The first time he saw Peter again, he was in medbay.
Back in Wakanda, where all the survivors were grouped together and stuck stagnant in their mourning. That’s where Tony had come, in the pod driven by an enraged Nebula, half-dead from his injuries and grieving too hard to care about it either.
His hands were a mixture of blood and ash. The blood was his own. The ash…
“Hey, Mr Stark.”
He yelped and jerked wildly in his bed. It sent a surge of intense pain through his midsection and he choked on the feeling, before whimpering and curling in on himself.
No no no no no. He couldn’t… he couldn’t deal with hallucinations. Not now. Not ever.
Peter was dead. He was gone. Tony had watched it happen, right in front of his eyes. This- this was not-
“Hey, no, whoah, don’t freak out on me, what the fuck, wait, you can hear? Can you? Can you hear me?” The voice said, sounding frantic and a little panicked and exactly like the kid himself. “Mr Stark, Tony, can you-“
“Please go away,” Tony begged it, hands covering his eyes as he bit his lip and tried to hold back the overpowering sense of loss that threatened to sweep over and crush him entirely. “Please, please, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Peter, I tried-“
And then medics were coming in, someone was trying to calm him down, he could hear the heart-monitor going crazy at his left and Peter shouting rapidly on his right and it was too much, God, it was all too much, he was gone, he was gone and it was Tony’s fault-
Something pricked his skin, and he wheezed rapidly once, twice, and then-
Thanos hadn’t been lying.
Half of their planet was gone. Half of everyone’s planet was gone. Dust. Nothingness.
The medics told him the hand had been snapped in Wakanda. That The Avengers had done their best to hold him off, but he’d already gotten the time stone by that point, and there was nothing they could’ve done to stop him from turning back the clock and taking the gem from Vision’s head.
Tony thought back to Titan. Where Strange had sacrificed the stone for Tony’s life.
That had destroyed half of the universe. It was what had destroyed Peter.
His life was not even worth half of that boy’s. And yet Strange had traded it for half the entire universe.
It was Tony’s fault. They should have just let him fucking die.
He looked out of the window, into the landscape that had probably once been beautiful, and now only burned with dust and rubble and death.
Maybe if he’d tried harder to get the team to listen to him, this wouldn’t have happened.
Maybe. Maybe not. Rhodey had once told him he needed to stop thinking about what he could’ve done better, and focus on what he did. But Tony could only see his failures. His downfalls. Had he come at Thanos with a sharper angle, he might have been able to dislodge the gauntlet a little. Had he kept himself back and not gone diving in, open and armor-less, he wouldn’t have been injured like that, and Strange wouldn’t have traded his life. Had he foreseen the inevitable breakdown of Quill’s and managed to hold him back before he’d lost it, they could’ve gotten the damn gauntlet and-
But there was no use wondering now. What if’s weren’t going to bring Peter back.
He looked down at his hands. They shook. If he looked too hard, he could still see the ash. Still feel the kid come apart underneath him
His knees buckled. He wasn’t as strong as he had been in the beginning. Now he was just tired. And hurt.
He missed Peter’s laugh. His boundless enthusiasm.
“It’s not your fault, you know.”
This time, Tony only jumped a little bit. He was used to seeing Peter in the corner of his eye, now. Hearing him mutter in his ear, even if it was only for a little while. This was his penance, he supposed. It’s what he deserved.
He clenched his jaw and curled his hand further around the bottle of whiskey.
“Please don’t blame yourself,” Peter was begging him, and Tony didn’t look up, because if he did he knew that he’d see Peter, looking exactly the way he did when he died. “It was a fifty-fifty chance, Tony, come on. You couldn’t have saved me from th-“
“Bullshit and you know it,” Tony responded with a sick smile. “I could’ve stopped him getting the gauntlet in the first place.”
Peter made a distressed sound in the back of his throat, and Tony saw sharp movement in the corner of his eye. He focused instead on the bottle of whiskey, and wondered whether drinking this all in one would kill him, or just make him throw up one hell of a lot.
He wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to deal with his ghost for much longer. It was like a bullet in his chest, every damn time. Hurt more to hear him than it did to remember the feeling of Thanos pushing the knife through his lung.
“Tony,” Peter said, and his voice was sad, it was fucking sad, why was his mind doing this to itself, what was the point, wasn’t the brain’s primary function survival? Why was it trying to kill him, then? “Tony please, I’m real and I don’t know where I am exactly, but you have to listen-“
“Go away,” Tony hissed, hands gripped tight enough around the neck of the bottle that he wondered if it was going to shatter, “please, please fucking go away. I can’t. I can’t do this.”
Peter whined, and for just the smallest second, Tony thought he felt something warm against his shoulder- but the voice stopped talking to him after that, and Tony was just glad the damn torture was over.
Finally able to drink himself into oblivion in peace.
Half the world was gone, and the other half was in mourning. The survivors weren’t able to hold all the funerals at once- there were too many of them. Too many dead.
Tony felt like a terrible person, but he couldn’t even find it in himself to care about the rest of them. He’d spent up all his grief on one boy, and the others were just met with a resigned tiredness. Battle-weary and fatigued.
Such was the life of the superhero, he figured.
Tony arranged the funerals for all the fallen team members. Bucky and Sam and Wanda and Vision. What remained of the Wakandan Council dealt with T’challa’s. There was a group ceremony, for all of them to attend, and then private ones. Everyone paid their respects where they could, but sometimes there simply wasn’t enough grief to go around.
They’d lost so much, they’d run out of pain to feel. Now it was just… numb.
Tony went to Peter’s, back in Queens. It was nice and quaint, and Tony had spent thousands of dollars to make sure they could hold it in a proper Church, with a proper funeral conductor, because after all the people who’d gone and died, those were expensive to get hold of now. But he got one. He was Tony Stark- of course he got one. It was what Peter deserved. And his friends showed up, or what was left of them, anyway. MJ, but no Ned. She sat on her seat, alone and unmoving, crying silently for the friends she’d lost. Tony wanted to talk to her. To offer her even a single word of comfort. But he couldn’t. He didn’t know what he would say.
He hadn’t spoken a word to anyone other than himself ever since getting back from Titan, anyway. He wasn’t sure whether his vocal chords even worked any more.
May spotted him in the back at the end, and she screamed and screamed and screamed at him, whilst he stood there and let her, because it’s what he deserved. She was right. It was on him that Peter was dead.
He left quickly after that. They didn’t need his input- he’d ruined their lives enough already.
“She doesn’t mean that,” Peter told him after, his voice sounding sad and tired and pleading all over again, “she’s just- she’s mourning, and she can’t see-“
“Yes, she can,” Tony told him quietly, staring straight ahead of him. “She knows what happened. Everyone knows we failed. I failed.”
“Mr Stark, please, just listen to me, you have to believe me when I say I’m 99.9% certain I’m not a figment of your imagination- I’m trapped somewhere, I know I am, I can feel it, you just gotta-“
He turned his back to the voice, and instead moved over to the minibar, where he spent most of his days now. His hands shook as he poured himself a drink. His hands always shook, too. No matter how many times he cleaned them, no matter how viciously he scraped at his skin with a brush or a scrub, the flecks of dirt never fucking came off. Ever ever ever. He was marked with the proof of Peter’s death, and he couldn’t fucking get it off.
The voice stopped, again. And when he turned around, there was nothing there. Of course there wasn’t.
Tony was just going insane, that was all.
He was back in the compound, where the rest of the Avengers had fallen back to as well.
There was no Ross now. Dead. Half the UN was dead. The accords didn’t even matter. That was the least of the Government’s worries just then. Steve and his team were free to roam as they pleased, now. Which was good, Tony supposed.
He didn’t feel it, but he knew it was. He could pretend to be pleased for them. Then again, they didn’t even bother to act pleased for themselves, so Tony didn’t know why he was trying. It wasn’t anything to do with him.
Natasha came and sat with him whilst he was staring out into the fields of the compound. Her footsteps were silent and her presence sudden, but Tony had long since grown used to that. Voices popping up out of nowhere were commonplace.
“Tell me about him,” she said softly, so softly, looking out into the same sky that he did and keeping her face blank.
Tony was silent for a moment, and then he felt the tiniest little smile crease across his cheeks. “He was a little smartass if I ever saw one,” he informed her with a shrug. “Never knew when to shut up. Barely ever listened. Disobeyed orders constantly, but in the politest way possible.”
“That reminds me of someone,” she said wryly, looking across the room to where Steve was curled up in the far corner, reading a book.
He huffed once, which was the best part of a laugh he was going to get. “Yeah, guess so. But Peter- he wouldn’t hurt a fly. There wasn’t a malicious bone in his body. He was just… he was so good. So…”
He stopped talking, then. It had started hurting, again, made worse by the fact that he could sense someone next to him, and knew that it wasn’t Natasha. If he looked to his right, Peter’s face would be looking right back at him.
Natasha nodded once, and looked down. “I’m sorry,” her voice was soft, and she pursed her lips into the best form of a smile she could make. “He sounded like a wonderful boy.”
He pressed a hand to his face, looking to his right. Peter was staring back at him, and he was barely even visible, just a hazy amber-coloured shadow, but Tony could see the tears in his eyes anyway. He didn’t speak, though. Just looked up at Tony and swallowed.
“I see him all the time,” Tony continued a little hysterically, not taking his eyes off the boy still sat next to him, and he thought of the ash under his fingernails and the way Peter’s hands had dug into his shoulders and ‘I don’t wanna go, sir please, I don’t wanna go-‘ and wondered whether the memories were going to break him first, or whatever came after. “He’s here, now, right in front of me. I’m losing it, Nat. I fucking… I can’t, he can’t be dead, he’s not, I loved him, he can’t be gone-“
She was clutching his shoulders and telling him to stop, to calm down- and Steve had moved in too, he was knelt in front of Tony and telling him that it might feel real, but the only two people in the room were him and Natasha, but he couldn’t hear any of it properly, not really, not in the way he would usually have absorbed it.
All he could see was Peter, standing over all of them, looking Tony dead in the eyes and saying, “Tony, I’m not gone. You just need to find me.”
They calmed him down, in the end. It took a few minutes, but he managed to start breathing normally after that, and when he looked up again, there wasn’t a fourth person in the room. Just him and Natasha and Steve.
“You okay now?” Steve asked, and his voice was heavy. He knew exactly what sort of lie Tony was going to tell.
“Yeah.” He nodded, getting slowly to his feet. “Yeah, I’m good.”
He looked to the exit, and turned for it before anyone could stop him. No one did, though. They knew when to back down. And it was difficult to be comforting, when you were still trying to get a handle on your own grief.
Tony had lost people. But so had Steve. So had Natasha. Thor, Bruce, everyone had lost. There were absolutely no winners here.
He was just one in a long line of many.
When he saw Peter one month after Doomsday, sat in his workshop and looking around him in awe, he finally broke.
The cup of coffee that was in his hand shattered as it hit the wall, and he screamed. It made the image of Peter jerk, and he turned around to look at Tony, face falling as he saw the look of pain on his face. “Oh, Tony, wait, just calm-“
“WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!” He screamed, stumbling forward and punching a hand into his chest. “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LET ME GO? PLEASE! Please, I can’t keep seeing you, Peter, I can’t, please-“
“Because you’re the only one who sees me,” Peter told him miserably, standing up and then walking over to him with a shaky hand going up in a show of peace. “Mr Stark, you know I wouldn’t hurt you like this if I had any other choice. But when I woke back up after… after what happened, no one could even hear me, let alone see my body- but then I found you, and you could, and-“
“That doesn’t even make sense!” Tony said wildly, hands flying through the air, “you’re dead! Gone! You’re just a figment of my imagination-“
“I’M NOT!” Peter screamed back this time, and his hands shoved out, hit Tony in the shoulders and he.. he felt it- he felt the impact and stumbled back, just a tiny little step, but it was something. It was… “Tony, I swear. I keep- I dunno, I’m drifting in and out, and I can’t hold on for long, but when I do, I’m real. I’m here. And you are the only person who hears me, so please, Goddamn it, help me! I don’t wanna stay here, like this, but I don’t know how to get out!”
Tony stopped, blinking in front of him. Peter was breathing heavily, and his suit was ripped at the shoulder from where Thanos had grabbed him a month ago, he hadn’t changed at all, it couldn’t be-
“FRIDAY,” Tony asked quietly, “FIRDAY, is there… is anything showing up on your scanners right now?”
A short silence, and then “no boss. Just you in here.”
He huffed in morbid amusement. God, what had he been thinking? He really was going mad. “okay. I… okay-“
“No, no, Tony wait!” Peter stumbled forward and reached out for him, panicked and afraid. “Tony, please. Look. Look, just… I think I can make something move. If I concentrate hard enough, I’ll show you, alright? It might make me disappear for a while, but I’ll do it! Just stay there please, okay, just stay-“ Peter bounded off, looking around the room for something he could pick up or move.
Tony watched him. He was too tired to do anything else. It seemed he couldn’t get rid of the hallucination, no matter how much he begged. He might as well just watch it work for a little. It was better than sitting and staring at nothing.
And he had to admit, even if it was in all the wrong ways- it was just nice to see Peter’s face again.
Peter turned to him, and then nodded his head. “Watch this,” he said. Then he screwed his eyes shut and heaved with all his might against the desk in front of him.
Tony blinked as the thing shuddered, just a fraction. A slip of paper that had been balancing on the edge fell down, fluttering softly onto the floor and then landing silently. The glass of water rippled.
When he looked up, Peter was gone.
No, that hadn’t just happened.
“FRIDAY? Tell me that wasn’t just me,” he whispered, taking a single step forward and keeping his eyes fixed on the sheet of paper that now lay on the floor. “Tell me that wasn’t just me, Friday come on-“
“That was… not you,” FRIDAY responded, sounding thoroughly confused. “Boss, what just happened? I picked up an energy fluctuation just to the side of the desk.”
Tony pulled a hand up to his mouth and stared in shock. The piece of paper, the rippled water, it all looked back at him smugly. Evidence. And he was a scientist, okay, he knew facts when he saw them. He quite obviously hadn’t touched that desk himself. There was nothing else in the room that would’ve made that desk move- all his gear was switched off because he hadn’t been here in a while.
And desks did not just move by themselves.
“Oh God,” he muttered, “oh my god. Oh....”
“Boss? What is it?”
He looked up at the ceiling, and then back down the desk. Then he lurched forward, in the direction of his holoscreen, flicking them up with manic fingers and wide eyes, and then took a small, shaky breath.
“Peter’s alive. And I’m gonna get him back.”
He didn’t tell anyone. He couldn’t. They wouldn’t believe him if he did. And anyway, he couldn’t afford to get anyone’s hopes up like that. It wasn’t fair.
He was 50% sure he didn’t believe it himself, anyway.
But he continued anyway. Calculated and worked and built to take his mind off everything, to try and forget what he was building for. Because it was the first time in so long that there was something other than crushing sadness in his heart and he couldn’t afford to waste that opportunity, even if there was only the tiniest, slimmest chance that this would work at all.
He sat back on his haunches, looking at one of the clamps in front of him and cocking his head down at it. He really hoped it would work, but in that moment, pretty much everything was hit and miss anyway. This was all just hypothesis, and a little bit of prayer.
Once he was sure that that was as accurate as he was going to get it, he sat in the middle of the four clamps he’d placed around the space in the middle of his workshop and he waited.
It was a few hours before Peter turned up again. It was always just out of Tony’s line of sight where he showed- like Tony wasn’t supposed to see. Like Peter should never have been there at all. But Tony spotted him anyway. He had always been acutely aware of when Peter was around- partly through to his own self-destructive tendencies of thinking he deserved to see the ghost of the boy whose blood was on his hands, and partly because before, when Peter had been alive, it had been generally a safer bet to keep his eye on the kid, lest something in their nearby vicinity ended up getting broken or set on fire by the human disaster child. It had been a habit he’d learned to use early on, and had not deserted him now.
“FRIDAY, switch it on,” Tony said calmly, before turning his head and watching Peter as he sat on the floor next to him.
There was a crackling of electricity and a large glow of light, and Tony blinked as the energy field shot up around them, going from clamp to clamp and surrounding the both of them. Peter yelped in surprise, falling backward and then looking around him in shock. Then he twitched and pulled a face. “What the hell? I feel… itchy.”
“Yeah, that’d bee the energy barrier I’ve got to hold your ass in place,” Tony told him, crossing his legs, “I can imagine it’d feel pretty weird, being an ethereal being stuck within a 10-foot space.”
Peter paused, and then looked at him. His face was surprised. “You finally believe that I’m real?” He asked quietly, a little bit hopeful.
“Oh, absolutely not. At this point, I’m mostly just humoring myself. I feel like it’s this, or get driven slowly insane, so,” he shrugged his shoulders and waved a hand over to the contraption he’d rigged up, “voila, I guess. Welcome back to the land of the living. If only temporarily.”
Peter didn’t say anything for a minute, but then he smiled. It was the same happy, carefree smile that Tony had not even realized he’d loved so much until it was gone. “Mr Stark, that’s great. I mean, it’s not great that you’re doing this so you don’t go crazy, obviously, but at least you’re helping me! Kinda! So, what’s this machine thingy gonna do? Zap me back into the real world?”
Tony scoffed. “Kid, I’m good, but I’m not that good. This is just, a thing. A weird, science thing. It’s like an electrical field, sorta. Holding all the molecules in one place. You’re gonna be stuck here for a while, because it’s not gonna let you leave until I turn it off.”
Peter nodded, a small crease in his brow. “So, what’s the plan, then?”
Tony didn’t say anything, but sighed loudly and let his head fall into his hands. “Peter, I don’t even know if you’re real-“
“Yeah, but that could just be me saying that to myself, couldn’t it!” Tony snapped, before shaking his head. “Look… Pete, the world is destroyed. It’s in chaos. There are… so many other things I have to be doing right now, but no, instead I’m sat on the floor of my workshop in a magic fucking circle, talking to what is most likely a figment of my own fucking imagination! Just… you’re gonna have to give me a minute, okay? Just a minute.”
Peter’s mouth clamped shut, and he nodded as Tony bit his lip and stared at him. It was… Peter certainly looked real. Glowing vaguely orange, but still… him. Tony just couldn’t understand why he was there- why not anyone else, everyone else, why just him-
“I think I’m trapped somewhere,” Peter told him slowly. “I keep… I dunno, drifting. When I’m not here, I’m… somewhere else. There’s so many of us. I hear them all the time. They’re all scared. But for me- sometimes, if I think about it, I can get out. The first time I tried, I ended up in the compound, here. But I went to Queens. I wanted to find Aunt May. But she couldn’t hear me. So I went back. Next time, I ended up back at the compound again, but I headed down to try and find Ned.” Peter’s face scrunched up a little, and Tony saw the sadness there. Peter seemed so much older than he had in the beginning. “He was dead, though. And MJ couldn’t see me either.”
He paused, and then looked up. “That’s when I went to you. And you- you could see. You talked to me. No one else but you. I’m not sure why.”
Tony looked at him for a long time, and then pulled a face. “That… makes no sense.”
“I’m not denying that.”
“There’s literally… like, all the evidence is pointing to this just being a completely fictional interaction, here.”
“I could move another piece of paper if you’d like some more confirmation.”
Tony huffed, and then shook his head, looking up to the ceiling in despair. He wondered what the hell he was doing. Outside, in the world, Cap was trying to help on the streets. Nat was working on stabilizing the government through one of her aliases, and she’d pulled in Clint to help, seeing as he was thankfully still around. Tony… Tony was supposed to be offering relief, too.
But no. He was stuck in here. Talking to himself.
He really had lost the plot.
“Why the compound?” He asked suddenly, turning to Peter again. “Why do you keep coming back to the compound?”
Peter shrugged. “No idea. It’s not conscious. I just… I feel the pull, and I go toward it. It usually has me ending up in the compound.”
“Usually?” Tony pressed, sitting forward a little, “what times have you not?”
Peter was quiet when he said “my funeral. Wakanda. One time I showed up in the middle of some random street. I don’t know what it is that makes me go there, I just do.”
Tony was silent for a moment, thinking it over. “How do you feel?” He asked softly. “Does it hurt?”
Peter shook his head. “No. I don’t… this isn’t even a body. I think this is just my- my consciousness, my soul, maybe, wrapped in some weird energy-“
“Wait. Your soul,” Tony said, face going slack as he sat back. “Your… soul.” He blinked and looked at the tint that covered Peter- the orangey yellow, the color of the- “soulstone. Oh.”
Peter looked at him blankly and opened his mouth, but Tony had leaped to his feet before the boy could even start forming a sentence. “I have to go and find Thor,” he said loudly, trying to get a lid on his gyrating thoughts for long enough to set his sights on the door.
“What?” Peter asked in surprise, “Tony, wait, do I just stay here-“
He burst into Thor’s room, quick and fast and hard, and saw the God leap from his chair in surprise. “Tony, what-“
“Tell me about the soul stone,” Tony breathed hard and grabbed Thor’s shoulders, “everything you know.”
Thor was looking at him as if he’d gone insane. “Tony-“
“Tell me! Please!”
Looking thoroughly confused, Thor blinked and then nodded. “The soul stone is thought to be one of the most powerful of gems. It is believed to be somewhat sentient- it takes souls and traps them at will. Controls every living thing by tapping into life itself. It is… a step above all the others. It has powers that even we do not know of.”
“And the souls it traps,” Tony asked slowly, “where do they go, exactly?”
Thor paused, and then shook his head. “That, I do not know. Some say it has an entire universe trapped within it. Others say they exist simply in a state of limbo until released, or used as power for the stone itself. All are simply just theories, however.”
“You said it’s sentient,” Tony asked, pursing his lips and then looking away. His mind was spinning with ideas, thoughts, predictions. “Could it have… could it have created a connection? A link? Or something like that?”
“Tony, what is this about-“
“Just answer me, Thor!”
The God looked down at him, and then just shrugged bewilderedly. “I do not know. Possibly. People have said it connects better with some people than others. If it looked inside you and- I don’t know, registered your bond with another person, it could, theoretically, strengthen it.”
Tony paused, and then breathed in sharply. This felt like too much. It felt too absurd. Far-fetched to the extreme. What reason would the soul stone have for connecting him and Peter- giving him a link that was strong enough to pull him back into reality, but without a true body? What was the point?
He cast his mind back, to the fateful day when they’d battled it out on Titan. When they’d found out that Thanos had traded Quill’s lover for the soul stone, and it had later been explained that it required a soul of the one you loved to release the power of the soul stone.
But Thor had said the stone was sentient. Conscious in its own, unfathomable right. What if it had looked into Thanos’ mind and rejected him? It required the soul of a person you loved in order to release it, but by any standards, if you truly loved them then you would never make that sacrifice. So could anyone really own the stone?
And if it had known this; if Thanos was not the real possessor of it, then it was possible… it was just about in the realm of fathomability that the soul stone had created a failsafe in the form of Peter Parker, and a connection with someone in the real world.
“Fuck,” Tony cursed sharply, gripping Thor’s arms tight enough to leave white marks on his skin. The other man was holding him right back, asking what he was thinking, but Tony was too shocked by his own revelation to answer.
It was impossible. It was stupid.
It was the only hope Tony had.
“I have to go,” Tony muttered, and then turned on his heel and sprinted out of the door before Thor could even reach out and stop him.
There was a whole universe to look in, but Tony was a genius.
His suit monitored everything. It documented every energy fluctuation and line of data it came across, and stored it until Tony either made use of it or deleted it. When he’d been on Titan, he’d processed reams and reams and reams of data, zettabytes of the stuff, all put down and stored. Then the gauntlet- he’d documented that, too. It was an energy signature unlike any Tony had ever seen before, and he guessed there was only one of them in the universe, so it was also unique.
That definitely helped narrow it down a lot.
“What’cha doing?” Peter asked from behind him, and a few days had come and gone between the time Tony had seen him last, and so he jerked a little, before pulling a face and throwing his middle finger over his shoulder.
“Can you stop materializing right behind me, please? I’m trying to focus.”
“Not my fault. I materialize where I materialize, Mr. Stark, I told you before.”
Tony grunted, and turned back to his work. “Can’t believe I’m even doing this,” he muttered grumpily, “the whole universe has been halved, and here I am, listening to this annoying figment of my own grief-“
“Hey!” Peter said indignantly, “I’m not annoying. I’m being helpful.”
Tony shot him a long look. Then he pointed the stool next to him. “Sit down, kid,” he spoke through a sigh, writing down something else on the screen in front of him as he did so.
Peter wandered over and followed Tony’s orders, sitting down next to him. He leaned forward and looked over Tony’s shoulder like he’d always used to do, and the familiarity of it made Tony’s heart ache with pain.
Peter didn’t notice it, though, and Tony continued his calculations until he felt the boy’s frown over his shoulder. He’d worked out that, although the energy field could hold him a little longer, it didn’t actually work that well against the power of the soul stone. Peter left anyway, but he returned whenever he could, and Tony was quietly glad of it every single time. Even if it turned out that it was fake, all just a lie he’d constructed in his grief-stricken state, he’d rather believe in it and still get to see Peter in the way he always had been, rather than think about the gravestone in Queens that now had his name on it.
“I’m glad I have someone to talk to, now,” Peter told him quietly, and Tony’s fingers stopped moving across the keyboard briefly as he turned his eyes back to the boy. He was staring stubbornly at the screen in front of him, but there was a loneliness, a weariness in his eyes that made something in Tony tighten. He tried to imagine what it must be like, to travel constantly between worlds, never fully in either of them- unable to be heard by anyone on this one, and only listening to the cries and screams of fear in the other. The boy had seen too much in his short life. That was obvious. But that was what war did to everyone; man, woman and child alike. No one got to escape the pain of the aftermath.
He couldn’t touch Peter, but he smiled, and hoped it would be enough to soothe him, just a little. “I’m glad I have someone to talk to as well,” he admitted.
Peter eyed him, something that almost looked like disapproval on his face. “Mr Stark, don’t tell me you’ve been holding yourself up in here this whole damn time-“
“Hey, Kid, who’s the adult here? I think I am allowed to-“
“Tony, no offense, but what the fuck- do you really think that’s healthy for you right now? You need to be with the others. The others need you-“
“Yeah, well, unfortunately, I hit a slight speed bump with that plan, mostly the fact that I had to watch you die and know that it was my fault,” Tony snapped, dropping his pen with a slightly angrier slam than he’d intended. “Kind of takes the social butterfly outta me, buddy.”
Peter stopped, mouth falling shut with a small clack. Tony looked at him for another moment, before shaking his head and getting back to work. His mood had soured rather quickly after those words had fallen from his mouth. Sometimes it was easy to forget that Peter was actually dead; especially now that he spoke to Tony all the time.
But he was. Tony had watched it happen. And god, it hurt like nothing you would ever believe.
When he looked up next, Peter had vanished. Tony watched the space he had been in for a few seconds, before silently turning back to his work.
He tried not to think about quite how much was riding on this. About the fact that Peter Parker’s life hung in the balance, and Tony had to succeed, for the sake of Peter’s life, and for the sake of his own.
He’d been cross-referencing, double triple and quadruple checking for hours. But all his calculations, all his date- it was all pointing to the same place.
It made sense. Thanos had said, after everything, that he would go and watch the sun set. He should’ve known it would be on his home planet. And so where his body was, the gauntlet invariably sat as well. Tony just had to hope that Thanos wasn’t still alive. Thor had done a pretty good job with the axe in the heart, though, so Tony was gonna take a guess at no.
He had to go back. He had to go back to Titan.
His hands shook as he pulled on his undersuit. He was used to that by now, though. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered but this.
Half the universe relied on it. Peter relied on it.
He found himself in the underground bunker, where Nebula’s ship had been kept. Pretty much broken into disuse, but Tony had been splitting his time between staring at walls and repairing the thing in case it was needed again. That was before he’d realized Peter was real and not just a figment of his own creation, though- after that particular discovery, he'd focused more of his attention to that matter. Anyway- it meant that the ship was pretty much in the same shape it had been in when Tony had found it, and he’d reverse-engineered all the parts that he’d not known how to design himself. The ship would hold.
He didn’t tell anyone about it. They’d want to come with him, and it was too dangerous. Too volatile. He wasn’t going to lose anyone else. Tony could do this on his own. That’s what he kept reminding himself, as he buckled into the ship and then reminded himself how Nebula had flown it, months ago now. He’d been half-dead at the time, but a part of him had still watched. That was the part of him that never stopped watching, not anything, not ever. His curse, as Thanos had told him.
“You’re really gonna do this, huh?”
“Jheez, kid!” Tony jumped in his seat and half-raised a repulsor as he turned and saw Peter curled up in the seat next to him and looking out of the pod with an anxious face. “What did I tell you about sneaking up on me!”
“Sorry,” Peter muttered, turning to him. “I felt something on your end. Another pull. So I came. And found myself here, with you about to take off on an alien spacecraft at three in the morning when everyone else is asleep.”
Tony looked forward, and flicked a few more switches, powering up the engines. “Damn straight.”
Peter was silent again, and Tony watched him brush a translucent hand over the motherboard, eyes alight with curiosity and… something else. Tony just let him look, busy setting up the engines for himself. He could feel his heart beating, fast and rapid under the suit, but he didn’t care. This was something he had to do. It wasn’t up for debate, or discussion.
“Mr Stark, are you sure you’ve thought this through?” Peter turned to face him, and when Tony shot him a look, the boy was looking at him with eyes sadder than Peter Parker’s ever should be. “I know you wanna save… everyone. But these calculations, they might not be right. And if any part of this ship fails on the way, then you’ll-“
“Well that’s just a risk I have to take, isn’t it Peter?” He replied tightly, before curling a hand around the control stick and lifting away with a jerky bump. “There's a hell of a lot of people who are depending on this.”
“Tony, I don’t think you’re doing it for them,” Peter told him, voice small. Tony froze up for a second, and kept his head facing firmly forward. He didn’t want to see the way Peter was looking at him. “Tony, you’re flying out into space on a whim, and you’re not even doing it to save the universe. You’re doing it to try and save me, but I’m not worth th-“
“Don’t you dare,” Tony jerked away and turned to him, eyes burning, “don’t you dare say that, Pete, ever. Just… stop, okay? I’m going to bring you home. Everyone else, too, if I can.” But if not, then I could live with that. But you have to make it through. I have to at least save you.
Peter didn’t say anything. Just sat back slowly in his seat. Tony watched him out of the corner of his eye as he brushed at his face and sniffed a little, hair falling into his eyes as he bowed his head.
“Thank you,” he whispered in the end, “thank you for coming for me. I… it’s so dark up there, all the time. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life as a ghost.”
Tony shut his eyes briefly, and then felt the pull deep in his gut as he shoved downward on the throttle and sent the ship bursting out of Earth’s atmosphere, faster than the speed of light. He wished, more than anything, that he could just pull Peter into a hug. But that would have to wait until he was back. Until he was safe.
And he would be. Tony was going to make sure of it.
He came back with Peter Parker, or not at all.
“I can feel you,” Peter spoke up suddenly by his side, voice sleepy and low as he rubbed his eyes, “you’re close.”
Tony looked over to him, and then over the monitor. He’d been following the energy signature left behind by the gauntlet, but it only led him to a general vicinity before the readings became too distorted, and so he’d mostly just been flying around the area that the ship had taken him to and hoping he’d spot something.
“Could you take me there?” Tony asked. “Can you give me a direction or something?”
Peter paused, and then sat forward a little bit. His eyes fluttered shut, focusing. And then, slowly, he raised a hand and pointed off to the South. “That way,” he answered, “it’s coming from that way.”
Without a pause, Tony veered off in that direction.
He found Thanos not long after.
Lying atop a carved-out hill, his body sprawled into view, lifeless and greyer than Tony had ever seen it. All at once, surging rage ripped through him. He wanted to wake him up, just so he could kill him again, and again, and again. For everything he’d done. For what he’d put Peter through.
But that wasn’t why he was here. Thanos was gone, but what was resting in his hand wasn’t.
Tony could see it from the ship. The gauntlet glinted in the orange sunlight, and even from his perch fifty feet away, Tony could almost sense the power of it. The sheer force that it held within its structure. God, no wonder it had taken so much to get him to even bleed a drop. Wearing something like that, it was amazing they’d managed to get him down at all.
“Can you feel it?” Peter was almost whispering now, eyes wide as he leaned forward and pressed his hands against the glass. “I can. All of us can. They’re… we can all feel you on your way.”
“How?” Tony asked, equally quiet.
Peter’s eyes didn’t leave the gauntlet below them. “Because the soul stone can,” he answered, “and we’re a part of it, now.”
Tony laughed nervously. “I hope the soul stone likes me,” he muttered, “or I’m gonna be goddamn pissed.”
Peter’s mouth turned upward into a smile. “Like, ‘Peter why did you leave the chemicals to overheat for the fourth time today’ kinda pissed, or the ‘throw a moon at me again and see what I do Thanos’ kinda pissed?”
“Maybe more along the lines of ‘I traveled across the fucking universe for this only to get absorbed by a fucking rock’ sort of pissed,” Tony shot back wryly, rolling his eyes, “God, I really really hope it’s not that sort of pissed.”
Tony hovered for a few more minutes, before biting the bullet and landing a good few feet away from the body. He looked over to Peter- and maybe it was just his imagination, but in the light of day, the color in him seemed almost sharper.
“You really sure about this, Mr Stark?” He asked questioningly.
Tony just grinned. “Not even a little bit, Kid,” he said with a huff, and then without further ado, he opened up the hatch and stepped back out onto Titan.
It was strangely peaceful, coming back. Thanos had gotten one thing right- his homeland sure was beautiful. He took off the faceplate and breathed in the air- tasted a little more metallic than that of Earth, but safe for him to breathe. Made of mostly the same stuff.
It was a little pathetic, but even in death, Tony feared the Titan. Mostly just the remaining panic that had lingered in the back of his mind for pretty much six years straight, but still- that sort of fear never really left you. Thanos was the embodiment of Tony’s worst nightmare, and that was not something he wanted to fuck with.
But Thanos was just a corpse, now. Tony could see that. There was nothing left for him to worry over.
The gauntlet on Thanos’ hand called to him from across the grass.
“How do I do this?” Tony asked softly, feeling as Peter stepped up next to him and looked down in confusion and mild disgust at the body and the glove.
“I… have no idea,” Peter said, “I just know that it’s expecting you to. It… wants you to, I think.”
Tony stared at it; the innocuous looking gem that had taken so much from him, from the entire universe. Tony was about to play around with that. Mad scientist, indeed. “Okay. Okay, that’s… if Thanos can snap everyone out of existence, I assume I can just snap them all back, right?”
“Right,” Peter nodded, blinking a few times. “I mean, I guess. Unless the stone rejects you because you didn’t sacrifice anything to possess it and then just kills you instead.”
Tony stopped, and then batted Peter over the head on autopilot. It went straight through, which was just weird, but the sentiment behind it still stood. “Great. Thanks, Pete, real fucking helpful.”
“Hey, you asked!”
“Well, I was kinda hoping for some gentle assurance, maybe a bit of- you know what, never mind,” Tony huffed and shook his head, marching forward, “let’s just get this over with, I guess.”
Peter hurried to catch up with him, and when he crouched down next to Tony and watched him pull the thing off Thanos’ limp hand, his eyes were sharp and hard. “We have to find a way to get rid of this,” he said firmly. “Whatever comes after, we have to make sure this is destroyed.”
Tony nodded slowly, lifting the gauntlet to eye-level. It had seemed massive in Thanos’ hand, but now it looked like a perfect fit for his own. Such was the magic of the infinity stones, he guessed.
He looked over to Peter, stood by his side. Tony knew in his heart, in his very bones, that this had to work. There was no other option, no other reality in which he failed and Peter remained dead. It wasn’t happening.
He shut his eyes and slid his hand into the gauntlet.
It was blinding, it was behind his eyes, it was in his brain, it streamed from his mouth when he screamed and wouldn’t stop coming, an ever-flowing wave of power, of pure energy.
He could see the universe. Everything, all of it, mapped out in his brain.
It all seemed so simple, looking at it like that.
So easy, broken down into the basics, the building blocks, all at Tony’s disposal.
He could stop it from expanding if he wanted.
He could change the amount of dark matter there was, he could build a star and watch it die, he could sit on the edge of existence and poke his hand out, see what was on the other side.
He understood everything that had always confused him about his reality, he understood life and death, and the cycle between the two. He saw the balance in the universe, and the easy way in which it could be tipped one way or another.
This was a tool for a God.
What do you want, it asked him, what do you want, Anthony Stark.
He wanted to stop wars. He wanted to go to bed without nightmares. He wanted peace, and happiness, and a world without suffering. He could do it, too. Just with a nod of his head. He could build a world of his own entirely, and everything he ever wanted could be there.
He could, he could, he could-
“Tony!” Peter’s voice screamed in his ear, and he couldn’t see anything other than the light and the cosmos, but he could feel the boy’s presence at his side anyway. “Tony, you control it! Don’t let it control you!”
He was what Tony was here for. Peter, and everyone else who had been taken. Not universal power. He didn’t need that. The universe didn’t need that. With someone to debate and decide where and how things went, nothing would move forward. Tony was a futurist, but he didn’t seek to control it. Only shape it.
Bring them back, he screamed silently in his own head. Bring back the ones Thanos took. They are not your souls to keep.
The light was burning him, from the inside out. He wouldn’t be able to hold this power for much longer. It was going to kill him.
And why should I listen? You haven’t earned me.
Tony screamed louder. It hurt, it hurt, it hurt. Because I promised to keep him safe. Because I had to lose the soul of the one I loved in order to reach the point where I lifted you at all, so technically, I damn well earned that right. You connected me to Peter Parker. You knew Thanos wasn't worthy, and you wanted someone better, so you gave us an out, a way to reverse his damage. I see it, because I see everything. And maybe I'm not better than Thanos. Maybe I'm not worthy either. But I don't want to be. I just want to bring my kid home. And I'm going to do it, whether you like it or not.
Peter was frantic in one ear, and he could hear the souls of half the universe clamoring for release in the other. It should’ve driven him insane. It would’ve driven any other man insane.
But Tony had been listening to the souls of the dead for a long, long time before that. The blood on his hands spanned back years, from children of war and soldiers living in nightmares. Innocent lives in their thousands and thousands, all sitting heavy on his own soul. Those voices had been whispering their condemnations into his mind for ten years. They weren’t ever going to stop, and Tony didn’t want them to, either.
He’d grown accustomed to the weight of a thousand souls resting on his own. This was no different.
Fingers clenched tight around the gauntlet, and with all the strength his body possessed, he willed. Willed those souls back to life. Willed the damage Thanos had made to be undone.
And with a fierce burn that ran right through his arm and into his mind, he felt the gauntlet obey.
When he woke, he was lying sprawled on the side of the hill, twenty feet from the point he’d last remembered being in.
Must’ve been blown back by the force, he thought dazedly, sitting up onto his elbows and then blinking in the softer light.
Almost like a dream, everything that gauntlet had shown him was fading. All the things he’d learned disappeared from his mind like smoke into the wind. And maybe it was better that way. No man should have all that power- not even Tony Stark. Some things were just better left unknown.
He wasn’t organized enough to take control of the universe, anyway. Now Pepper, however- she could probably do it right. If anyone stood a chance, it was that woman.
He looked down at his hand; at the armored arm, now singed with black. He was glad he’d put it on over the armor in the first place- he liked his hands, thank you very much. The fact he was more bothered about, however, was the distinct lack of any infinity stones in the immediate area. His hand was empty.
The gauntlet was gone. He’d made sure of it. Willed the damn thing out of existence, the same way he'd willed everyone else back. Peter had asked him t-
Jumping to his feet, he looked around him. Would he have turned up here? No, probably not, he’d have gone back home, to where his soul belonged. Tony couldn’t hear his voice in his head any more. There was nothing. He was alone on the dead planet again.
He had to get home. He had to find out whether it had worked.
Stumbling to his feet on shaky legs, he fired up the repulsors and flew messily back the spaceship on the other side of the hill. His head was throbbing, and he felt weak to his bones, but he just... he had to get home. He had to know.
When his hands slid into the control panel, they weren’t shaking any more.
He didn’t bother with landing it properly, or safely. The grass would do, and there were no humans on it, so that was even better.
He had to admit, the landing was kind of rough. Luckily, he had a near-indestructible suit to hand, so he didn’t suffer too badly from it. And anyway, he was in rather a hurry. Minor injuries were the least of his worries.
“Peter!” He cried out as soon as he burst through the compound, “FRIDAY, did it work, did we- did I-“
“Boss, I think you'll be rather pleased to know that the population of Earth has doubled, and everyone lost has, in fact, returned,” the AI spoke happily to him, and he felt the massive wave of relief, almost tangible on his tongue as he sagged to his knees on the floor of the compound and took in a long breath.
It had worked. It had worked. It had worked.
“Peter,” he gasped, “where’s- I need to see him. Where’s P-“
His head rocked upward, and his eyes caught on the gangly boy stood at the other end of the compound, looking a little out of breath. There was a cut still healing just over his eye, taped over with neat white stitches, and his mouth hung open as he stared across at Tony.
He didn't glow any more. Instead, he was solid. Real.
“You’re back,” Peter said, face breaking out into a smile, “oh, you actually made it b-“
He didn’t finish his sentence. Tony had run into him and knocked the words right out of his lungs as he embraced the boy in an utterly crushing hug, face burying itself into the bony shoulder. His hands gripped so tight to Peter’s shirt he thought he might rip it, but when Peter hugged him back just as hard, just as relieved, Tony decided he didn’t care.
“Oh God,” he whispered hysterically, “oh fuck, you’re alive. Oh, thank God. Oh thank God. I thought I’d lost you. I thought you were gone, holy shit, thank God. Thank… oh God-“ he broke off, trying to hold back a sob that threatened to wrack through him, but ultimately failing as he heard Peter’s small little laughter underneath him, real this time, real and living and alive-
“You did it Mr Stark,” Peter whispered, and it sounded like he was crying too, “you saved the universe.”
Sheer, utter relief crashed through him. It was almost unbearable. Peter was alive. Peter was whole He was there. He could live out the rest of his life, the way he should. He had the chance to grow up. It was… more than Tony had ever thought he’d be able to make happen.
God. He hadn’t failed.
“Thank you,” Peter spoke rapidly through his own short breaths, “thank you for saving me, us, and for not giving up even when it was super hard, you’re the best mentor I could ever have, you’re the best superhero the Earth has known and I’m just, I’m glad you came back for me-“
“Of course I’d come back for you,” Tony told him, and there was no humour in his voice, no dry sarcasm any more, he was too tired for the masks. “You’re family. I don’t leave family behind.”
Peter sunk his head into Tony’s shoulder, and they both hugged one another in the middle of the compound like their lives depended on it.
“I missed you so much, kid,” Tony told him, “don’t ever do that to me again, you understand?” He moved his hand up higher on Peter’s back and squeezed desperately. He was so exhausted.
“Well, I mean, I can’t exactly-“
There was a small pause, and then a quiet “Yes Mr Stark, I promise.”
Tony nodded once, and then broke away with a sniff. He looked down and brushed the stray tears off his cheeks quickly before smacking Peter over the back of the head. “That’s for the comment you made earlier. I’m glad you’re real again- I can do it properly now.”
Peter pouted, rolling his eyes a little and folding his arms. “Great, yeah, glad to be back,” he muttered, but he was smiling through it. Tony turned his head sideways, looked out into the city on the horizon. Even from here, you could see the disrepair it had fallen into in the short period in which the world had been halved.
He felt Peter’s shoulder jostle against his, for the first time since Doomsday. “What do we do now?” The boy asked, voice quiet, looking into the same horizon as Tony.
Tony didn’t speak for a while, but then he smiled, and rested his hand on Peter’s shoulder with a small nod of his head.
“We save the world. Again.”