."
"I didn't," Peter began, mouth dry, horrified. "I didn't do that. I wouldn't do that."
"Yeah." Tony's gaze focused on a point somewhere beyond Peter's shoulder. "I'm getting that impression."
"So what did you do? That you thought I'd understand?" It felt like someone else was asking the question; Peter's mind was stuck on a terrible accusing loop of you brainwashed them.
Tony shut his eyes, took a deep breath, and opened them again. "We had... a disagreement. About how we should handle the incursions from the other Earths. We couldn't resolve it. I thought we should build a weapon. As a last option. In case everything else failed. Steve... he thought that was wrong. He was appalled that we might use it. So I-- I mindwiped him."
Well, that explained why Tony had thought he could relate. That the other version of him could relate, anyway. He was feeling kind of like he wanted to be sick. And then maybe go see everyone else and reassure himself that they were all okay. He hadn't done this to his friends. He hadn't. Someone with his name had, in another universe. It wasn't him.
"What exactly did you do to him?" Peter asked, hoarsely. This guy had hurt Captain America. Who did you have to be, to do that? Had he taken away his memory of his entire life?
"I made him forget the incursions, the arguments, all of it. So that he'd think he was my best friend again. So that he'd like me again," Tony said, as morose as if he'd actually taken him up on the offer of a drink. "And then I spent months pretending to be his friend. Pretending to be the best friend he'd ever had. Giving him presents. Lying to him. Building a bomb. And this morning the mindwipe broke and he found out. After that, the Time Gem got in on the fun, and I ended up here."
He'd expected a one-sentence summary, not Tony's life story. This wasn't the kind of thing you just told strangers. Unless you'd taken a handful of the really good Xandarian painkillers, at which point, yeah, you'd probably give up the nuclear launch codes and a play-by-play of all of your interpersonal failings. At the same time. And probably with more emphasis on your interpersonal failings. They'd been thrown out as interrogation drugs for exactly that reason, Peter remembered.
He was pretty sure that made this part of the conversation entirely his fault. Shit. What did you even tell a guy who'd done all that?
He should have gotten Groot. Groot was definitely a better listener.
Peter stared. "I don't-- I don't even know what to say."
"I'm not looking for absolution." Tony's smile was bleak.
"What are you looking for?"
"I don't know." Tony shrugged. "A painless death." It didn't sound like he was joking. The corner of his mouth twitched, half a smile. "Hey, save your universe for me, why don't you? God knows I've fucked up mine."
"Maybe I'll save yours too while I'm at it."
Tony's mouth twitched again. "It'd be nice. You'd make Cap proud. That used to be what I wanted. I think maybe I used to be smarter."
"Can I ask you a question?" Peter said, finally giving into the impulse, because, well, Captain America. He kind of had to know. "The kind of question you'll probably want to punch me for."
"It's that kind of day, isn't it?" Tony waved his hand. "Shoot."
Peter took a breath. "Are you-- were you two together?"
Tony didn't punch him. Tony didn't laugh at him. Tony, in fact, was leaning back in the chair, considering it like it required actual thought. Probably deciding whether or not to tell him. Since he hadn't said no right away, it was very possibly yes. Holy shit, Captain America was gay?
Well, that was the most interesting thing he'd learned today.
"I don't know," Tony said, finally. "And that's the honest truth." His smile was rueful.
Peter blinked. "What do you mean, you don't know?"
"I didn't try anything," Tony said. "After the mindwipe. When he thought he was my friend. I think if I'd said something then, he would have-- he would have been with me. It wouldn't have taken much. We've always-- we've always loved each other. But it wouldn't have been real. And I don't think I could have lived with myself afterwards. Which is ironic when you consider all the things I apparently can live with. But I don't know about earlier."
"How can you not know?"
Tony laughed, slow and sad. "My memory's patchy. You see, once upon a time I mindwiped myself." He looked away, swallowed hard. "There was a time when we were forming a new Avengers team. The two of us. Working together, just like the old days. And in the pictures, in all the pictures, we look happy. We look so happy. He's-- he's always touching me. He's always smiling at me. But I can't remember. I'll never remember. The memories aren't there."
"Does he remember?"
"No reason he shouldn't." Tony's voice was tight. "Never asked him. I don't know what I'd do if he said no. I really don't know what I'd do if he said yes."
Peter looked at him for a long while, and Tony met his gaze evenly, silent.
"So do you want to punch me?"
Tony's mouth curved, and it looked like the first real smile Peter had seen on the guy since he dropped onto the deck. "Nah, you're good. I've got to get going now, though. Thanks for lunch. Nice seeing you for the first time again."
Peter stared, confused. "I thought you said there wasn't enough power to get you home."
"There isn't." Tony's face was grim. "Doesn't mean it can't get me somewhere."
The portal crackled, and through it was... nothing. Absolute nothingness. The void. The Bleed, Tony had called it. It made Peter's skin crawl. Looking at it felt absolutely wrong, unsettling, like someone had taken the world and put it together backwards, like everything that was was going to drain through into everything that wasn't. He wanted it closed. He wanted it gone.
The Bleed was the nothingness between universes, and Tony Stark had his armor on, a borrowed breath mask under one arm, and he was going to jump into the Bleed like this was a completely sane and reasonable thing to do. On the other hand, his explanation as to why he was doing this had made some amount of sense, and there was a chance it wouldn't kill him. Maybe. Peter suspected that Tony was not actually in a state of mind where he could make rational decisions. Maybe it was the painkillers. Or maybe he was like this all the time. What did he know? They weren't going to be able to stop him, at any rate.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Drax said, and when even Drax was questioning it, you knew something had to be iffy.
Tony shrugged. "It's as far as I can get from here. I'm sure someone's monitoring. If they want me back, they can get me out of there. If they don't, well." He smiled a fatalistic, fey smile. "They'll have made their decision."
He stepped forward, outlined by the absence of everything.
Tony turned around.
"Say hi to me if you see me." Peter took a breath. "And... I think you should ask him. If you see him."
Tony smiled a small, faint smile as he slid the mask over his face. "Fly safe, Star-Lord."
And then he jumped.
He was the only thing in the nothingness. He was weightless, rapidly moving farther and farther away, the lights on his suit fading, blackening like dying stars. The portal stayed patent, and Peter knew they should shut it, but he couldn't look away. Tony only had so much oxygen, and he was rapidly running out. Did oxygen even work there? Did machines? Was he suffocating?
He couldn't watch Tony die.
"Gamora, close it--" he started to say.
And then something opened on the other side of nothingness. A door. Another portal. A view into a room -- a lab, maybe. There was a figure on the other side of the portal leaning in, heedless of his own safety, like he didn't care about the danger, reaching out for Tony, stretching forward, straining every muscle. He was dressed in red, white, and blue.
One of the man's hands caught Tony's wrist, caught and held, and then he was dragging him through their portal, and Tony's arms went around him, embracing him hard, and Captain America was embracing him in return just as fiercely.
"Cap's got him." Peter started to laugh, and he didn't want to stop. "Close it, he's all right, Cap's got him. He's good. He's gonna be okay."
The portal winked shut, quickly and lightlessly.
"Also," Peter said to the room in general, "today I learned that Captain America is gay."
"I am Groot."
Gamora looked up from the controls; her gaze was deeply unimpressed. "I do not understand why this matter is worthy of note."
"Yeah, is this something I'd need to be a human to understand?" Rocket asked.
Drax's expression was thoughtful. "It is good that this man is happy?"
Peter was still grinning. "We're going to have a discussion about Earth slang later. But... yeah. It is."