Stephen Strange fucked up.
Or at least, Peter assumes that he did, when he blinks his eyes open, sees the time and date scrolling under a billboard in Times Square, and realizes that Strange has sent him back further than he usually does. A full month further.
They hadn’t discussed this. But maybe Strange had his reasons.
More likely, though, this is just one of nearly a hundred attempts that will result in failure.
Peter brushes off the fleeting stares of passerby. He knows he’s a sight, to these people — clothes torn, face bloodied, a collection of scars that woven through what is visible of his skin that have never quite healed. He’s gotten used to the looks he gets from people in this time the same way he’s gotten used to everything else: by pretending it isn’t happening until it becomes too unbearable to ignore.
It’s the summer now. Hot, sticky, crowded. He never quite gets used to assimilating back into this version of New York, no matter how many times Strange sends him back. He descends into the F train, the familiar dread settling in the closer he gets to Queens.
He may be here a month earlier than he has been in the other attempts, but this encounter will be different. This time Strange is confident they’ve found the key moment that changes it all.
He waits outside Midtown High for two hours, until the final bell rings. His past self goes barreling out of the front doors — cheerful, distracted, ridiculous, really — yammering away, Ned on one side, MJ on the other. At this point he’s had his powers for a year and they both know his secret, even if MJ hasn’t copped to it yet.
He tears his eyes away from the scene. He had no way of knowing back then that these were the good old days. Maybe the only good days.
He follows his old self from school. Watches as he triggers his own newly developing Spidey sense, and his past self blinks and turns around, looking for the source of his unease. Watches as he heads to the alley where he’ll web up his backpack and strip down like a doofus and wriggle into his old suit.
His past self turns around and — just like the countless times before — his jaw drops.
“Um — wow. Mr. Stark said we’d have the clone talk at some point, but, uh …”
“Listen,” says Peter to his younger self. “I’m sorry about this.”
He’s not, really. His past self is a naive, well-intentioned little dope. But even the last few years haven’t beaten the habitual politeness out of him, even when he’s talking to himself.
“Sorry about what?” his past self asks uncertainly.
Peter takes a step forward and clocks his past self across the face.
It takes him twenty seconds to pin his past self to the ground and tranq him. It takes another three minutes to lock him in the supply closet of the closed down bodega with the “AVAILABLE FOR LEASE” sign on its door. A little brutal, yeah, but necessary. The first few times Strange sent him back his past self always found some way to mess up his plans.
The trouble with this, though, is that it gives him approximately three hours before May notices he’s missing, six hours before she calls Tony, and about six hours and fifteen minutes before Tony has half the Avengers looking for him — which is hopefully more than enough time to do what Strange has asked him to do.
He heads back to Manhattan. Breaking into the tower is easy now. He doesn’t even need his abilities to scale it to break and enter; he’s familiar enough with the protocols that he can all but sail in the front door. He gets in through the service entrance without anyone batting an eye, checks Tony’s and Pepper’s itineraries with FRIDAY, and when he’s confident that they’re gone, hacks his way into Tony’s workshop.
“I don’t need any new updates. The legs are working just fine, Tones.”
Peter ducks into a closet, just as Rhodey follows with Tony in tow.
Where they proceed to dick around in the workshop for a full six hours.
The call from May comes right on cue. Peter puts his head in his hands, listening through the closet door as Tony answers.
“Kid’s not in his suit. Was he supposed to be home by now?” A pause. “Huh. Well, he’s still new to the whole druglord business, I’m sure he’ll finish selling his supply and get back soon.” Another pause. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll let you know if I hear anything. I’m sure he’s fine.”
He hangs up and Peter sees a shadow pacing the floor.
“Peter’s missing?” Rhodey asks.
“Probably goofing off with his friends. I can call override on his phone, though.”
Of course he can. Peter has not forgotten the extensive securities Tony put in place to keep tabs on him. It’s the reason why he’s here in the first place, isn’t it?
“He’s not picking up. The tracker on his phone is on a different street than the one on his suit, so …”
“That can’t be good.”
Tony blows out a sigh. “Nope.”
“I can check the phone location if you want to check the suit.”
A few moments pass. Peter knows Tony will put on a show of hesitating; they’re close enough in this time, but not that close. Close enough that Tony worries, but not close enough for him to actually admit it. It’s strange that even after all this time it rubs that uncertain, insecure part of Peter, even though he knows full well that even this version of Tony cares about him a hell of a lot more than he lets on.
“Eh, what the hell. You could use the fresh air. You’re getting rusty.”
Peter can practically hear Rhodey’s eye roll as they walk out the door. Peter waits a full minute, then pulls himself out of the closet. He’s probably got at least half an hour before someone finds his fifteen-year-old self in that closet, which is more than enough time.
He has the specs pulled up for the Iron Spider suit within seconds. It’s never been used out in the field — Tony hasn’t even let this version of Peter take a joyride out in it yet — but it’s been ready to go for months in this timeline, ever since he turned down the offer to become an Avenger. It takes Peter another minute or so to fully hack into the safety protocols of the suit, and figure out the exact configurations of triggers he’s going to have to turn off — he can’t let it be too obvious that some of Tony’s systems are failing, or he’ll fix the suit before the first Battle of Earth and all of this will be for nothing.
“Gotcha,” Peter mutters, when he’s finally isolated the code — the one that alerts Tony to catastrophic internal injuries. The one that triggers an alarm no matter where Tony is or who he’s with.
The one that got Tony killed during their third battle with Thanos.
Peter knows what this means. A part of him has known it would end this way for years. He deletes that line of code, and he deletes himself from existence. He deletes that line of code, and six months from now, when Thanos delivers Peter a death blow during their third encounter with him, Tony won’t be alerted from across the battlefield. Tony won’t try to save Peter until long after it’s too late.
Tony won’t die saving Peter, and Earth will have a fucking chance.
They’ve played with all the scenarios more times than Peter can count. His life has been a hellish, infinite loop of Strange sending him back, and back, and back — but this has to be the answer. This is the event that all other events hinge on. Peter Parker has to die, because Tony Stark is the only one who can stop Thanos from completing the gauntlet.
But Peter Parker has to end in a very specific moment. Not before, and not after. They need him in the first and second battle.
After that, they need him to die.
Peter closes his eyes before he deletes the code. He wonders what it will feel like — snapping out of existence. If it will hurt. If it will be a relief. After everything it’s taken to get to this moment, he probably shouldn’t even care.
He isn’t expecting the sudden sting in the back of his eyes, the swelling of his throat. He thinks of Ned and MJ, flanking him as he rushes down the steps. He thinks of May, holding his face in her hands as he cries. He thinks of Tony, lying with his last breath, telling Peter everything would be okay.
It will be. Because Peter will make it okay.
He puts his finger down on the button, opening his eyes. Then the screen blacks out and disappears before he can press down.
“What the hell are you doing in here?”
Peter freezes. He doesn’t turn around.
“Your aunt is combing half of Queens looking for you, and you’re — how did you even get in here?”
Fuck. Fuck . He overrode the security so the facial recognition wouldn’t work for six hours. He was supposed to be in and out of here long before this. And now, after everything that’s happened — after all the ways Strange has prepared him for this, over and over and over again — he’s fucked the whole thing up.
“Kid. I’m gonna need some kind of — holy shit.”
In all the hundred or so times Strange has sent him back in time, Peter has managed to avoid an actual encounter with Tony Stark. He told himself it was to make his mission easier. Only now does he understand that that it’s because, even after all this time, seeing Tony is more than he can bear.
“Kid. Kid. What happened?”
Peter blinks. Somehow Tony is standing right in front of him, his face inches from his, the concern palpable in his scowl.
“Kid, you’re bleeding on my floor and you’re freaking me out.”
Peter looks down at himself. Ah. One of his wounds has reopened. Must have after he straightened himself out in the closet.
Peter needs to get a handle on himself. It’s just that he hasn’t spoken to Tony in two years. Two years . Two years of living with the impossible guilt, the unfathomable grief, the burden of it heavier and more painful than anything he’s endured since.
“Sit down,” says Tony. “I’ll call Bruce — ”
Tony stops, tilting his head at Peter, considering him.
“Please,” says Peter. The word feels like it’s stuck to the roof of his mouth. “I need you to — go.”
“Uh, I’m sorry, whose workshop do you think this is?” Tony’s eyes narrow. “And what, may I ask, were you doing elbows deep in the specs for a suit you haven’t even touched yet?”
There’s a humming in between Peter’s ears. His knees are weak — exhaustion, hunger, pain that he hasn’t let himself feel. He’s been running so long on adrenaline and fear, and now there is nothing left but ache.
“I …” The room is spinning. His tongue is thick. Strange is going to kill me. “I …”
He doesn’t realize he’s pitching forward until Tony is catching him by the shoulders, grabbing him and easing him into a chair. Peter tries to blink himself back, but everything is off kilter, intermittently black and hazy and coming back into focus again. He feels Tony’s hand shaking his shoulder and sucks in a breath.
“Peter. Kid. Talk to me. Did someone drug you? Are you in some kind of trouble?”
“I — I’m sorry,” says Peter, and god, does he mean it. Not for this. For so much more.
Peter can hear the edge of panic in Tony’s voice. He huffs out a disbelieving laugh — how did he fuck this up? — and sinks back into the chair Tony set him in.
There’s no point in lying. Strange is going to pull him back into 2020 as soon as he realizes Peter has failed. They’ll wait a few more days, or a week, or a month, and do this all over again.
“I’m not Peter,” he says quietly. “I’m not — I’m not the Peter you know.”
Tony stares at him for a moment, then nods, just once. “Okay, then. Drugged. I’m calling Bru — ”
“I traveled back in time.”
“A lot of drugs, then.”
“Please, Tony. Listen to me.”
That stops Tony in his tracks. He sets down the Stark phone and looks at Peter, really looks at him — not just with concern, but with calculation. Peter barely breathes as Tony’s eyes skim him over, taking in the knotted, discolored scars on the skin of his arms, the gaunt look in his eyes, the wiriness where muscle used to be.
“Okay,” says Tony warily. “I’m listening.”
Peter swallows hard. “It’s — it’s September, right?”
“Jesus. Yes. Why?”
Peter just nods to himself. “Bruce has already warned you about Thanos, then.”
“You … you shouldn’t know about that.”
“I don’t. Not in this time, at least.” Peter runs his grimy hand through his hair. “I know it sounds ridiculous. Stephen Strange sent me back in time. I’m — I’m Peter two years from now.”
“Okay, ‘Peter Two Years From Now’,” says Tony, like he doesn’t quite believe it. “What exactly are you doing here?”
It’s a relief, weirdly, to finally say it. To say anything to Tony, really.
“Stopping you from dying.”
That wipes the skeptic look right off of Tony’s face. He turns his back on Peter for a moment. Peter tenses, wondering if he’ll walk out the door — hoping he will, so he can pull the screen back up and do what he came here to do — but Tony turns back to him just as fast.
“What, is it today, then? Is this the day Thanos comes and — ”
“No. Thanos comes in a month.” Peter closes his eyes for a moment. “There’s a battle here on Earth. And — and then one in space. And then … one more, here. The Last Stand, they called it. You died, and — and we lost.”
Tony doesn’t say anything, but Peter can see it sinking into him — can see his careful consideration of the words, his reluctance to believe them married with some kind of resignation that he might not have a choice.
“Strange and I are the only ones left alive. Thanos completed his gauntlet. Earth has been under his rule ever since. Anyone who survived is enslaved.” Peter blinks back the darkness still crawling at the edges of his vision. He can’t remember the last time he slept or ate or even sat. His body just wants to sink into itself and never wake up. “Strange found a few specific time streams we can use to evade him. So I’ve been going back. And back. And back. And …”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Peter laughs. It gets stuck halfway up his throat and comes out in a choke. He must look like a madman, judging by the expression on Tony’s face.
“Because you won’t remember it. Strange will pull me back to the future. I’ll come back, and fuck up again , because I’ve done this a hundred fucking times and never managed to save you.”
“Why the hell would you save me?” Tony demands. “I mean — if I’m even entertaining this drug trip of yours, which I’m not — ”
“Your Peter is sedated in a closet in a shuttered bodega in Queens, so you might as well.”
“You are really stressing me out right now.”
Peter’s lip twitches. It almost feels like the beginning of a smile.
“I have to save you. Strange and I have spent years now weaving in and out of this timeline, looking for the key moments, for the parts where the balances tip. We’ve narrowed down one moment. But I have to isolate it. Make sure only that one moment changes, and nothing before or after it.” Peter grits his teeth. “Otherwise I’d have killed that kid before I shoved him in the closet and gotten this whole thing over with.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” says Tony, riled enough at this suggestion that he finally seems to be shaking off the part of him that doesn’t want to believe. “What moment?”
“The moment Thanos crushed me, and you died pulling me away.”
Tony’s mouth falls open. The guilt has never been more fresh, more unthinkable, than it is in this moment. It confirms the fear that Peter has carried in his heart since it happened — that Tony was being rash when he jumped in to save Peter. That he never thought he’d actually die doing it. That he wouldn’t have done it if he’d known the consequences, and would be mad if he realized what they were.
Especially this Tony — this Tony who isn’t that close to Peter yet. This Tony who hasn’t fought alongside him, at least not in the life-or-death way they have since. This Tony who still calls Peter “kid” and holds him at arm’s length and has never seen him cry.
“If I really died saving you, then I died the way I was supposed to.”
Peter blinks at him, stunned by the calm in his voice, the steadiness of his words.
Tony’s looking at him so fiercely that he can’t look away. “You said you’ve been back before. Trying to change things. If that’s true — if I’m not out of my mind and hallucinating this — maybe you can’t change that because it was never meant to be changed.”
Peter shakes his head. “I can’t let you die for me.”
“ Let me? You don’t have a damn choice in that,” says Tony through his teeth. “If it comes down to it, that’s how it’s going to be.”
It feels like someone has knocked the wind out of him. But he can’t give in to it — that persistent need for Tony’s approval, that stupid whine in the back of his brain that still doesn’t quite know how to respond to the fact that Tony even cares.
“It’s bigger than us,” says Peter. “Strange tried every other unbalanced spot in this timeline. The only thing that’s going to work is … if I live to fight the first few battles with you, and die at that pivotal moment. Then you’ll live. You’ll team up with the people who are still alive at that point and stop the gauntlet from being raised. I don’t know how — I wish I did — but that much Strange knows. I have to — I have to die.”
Tony’s expression is so hard and unyielding that for a moment he looks like a statue, like someone stunned him there.
“You were disabling the alarm in the new suit. The one that reports mortal injuries.”
Peter nods. “I knew better than to scream on that battlefield. I didn’t want anyone to come running. But the suit …”
“I’m not changing it. And you’re not, either,” Tony snaps. “We’ll find another way.”
Peter laughs bitterly. “There is no we. There is no other way . I have to do this alone.”
Tony’s eyes are wide. Rimmed with red. There is no doubt in Peter’s mind that Tony believes him now. “I won’t let you.”
“You don’t have a choice,” says Peter. “Strange is going to pull me back any second now. And I’ll come back, and this time — this time I’ll do it right.”
“I’m not letting you leave. We’re calling Strange right now. We’ll figure this out.”
The tips of Peter’s fingers start to tingle. His chest goes cold, and then numb. He closes his eyes.
He sucks in a breath. Cold, cold, cold. “He’s pulling me back,” says Peter.
“No. We’re not done here.”
“I’m sorry, Tony,” says Peter. It’s a silly thing to say. Tony won’t remember it. The moment the timestream swallows him back up Tony will forget, because Strange will reset it and send Peter right back to where he was to do this all over again.
Tony grabs him by the shoulders, as if he can keep him there. As if he can fight space and time.
“I’m not letting you die. You tell him that. You can try to come back here and change it however many times you want, I’m not going to let it happen, do you hear me?”
Peter’s lips ache when he smiles. He’s only half here now.
“It was good to see you again, Tony.”
Something finally seems to snap behind Tony’s eyes, then — not an acceptance, but an understanding. That he can’t stop what’s happening. That this isn’t a fixed moment in time, but something that will slip out from under him, something even he can’t control. That Peter doesn’t want or need his promises — Peter needs closure. Peter needs peace.
Tony gives it to him, his eyes wet, his voice like steel. “Good to see you too, kid.”
Strange doesn’t yell at him when he rematerializes. Doesn’t even say a word. Just puts a hand on his arm and nods at him; they both know that this is the last time they’ll see each other. And then the ground lurches, and Peter is right back where he started, in the middle of Times Square on a sticky hot September day.
Peter doesn’t bother finding his past self this time. He goes straight to the tower. He breathes in the air, the heat of the concrete and the sickly-sweet vendor nuts and the sweat and breath of a hundred thousand strangers, the world in this perfect, ugly chaos that he never knew to be grateful for, that he’s missed every day since. He falls into a rhythm with the rest of the people walking on the street, not quite taking his time, but taking it in: streets that know him. People who understand him. Buildings that anchored him, that watched the stumbles become swings, the boy become a warrior.
He doesn’t linger when he reaches the tower. Just hacks the security and slides in. Temporarily disables FRIDAY and strolls into the empty lab. Pulls out the specs to the Iron Spider suit safety protocols, and poises his finger on command to delete.
Somewhere he is spilling out of a schoolyard with his two best friends. Somewhere he is hopeful and cocky and scared, and hanging on Tony Stark’s every word. Somewhere he is waiting for a trial he cannot even begin to fathom, lurking on the horizon of those deceptively blue, beautiful skies.
But right here and right now, Peter is going somewhere he has never been.
He presses the button, and hopes that it’s home.