Tony watched the aliens and their half-wit leader turn to dust with an alarmed despair that couldn’t quite eclipse the searing pain every time that he breathed. He turned to the wizard for explanation, only to watch him float away before his eyes. “We’re in the endgame now,” Strange said, altogether unhelpfully, as his skin flaked off and his body dissolved. Tony wanted to demand that he explain himself, but his tone conveyed there was a reason he did the exact thing that he swore he wouldn’t. Like all enigmas, he’d never tell. Then he was gone.
Perhaps the moon had hit him harder than he thought, because he was didn’t know what was going on.
“Mister Stark, I don’t feel so good.”
Panic filled him with a terrible clarity as Peter stumbled towards him. He was pale and shaky and Tony knew what was coming. It was like that homicidal grape had thrust the sword through his gut again and he could not move or speak through the agony.
“I don’t know what’s happening.’”
But Tony did, as all the hopes and dreams he’d had for the kid went up in ash.
“I don’t want to go.” The waiver in the kid’s voice broke something in him he’d never thought was whole to begin with. Peter pitched forward and Tony pulled him into his chest, wrapping his arms around him as if he could hold him there, to the surface of some God-forsaken planet where he should never have been in the first place. Tony had thought he’d prepared for every possibility, tinkering away in his lab to give the suit dozen of safety nets, when he should have been dissuading him from the asinine notion that teenagers could fight crime and also aliens. He was too young for this. Too young and good and stupid and brilliant, and oh God his aunt would kill him if she didn’t die of grief first.
This was his fault.
“I don’t want to go, Mr. Stark, please, I don’t want to go.”
Everything he wanted to say—everything the boy deserved to hear every day of his life and not just when it was ending—stuck in his throat. He was failing him again, just like he had failed the universe.
Thanos had thrown a moon at him and he’d gotten right back up, but Peter’s terror in his dying moments paralyzed him.
He wasn’t sure he’d ever rise again.
Then Peter seemed to rally, his whimpers quieted. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. Tony could not fathom the heart of this kid, to offer him underserved absolution on his last breath.
I feel like if you died that would be on me.
This was definitely his fault, and he could never invent enough tech to emerge from this loss.
As Peter’s eyes closed Tony’s did too. He allowed himself to slump forward, pressing his forehead against whatever part of Peter he could reach, waiting for the boy to dissolve in his arms. Lost to the wind, like all good things. He could not bear to watch.
He hoped the kid knew, in that moment, that he was not alone.
He should have said that. He should have said a million things, that he was proud, and impressed, and scared, every single moment, that Peter would go down the same reckless path Tony had chosen.
He could hear his own breath, ragged in the silence.
His forehead sunk no further.
The weight in his arms did not lessen.
His battered body protested the pretzel he’d twisted himself into.
Tony opened his eyes.
Peter was still there.
Peter was still there!
Eyes screwed shut and trembling like a leaf, but solid. More solid that he’d been when he first stumbled.
“Breathe, Pete. Just keep breathing.” He ran his hand down the kid’s back, hoping he could feel it enough through the suit to find it grounding or soothing. It was doing wonders for the hysteria that had been coursing through his own body.
“Open your eyes, kid,” he whispered, needing to see them to know that this was real.
Peter refused with a pained whimper, shaking his head against Tony’s chest.
But Tony couldn’t bear this anymore. “Peter, look at me!” he commanded, in the tone his father had used that Tony had always hated but never disobeyed. It did the trick, because Peter snapped to attention and met Tony’s gaze.
His eyes were bright with tears and life.
“Look down, Pete.”
He was still so pale, but he wasn’t ashen. “I can’t, Mr. Stark. Please don’t make me.”
“You have to,” he said, his voice still too harsh. But when the kid wouldn’t comply he grabbed one of his hands and lifted it into his line of sight.
(He was so relieved when it did not break off and crumble away.)
“Solid, see. You’re okay. You’re okay kid. You’re not going anywhere.” He felt high, like there was something euphoric coursing through his veins.
There was just enough relief there that Tony believed it, barking out a laugh. “You’re not. You’re okay. It was just a panic attack.”
“It wasn’t just a panic attack,” Peter snapped, wrapping his arms around himself. “I felt it. I was disintegrating, like the others.”
Tony had thought he’d glimpsed as much, before he’d refused to let himself look at the way Peter’s leg had started to fracture. “How do you feel now?” he asked, holding his breath as he waited for an answer. If the kid’s body was still trying to hold itself together, that was not an agony either one of them could sustain.
Peter held out an arm, rotated it slowly, and then took a steadying breath. “I think it stopped. I feel normal.”
Tony squeezed him just a little tighter, but distracted him by quipping, “Score one for radioactive spider healing powers and zero for homicidal probability.”
“What just happened?” Peter asked, looking up at him, so tragically young but unmistakably alive.
“My father.” Tony startled at the voice from behind him. From his position half draped in Tony’s lap, Peter surely noticed. He had forgotten that they weren’t alone. He got the uncomfortable sense that this blue alien lady had been watching. “All my life his sole ambition has been to collect all six infinity stones so he could snap his fingers and eliminate half the galaxy. He must have succeeded.”
“You mean half the people are just gone – everywhere?” Peter asked.
At the blue woman’s nod Peter rolled to the side and vomited, explosively. Tony’s hand found his back again, his own stomach rolling.
They’d failed, he knew that, but there had still been one stone left on Earth. This meant that Vision was surely gone, and who knew how many others had fallen.
Roughly half, at least.
“Sorry,” Peter croaked, looking absolutely forlorn. Though there had been many times Tony wanted Peter to comprehend the repercussions of his actions he could find no fault with him now, when Tony had dragged him into this by telling him they had to save the wizard.
Peter nearly apologized again, by reflex, but stopped himself before pivoting back toward Tony.
Unfortunately the action brought him eye level with Tony’s chest. “Mister Stark, you’re bleeding,” he squeaked. “A lot.”
Most of the blood was old, but the wound had reopened, and he could see fresh crimson leaking from the edges of the binding agent. The real trouble, he knew, was the damage that he’d sealed inside.
“Got a little stabbed,” he said, trying to brush it off.
“That is a mortal wound,” the alien deduced coldly. Peter flinched, his eyes growing wide, and Tony made a resolution.
He would not die in front of the kid.
“Only if it kills me,” he breezed, but now that the terror of losing Peter had faded he realized how desperately he might need his resolve to make it back to Earth. Strange had been a fool to trade the stone for the life of a dead man.
“But I should see a doctor. Shame ours disappeared on us. Robo Smurf, I’m going to need your help getting us back to Earth.”
Peter’s lips twitched into a smile just for a second, and that was worth the glare said Smurf fixed upon him.
“I could hasten your death, Terran, and take the ship to seek my own revenge.”
“No nicknames then, got it.”
“Why would I help you?”
It might have been fun to banter a bit, if he wasn’t responsible for getting Peter back to Earth before he bled out. As it was, he went right for honesty. “You want to kill your father, right? I have friends back home that want the same thing. All of us scattered haven’t been able to accomplish it yet. But maybe together we can. We’re the only allies you’ve got,” (he didn’t know that, but it seemed right, with that perpetual scowl), “and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Some Chinese guy said that, I think. So what do you say? Give us a lift?”
“Please?” Peter added, and Tony would be damned if it wasn’t the kid’s big pleading eyes that made the woman relent.
“Fine,” she growled. “I will transport you to your pathetic planet. I may or may not stay there to join your pitiful army.”
“Probably isn’t an army. Just a handful of folks.”
“Not helping,” Peter hissed. Tony laughed at the sheer miracle that he was still able to annoy the kid, but the action ended in a pained stutter.
“What’s your name, Miss?” Peter asked, a proper little diplomat. Tony didn’t think that thing had ever been called Miss in her life.
She regarded him skeptically, and Tony could practically see the gears in her head turning. Even JARVIS had seemed more human than this. “Nebula,” she finally answered.
It was the most alien name that still happened to be an English word that he could possible imagine.
“I’m Peter. And this is Tony Stark.”
“I crashed my ship into Thanos. But I asked my sister’s idiot friends to meet me here. Their ship must be around here someplace. Can you walk?”
“I’m fine,” Tony lied, but even standing turned out to be more of a trial than he expected.
She stalked off across the hostile landscape, and Peter stayed close enough that Tony could lean some of his weight against him without being obvious about it. They were just two casual acquaintances, wildly mismatched in age, taking a stroll across an alien planet.
“Try not to die on the way,” Robo Smurf called over her shoulder. “I think it would sadden the child.”
They found a bed in an empty cabin, and Tony had never been so glad to collapse. He rested his eyes for a moment, reassured by the hum of the engine as Nebula started the ship. When he opened them he found Peter hovering at his bedside, staring down at him as if he had x-ray vision.
“Pull up a chair if you’re going to stay there all night,” he said, unnerved by the intensity of the kid’s gaze.
“Nah.” He retreated a few steps to the corner of the room. The whoosh of the first web startled Tony, but shock soon turned to fascination as Peter carefully constructed a hammock that hung down from the ceiling. Finally satisfied, he scurried up the wall and flung himself on it.
“Pretty cool trick,” Tony said. “You’ve done that before, haven’t you?”
He quirked a smile. “Good thing Aunt May never looked up.” At the mention of his aunt he sobered quickly, and neither mentioned what they were surely both thinking. An uncomfortable silence fell, leaving Tony nothing to focus on besides the throbbing beneath his ribcage.
The kid was brooding so loud Tony could practically hear it. The room was dim, and he could barely see Peter in his spider nest, but he could tell that his eyes were open as he stared up at the ceiling.
“Why so glum?” he asked when he couldn’t stand the silence anymore. He regretted his words as soon as they came out of his mouth because there were half a dozen obvious reasons.
Peter scowled, clearly thinking him an idiot, and rightly so, before he took a deep watery breath. “You were right. I’m too young to be an Avenger.”
“Technically I made you an Avenger after trying to make you an Avenger a year ago, so I wasn’t right.” It was instinct, to pick holes in arguments and bluster through uncomfortable situations with distracting nicknames and misplaced confidence.
“I’m not cut out for this. Things got rough out there and I cried like a baby. I’m sorry I didn’t act like a hero. I was just so scared.”
Tony could not explain the fierce need that welled up inside him to dissuade Peter of the ridiculous notion that he wasn’t good enough. It didn’t matter that Peter was too young to be fighting alien overlords on another planet. Or that a super hero brigade truly wasn’t the place for a teenager, as Tony had realized just an hour ago. He would not let the kid drown in undeserved self-pity.
“I was scared too, champ. Really scared. Does that make me less of a hero? I’ve just had a lot longer to learn how to deal with it. No one should have to be okay with what we saw today. And when we get back home I’ll get you the best super secret therapist money can buy, if you want.”
“You get scared? Iron Man?”
“I became Iron Man because I was scared.” He admitted it without meaning to. The conversation was becoming a bit fuzzy around the edges. “I’ve been scared ever since. I had a vision of Thanos six years ago, and it turns out the reality might have been worse. All you can do is ride out the panic attacks and dust yourself off to fight again.”
“I don’t think it was a panic attack.” Peter sounded so young in that moment, and Tony lamented the distance between them that he couldn’t cross even as he realized the safety it provided.
It was unlikely that Peter could see the tears welling in his eyes.
“It was like I could feel the cells in my body break apart and bond back together, over and over. I didn’t know if I was going to die or just keep regenerating forever.”
“I’m damn glad that spider was such a bad ass,” Tony choked out, hoping the joke hid the way his voice waivered with all the sentiment lurking behind it.
“Look, I know I like to poke fun, and I’ve been hard on you in the past – for your own good I might add. But I’ll never use anything that happened since we left Earth against you, I promise. Except for the fact you think Alien is an old movie. That embarrasses me.”
“Thanks, Mister Stark.” Peter sounded stronger in that moment than he had since the first bozo disintegrated, and Tony thought that was good because he was feeling weaker by the second.
But the kid’s typical uber-formality stung a bit. His father had been Mr. Stark. Tony didn’t want to think of him now, when he’d surely disapprove of everything that had gone down today.
(Tony knew he was a screwup. The fact that there was a hole in his gut and an absence of half the beings in the universe proved that. But the kid was breathing, so he wanted to focus on that for the present.)
“We’ve fought aliens together in outer space, kid. You can call me Tony.”
He didn’t respond, and Tony wondered if he’d crossed some boundary, somehow. If he should just accept the respect he was due and bury that twinge of discomfort.
“We’re going to fix this, aren’t we, Mr.—Tony?” Peter asked after a minute or two of heavy silence. “All those people aren’t going to stay gone?”
It had seemed pretty final. Tony had found that death was one of the few things that was. Even throwing all the money in the world at it couldn’t stop it. Except that Thanos had a stone that could manipulate time.
“The wizard must have had a plan,” he said, trying to infuse it with more hope than he actually felt. “He told me after we rescued him that he’d sacrifice you or me to keep the stone safe. Then he went and flat out handed Thanos the stone to save my life.”
“He did what?” Peter squeaked.
He was glad that Peter hadn’t been close enough to see it. He’d lost sight of the kid in all the chaos. “That’s how I got this little flesh wound. Grape Crush didn’t take too kindly to the fact I made him bleed.”
“He said he saw one future where we win.”
“Hate to break it to you, but I don’t think this is it.”
“Maybe it is.” Tony couldn’t believe it, but there was honest to God hope warbling in the boy’s voice, and for just a second the pain in his chest eased. “Maybe we had to lose the battle to win the war. Or maybe you were too important to die there, so Doctor Strange had to give up the time stone to save you.”
“Maybe, kid. Just a shame he didn’t have time to fill us in on the plan before he disappeared.”
“What was his name?” Peter asked.
“Doctor Strange,” Tony said quizzically, because the kid had just said it.
“Not his superhero name,” the kid clarified. “His real name.”
Tony chuckled. It was almost like the man was predestined for a ridiculous fate, with a name like his. “Doctor Stephen Strange.”
“Oh. I thought—”
“He was quite the accomplished surgeon before he ruined his hands and ran off to Hogwarts or whatever.”
“Did you know him?”
“Nah, just had FRIDAY google him. Karen can do that for you too, you know.”
“I’m glad he bartered for your life.” Peter said it in a rush, as if it was something shameful, and maybe it was, but it stole all the air from Tony’s lungs. “I probably shouldn’t be, because of half the universe and all. But I’m glad I didn’t have to watch another—watch you die.”
Tony had done more than google Peter, so he knew all about his parents’ early deaths and his uncle’s tragic demise. But the kid was so exuberant he’d never stopped to wonder about the scars those losses might leave behind.
“Hey, don’t worry about me. I’m going to be fine.”
“Do you promise?”
He wanted to, with every cell in his body, but he could feel some of those cells starting to shut down. He was in a bad way, and they were God knows how far from Earth, and if he made this promise and broke it that would be far worse than never making it at all.
But Peter had been drifting apart yet still held himself together. Tony wanted to think that his arms had helped somehow, anchoring him, but it was probably pure self-preservation. Either way, he had not left Tony alone on an alien planet with his guilt and a growling robot.
So he would not leave the kid.
“I was there when Uncle Ben died.” Peter’s voice, which had been infused with fear and anxiety and hope in turns, just sounded hollow now. Tony wished the kid wasn’t out of reach, because he was struck with a need to rest a hand on his arm or card his fingers through his hair. “I had my powers but I didn’t know how to use them yet. I could have done something, but I didn’t. Uncle Ben died because I was scared, and I swore that would never happen again. That’s why I had to follow Doctor Strange onto that spaceship. It didn’t matter that it was dangerous. And I had to come back after you sent me away. Because what if you needed back up?”
It was like the kid had punched him in the gut, which was surely not his intention. Because Tony didn’t deserve such selfless devotion, and the kid was so damn good the world would surely eat him alive.
“It’s not your job to look after me.”
“Who else is going to do it then?”
Rhodey, Pepper, Happy, he could have listed. But he couldn’t bring himself to contradict Peter’s claim, as much as he knew he should. The kid had no reason to be so attached. He’d been distant – literally – and condescending, and he’d sent all sorts of mixed messages about whether a teenager should fight crime, being okay with it when it suited his own ends and less forgiving when the kid had launched his own crusade.
Tony had even less reason to feel an echoing attachment, except that the kid was noble and heroic and charming. Almost painfully earnest. Dorky and unashamed to admit it. Absolutely brilliant, but not at all conceited.
Already a better man than Tony would ever be.
“Everyone deserves to have someone look after them.”
Peter said it like some universal truth. Tony had never found it to be so. But there was something alluring in the thought.
He wasn’t expecting to hear the sharp rasp of a hitched breath. The kid’s moods were mercurial tonight. Tony was more accustomed to vacillating between misery, anger, boredom, and drunken stupor. “What will I do if we get back and Aunt May isn’t – is –”
“You’ll come to the compound with me,” he answered without even thinking about it. It was only as it sunk in, a second later, that he realized how right it felt. “There’s always a place for you there. No matter what.” Peter turned on his side and the hammock swung. Their eyes met in the darkness, and Tony hoped Peter understood would he could not quite bring himself to say. Everyone deserves to have someone look after them.
“If May isn’t there, we’ll just have to get her back.” For the first time he truly thought it might be possible. This kid had lost too much already, and Tony would be damned before he lets him lose anything else for good. “But I have a feeling she’s waiting for you to get your little spider-butt home. There’s no way I’m getting out of the tongue lashing she’s going to give me for taking you on a field trip to outer space without a permission slip. Frankly I’m terrified.”
The sound of Peter’s soft chuckle carried him off to sleep.
The kid was going to be all right.
He woke to a string of half muffled curses, and found Robo Girl peering at him in the dark. “Come to smother me in my sleep?” he quipped, but the words barely made it past his throat. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been out, but the rest hadn’t helped. Each breath was a struggle, and his chest was a pool of agony.
But he would not die in front of the kid.
He turned his head just enough to glimpse Peter out of the corner of his eye. He’d taken off his iron spider suit, and was curled in a ball in his t-shirt and jeans.
“You don’t need any help to hasten your death.”
Whatever this thing was she had no time for bullshit. Normally Tony would have appreciated that, but in that moment he would have been glad for a few words of optimism.
“How close are we to Earth?”
“Not close enough.”
“Can you gun it a little?” At the skeptical look she shot him he tried to elucidate. “Speed it up? Go faster so I don’t die before we get there.”
“We’re already going as fast as we can. We don’t have much fuel.”
“Of course not. That’s just how this day is going.” He tried taking a deep breath to steady himself and immediately regretted it, hissing the searing pain out through his teeth. Blackness lurked at the edge of his vision, as final as a swirl of dust on an alien planet.
Unless it wasn’t.
He watched Peter shiver in his spider nest, and the darkness receded a bit.
“Is there a blanket on this trash heap?”
Robo Smurf stared at his flushed face and sweat soaked skin, obviously aware that his fever had sunk in.
“Not for me. For the kid.”
“You care for your son,” she said, as if it was a concept too foreign to be believed.
“He’s not my son.” The immediate denial was instinctive, meant to protect him from the split second that his feverish mind allowed him to imagine it were true.
Science fairs and driving lessons. Father son patrols. Graduation.
Peter dying in his arms because of his own recklessness.
“Thanos was no father of mine, but he claimed it for so long it became true.”
But Peter was not his to claim. He had an aunt who loved him fiercely – God Tony hoped he had an aunt – and the memory of two loving, normal parents.
“Pardon me for not taking parenting advice from a grape who killed one daughter and turned the other into a killer robot,” he snapped.
Just as he’d intended, Nebula stalked out without another word.
Every shake of his shoulder was agony. Tony groaned, hoping that would be enough to make it stop.
“Mister Stark. Mister Stark. Mister Stark!”
He would not face his father today.
“Tony, please. Come on Tony. You promised! We’re almost home. You promised. Please.”
He had promised something, hadn’t he? It had seemed important at the time. But now all that was important was rest and oblivion and …
He felt a sharp crack across his face. His eyes opened quite against his will. The blue downer scowled at him while Peter peered from behind her shoulder, white-faced and draped in a gray blanket.
“Your unconsciousness was scaring the child.”
“Sorry,” he slurred, scared by the effort it took. There was fluid in his lungs, and it was probably blood.
“Sorry about your face,” Peter chattered. “You wouldn’t wake up.”
He tried to string together a few words of sarcasm or comfort, but couldn’t manage it.
“You gotta hang on, Tony. We’re almost home. I can see Earth out the window!”
Home was good. Being close was good. He would not die on the kid.
They were cutting this to the wire.
“I need landing coordinates. And there’s a transmission coming from your planet.”
“Lemme hear it.”
With Peter’s help he managed to stagger to the cockpit and collapse in the co-pilot seat. The blue one flipped a switch.
He was not expecting to hear Thor’s aggravatingly booming and lilting voice that made women swoon.
“People of Asgard, if you can hear me. This is your king. We are in dire need of your aid. Midgard is willing to shelter you. Valkyrie, if you can hear me, your rage and your fire have never been more needed.”
At least the blue one seemed not to be impressed as she cut the transmission. “It’s on a loop. The child says you know this king?”
“God of thunder. King of Asgard. Low IQ. Big hammer. More Instagram followers than me, which is frankly insulting. Is there a way to talk back?”
They were not alone. Thor was alive, and there were surely others.
In a few hours he would still be one of them.
The alien handed him a com which looked suspiciously like a walkie talkie. The whole ship gave off a weird 80’s vibe. Not very Star Trek at all.
He tried to clear his throat and almost succeeding in hacking up a lung while Peter clutched at his shoulder and begged him to breath.
“I’m all right,” he finally lied, wiping the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. He hoped there wouldn’t be any press when he touched down. He so wasn’t ready for a photo op.
“Hey Point Break,” he crowed into the com. “I’m not from Asgard but I’ve got a whole lot of rage against a certain grape-face. Think you could use the help?”
“Christ, Tony.” Rhodey’s voice crackling across the intercom left him light headed with relief. “You’ve been gone for days. We thought you were dead.”
Days? Aunt May was going to kill him. And Pepper.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, man. Though speaking of death, I may have gotten a teensy bit stabbed. If you could send the best doctor you can find in twenty minutes to meet me at the Compound I’d really appreciate it.”
“We’re not at the Compound.”
“Okay. Where are you?”
“The Lion King’s place? What are you doing there?”
“It’s a long story. Though man, this place is really something.”
“I don’t have time for long stories right now. Think you could send that doctor?”
Rhodey paused, and Tony could feel the life draining from him with every breath. It would be really unfair, to die this close to home.
“You should come here. There’s someone that can patch you up better than anyone back home. We’ll wait for you.”
He wanted to go back to New York, where surely Doctor Cho could save the day – if Doctor Cho wasn’t ash in the wind. But he trusted Rhodey.
“Send the coordinates.” He waited a beat before he could bring himself to ask the next question. “Who’s left?”
Rhodey waited his own beat, as if he too had to steel himself against the harsh reality. “Bruce. Thor. Nat.” Another pause. “Cap. And no lie – a talking racoon. It’s crazy. Half the world just went up in smoke. We failed.”
“Hold it together, Rhodey. We’re gonna fix this.” The kid’s grip on his shoulder tightened. “Get me a doc. I’ll see you soon.”
“I know that damn racoon,” the space smurf fumed, and Peter and Tony shared a desperate, hysterical chuckle.
There was one fear he still had to face, and it was worse than the infection he could already feel raging in his body. He hadn’t been brave enough to ask Rhodey and make him the bearer of bad news.
Earth was coming up hot, so as Nebula retreated to enter the coordinates Tony touched his watch. The cheerful sound of FRIDAY coming back online seemed like it was from another life.
“Welcome back, Boss. We were all concerned at your prolonged absence. But your vital signs are distressing.”
“Forget my vital signs.” He certainly didn’t want the kid to hear them. “Call Pepper.”
“Calling Mrs. Potts.”
He didn’t even have time to panic before she answered halfway through the first ring. “Oh thank God, Tony.”
“Not sure God had anything to do with it.” But he could almost believe in a higher power, just for a second, because he still had Pepper and Peter and Rhodey. “But it’s real good to hear your voice, Pep.”
“Tell me you turned that ship around and are coming home, Tony. Please.”
“Crashed that one. But commandeered another. I’m almost back. But I’ve got to make a little detour first. Apparently Africa has the best healthcare in the world now – who knew.”
“Tony, why do you need a doctor?”
“Got a little stabbed. Nothing to worry about. Just a flesh wound.” A gaping, oozing flesh wound.
“Don’t you die on me now, Tony. Please.”
There was a waiver in her voice but she didn’t crumble. She had iron in her veins, his Pepper.
“I won’t, Pep. I made a promise.” He’d made a promise to her, long before he’d made one to Peter, but he’d never been any good at keeping it.
He wanted to change that.
“Something happened while you were gone. All these people they just … disappeared.”
It hadn’t been nearly as peaceful as that. He wasn’t going to correct her. “I know. We didn’t stop him … yet.”
“Just come home first.” It was an order, and she was the only one allowed to do that. Everything within him swelled with his incomprehensible love for her, but it was too much. He wasn’t alone. He could not break.
“We’re getting ready to land. I’ve got to go. I’ll call you when I’m out of surgery.”
“Wait. One more thing. May Parker has been calling. Peter’s missing. Do you know where he is?”
He was so glad he had an acceptable answer to that question. “The Spiderling’s with me. He’s fine.”
Said Spiderling, who’d been eavesdropping on the entire private conversation because Tony’s earpiece had been decimated with his suit, gripped his shoulder so hard he could feel it in his bone and shouted, “Aunt May? Is she okay? Have your heard from her since--?”
The silence was all the answer Tony needed. “Call her back and tell her I’ll have the kid home as soon as we get him another stamp on his passport. Love ya Pep.”
He turned as soon as he disconnected the call, and watched Peter carefully through bloodshot eyes. Peter swiped away a tear, quick like he was swatting a fly, but he met Tony’s gaze with a steely intensity and did not crumble.
Tony pried his hand from his shoulder, but did not let it go as he lowered it.
“You okay, champ?”
Peter nodded, and Tony could see the moment he started to believe it. The kid could say whatever he wanted about how he was coping, but he was tough.
“I don’t have a passport,” he said, and Tony wanted to laugh at his earnest concern. “Is that going to be a problem?”
Tony tugged Peter into his side and played it off as if he needed a steadying force. “I know the king. I don’t think he’ll make us go through customs.
Wakanda was unlike anything Tony had ever seen, and he’d been to outer space. If he hadn’t been dying it might have been wonderous to see Earth unfold before him, the blue and green taking on definition as his perspective narrowed. The kid was clearly in awe beside him, wide eyed and muttering exclamations of wonder he seemed altogether unaware of. As they hovered over Africa he thought someone had made a mistake, for he saw nothing but savannah, and surely an antelope wasn’t going to patch him up. But then reality shifted, as if with one of Thanos’s stones, for one second he saw only grass and then the next a city rose up before them, beautiful in a way he did not think cities could be. There were shining towers and floating trains, and a vibrancy New York City did not hold.
“How did they not teach us about this at school?” Peter asked, and Tony figured the kid must not have been following the news.
Tony had seen the UN footage, and knew a place that could engineer the Blank Panther had to be more than it seemed. But this was something truly impressive.
As soon as the world wasn’t in crisis, he was definitely going to find an excuse to come back here and geek out about this. Maybe bring Peter along, so they could take a ride on the floating train together.
“Terrans are not accustomed to visitors,” their pilot said as she touched them down much more smoothly than he had managed on Titan with the kid and the wizard. “Perhaps I should leave you and go.”
“You saved us. You’re under our protection. Right, Tony?”
He was impressed by how quickly Peter leapt in to defend her. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Because wasn’t Spiderman the defender of the little guy?
Not that Nebula was little. Or weak. Or as friendly at the old ladies that bought Peter sandwiches when he retrieved their purses or helped them across the street.
Peter nudged him, and Tony realized he might have been drifting. “Right, Tony?”
“Right. These are friends. Nothing to worry about.”
It was a good thing that Peter had super strength, because Tony had no choice but to lean his full weight on the kid because his legs would barely move. Putting any weight on them was clearly out of the question.
“We’re almost there, Tony. Don’t give up on me now.”
He wondered at what point in this trip Peter had become the adult in this relationship. “You did good, champ. You did real good.”
“That better not be a goodbye speech.”
He might still be a kid, but he was quick as a whip.
So Tony fought through the haze in his mind as they stepped into sunlight that seemed too bright for the pallor that had fallen over the world. They’d landed on top of a great tower that overlooked the magnificent city. The grasslands surrounding it were blighted by the remains of a great battle.
No good place had been safe from Thanos.
There was a small crowd waiting for them on the landing pad, and Tony was overwhelmed when they all started talking at once.
“I did not know Midgard bred warriors so young,” Thor boomed, just as Rhodey stepped forward with a disapproving glare.
“Christ, Tony, you brought a kid into space with you?”
“I’m sixteen,” Peter bristled, trying to pitch his voice lower and succeeding only in sounding like he’d swallowed a frog.
“Not helping our case, champ. We didn’t know the ship was going back into space.” Tony tried to stand on his own two feet and failed.
“Mister Stark sent me away. I chose to come back.” He couldn’t believe the kid was defending him. He’d have to buy him a really fun toy when all this was over.
“The little stowaway more than earned his stripes. Meet the newest Avenger. Team, Peter. Peter, team.”
He tried to tilt his head to clarify the introductions, but the action threw him off kilter. He stumbled, and as Peter adjusted to compensate he felt someone very solid grab him by the shoulder and haul him up.
Of course it would be Steve fucking Rogers.
“Tony,” he said, his deep voice wavering with all sorts of touchy-feely things that Tony absolutely could not process right then, surrounding by all the friends he had left in the world while he was so clearly dying. He hadn’t quite been able to face Steve when Bruce had told him the world was about to end but the threat had still seemed distant. He certainly couldn’t do it now.
But the universe wasn’t giving him a choice. “Captain,” he said, wishing that his suit wasn’t broken so he could just fly away.
“Captain America,” Peter breathed, a puddle of fanboy awe, and Tony felt just a tiny bit betrayed. “Wow. Nice to meet you. Formally, I mean. There was that time in Germany. I’m sorry for stealing your shield.”
Cap smiled, that wholesome American apple pie smile that had always gotten under Tony’s skin. “Don’t worry about it, son. Peter Parker, I presume?”
“Wow, Captain America knows my name.”
“You can call me Steve.”
“Kinda dying here,” Tony interrupted. “Maybe you could continue this conversation after someone gives me some really good drugs.”
“Sorry,” Peter and Steve said simultaneously, and Tony rolled his eyes.
“I thought I was going to have to break up your banter.” The lilting voice came from a dark skinned stranger standing towards the back of his welcoming committee. She held her chin high, and her entire posture screamed authority. But it seemed to Tony that she could not be much older than Peter. “I need to get to work.”
“Wait, you’re my doctor?” He turned to Rhodey. “Is this really the best time for Dougie Houser, Africa edition?”
“The last broken white boys I fixed were not awake to be so skeptical. You’ll be in fine company soon, Tony Stark.”
It was too late to ask for another opinion, anyway. As Peter and Steve dragged his broken ass inside, Tony gave into the darkness.