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Impossible Years

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“I can’t… I can’t do this. Why don’t you go. Please I just…” The omnipresent orange light seemed oppressive in that moment, and his breath came quick and ragged.

“Peter. I have faith in you,” said Doctor Strange. He was calm. He was always calm. Then again, most people were in the soul stone. There wasn’t really any reason to get excited, since nothing ever happened. Peter was unlike anyone else though, in that he was nervous all the time. Constant low level anxiety that spiked upwards into panic at the slightest thought. What he was about to do was definitely something to be nervous about though, so he felt perfectly justified.

“I just. I don’t want to let you guys down, and I really feel like that’s what’s going to happen. I’m not like… a god or a super powerful magician. I’m just… Peter.” he said. He really didn’t know how to truly express the magnitude of the inadequacy he felt. The only thing he had going for him was Spiderman, and if this worked he wouldn’t even have that anymore. He’d just be a useless kid, and that wasn't going to save anything.

“Peter, you are precisely what the world needs.” said the sorcerer. “And besides, it has to be you.” he said. There was a pause, during which Peter struggled yet again to find a way to voice all his insecurities, and Strange stared into the massive emerald mandala on the orange ground. It’s light refracted strangely off of them, the only color besides orange there was here. On the edge of it, Loki still knelt, taking his turn channeling power into it, seemingly dead to the world. Soon there would be enough power for Peter to be sent.

“I just… I don’t understand why me.” said Peter. “Literally anyone else would be better.”

“We’ve talked about this. You know it needs to be someone who has been affected deeply by all of the stones, and you’re the only one we have. When you tried to steal the glove you--for an incredibly brief moment--had the power of all of them flowing through you. No one else can say the same.”

“I know.” said Peter. “I guess I just… I’m going to miss you guys. And I don’t know how I’m going to handle doing this by myself without anyone to help me. I’m gonna mess up, and then everything will go wrong and it will all be for nothing. I can’t do this alone.”

Doctor Strange looked at him pensively. “You won't be alone by the end. Thanos is a threat to everyone.” That didn’t help, and Peter’s hands, which had already been shaking a bit began to flutter uselessly. Seeing his distress, the Doctor sighed. “I wasn’t going to tell you this, because we still don’t know if it would work.” he began, slowly.

“What is it?” interrupted Peter, instantly worried that it would be something that would make this shitty situation inexplicably worse. He couldn’t imagine what though.

“Loki and I… We think we figured out how to send ourselves back with you. Well not us, but our memories, some of them.”

“Really? I wouldn’t have to be alone?”

“Not exactly. We’d need to help, and it can’t happen until we’ve already been affected by the stones, so after Dormammu for me, and for Loki, the fall from Asgard. Essentially you’d need to convince someone you’d never met before to let you use the mind stone on them immediately after their greatest trauma. And even then, we don’t know if it would work.”

Peter steeled himself. This at least was hope. “It’s better than nothing.” he said. “And we still have a little bit of time before the spell will be ready. So… Tell me what to do.”

Doctor Strange explained the process, which took several minutes. “Do you understand” he said at the end. Peter could see he was prepared to repeat himself as many times as necessary.

He would understand this, he would learn quickly and as well as he could. Just like he’d done with all the other information they’d been throwing at him to prepare him for the journey he would be taking all alone. And this information… it was good. As the Doctor had described this last longest shot his anxiety about the future, the past actually, had increased, because now he had more to lose, but his determination had firmed. He had something to gain now too, besides of course saving the universe. Which was nice and all as a goal but Peter had always dearly wished there was something in it for him besides past loved ones who didn’t know him and years upon years of lonely work.“So like, the Vulcan katra in Star Trek?” said Peter, trying to cut through his confusion and worry with a pop culture reference.

Strange stared at him and Loki looked up from his labors to raise an eyebrow in Peter’s general direction. “Are you telling me neither of you have seen Star Trek?” he said. “We’ve been here for… I don’t know how long, and nobody’s brought up Star Trek?”

Loki shook his head.

“I’ve seen the new one.” admitted Strange.

“Okay. That’s a start, but when I bring you back we are totally going to watch the old ones. All of them.” said Peter. He couldn’t care less about whether they did, but that wasn’t what he was asking for. He wanted an assurance, some promise that they would come back.

“I suppose” relented Loki distractedly, most of his attention still on the spell.

Peter looked expectantly at the Doctor, and after a moment his normally serious expression softened. “After what you’re going to do, it’s the least I could do.”

Peter smiled at them through tears beading up in his eyes. “I’m ready.” he said.

Doctor Strange lowered himself to the ground across from Loki. “Step into the circle then.” he said.

Peter sniffed. “See you soon.” he said, his voice breaking on the last word.

The energy intensified around him, and he started crying in earnest, so much so that he could barely see the smiles that his friends wore as they dissolved into nothing, remnants of a future that would never happen, accessible only through one person's memories. It was as if they--that version of them, the version that he’d trained with, been taught by, and loved like a family, was dead.

“PETER, GET UP. YOUR AUNT AND UNCLE ARE COMING TODAY”

Peter was so shocked to hear the sound of his mother’s voice calling up the stairs that he literally fell out of bed. Since his bed was the top bunk of a bunk bed he was rightfully concerned for about an eighth of a second before his powers kicked in and he managed to flip himself upright and land lightly on his toes. Wait, powers? He was in the past. He shouldn’t have powers. That was… wrong. He was supposed to come back a regular kid. And not only that, he was in the wrong time, was the wrong age.

There was a bump from downstairs and Peter shook his head. He could figure everything out later. Judging from the fact that his ballerina pajama shirt still fit (he’d forgotten about this shirt and its accompanying obsession) he at least looked like a proper self respecting seven year old, and that would have to be good enough.

Peter walked down the stairs and into the kitchen. There she was. His mom. He drank her features in and found that he’d forgotten a lot of them. That was… not okay but he didn’t have time to think about it because she was coming over and placing her hand on his forehead to check his temperature. “Are you feeling alright?” she said, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Starting slightly, Peter tried to rearrange his features into a more natural seven year old expression. He wasn’t sure how good it was. “Just… Just a weird dream.” he said. Inside he was panicking though. He wasn’t supposed to be seven. He was supposed to come back much much later, just before the invasion of New York. Around that time he would have been nine, and it would be during a time when May and Ben were going through simultaneous money and marital crises, which they’d hoped would distract from his entrance. It had been a simple plan, but now everything had gone to shit because he was now in a place--a time--he was in no way prepared for.

His mother, oblivious to his panic, had returned to the stove top. It must be close to the end then. She’d been distracted more and more before she’d disappeared. He racked his brain for information, trying to place exactly when he was while sitting at the table and swinging his legs, a habit he’d never broken himself of when sitting in a chair too tall for him. He’d always done it on the lab stools and it had driven Mr. Stark to distraction.

Peter nearly choked on a sob--Mr. Stark was alive in this time, but he didn’t know Peter so it was almost like the Mr. Stark he’d known was dead anyway. It was a reality he was unprepared to face, and he still didn’t know exactly when he was.

“Here you go.” said Mother. “Eggs Parker with a side of bacon.” she slid a plate in front of him and sat down with her own.

“Thanks Mommy.” he said. Even after all these years it was still an automatic response. He smiled at her as best he could and tucked in, all the while savoring the experience more than the food, imprinting it on his mind as best he could. His unnaturally keen senses picked up on hundreds of tiny details he’d never noticed before, or had forgotten, and he pressed them into his memories like flowers between the pages of a book. His mother's perfume, his father's handwriting on a paper on the table and the uncountable little details of how the room looked, how it smelled, and everything else he could hear see or touch joined the faint memories of lullabies and smiles and a few definite events that were all he could remember of his first time around here.

“Peter, sweetheart,” she said. “I need to talk to you about something.”

“What?” he asked, though he had a feeling that he already knew what she was about to say. The mouthful of eggs he’d just swallowed turned to lead in his stomach at the thought of it, because he’d just figured out exactly when he was. He should have known earlier, when his mother had told him his aunt and uncle were coming, because the fact of the matter was that Richard Parker was estranged from his family and Peter had never met his aunt or uncle until the day his parents had disappeared. Which meant that today was That Day.

“Daddy and I have to take a little business trip. He has some very important research he needs to give to someone. It will only take a week and we’ll be back before you know it.”

“No! Don’t go Mommy!” he choked out, and then he nearly started crying right then and there because it was That Day and there was no way he could stop it. No one would believe him. It was inevitable. His mother's face looked so heartbroken though that he pulled himself together. If it was inevitable then he wanted it to be the best last day he could have. “I’ll miss you.” he said.

She laughed. “It’s only for a week, and your daddy has even gotten his brother Ben’s family to look after you. We’ll be back before you know it.” she said. But they wouldn’t. Peter knew that. They never came back after that week, and had simply disappeared. May and Ben had filed a missing persons report but nothing had come of it. He still didn’t know precisely what happened, why they’d never come back, but he did intend to find out. He couldn’t do anything now though. He couldn’t even tell them what he knew, because one of the things that had been drilled into him beyond any other instinct was not to compromise the mission. He was here to change the future of the world, and if he wasted that chance now on something so trivial as his own life, then… the future was nothing but countless souls wandering on an endless orange plain. He’d been practicing letting go of things, of people, of letting tragedies happen. After all, they had to happen.

------------

The next few hours were the closest Peter had ever come to actual torture, and he’d once endured having a building fall on him and then being forced to crawl slowly and painfully out of it, so he considered himself rather more educated on pain and suffering than most. His mother was humming as she moved about the house packing for the ‘trip’ and Peter was following her around like a lost puppy while trying to soak in enough of her presence to last for the rest of his life, even though he was perfectly aware that there was no way he could do that. He was going to miss her and feel the same pain at her loss that he had the first time, and there was nothing that he could do about it.

At around ten, she took a call. Peter was sitting on the floor, ostensibly coloring. He’d switched through several highly portable ‘quiet’ activities throughout the day that he wasted absolutely none of his attention on while following her around, hoping that the props would allay any suspicion. He needn’t have bothered, because his mother was in her own world, barely connecting to anything until the phone rang and her focus snapped into pinpoint precision. “Hello.” she answered the phone.

Peter could easily overhear the response. “Good Morning Mrs. Parker.” said the man on the other end.

“It’s Doctor actually.” said his mother. “Might I ask who this is.”

“My apologies Doctor Parker.” said the faceless voice she was speaking to “I am Agent Goodman of the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. Your husband mentioned that you are aware of your extraction this evening and the reasons behind it?” he said.

Peters crayon halted and his world turned on its head. His parents were involved with SHIELD? What was going on. This was another thing that he needed to know more about. He listened in carefully. “He did tell me, yes, and I am the coauthor of the research, so I am aware.” said his mother. She sounded cold and not at all friendly, and was now walking out of the room and shutting the door behind her. She didn’t go far enough though, obviously not anticipating her seven year old to have enhanced hearing.

“Good.” said the agent. “This call is largely to run over the process with you one last time and to ensure that the procedures for the disposal of all unsecured copies of your research are followed correctly.”

Peter heard a sigh and a creak as his mother collapsed against the wall. The stress must be getting to her. “I have placed all copies of the research in the basement lab. There is nothing else besides the things at my husbands workplace and the copies we’ve given to you. The lab is locked with a code--my son’s birth date.” she said.

“That is acceptable.” said Agent Goodman. Peter could hear the faint sounds of cars behind him, and realized that he was in transit somewhere. “We will pick you up in a car at around eight PM. Be ready, and pack warm. Your safe-house is in a cold area.”

“But what happens afterward? Richard said the safe-house would only be for a week, and then we would see Peter again, but if we are truly in that much danger I don’t see how going away for just a week will change anything.”

“The week is the time frame for our operation to find out who stole a portion of your research and neutralize them. Best case scenario, you are able to return to your regular life with increased security on your workplace. Worst case scenario, you are moved to a different location under assumed identities and can no longer pursue genetic research in the private sector. In that case, SHIELD has an excellent research program if you wish to continue your work. If not, I’m sure an intelligent person like yourself could find some other occupation.”

“Okay… okay. I can do that. I can handle that.” she said.

“This would go much smoother if you would bring your son to the safe-house. Ensuring his safety in another location will be much more difficult.”

“No,” was her immediate response, “I won’t expose him to that. He’ll be fine with my brother-in-law, and I highly doubt someone after our research would go after our son.”

“It isn’t unlikely ma’am, but we’ll respect your wishes. Expect us this evening, and if you have any issues this number will remain active until then.”

“Thank you Agent.” she said. “I appreciate what you’re doing for us.”

“You research is both dangerous and valuable. SHIELD would never let it fall into the wrong hands.” said the Agent. “Be ready.” Then he hung up, and Peter’s mom let out a long and broken sob. Obviously the situation terrified her, and for good reason considering she didn’t survive the week.

Peter’s next step was clear though. He needed to get into that lab.

---------

The first time he was seven, the basement had terrified Peter. He was aware that his parents kept stuff down there that he wasn’t allowed to touch, but he’d never been tempted to go against that order because it was dark, and because both the furnace and the water heater had a tendency to make incredibly strange noises that his younger self equated with man eating monsters. Needless to say, he’d never discovered the poorly disguised secret lab in the basement, and until his mother’s phone call hadn’t been aware of its existence.

It was a lot less terrifying to his older self, and now that he knew what was going on there was no way he wasn’t going to check it out. Figuring out the ongoing mystery of what exactly had caused his parents to disappear was something he was very much interested in, and if he did it well enough, he held out a sliver of hope that somehow he could stop them from dying. It was, at this juncture, his only chance to save them.

The lab itself took up about half the basement, and was accessible by an unassuming looking door with a well used keypad attached. Peter’s experienced eye could tell that the wood panelling was covering something a hell of a lot stronger. That consideration was secondary though, and without a thought he input his own birthday as quickly as he could, and slipped through, closing the door behind him.

It was a jackpot as far as information went, but sorting through it and finding out what was important would take time. Fortunately, Peter knew where to start, which was, of course with the computers. He hoped he would have enough time to hack in.

Fortunately for him, the computer was older, running on Windows XP, and was therefore laughably easy for him to break into. Even better, it was currently a time before everything was stored online, which meant that it was all in the file system. “Hello research.” said Peter, as he started skimming file names. It didn’t seem to all be there, so he ran a quick search for hidden files which netted instant results. Grinning, Peter looked for a flash drive. He’d pick through this later.

Unfortunately, the only flash drive he found was only 2 GB. “Fucking 2010 and their fucking tiny drives.” muttered Peter. He thought fondly of the petabyte drive that Mr. Stark had gifted him for his fifteenth birthday. He’d called it his holocron, and the thing was large enough to fit anything he’d ever wanted on it as well as a fully usable AI. Unfortunately it didn’t exist, so he’d need to figure something else out to get everything off the computer.

Looking around, Peter tried to find a solution. ‘Think think think think think.” he said, as he picked through the lab, looking for something usable. Finally, he found it in the corner, in a box full of old computer parts, a broken hard drive that was the same model as the one in the computer. “It’s reasonable for a suitably paranoid scientist to destroy the hard drive of the computer full of research right?” he said to himself. Then he shrugged. Hopefully no one would notice anything amiss.

As carefully as he could, Peter used a combination of some of the chemicals in the lab and the liberal application of a Bunsen burner to make it so that the drive would never be read again. Then, he removed the original drive, and replaced it with his burned out one, leaving it unplugged, as if he’d just been going through everything to destroy it. “Nice going Parker.” he said to himself. He was, after all, the only person there who was going to compliment him.

Once he was done with that computer, he moved on to the other one in the room, which was attached to an enormous machine of indeterminate purpose. Booting it up, he grinned. This one would hopefully be even easier. It was running an older (well, he supposed it was new in this time) distribution of Linux that was part of a series that Ned had warned him about. “You have to always change the root password, ‘cause the default is toor. All these assholes think they’re smart, but I’ve broken a lot of systems that way.” he’d said. Then he’d gone on a rant about his latest Lego set and forgotten about it, but Peter hadn’t, and the information proved useful now as he got into the computer in less than thirty seconds.

The computer had very few files on it, but the ones it did have made Peter choke. Plans for the machine behind it, and a program to run it. And the things it did… This was a device for modifying genetics, and not only that, the genetics it modified were infectious, like a cross between crispr and the common cold. Modify one cell of a person, and it would spread--metastasize--to the whole body. Probably couldn’t cure cancer, but it could definitely cause it. His parents apparently didn’t just research cross-species genetics, they’d found a way to implement them. The possibilities were terrifying. This sort of capability was the type of thing you’d find in nightmares and HYDRA files. In Peter’s time, Oscorp had just started this sort of research, and he’d met several of the results. They...hadn’t gotten along.

After creating another dummy destroyed drive, Peter took the original. Then, after a cursory glance at the soundproofing on the room, he took a sledgehammer to the machine. He now knew precisely why SHIELD and… whoever else wanted his parents. He almost didn’t want to look at the rest of the things in there, but he knew he had to.

He started with the physical objects, leaving the files for last. There was quite a bit of standard lab equipment, and at first Peter couldn’t really tell why, until he found the half finished mustard gas and the labeled subject cages full of rats, most of which were dead from completed mustard gas. Subject 8 wasn’t quite dead yet. Apparently it’s modified lung tissue could filter out the toxin before it affected the body, but not well enough. It was still twitching.

Other horrors in the room included a DSLR camera full of pictures of other fun science projects that would definitely never be approved by any ethics board ever, and an itty bitty cryogenic freezer full of itty bitty cryogenically frozen creatures such as biological weapons, failed projects, and an interesting mosquito that, according to it’s label and the corresponding file that Peter pulled, would have infertile great great great great grandchildren, thereby (hopefully) decreasing the population in a given area by introducing and spreading that defect.

Also in the freezer were several spiders that looked alarmingly similar to the one that would later bite Peter. He made a mental note. Some of this research ended up with Oscorp.

Eventually, he didn’t want to look through any more creepy objects. He was running out of time anyway. He’d come down just after lunch, and it was nearing three pm. Eventually his mother would notice that he was not, in fact, playing in the backyard, at which point he’d be in trouble. He needed to get the information from the papers here, and leave.

There were two sets of files. One was the ones in the filing cabinets, and the other was the ones in a massive pile on the steel table in the middle of the room, obviously whatever his mother had moved there for destruction. He deeply did not want to read any of them at that moment, so he did the smart thing and picked up the camera. It was a good one, professional quality, and the photographs would be good enough that he could read them later. Hopefully.

Peter began the slow methodical process of flipping through and photographing every stupid piece of paper in the entire room. There were literally thousands, between the notebooks, printouts of graphs, lab files, and other assorted items. Even his parents bank statements made an appearance. He hated himself by the end of the process, but he also now had a copy of every bit of data in the entire lab, so that was good. He took the data card out of the camera, grabbed his hard drives, as well as every flash drive in the entire lab. Then, while he was at it, he looted the equipment, coming out with a bag of working computer and electronic parts that he could use later and a few other odds and ends such as almost half the ingredients for his web fluid and several of the creepy frozen creatures. He’d need to find a way to keep them cold, but studying them might prove useful.

Once his thefts were completed, he left the lab close to how he found it, and crept back up to his room, then left by the window to the backyard and came in by way of the door. His mother, clearly still distracted and worried, hadn’t noticed he had left the yard. She complimented him on managing to avoid getting muddy. He grinned painfully at her, and took the snack she offered him, sitting at the table and mindlessly dipping his carrots in ranch while his horrified mind reeled at the things he’d just seen. He’d been only seven at the time, so he hadn’t noticed anything amiss, but now looking back… Peter had never really known his parents at all.

-------

When Richard Parker arrived home from work at seven that evening, it was to a home cooked meal and bags already packed in the front hall. When he saw Peter, he swept him into a hug with a smile and told him he was glad to see him. ‘Subject 8 displays increased resistance. It is predicted that survival will be extended by four days, though function will decrease at a quicker pace.’ was all Peter heard.

The family proceeded to the dinner table, and they sat all together for what would probably be the last time. “How was your day?” asked Peter’s father.

In an instant, Peter snapped out of the strange fugue state he’d been in all afternoon, since his discoveries in the lab. Yes, maybe he didn’t know everything about his parents, and perhaps their research wasn’t precisely… nice, but they were his parents and this was the last time he’d see them. One of his greatest regrets the last time around was that he’d thrown a small tantrum when they left and never properly said goodbye. He refused to make the same mistake again.

“It was great.” said Peter cheerfully, his squeaky seven-year-old voice disguising any oddities in his speech. “I found a really cool bug! It was dead, but I put it in a box.”

“Really?” said his father. “I like bugs too. Maybe when I come back we can look at it together and figure out what kind it is.”

“Yay!” cheered Peter. He realized that it was probably a fairly unnatural response, but he wasn’t entirely sure how children that age spoke, so he was doing the best he could under the circumstances.

They all tucked in to their lasagna, and there was no sound but the clinking of forks on plates for a few minutes. Richard broke the silence. “I saw Dr. Harrison at work today.” he said, seemingly amused by this occurrence.

“The biochemist?” said Mary, “I thought he was discredited after that paper on jellyfish.” Peter added his name to a growing list of things to look up later.

“Apparently he’s been picked up by Oscorp. Came by for some,” he waved his fork vaguely in the air, “bureaucratic purpose, but mostly to brag. According to him, he makes more money than any three of us combined and works directly under Dr. Connors.”

“Well that’s something.” said Mary, in a doubting tone of voice, “Maybe this time he’ll even come up with his own research instead of stealing someone else's.”

“HA!” laughed Richard. “Like that would happen. Man’s an idiot.”

They were interrupted by discussing the matter further by the doorbell ringing. Peter’s mother grabbed his hand under the table and they waited in tense silence as his father went to answer the door.

“Benjamin! May! So good to see you!” they heard. Simultaneously, Peter and his mother relaxed. Peter wasn’t sure what good it would do to be tense and nervous but he was anyway.

Ben and May walked into the room ahead of Richard, and Peter’s breath caught. He’d missed both of them so much, and here they were, though they seemed younger than he ever remembered them being. “And this must be the man himself.” said May, grinning at him, though it was a little strained. “Peter. It’s so good to meet you.”

Peter tried to smile back, but it proved to be too hard to get anything better than a grimace. This whole situation was too painful for him. This was May, but it wasn’t his May. She hadn’t taught him to tie a tie, or how to be a good person, or what was the best combination of condiments to put on takeout. It was like meeting a stranger with his aunts face, and her mannerisms, but none of her memories.

The adults in the room, unaware of his inner struggle, continued, and after some cursory discussion, it was time for him to go.

“Peter, be a good boy now.” said his mother. Then she knelt in front of him and helped him with the straps of his backpack--the one that held all of his stolen research including several frozen critters in a lunchbox full of ice box. Clearly he’d already disobeyed the order to be a good boy by quite a ways. He hugged her, taking one last deep breath of her perfume, and then followed his aunt and uncle out the door.

“I love you Mommy.” he said.

When he got in the car with May and Ben, he cried. Maybe there was something he could have done to save them, but he really didn’t know what that could be without destroying any chance at saving the world. May glanced at him sympathetically. Ben’s hands tightened on the steering wheel of the car they’d borrowed, frustrated by the crying. It was a long drive across Queens, even though by both time and distance it wasn’t long at all.

Chapter Text

“Hey, Doc, have you ever seen that old movie? Back to the Future?” asked Peter.

“Of course, though I feel obligated to mention that it’s not that old.”

Peter scoffed. “If it’s older than double my age then it’s old.”

“Ah. I see. Why do you bring it up?” asked Dr. Strange.

“I… Do you remember how his being there nearly ruins his parents relationship and makes it so he wouldn’t exist?”

“That was, in fact an important part of the plot of the movie.” said Dr. Strange. “I see what you’re getting at though.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “What if I, I don’t know, what if I do something little, like--I throw away a piece of garbage that I didn’t in the original timeline and it turns out to make the Chitauri invasion twice as bad. Or like, I don’t know, what if I accidentally inspire HYDRA to a new way of taking over the world or something I… Especially with all the future shit I’m going to have to build and record--I’m going to have to share it and…”

“The butterfly effect.” said Strange. “It is a terrifying thing, especially for you Peter. You overthink everything already, but when you go out there you are going to live in constant fear of accidentally sparking a change that will ruin everything. Every action, monitored, every change meticulously thought out. Paranoia, always. Constantly being on guard and wondering if you could do better.”

“That’s really not helping.” said Peter. He was dangerously close to another anxiety attack and Dr. Strange really wasn’t doing him any favors on that front.

“I apologize. I was simply trying to put myself in your shoes.” said the Dr. He sighed heavily. “The thing is Peter, that your butterfly effect is a constant thing. The world we live in is a product of all the actions of the past, and the future is a product of our actions now. And yet you don’t worry on a normal day that a mistake on your part too will end the world hmm?”

“I don’t…” said Peter “Because,” he thought for a second. “I don’t know the future. And because I don’t know it I’m not afraid of changing it, because it hasn’t happened yet. Like, I’m not ruining anything by changing what could be because it doesn’t exist.”

“Yes.” said Dr. Strange. “That is the most important thing to remember here. When you go back, this” he gestured around him at the orange landscape, the grey faded outlines of wandering people in the distance “Won’t exist. This future will be gone. You’re going back to make sure it doesn’t exist. If you did change something in the past… It’s not the end of the world. Well, as long as it doesn’t make it so that you can’t change what you’re there to change. So maybe history turns out a bit different this time. It doesn’t matter. Just as long as you keep history going.”

Peter sighed. “That… Makes sense. Still, I’d feel terrible if I did something that caused” he waved his hand vaguely “Something horrible. I don’t know. If I know the future, I sort of feel obligated to help. I mean, I know what I’m doing in theory, even if nobody else does, and I… I feel responsible. For the future. Because I know it.”

“Which is why you must remember that you don’t know it Peter. You only know a possibility. You are not responsible for what will happen.”

“Except, y’know, for making sure the world doesn’t end.” said Peter.

“Hah.” said Dr. Strange. “Except that.” he frowned. “Peter, I know things are going to be different, and it will be hard. Some things that happened in this time--good things--might not happen, and bad things that didn’t happen here might happen there but… it’s not your fault. it’s never your fault.”

“How is it not my fault if it happened because of me?” asked Peter.

Dr. Strange frowned for a moment, the way he did when he was trying to find a way to explain something complicated and magical that Peter had no way of understanding. “In the book of Cagliostro, in the section on time travel, there is a warning.” he said.

“There are a lot of warnings.” said Peter. “Which you have expounded upon in great detail. You complain about the pitfalls of time travel a lot Doc.”

“Yes. This one… I want you to remember it. Once your travel is complete a lot of the warnings won’t matter because we have already circumvented the issues they warn of.”

“So, lay it on me.” said Peter.

“‘Knowledge begets change, but change negates knowledge’” said Dr. Strange.

“What?” said Peter. “Are you saying that changing things will make it so I can’t change anything? What does that even mean?”

“It means that change is inevitable.” said Dr. Strange. “You going back will change things, it’s the reason you’re going back. But after things change, you won’t know the future, and because of that you won’t know what doing something--or not doing something will do. You will only have the same amount of culpability in anything that happens as everyone else. If something spirals out of control, then you need to remember that you had no way of knowing. You can only do your best, Peter, and you are not omniscient.”

“Change the things I can and accept the things I can't?” said Peter. “That’s what you’re going with, like a middle age woman's overly religious Facebook post?”

“If that’s the way you choose to interpret it.” said Dr. Strange. “As long as you remember it it’s all the same to me.”

“Change negates knowledge.” muttered Peter. He sighed. “You’re kind of an asshole, you know that?”

“Yes, though in my defense I really was trying to put your worries to rest.”

“I’ll give you that.” said Peter. “And it worked, it just gave me like… a lot of other things to worry about. Now I’m panicking that I won’t be able to change the future because it’s already been changed too much.”

“That was always a concern, but we have been planning this for a while. We have all the time in the world Peter, and you know we’ve talked a lot about the things you shouldn’t change. We’re not even going to start building the spell until we’ve planned for as many contingencies as we can.” said Dr. Strange. “When you’re working with time travel like this… It doesn’t matter when we do it. We could wait centuries.”

“Oh god, I’m going to spend years in here with all you assholes overthinking things aren’t I. Just what I wanted my afterlife to be.”

“If it makes you feel better, we’re also going to prepare you as best we can. There are a lot of brilliant minds stuck here, I’m sure you’ll enjoy learning from some of them.”

“That…” said Peter. “Actually does help. Do you think Jane Foster got dusted? I have some questions about her latest paper.”

“All in good time.” said Dr. Strange. “A working knowledge of astrophysics… That could help. Along with other things. We’ll have to make a list...”

Peter realized then that he’d just signed up for school. It was a little bit annoying. Dead people shouldn’t have to go to school, except maybe in hell. And he knew this wasn’t hell. He’d asked. Multiple times. Still, he would get to meet some of his science heroes so it wouldn’t be too bad.

May and Ben’s apartment was really shitty. That was the first thing Peter noticed when he entered it. The first time around he’d been sullen, and then grief stricken and hadn’t really noticed, but this time… it was readily apparent.

He thought back to what he knew of his Aunt and Uncle’s timeline… if he remembered correctly, in mid 2010 May was still in nursing school, and Ben had just retired from the military. He was probably still doing small jobs while searching for a career. Plus they hadn’t recovered from the recession, and the economy wasn’t quite to the point where a pair of people in their early twenties could have a decent place to live, especially with one of them in school.

Oh god, his aunt and uncle were in their early twenties. Depending on how much time he’d spent in the soul stone--and with no day, night, sleep or clocks it was hard to tell--it was possible he was older than them, mentally speaking. It was… really weird.

Forcibly stopping himself from his thoughts, Peter examined the dingy studio apartment in a shitty part of Queens. The bed was a foldout with the worst springs Peter had ever seen. The kitchen walls were bubbling out with water damage from the pipes.

“Hey, kid, you alright?” asked Ben. Peter started, realizing he’d been staring for the better part of a minute.

“Yeah.” he said. “I… I miss home.”

It was true, even if he wasn’t talking about the house in a nicer area near Flushing Park. Hell, he felt more connected to the Soul Stone as a place of residence than that house. Home was… he wasn’t sure where it was. He missed it though.

“It’s only for a week.” said Ben. “You’ll be fine, and who knows, you might even have fun.” he ruffled Peter’s hair. “I know I’m looking forward to getting to know you.”

Peter smiled painfully up at him. “Yeah.” he said, even though he knew it wasn’t going to be for just a week. He wasn’t sure he’d ever feel at home in this timeline.

“It’s getting late.” said May. “We should set up a bed.”

Peter nodded, and yawned demonstratively. He could use a little privacy.

May took him through the bathroom, monitoring his evening routine with the fluttering hovering of someone who wasn’t used to children and didn’t know how much they ought to be helped, and then showed him where he’d be sleeping. “I’m sorry we couldn’t get you a proper bed.” she said. “But this is the only place in the entire apartment you’ll have room to spread out in, besides the kitchen, and I thought you’d prefer a spot that doesn’t smell like mold.”

“Thanks.” said Peter. His eyes were wide, he remembered this spot.

May bustled around, producing a rolled memory foam pad and some sheets, and rolled them out inside the tiny space. It was originally a closet, an awkwardly shaped little cranny that had been filled with boxes which had been hurriedly moved through to the kitchen section of the room. It wasn’t big enough for an adult, but Peter would fit just fine.

About five minutes later, he was all set up, and May and Ben had gone into the kitchen to murmur quietly about something or other. Peter ignored them as best he could, giving them all the privacy someone with his senses could manage, and stared up at the ceiling which was just enough to jog his memory of this point in the original timeline.

He’d stayed here, in this awkward little space for eight months. May and Ben had curtained it off, eventually, to give him a modicum of privacy, and he’d slept there, on this very pad for the duration of his stay, until Ben found the job in the auto shop and May took another job on top of the one she already had in addition to schooling. After that they’d moved to a place that was marginally less shitty and had one bedroom. He’d slept in a closet there too, but it had been a walk in and they’d managed to cram a bed in there. He wondered if he’d end up in the same place this time.

His ears caught on his name on the other side of the room, and he started listening in. He’d been trying to give them privacy, but after the soul stone he was a bit of a control freak who hoarded information. Besides, he needed to know if he’d changed anything already (his mind summoned images of Ben and May finding the stuff he’d stolen from his parents lab.)

“-nd I don’t know what to do. I know he’s your brother, but he’s ten years older than you and you haven’t even seen him since he left for college. Why were you willing to do him a favor now? We both have work in the morning, we can’t watch the kid.”

Ben sighed. “I know Richard has always been a bit of a prick, but he seemed genuinely distressed about this… I’m not sure what’s going on but--he’s family May. I can’t just ignore that, even if he wanted to the instant he got that scholarship to that fancy school.”

“Still, what do we do about the kid? We can’t just leave him home alone.”

Ben sighed. “I guess we could leave him with someone. Mrs. Lopez two doors down has a couple kids, doesn’t she?”

“I suppose, but we don’t really know her well. We can’t exactly just walk up, knock on the door and dump a kid on her.” said May.

“I don’t work until ten, I’ll ask her tomorrow morning.” said Ben. “If she says no… I suppose I’ll have to take a day off.”

“You can’t do that!” exclaimed May quietly. “We’re struggling as it is Ben. Any less money and we won’t have enough for rent.”

“Richard gave me couple hundred dollars, said it was to help pay for the kid’s food and stuff. I can take a day. Just… we’ll figure something out. I know it’s short notice, but it is a kid. We can’t exactly kick him to the curb just because my brother’s an ass.”

“Typical.” said May. “Man doesn’t even show up for your wedding and then dumps his kid on you with no consideration and a bit of money as if it will solve anything.”

“Hey, we don’t know exactly what was going on. Let’s just go to bed and figure this out tomorrow. It’s just a week, I’m sure we can figure out something.”

“Yeah. Something”

“It’ll be fun, you’ll see. We can introduce our nephew to the finer things in life.” said Ben. “Cheap food, annoying neighbors.”

“Corrupt him to the dark side.” said May. “Who’d want to be upper middle class when they could have this.”

Ben laughed. “Love you baby.” he said.

“I love you too.” said May.

There were some kissing noises, followed by the sounds of his Aunt and Uncle getting ready for bed. Peter paid very little attention to them. He… hadn’t known any of this. It was almost unthinkable.

May and Ben had never spoken badly of his parents that he remembered. Ben had always been proud of him, saying he was smart ‘just like your old man’. He honestly couldn’t recall them mentioning all that much about the years in between his father leaving and Peter coming to live with them at all.

“Your dad was always meant for great things.” Ben had said--his Ben, that was, from his timeline. “After high school he was off like a shot! Cornell University, full ride. I never got to meet your mom, but I know she was there too. I think they did their doctorate research together.”

Peter had always taken that as a fact. He had been proud, actually, of his fathers successes, the fact that he’d gone so far. Now… Ben and May were painting a very different picture. Perhaps they hadn’t talked about it for him. Telling an orphan his parent was an asshole was a dick move. He wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

Honestly Peter wasn’t sure how to feel about anything right now. Being back in time was possibly the worst thing that had ever happened to him. All his loved ones here and alive but not his loved ones. Being an outsider no matter where he was. The discoveries he was making--about his past, about his parents--were just the cherry on top of a garbage sundae. Not to mention all the work he had ahead of him. It was a nearly insurmountable task that was only getting bigger as he found out how much he didn’t know.

Eventually, he fell asleep, but it wasn’t until he’d worried for a long time.

----------

The next day--his first with May and Ben--went incredibly poorly, almost shockingly so. He woke early and tinkered around with some of his computer parts. He had a broken laptop, and thought he could get it working, though it would be a bit less portable at that point. Then Ben and May got up, and he quickly hid what he was doing before trying to act natural.

This failed in the extreme. When May came to wake him up she found him sitting cross legged and staring. Apparently that was creepy judging by the looks she gave him, but he honestly didn’t know how a real seven year old would act so he tried not to worry about it.

Breakfast was awkward too. May was rushing to leave as quickly as she could, and so it ended up being just Ben and Peter at the kitchen table with bowls of cereal that might have been made of wood for all its flavor. Peter ate it mechanically, not saying a word. Apparently that was minorly creepy as well.

To make up for it, Peter washed the dishes while Ben went into the bathroom to shower. This of course backfired, becoming yet another thing that set Peter apart from average seven year olds. Ben smiled awkwardly and thanked him, though he looked as if he were seconds from calling an exorcist. He also took over what remained of the task, picking up Peter from the counter-top and putting him on the floor with the stern instruction to stay put. Peter fidgeted awkwardly then, and reminded himself that climbing all over everything was probably a bad idea. Seven year olds didn’t do that, or rather they shouldn’t.

The whole situation was incredibly frustrating to Peter. This was Ben and Peter loved him, but it was Ben at twenty-three, Ben who didn’t know Peter. Ben who had as much in common with the Ben Peter knew as Peter did with his seven year old self. Really there was no way that he could connect on any level, especially since it wasn’t only Ben that was different. Peter could blame the world for being different all he wanted, but it wasn’t just that. Peter himself was… wrong. Changed in ways that made him nothing like his seven year old self. That was where the disconnect was, not in Ben or May or anyone else. Peter was simply too different to belong any more.

Once the dish-washing had been accomplished, Ben took Peter over to Mrs. Lopez’ place. She seemed amenable to babysitting, and pinched Ben on the cheek, clearly sensing his nervousness and pulling him under the umbrella of her maternal instincts as surely as she did Peter. Upon seeing Peter himself she exclaimed something in Spanish (which Peter did not know, but from the tone he assumed it was something along the lines of ‘this small child is adorable and I want to feed him’) and then pulled him into the apartment, making the arrangements with Ben over her shoulder. Fifteen seconds later, Peter was at a kitchen table, being pushed into a seat and served an enormous second breakfast.

His metabolism left him constantly starving, so Peter set at the food with enthusiasm, mostly ignoring the cacophony of the household. “Goodness me, you don’t have to eat so fast, it’s not going to disappear!” said Mrs. Lopez. Peter decided he liked her, even though he didn’t remember her from the original timeline. (He’d been dropped off at a truly enormous number of neighbor’s houses during that time, so it wasn’t odd he wouldn’t remember one of them)

“Sorry,” said Peter once he had swallowed. “It’s really good.”

Mrs. Lopez laughed. “Tell that to my children!” she said. “All they want is sugar cereal!”

Peter glanced over into the living room at the children in question. There were three--two boys and a girl. The boys were wrestling enthusiastically, while the girl egged them on, skillfully playing them off against each other. All three were somewhere between five and ten on the age scale--right near Peter was supposed to be. “I don’t think they need any sugar.” he said.

Mrs. Lopez laughed again and served him more eggs. “I don’t think so either.” she said. “You eat up and I will pull apart those two hooligans, and we can introduce you. It’s spring break so everyone is home from school. You’ll have plenty of fun.”

“Thanks” said Peter. He smiled awkwardly. As Mrs. Lopez turned around though, he stopped bothering. Spring break. He’d completely forgotten about school. At this point in time he ought to be enrolled in first grade. He’d be expected to go back once his parents were confirmed missing and the custody was sorted out… The problem was he barely remembered first grade at all. The only clear memory he could recall was something about puppets and glue, which would be completely unhelpful.

The reminder of school brought on yet another unexpected burst of panic. The original plan… he was only expected to infiltrate his previous life for weeks at most, after which he was to enter Stark Tower during the invasion and mind-whammy Loki. Everything after that would be with SHIELD’s help--help he could secure because he knew codes and secrets that would guarantee Fury’s trust in him.

Now… He had years ahead of him. Years to spend not fitting in and waiting for the right moment to get everything right. He couldn’t even go to SHIELD early because he had no way of knowing who was HYDRA or how to get to Fury. He was… alone. The original plan wasn’t going to help him at all, at least for a long time. During which he would be helpless to do anything.

Peter’s mind violently rejected that possibility. He was not going to sit by and wait for the original plan. He’d make a new one--find a way to act and help the universe now. And he was most definitely not going to endure first grade again.

While Peter had been having his internal crisis, Mrs Lopez had extracted her boys from the fight, and sent them and their sister off to put on real clothing (“Not pajamas Marcus! It’s nearly ten in the morning.”) They reappeared in sequence.

“This is Matthew, my oldest, and Marcus. Kat should be out in a bit, but she likes to take her time.” said Mrs. Lopez. “Boys; this is Peter. He’s staying with us while his aunt and uncle are at work.”

“Nice to meet you.” said Peter.

Obviously this was the wrong thing to say, since Marcus snorted and Matthew frowned. “Yeah yeah.” said Matthew. “Mom, can we watch TV?”

“Only for a half hour. Then you have to do homework.” said Mrs. Lopez. “I know your teachers gave you some, so don’t you dare try to get out of it.”

“We won't.” promised Marcus, looking like he was definitely going to try getting out of his homework.

Peter was somehow dragged along to the living room, and ended up perched awkwardly on the end of the couch where the boys were sprawled. As soon as the cartoons were started up their sister appeared as if summoned, and spread out on the rug in front with a coloring book. Mrs. Lopez disappeared for parts unknown, and Peter was left to his fate. Trying to interact successfully with young children. Truly one of the most difficult challenges he’d faced so far.

---------

Peter did his best, over the course of the week to blend in, not cause problems, and act vaguely like he was supposed to be there. He failed miserably, of course, but since none of these people had known him before they seemed to take his oddities as regular parts of him. The Lopez siblings, who Peter felt bore a striking similarity to the Animaniacs cartoons they were so fond of established an accord with him quickly--they’d ignore him, and he’d help with their homework. This made his days fairly manageable, and he mostly just sat and thought during them, trying to establish what he knew of the timeline, and what resources he had access to. He would need to know what he had to work with if he wanted to come up with any sort of plan for the future, and figuring that out (as well as familiarizing himself with being seven, and in 2010 in general) would take time.

When he wasn’t at the Lopez’ however… things weren’t quite so peaceful. To put it simply, May and Ben and him didn’t get along. They resented Richard, didn’t know how to deal with him, and were incredibly concerned by his oddities. Peter, meanwhile, was chafing at being treated like a child, desperate for privacy (he needed space to think! To figure everything out) and deeply conflicted about how he felt about them (on the one hand, they’d raised him. On the other… they really hadn’t. Yet.). It was a pile of conflict and emotions just waiting to boil over.

Things came to a head on Saturday. Peter, at that point, was half mad with a combination of cabin fever and painful nostalgia, and had resorted to disassembling the coffee machine which was prone to not working from time to time. He’d always been a bit restless with a brain that worked too fast, and having something to do, especially creating or fixing something, was one of the best coping mechanisms he had to deal with it.

May and Ben were both at work, and the Lopez clan had prior obligations, so Peter had been left to his own devices, mostly, with the understanding that he would not leave the apartment and the phone was to be used if he had a problem. He’d originally planned to work on the computer he’d salvaged, but there was little he could do without a few parts he was missing, and frankly doing things related to his Plan made him stress about the universe in general and Thanos in particular. Thus the coffee pot. A menial helpful task that would hopefully make his brain shut up.

He’d just isolated the issue, and begun fixing it when Ben entered the apartment, looking like he’d just had a horrible day. Peter knew he was poorly suited for his current job (Ben wasn’t the best with customer service) and hated dealing with entitled jerks, so he did his best to keep out of the way and give Ben some space, aware that his presence really wasn’t doing anything to help. They weren’t at a place in their relationship where Peter was anything besides an unwanted inconvenience, and while it hurt a little to be faced with that from the man who practically raised him, Peter couldn’t blame him. It wasn’t like they’d signed up to have their nephew dumped on them.

Unfortunately, Peter’s plan of avoidance was not to be, because Ben was rather tired and wanted coffee. He came into the kitchen like a stressed storm cloud, and upon seeing the disassembled pot, along with the rather shamefaced Peter, he blew up.

“What did you DO!” he shouted.

Peter scrambled backward across the floor like a crab until he hit the wall, and then had to physically stop himself from crawling up it. “I was fixing it! I swear!”

“That was a good machine Peter. It was a wedding present. And now you’ve gone and broke it I can't… What possessed you to-”

“It was already broken!” protested Peter. “I was just fixing it.”

“No.” said Ben. “I just… No. I let you into my house, I fed you, I put up with your weird… whatever you’re doing with all those old computer parts. I even let you bring in stuff you found in a dumpster. This though? This crosses a line. The tinkering has to stop. If you can’t respect other people's stuff enough not to TAKE IT APART then you don’t get your own.”

Ben then strode angrily over to Peter’s bedding. His computer stuff was laid out neatly on top where he’d been working on it that morning, every piece either stored in an electromagnetically sound bag or in the plastic casing of the (ex) laptop itself. Peter’s eyes went wide with horror as he realized what Ben was about to do.

“No!” he yelped, scrambling over. Ben had gathered up everything on the blankets, and was making his way over to the door. Peter frantically tried to grab at trailing cords, but even if he had super-strength he was still a seven year old lightweight and so unable to truly affect Ben’s momentum in any way. “Why are you doing this!” he cried.

Ben was practically vibrating with anger. “Peter. I am going to take this out by the dumpsters. I am going to smash it. I am going to throw it away. You are not going to get any of it back. And if you try I swear to god…”

Peter, to his surprise, was blubbering with tears. “But you can’t! Please. Why would… Why? Please, Uncle Ben. Don’t…”

“Go back inside before I do something we both regret.” said Ben.

Peter barely made it the ten steps back into the tiny apartment and to his bedroll before he collapsed, sobbing. His seven year old body was full of emotion that was presenting itself as gross, snot filled crying, and he honestly had no idea what to do with any of it. He’d known he was going back to an earlier state of being, but somehow he’d never anticipated that that included brain chemistry. Having the memories of an adult (maybe) didn’t help him at all here.

For the first time since coming back in time, Peter felt his age. He wanted… He wanted to curl up in someone's lap and be held. He wanted someone to make everything better so he didn’t have to deal with it. He wanted his May. He wanted Dr. Strange, or Loki or one of the other people who’d helped him in the soul stone. He wanted Mr. Stark.

I don’t want to go

It was such a little problem. A small fight over a damn coffee pot of all things, but Peter couldn’t stop sobbing. Everything was wrong and he was only just now coming to realize what he had lost. His relationship with May and Ben would never be what it had been. It couldn’t be, because they’d changed too much.

Eventually he cried himself out. It was like his small body was an engine that had run out of fuel and now there were only a few fumes in between him and shutdown. He felt wrung out, and itchy with tears and snot, but was too tired to do anything but lie there on the ground being miserable until he went to sleep.

----------

The next day, Sunday, Peter had basically given up what little hope he had for the future. That was because he remembered this day in the original timeline. This particular Sunday was another one of those days that had embedded themselves into his psyche with all the subtlety of a battering ram, permanently branding him with its effects. It had, in fact, been one of the worst days of his life the first time around.

May made a token effort to cheer him up that morning, reminding him that his parents would pick him up that day, but he remained about as reactive as a cardboard cutout. He stayed that way through Ben’s sheepish avoidance, through the awkward ‘last lunch’ and while he packed up his things.

When the police officer showed up it was nothing short of a relief.

----------

“Knowledge begets change,” muttered Peter in the back of the social workers car, a few days later after the funeral and several meetings to decide where he was going to go. He hadn’t thought it would change this though. This was… had been, would have been… special to him. Important. And simply by existing, by having the knowledge of the future, he’d lost it.

He wondered what else he’d lose before the end.

Chapter Text

“Hey old dude” said Peter, skidding to a halt in a small puff of orange dirt. He hadn’t necessarily needed to run since distances in the soul stone were more a matter of emotion and thinking of who you wished to find than logic or physics, but the long periods of inaction were getting to him and sometimes he just wanted to move.

“Hey young dude!” said the other Peter, looking up from his attempt to teach Drax tic-tac-toe. “How’s it hangin?”

“It’s not, on account of there’s nothing to hang from.” said Peter. Like most things about the soul stone, the landscape was an extreme disappointment.

“Ha!” said Drax “The young Peter has no patience for your metaphor. You should follow his example in this. Clearly the newer version-”

“Shut up Drax” said Old Peter.

“No, let him finish.” said Peter. “I think he might be onto something here. I mean, I am way awesomer than you.”

“Yeah yeah.” said Old Peter. “So what brings you to our neck of the woods.”

“You mean your entirely flat patch of orange ground.” said Peter, winking at Drax who looked on approvingly. “Would you believe me if I said it was boredom?”

“Of course I would.” said Drax. “You are very trustworthy.”

“Thank you.” said Peter.

Old Peter sighed. “I’m not sure we can help with boredom.” he said. “I’m getting a bit sick of this place myself. Especially the company.” he glared at Drax. Then he turned to Peter. “The girls got so frustrated they went off somewhere else. Took Groot with them too. I don’t know where, but they said they weren’t talking to us until we stopped arguing pointlessly.”

“It’s not as if there’s much else to do.” said Peter.

“Yeah.” said Old Peter. “Pull up some ground anyway, and tell me what’s going on with the wizardry people. I haven’t seen them in a while.”

“You haven’t?” said Peter. “That’s weird. I swear they’ve been picking the brains of half the universe--well, half of the half that’s in here anyway--about the infinity stones. I’d think you’d have topped the list.”

“Your people spoke to us quite a while ago.” said Drax “Only Gamora knows enough to help them, so they did not come back.” Then he leaned in, as if telling a secret, though he did not change the volume of his voice at all. “I believe they wish to avoid Peter. He is very annoying.”

“Hey!” said Old Peter.

Peter giggled. He liked the Guardians. They were… interesting people. “I think they’re just focused on the problem” he said. “Strange is sort of obsessive in general, and Loki really really wants to see his brother again. It’s kind of sweet in a weird codependent way.”

“It is a respectable motivation.” said Drax. “Family is highly important.”

Peter sighed, frowning sadly. “Yeah.”

Old Peter looked concerned. “What’s with the long face?” he asked.

“I was just… I was thinking.” he said. “About my family.”

Peter nodded, and Drax squinted at him for a few seconds. “You miss your father.” he said, as if it was as obvious as gravity.

“What? No? What are you talking about?” said Peter.

“Your father.” said Drax “You must miss him greatly. He was a worthy fighter.”

“I don’t… He’s not… Mr. Stark isn’t my dad.” said Peter. The fighter comment was what had clued him in, though he honestly wasn’t sure where Drax had gotten that idea.

“Really?” said Old Peter. “Cuz I mean, it sure looked like it. You guys have the same,” he waved his hand vaguely in Peter’s direction, “Stuff.”

“Stuff.” repeated Peter.

“Yes.” said Drax “You are much like him, and your other father, the wizard.”

“Dr. Strange?” said Peter “What? You think I’m related to him too?”

“It’s all right.” said Drax in a confident manner. “I understand your species has difficulty admitting to family bonds.”

Old Peter actually laughed at that. “That one was aimed at me” he told Peter. “I had a complicated relationship with my dad.”

“I thought you said you were raised by a crew of space pirates.” said Peter.

“His father was the Captain.” said Drax “I was confused as well, by their different coloring, until I realized they were not genetically related.”

Old Peter smiled at his confusion and explained “Yondu--the captain--took me in when I was eight. I didn’t… We didn’t talk about it, about us for a really long time. He was a pretty okay dad though. Taught me everything I know.”

“Oh.” said Peter. “Still doesn’t change the fact that Mr. Stark and the Doc are not my dads--and I still can’t believe you thought that.”

“Why wouldn’t we though?” said Old Peter. “That guy was giving off so many dad vibes I thought he might start trying to parent everyone else too. And the wizard is nearly as bad, though I didn’t notice it until we all got here. It’s sort of obvious, little Peter.”

“I didn’t even know Dr. Strange until like… the day before that fight though.”

“That does not matter.” said Drax. Then he frowned pensively. “My people have a saying: Children are made of the people that raise them.”

“Wow, that wasn’t obvious at all” said Old Peter.

“It is profound!” argued Drax “One of the tenets of my culture!” he turned to Peter “My people fight many wars. Because of this, the raising of our children has little to do with blood, since the blood parents are often absent, or dead. Often, people will claim many parents through their lifetime. I myself was raised by six parents.

“We also claim other family bonds. You, Peter Quill, are my brother. Gamora and Mantis are my sisters. You, small Peter, are of my clan. It is not complicated.”

Old Peter slung a casual arm around Peter’s shoulders. “I know Terrans like us don’t do it that way, but he does have a point. You’re… You’ve got a family here Peter, and on the outside, and it’s as big as you want it to be.”

“That’s actually pretty cool.” said Peter. He thought about his Aunt then, how she was like his mom, about Ned who was like a brother, and about Mr. Stark who had stepped into the shoes of his sort-of father figure without even knowing he was doing it.

“It is pretty cool” said Old Peter. “Why don’t you tell us about him--Your dad, I mean.”

“Mr. Stark?” said Peter.

“Well it’s not as if we have anything else to do, and he did seem pretty cool.” said Old Peter. He smiled. “I’ll even trade you for stories about Yondu.”

“I would also share tales of my family.” said Drax.

Peter grinned. “That sounds just fine.” he said.

Obviously his relationship with May and Ben had been doomed from the beginning, but somehow Peter was still shocked to find himself in foster care. It felt a lot like betrayal, even though he was well aware that this timeline was different and this May and Ben weren’t his. Still, it was a bit of an adjustment.

When Peter had first found out, he’d been nearly catatonic for several minutes, trying to adjust to a worldview that included a May and Ben that hadn’t taken him in. It was difficult to reconcile the idyllic family he remembered with this new, cold reality. Really though, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.

When he’d been about twelve, Peter had actually talked about it with Ben. They’d been going through yet another lean time, and as they walked home from the grocery store Peter had asked him straight out, wondering why they’d taken him in, especially since paying for his schooling was the thing that was putting those extra creases on Uncle Ben’s face.

“I don’t understand.” he’d said. “You’re always complaining about how you have no idea what you’re doing, and May even said last week that she’d never planned on having children.”

Ben had remained silent for several moments before responding. He was a patient and level-headed man, at least Peter’s version of him was, and Peter was quite used to waiting for him to put the words together in his head.

“The thing you have to understand, Peter, is that taking you wasn’t the original plan.” he said. “We were just babysitting you, at first, and then when the police came we were just going to keep you until the funeral, let you have stability until then. We weren’t prepared to take on a child, and we thought it would be better to give you to someone who was.”

“And after that?” said Peter. “What happened then?”

“The night of the funeral.” said Ben. “You were… so little, and you crawled up in between us on the bed because you didn’t want to be alone, and I… We loved you Peter, even then. You’d wormed your way into our hearts already and in that moment I knew that there was no way we could ever give you up. May and I… we called social services the next morning to say we were going to keep you. I never regretted that choice, not once. You are the best gift we ever received.”

Peter had forgotten that conversation at some point, and now years later and a few earlier he was left to wonder how he had managed the whole thing. This time, on the night of the funeral Peter had been quiet, not really mourning anything (he’d made his peace with his parents deaths a long time ago), but even if he’d crawled into May and Ben’s shitty fold out he knew there wouldn’t have been a difference. He’d failed to worm his way into anybody’s heart, and at this point he didn’t even know how to do that at all. Peter was struggling to connect to anyone.

That fact did not make him in any way optimistic about his new situation. He had been assigned to a group home in Brooklyn with seven other kids, and had no idea what to do about any of it.

“You’ll like it here.” said the social worker as she marched him efficiently up to the doors. “It’s a good placement. The Hales are good people and you’re in a good area to, with nice schools. I’m sure you’ll have lots of friends.”

Peter grunted in response, not really wanting to commit to a verbal reply. He was still hurting a bit, mourning the May and Ben that could have been, and had no energy to talk to the overly peppy woman. He hadn’t even bothered to learn her name.

She knocked on the door, and it was answered by another lady wearing a horrendous denim dress with bee patches. She looked like she wanted very badly to be a kindergarten teacher, and Peter wasn’t entirely sure what she was doing running a group home. “Hello!” she said, voice full of false cheer, “You must be Peter! Come on in.”

Peter obligingly followed, trailing the social worker who was carrying the single suitcase and backpack he’d brought from May and Ben’s. “If you’ll come upstairs I’m sure we can get you all settled. Your roommate Conner is a very nice boy, a little bit younger than you, and he is very excited to meet you.” said Peppy Kindergarten Lady.

The bedroom upstairs contained, as promised, the roommate. He didn’t seem particularly excited to see Peter, or his accompanying adults. In fact, he was a bit sullen, and barely spoke to them at all, merely finishing up his task of cleaning out a couple drawers that Peter suspected were for his newly arrived belongings. “You get the top bunk.” said Conner. “And these two drawers. Don’t touch my stuff.”

Then he left, and Peter directed his social worker to drop his bags on the floor. “I’ll unpack later.” he said.

There was an awkward moment where nobody seemed to know what they wanted to do, until the social worker broke it. “Everything seems to be in order then,” she said. Then she turned to Peter. “I’ll be checking up on you, and if you need anything just ask Mrs. Hale and she’ll call me. I have your case and I want to make this as easy as possible for you.”

“Thanks.” he said. This whole situation wasn’t her fault, so he ought to be gracious about it, even if he didn’t want to. May hadn’t raised him to be impolite, and he was going to honor the memory he had of her.

The social worker and Mrs. Hale had a short talk about arrangements that Peter didn’t pay very much attention to, and then the lady left. Once she did Peter had to bear the gaze of Mrs. Hale alone. “So, Peter, the older children are going to get home from school soon, and I thought we could sit down before they get here and talk about the rules here. I want you to have the best experience you can, and knowing how our home works will help with that.”

“Sure.” said Peter.

Mrs Hale led him into the dining room attached to the kitchen. The table, large enough to seat ten, was ignored in favor of the kitchen island, where Mrs Hale pulled out a bar-stool for him. “You just have a seat.” she said. Peter did, and Mrs. Hale stood across from him, leaning against the bar.

“This is your first placement isn’t it?” she said.

“Yeah.” said Peter. He didn’t feel like elaborating.

“Well then I guess it’s all going to be pretty new.” she said. “I imagine you’re going through quite a bit right now.”

Peter nodded. He deeply hoped she wasn’t going to try to ‘connect’ with him. He just wanted her to say the rules and then let him leave. Luckily, she seemed to get the idea, and didn’t make him respond. “This place is our home, and that means we take care of it, and of each other. It’s a little bit different than wherever you were before, but that doesn’t have to mean it’s not a good place. We can be a family, we just have to work together to do it. Does that make sense?” asked Mrs Hale

“Yeah.” said Peter.

“Great.” said Mrs. Hale. “Now, you can call me Martha, or Momma Hale if you want. I’m in charge here. That means if you have a problem, you can come to me and we’ll work together to solve it. It also means that if you act out I’m the one you’ll answer to. I always try to find the reason one of my boys got in trouble, and solve that, but I’m also no stranger to punishment. Generally that means chores, or the restriction of privileges. Understand that I will never hit you, hurt you, or take away something that you need. Got it?”

Peter nodded again, and wished this presentation was a little less interactive.

“You’ll be starting school tomorrow.” said Mrs. Hale “And we’ll be putting you on the same schedule as the other boys. Breakfast is at eight AM. That is the only breakfast time, and in this house we don’t do snacks. Show up or don’t, but that’s your chance to eat. After that I’ll have one of the other boys take you to school with them. After school we all gather round and study together at the table. We spend a lot of time together since it keeps people out of trouble.”

At that point Peter was beginning to feel a little nervous. The schedule Mrs. Hale was laying out didn’t give him a lot of free time, something that would be necessary if he wanted to move forward on his plan to save the world. This whole situation wasn’t conducive to it. In fact, Peter reflected, being a child in general was probably the worst possible situation for a time traveler.

Those thoughts were confirmed when all the other boys showed up and Peter realized he’d never get any privacy again.

---------

Peter lasted exactly one day in elementary school before he began plotting his escape. This whole foster care thing just wasn’t working out. This whole childhood thing wasn’t working out either, and if Peter had to listen to any more off-key singing about basic arithmetic he might seriously contemplate murder.

His largest obstacle, obviously, was the fact that Peter had absolutely no resources whatsoever. His second largest was that he was seven, and therefore would never be taken seriously. Weighed against his determination never to see the seven privacy-ending assholes again, however, these problems meant nothing. He would overcome.

Peter decided early on, on the second day of his time at school in fact, that the first step he’d need to take would be to figure out what was on the hard drives he’d stolen as well as the data card with all the pictures of his parents paper files. Being, as they were, somewhat morally questionable scientists, they probably had resources hidden away that Peter could use. That lab in the basement wasn’t where they did all their research, it couldn’t be, and ridiculously complicated genetic alteration machines couldn’t be made for free. That meant that somewhere, there was probably money, and possibly contacts with people who could be useful. He hoped. Honestly, it was his only chance and he was sort of banking on it.

To accomplish the reading of the data, Peter would need several hours of privacy and a decent computer. Because he was cursed by Murphy's law, his group home was equipped with neither. Luckily, his elementary school was, so Peter decided to break in and help himself.

The biggest obstacle was actually his seven foster brothers. They were, by and large, horrible people, and with his room where it was he’d have to pass all of them if he wanted to get to a decent exit. The window in his room wouldn’t work, since getting to it would require climbing over the body of his roommate.

In the end, he decided it would be best to go out by the window in the room belonging to the two he’d internally nicknamed Sleepy and Dopey (when you lived with someone as Grumpy as Conner was, and had six other miniature humans in the same house it was hard not to think of them as the seven dwarves.) Sleepy was fifteen, and did no less than three sports. He got up at four every morning to go running, and so crashed early and hard. His roommate, Dopey, was seventeen, and probably on actual dope. Or at least weed.

Either way, they were the least likely candidates to wake up when Peter left via the window, a fact he knew within a week of his arrival.

He started his indiscretions at around eleven pm on a Tuesday. Everyone was at least pretending to sleep by then, and the distinctive duet of Sleepy and Dopey’s snoring had been going for a solid half hour. Bashful and Happy were still awake, but they were just studying, and since they generally maintained neutrality in the affairs of their housemates Peter wasn’t worried about them snitching, even if they did see him.

With as much grace as he could manage, Peter slipped out of bed, and around Grumpy, grabbing his already packed backpack. It contained everything important that he owned, always, since he didn’t want to risk anything being stolen. Really, he could leave tonight and never come back if he had it. And of course a place to go, but that was neither here nor there.

Sleepy and Dopey’s room was just down the hall, and Peter navigated the floor carefully, avoiding all the creaky places before easing open the door. The two heavy sleepers didn’t react at all. Peter did however. They’d clearly not done laundry in a geologic age, and with all of Sleepy’s sportswear it was somewhat rank.

He persevered through it, and slid open the window as quietly as he could. It opened with extreme ease. Peter was willing to bet that was because of Dopey himself.

Peter wasn’t there to consider Dopey’s delinquencies though, he was there to commit his own, and he was a hell of a lot better at this sort of thing than Dopey could ever hope to be. It was one of the many and varied advantages of being genetically part-spider. Thus, his egress from the room was quick, and he’d made it all the way to street level inside of ten seconds.

The journey into the elementary school was just as quick and easy. Peter had acquired (stolen) the keys to the roof from their place in the janitorial closet, and since the roof was not a commonly visited place no one had noticed. It was also not alarmed, likely for the same reason nobody visited it. Roofs aren’t a terribly useful entrance to a building for the average human being.

Once he’d made it inside, Peter walked as quickly as he could to the computer lab and used his second pilfered key to enter. It wasn’t a terribly good computer lab, but that wasn’t his destination anyway. He was headed for the storage closet, which was full of conveniently disassembled computers in various states of repair.

A quick browse of the shelves, and Peter found a PC that would be of service. The sticky note marking what was wrong with it read hard drive failed and it was already opened up, with the old hard drive missing.

Peter hoisted it onto the tiny repair desk within the room, and connected it to the first of his hard drives, then to the power strip monitor and keyboard. It was go time.

The drive itself yielded nothing that Peter could use. There was a lot of interesting data on various projects, and many references to people and things that might be useful later, but in all his skimming he never found a file conveniently labeled with ‘Way to Escape Foster Care’. He’d sort of been expecting that though, and thought that the best place to go would probably be somewhere in the pictures he’d taken of the papers. He knew for a fact there had been financial papers in there.

The pictures of papers were much harder going than the files had been. Peter hadn’t exactly been organizing them into any sort of proper order when he’d been photographing them, and both his parents had terrible handwriting. Nevertheless, about an hour in, he found something better than he could have hoped for.

It was a full on secret laboratory. Richard Parker owned a full on secret lab. It wasn’t labeled secret lab, of course. In fact, Peter had to combine information from several different sources to find the thing, but it was definitely there. A delivery form to the address of what appeared to be an old warehouse. The purchase of a property under an assumed name. Records of the installation of a security system.

Peter nearly cried in relief. This could, possibly, be his salvation. This and the bank account under the assumed identity that was still alive. If his father hadn’t told SHIELD about it (and he probably hadn’t--judging by his stuff Richard Parker was a paranoid bastard) then this lab was currently unoccupied and probably wouldn’t be questioned for quite a while. Peter had a place to go.

As carefully as he could, Peter copied down all of the information on the lab he could find. Then he packed up his stuff and left. Almost as an afterthought he stole three laptops (they were broken anyway) stuffing them into his bag. Continuing that streak he robbed the vending machine in the staff room on his way out for all it’s cash. He wouldn’t be back here, ever.

----------

After his trip to the elementary school, Peter briefly considered going back to the group home. His original plan had this trip only as an exploration, and he’d planned to return afterwards to stay while figuring out what to do next. That idea was swiftly vetoed. Peter had everything he needed, and he hated the group home with a burning passion. Passing it on his way southward to Queens he could hear Sleepy and Dopey’s snoring from the street. It was then that he vowed never to return. If the lab didn’t work out… He didn’t know, but he’d figure something out. He was mentally an adult (probably). He could take care of himself.

The journey to the warehouse was taken carefully. Peter used the subway, of course, but he got off a stop early and walked the rest of the way, avoiding cameras as best he could. The electric buzz of a camera had a distinct feeling in his spider senses, so he was able to guarantee that his journey wen’t unobserved right up until he came under the observation of the warehouse security cameras.

Suddenly, Peter felt very small, like he was really a child. He’d built this warehouse up in his mind as the solution to all his problems, and now… he was deeply worried it would end up not working out, or worse, that it would be already occupied.

Worrying didn’t help though, and Peter didn’t want to spend any more time in the open than he had to, so he screwed up his courage as best he could and inputted the code into the scanner, his birth-date again used as a lock. With a smooth snick, the bolt disengaged, and Peter was let in.

Entering a secret lab was nothing like it was in the movies. The lights didn’t suddenly turn on, immediately displaying some central and horrifying piece of technology. There weren’t any goons, traps, or extra security features. In fact, the warehouse was something of a disappointment, visually speaking.

Perhaps it was just that Peter had been spoiled by the drama and spectacular workshops of Mr. Stark. He had been spending quite a lot of time there in the months leading up to his death. Still, the lab was functional, if dusty, and contained pretty much everything Peter would need to make a real start on his whole saving the world gig. It would be fine.

Peter puttered around the dusty lab for a little bit, but before he could really get started on anything he discovered what probably used to be the warehouses break room, which contained a stained old couch that called to him like a siren. Since it was about five am, Peter was simply succumbing to the inevitable.

----------

The first two days in the lab, Peter focused largely on figuring out food, cleaning up all the dust, and covering up his tracks. As soon as he got the internet working, he used his nascent hacking skills as well as some heavy application of google to delete himself from the government’s systems. It would be inconvenient if he was found by CPS.

On the third day, Peter began to seriously poke around the lab. It was then that he made the most horrifying discovery of his life.

“What are you?” he muttered to himself as he uncovered a large… thing. It had been under a dropcloth, and looked like nothing so much as a ridiculously enormous cyberpunk gumball machine. It didn’t have any purpose he could divine just by looking at it, but the base of the machine was engraved. “Project Genesis.” read Peter. He knew that he probably ought to stop talking to himself, but there was nobody else to talk to, and frankly he was a bit lonely.

“I think I’m going to look that up.” said Peter. “It’s weird enough that I know it’s going to bother me if I don’t. At least most of the other stuff in here seems to have a purpose.”

After recovering the machine with it’s sheet (Peter deeply did not want to dust it.) he hopped over to the main computer for the lab, a massive and powerful for its time beast of a machine built directly into a console. Richard Parker, for all his brilliance, was terrible with cybersecurity, and Peter had figured out the password in seconds, though he hadn’t looked through many of the files.

Project Genesis typed Peter into the search bar.

There were a lot of results. It appeared that whatever Project Genesis was it was one of his fathers most important creations, something he’d spent a lot of time on. Peter decided to start with the videos. There was a whole file of them, and he figured it would probably be a good way to find out what the machine did. He clicked on the first one and sat back to watch.

Peter was prepared for a lot of things upon clicking that video. He was not prepared to view the dissection of a deformed human fetus. His eyes went wide, especially when the sound started up and he heard his father's voice over.

“After the disastrous results of our last set of tests it was concluded that implementation of cross species genetics is unviable in an already formed organism. We have had higher success rates with the implementation of our genetic alteration techniques on the unborn. Modified invertebrates, rats, and pigs have demonstrated significant success, and this marks the first test upon a human. Subject A appears to be a failure. Human biology is difficult to reconcile with that of other types, as can be seen here in the cardiovascular system where it has developed a heart organ incompatible with its species. There are improvements that will need to be made, but the development process was successful, and the genetics are fully integrated.”

Peter watched in horror as his father's hands tore apart the tiny body, all the while describing exactly what he was doing, and what he had done to it that had caused it’s deformities. The fetus was developed enough that it was clearly recognizable as human, but his father clearly didn’t care.

With shuddering hands, Peter closed out of the video. It was… He’d always suspected that whatever science had resulted in, well, him had been questionable but this…

He clicked on another video at random. It showed a picture of the Genesis machine with a baby floating stiff and still inside it.

“As seen in Subject F, sclerostin moderation will be essential in developing a frame that can support the improvements we have made to the baseline genetic profile. Manipulation of the SOST gene is necessary for this purpose. The modifications made to Subject G, however, have caused a genetic defect. The joints have calcified completely, and it is was unable to move for even the most basic of functions. The experiment will be terminated now, at the fourth month of development--”

Peter cut that one off too. At this point he was so horrified he could scarcely breathe, but all the same he couldn’t stop. There was a niggling little thought inside him that wouldn’t go away, and it forced him to scroll all the way down through all the videos. They were labeled with a letter, probably which subject they were, and then a series of numbers. Each subject had a lot of videos, beginning with a video of their insertion into the machine, and ending with their dissection.

Somehow he wasn’t surprised that the last subject was P.

The first video was narrated by his mother. It was a time lapse of the first couple month of a baby’s development in the machine. “I think this time we’ve got it right.” she said. “Development is going smoothly, and the subject appears healthy in every way so far. I’m not letting myself hope too much though. Subject O was perfectly healthy too, right up until we ended the gene suppression a week after birth and his modifications properly manifested. This time, however, I’ve decided to try something different. We already know that our time is up. There isn’t enough money left for more tests unless we get this one right, and I think Richard has decided to move on to approaching his passion from another direction, perhaps try to modify genetics later on again. For this one then, I’m going to play the long game. Subject O survived until we let his modifications happen, and I think Richard’s theory that only a fully developed organism can survive the stress of the modification holds water. Still, we know that in an adult rejection of the foreign genes is almost certain. Therefore, if the subject survives birth, I’m going to leave the suppression on much longer. I estimate the ideal time for genetic realization to be early puberty, when the body is changing rapidly still but is mature enough to support itself well. This may be the secret to not only Richard’s cross species genetics, but also the more human improvements I’ve been making. This could truly be the achievement of an age.”

The video ended, and Peter clicked on the next one. He needed to watch all of these, even the ones from the other subjects.

“The EGLN1 and PPARA gene alterations have been implemented to improve oxygen processing and decrease hemoglobin necessity and production. This should combine well with the proposed dual cardiovascular system. The arachnid aspect of this Subject will require efficient oxygen processing if the modifications to the…”

“Thermoregulation remains a difficult problem. In our smaller flesh sample studies the aldosterone synthase…”

“Muscular systems are not a part of the design of an arachnid, so other species have been selected as the model for these genes. For the fast twitch muscles large felinid…”

“Entering the sixth month of development it has become clear that the gene suppression technique is successful in preventing defects during this delicate time…”

“We are progressing on schedule, the subject…”

“Unfortunately fertility will be impossible for the subject though…”

“The final modifications have been input it is almost time…”

“We will begin the decanting process by…”

“Oh. He’s beautiful.” said Mary Parker. “I think… I think I should like to call him Peter.”

Chapter Text

“At some point.” said Loki, “You are going to have to leave Earth.”

Peter frowned. “I sort of expected that.” he said. “How am I going to do it though? I’d need like… a spaceship and stuff, right?”

Loki smiled at him like he’d just done something cute. “Yes, that is generally required.” he said, “But it won’t be the hard part. Getting off world is quite a bit more difficult than that.”

“How?” asked Peter. “Old Peter got off the planet just fine, didn’t he?”

“Yes, but that was then. Security has changed since.”

“Security? On Earth?” said Peter.

“Ah.” said Loki. “This is going to be another one of those times where I expect people to know basic facts about the universe and they surprise me with their ignorance.”

“You know me.” said Peter “Dumb as a brick.”

“Hush now. You are at least as intelligent as a houseplant. Also, in this case I think it best I explain. It has to do with the functioning of the nine realms.”

Peter listened expectantly. “Does this relate to the reason there are nine realms? I heard one of the guardians complaining about sanctions on bifrost trade so…”

“So you do pay attention.” said Loki “And yes, it does relate.” His fingers twitched, and out of them soared a complicated and beautiful illusion of the galaxy. “The nine realms, despite all being under the banner of Asgard, are actually scattered across the galaxy.” Nine spots on the galactic map lit up in green. “As you can see, they seem a poor selection for an empire, and they would be except for the glory of Yggdrasil.”

“Which is the tree metaphor thing that connects all of them.” said Peter. He still wasn’t entirely sure of the validity of said metaphor.

“Precisely.” said Loki “Yggdrasil is not a tree, of course. It is actually a set of cosmic pathways, jumps from one end of the galaxy to the other. Asgard was built at the nexus of these pathways by one of my ancestors, Ymir, upon a dimensionally stabilized asteroid. Because it is there, we can travel along those paths using the bifrost, and we can also control who else travels there.

“So you basically control the superhighway of the galaxy.” said Peter.

“Yes.” said Loki. “As you know, long distance travel in our galaxy is dependent on jump points, wormholes that can be opened at predetermined locations. This network of jumps allows one to travel from system to system, slowly working across the starscape to one's destination. Yggdrasil is much quicker, allowing travel from one end to the other in a mere fraction of the time.”

“And whoever controls Yggdrasil gets to charge whatever they want for use of the privilege.” said Peter. He was beginning to see why Asgardians could do things like plate an entire palace in gold.

Loki nodded. “That is the foundation of the majority of Asgard’s wealth, and the reason for the extreme military focus. Keeping Yggdrasil under Asgardian control is essentially the same as continuing the empire. Many have tried to conquer it, but none have succeeded.”

“Okay.” said Peter. “So what does that have to do with security around Earth?”

“I’ll get there.” said Loki. “You have to know the background first though.” He frowned. “This gets to the bit that we’re not terribly proud of. You see, my grandfather, Bor had a lot of problems with would be conquerors. Many of the planets at the endpoints of Yggdrasil’s branches--what are now the nine realms attempted to seize control of Asgard. Bor reacted by starting a series of wars to subjugate them. These wars were continued by my father, Odin, and then my sister Hela, in the great age of Asgardian expansion. At the end of them Asgard possessed not only the heart of Yggdrasil, but every single branch, which were used as further checkpoints to control travel. Those times… they were dark. Many terrible deeds were committed in the Allfathers name.

“Still, eventually Odin was satisfied, and put down his weapons of war, including his daughter. He was always a hypocrite, that way, sitting on a golden throne bought with blood he refused to admit to spilling. I’ve always thought… Well, my opinions don’t matter anyway.

“After the expansion, Asgard became extremely isolationist. Most of the imperial navy was decommissioned, since no one had a use for starships anymore, content to go only where they could travel by bifrost. Our neighbors throughout the galaxy, however, were much less prone to isolation, and trade through and upon the nine realms Asgard protected became increasingly common.

“This did not please Odin. He claimed, of course, that he wanted only to protect his realms, but in truth he feared deeply that if they became connected, advanced, and strong enough they would rise up and force him to go to war against them. So he moved the Asgardian checkpoints, the centers of trade used to monitor those who come and go through Yggdrasil further out in the systems of the realms, and established a series of treaties with several other civilizations to blockade the realms from outside interference and slow their internal development.”

“That’s horrible!” said Peter. “We could have gone so far if he hadn’t…”

Loki hushed him with nothing more than a glance. “That is the way of the worlds young one. The strong control the weak in fear that the weak will become strong. I know that it is unfair, and I wish the universe were a kinder place, but it isn’t. If it makes you feel better, there were a lot of refugees, from Midgard and Vanaheim in particular who did quite well for themselves. I believe that their descendants are of a planet called Spartax.”

Peter sighed. “Still doesn’t help me break through a blockade.”

“It does not.” said Loki. “Which is why I was telling you about the blockade before you started complaining about injustices.”

“Sorry.” said Peter,

“Apology accepted.” said Loki. “Now, the blockade of Midgard is run by the Nova Empire, and has been that way since the last Jotunn war, which happened somewhere near your year 900. Notably, a few decades ago during a particularly bad part of the Nova’s war against the Kree there were several holes in the blockade for about… eight years or so. That is probably when the other Peter slipped through. Around that time there was also an issue with a Kree scientist and a bunch of Skrull… It came up in a lot of council meetings. Anyway, the blockade has since been revitalized, and there is pretty much no way through without permission directly from Asgard. The Nova Core is a formidable fighting force.”

“How do I get through then?” said Peter. “I can’t exactly get permission from Asgard.”

“I’m getting there.” said Loki. Then he paused dramatically. “The key lies in the organization tasked to slow internal development. The Nova Core wouldn’t take the job. They claimed it was morally reprehensible. To get around this, Asgard hired a group of civilian xenoanthropologists from the Nova homeworld, Xandar. Over the intervening years that group has metamorphosed into an organization called the Terran Cultural Preservationists. They are the only people allowed through the blockade, and the Nova Corps is required to let them through. Many of them live on Earth for years at a time, sabotaging progress and killing off people who come to close to finding the truth. I think your best option is to find one, and then impersonate them, thereby gaining a ship as well as several other important resources necessary for passing the blockade as well as wider travel. There tends to be one in every major city, so your New York is likely a good place to look.”

“You mean you want me to murder someone.” said Peter. His life (afterlife) seemed to get stranger every day, especially because he was considering it. Certainly he would never have done anything like this when he’d been alive, but after bearing witness to a universal genocide… the morals that he’d prided himself on as Spider-man had become a distant second priority when planning his return. Being a good person wasn’t nearly as important as the fate of the universe.

“Yes.” said Loki. “Do you need advice on method?”

Peter didn’t respond for several seconds. This wasn’t a skill he wanted to learn. It wasn’t a choice though, in the end, because he wasn’t going back to do what was kind. He was returning to do what was necessary.

Slowly, he nodded.

“It has now been a month since the disappearance of billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark. Since the fateful day of the attack upon his convoy, efforts have not stopped to locate those who took him and find, if not the man himself, at least a body. Today, however, Stark Industries has released a statement indicating that while they will not be halting the search efforts, they intend to carry on as if their CEO and major shareholder is dead. Interim CEO Obadiah Stane is quoted as saying ‘We can’t stop just because we have a man down. The world had to keep turning, and I know Tony would want us to keep doing the good work he devoted so much of his life to.’ This statement came on the heels of the announcement of an increase in the production line of the Jericho series of missiles, an act by the company that is likely an attempt to make up for the drop in stock that has occurred since-”

Peter turned off the TV.

The stifling air in the warehouse had turned the mid-may afternoon from pleasant and relaxing, to a choking sweaty hell on earth. The news compounded on the problem, making Peter even more miserable. It was hard to be happy, knowing that the man he loved like a father (the one who didn’t know him, didn’t love him back) was somewhere in Afghanistan being tortured. Even knowing that he’d escape didn’t help, because Peter was all too aware of the health problems both mental and physical that would stay with his mentor until the day he died.

It was deeply unfair, and more than anything Peter wanted to throw away all his plans and go running off to Afghanistan to find and rescue his mentor.

In an effort to ignore the pain of not being able to help, as well as the horrible things he’d discovered about his own past, Peter had given himself a project. He’d decided that while waiting for the timeline to catch up to somewhere he could be useful, he ought to work on getting transportation off earth, and perhaps investigate the possibility of preemptively seeking out some of the infinity stones he knew the location of. He was also considering going to Asgard, which might not be the most useful destination, but sue him, he wanted to check on Loki. He was sure he could find an excuse, they did have a lot of resources and knowledge that might prove useful.

Certainly having some Asgardian technology would make his current task easier.

“Fuck.” Peter swore as a bead of sweat fell off of his forehead and into the delicate pieces he was soldering. He dearly hoped it wouldn’t ruin everything. He didn’t want to start all over again, this was already his third attempt at jerry-rigging something advanced enough to receive Xandarian and Asgardian transmissions. The task was made especially difficult by the fact that the soul stone had no physical objects, so all of the knowledge he’d accrued there was strictly theoretical. At this point, Peter was mostly guessing.

When he finished the last section and closed the rudimentary casing, Peter stood up and wiped his face with the rag he kept to the side fort that very purpose, frowning at the ugly piece of tech on the worktable. He’d become spoiled at some point in the long days he’d spent in Mr. Stark’s workshops, and the lack of AI, holographic mock-ups, and futuristic fabrication units was an endless frustration, especially when he was forced to use a complicated workaround to make up for the lack of something he considered rudimentary.

Hell, he’d give up one of his kidneys for a 3D printer. The shameful duct tape and cardboard he was using to protect his stuff was simply awful.

The device wasn’t going to become prettier just by him glaring at it though, and it was (hopefully) finished, so Peter packed up his tools (“Never leave anything lying around in your work space, Pete, it gets dangerous pretty quick”) and then plugged the newly completed device into the ridiculously long cables he’d scrounged up to connect it to the computer, because in these dark dark days of 2010 Peter couldn’t even manage to make the thing wireless.

“Here goes nothing.” he said.

Peter exited the warehouse, and climbed up the outside after a cursory check to see if anyone was around to see. The roof was searing hot metal, so Peter was careful not to burn himself as he maneuvered into position by the satellite dish that Richard Parker (who Peter could no longer think of as ‘dad’) had attached to the roof. When he got there, it took only a small amount of fiddling and some liberal application of duct tape before the device was ready to go, trailing cords and looking like nothing so much as a seventh grade science project.

“If you don’t work this time” Peter told the device “I might literally murder someone.”

The device did not respond. If it had though, Peter reflected, it might have pointed out that the murder he intended to commit hinged on the thing working, thereby making the threat worthless.

Descending from the roof was briefly complicated by the passing of a delivery truck. Once it was gone, Peter went inside and flopped into the oversize desk chair in front of the computer. Then he jiggled the mouse to wake the slumbering beast. 2010 PC’s were something he’d grown to hate.

The rudimentary program Peter had written for the device was already queued up. The UI was terrible, but frankly Peter didn’t have the time or the energy for even the most basic of graphics. Despite any ugliness, though, the thing worked, and that was what was important.

<<SCANNING>> it read.

Peter migrated to the mini fridge (originally storage for biological compounds, now converted to a more traditional purpose) and grabbed a bottle of water. The scanning process would take a while, and he wouldn’t know if it worked until it had already been completed. It would be a long wait.

-----------

Xandarians looked exactly like humans.

Peter had known this, of course. The Guardians had spent ridiculous amounts of time familiarizing him with all the major species and cultures in the galaxy, and so he was well informed that outside of the wider variety of colorations, ability to digest pure minerals, and three-hundred year life span, Xandarians were the closest thing to human it was possible to get.

Still, it was somewhat shocking to see that the officer of the TCP he was following around looked like nothing so much as a middle age professor. The man was wearing a damn sweater vest.

For the first couple hours, Peter hadn’t even been sure that this person was who he was looking for. He’d only stayed where he was, hiding in a tree in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood in Brooklyn watching the dude putter about in the garden, because he legitimately had nothing better to do. The warehouse was hot, and boring, and since the scanner worked Peter no longer had a project to work on.

Then the man had driven off on some errand in his crappy little car, and Peter, who had very sharp eyes, had happened to notice that the ridiculously large eighteen passenger van on the other side of the garage didn’t actually exist. Well, something existed there, but it wasn’t an eighteen passenger van, since traditionally it was impossible for a physical object to pass through a tire, like the man's foot had done when he was leaning into the car to arrange something.

Peter was willing to bet that the van was something alien, and that somewhere in that garage was an incredibly advanced holographic projector.

Obviously, Peter wasn’t going to just take it on faith, so while the man was gone he casually strolled up to the house and broke in to the garage through the side door that went out onto the lawn. Super strength was good for all sorts of things. Like breaking locks.

Inside the garage, Peter was pleased to find that he had been right. The holoprojectors were probably wired to the garage door, and since it was closed they were off, revealing one of the coolest things Peter had ever seen; an actual honest to god spaceship.

It was minuscule, as far as spaceships go, taking up almost precisely the same amount of space as the fake van, but it was definitely a spaceship, from the clear bubble of the cockpit in the front to the tiny little feet (feet!) it was using as landing gear. Peter fell in love almost instantly. If he were of a poetic bent, he might have considered composing an ode to the metallic turquoise ridges that angled out as stabilizers.

Luckily for his dignity, Peter didn’t possess a poetic bone in his body, and so instead of composing he fell to examining every inch of it. When the alien returned, he was actually inside it, poking around the controls, and so was forced to dive under the seats to avoid detection. Embarrassingly enough, Peter had actually forgotten what he was there to do.

The Xandarian agent whistled cheerfully as he got out his groceries, and Peter was fully reminded again of the atrocity he was about to commit. This guy was here just… living his life, and Peter was going to end it.

Peter wasn’t sure he could go through with it.

Once the alien had disappeared inside, Peter tried to distract himself. He probably shouldn’t go in until the man was asleep anyway, and there was still a lot he wanted to discover about the ship.

His investigations weren’t nearly so fun though. Instead of being curious about how the ship worked, Peter was very seriously searching for the other part of what he was there to steal--an Asgardian seal of passage.

Loki had explained that as part of Asgard's deals with the Nova Corps and other blockade people, no one was allowed into the realms unless they were transmitting a specific signal, a signal that was impossible to reproduce and could only be emitted by an Asgardian device created for the purpose and called a seal of passage. The distribution of those seals was obsessively restricted, and they were coveted by the TCP and scarce few others allowed them not only for their ability to let someone into the realms, but the fact that they were enchanted with the Allspeak. Most translators only let you hear what others were saying. Allspeak allowed you to talk back, which was a necessity on worlds where people didn’t have translator chips, like for example Earth.

Because Asgard thrived on ridiculous ceremonies, the seal of passage was presented to people like it was some great honor, and took the form of a round golden medallion embossed with complicated runes. TCP agents and their like tended to treat it like some kind of challenge coin, and Peter was betting it would be somewhere on the ship and well protected. The agent would keep everything important there if he was at all intelligent, considering the possibility of needing to bug out quickly.

Whatever Men in Black equivalent existed probably didn’t take kindly to the type of ‘cultural preservation’ peddled by the Xandarian agents.

Peter’s search eventually yielded results, though the surprisingly RV-like back of the ship was cluttered with enormous amounts of alien detritus. The seal itself was in an ornate box in the back of a drawer full of other weird things, and Peter actually missed it on the first time around because of the sheer unfamiliarity of his surroundings, not even recognizing it as a box.

Once he did find it, Peter was actually forced to sit down for a moment to marvel at how incredibly underwhelming it was. Such an important thing really shouldn’t be so… boring looking, and excessively coin-like. It was cool, for a coin, but really wasn’t anything spectacular at all.

It was about ten pm by then, and Peter had what he was looking for, but he really didn’t want to do the next step of the plan. He just wasn’t ready. He’d rather skip that step and do the one after that, which was to commit grand theft spaceship.

Unfortunately that wasn’t an option. Nevertheless, Peter procrastinated. It would probably be better to wait a little bit anyway. At least a few hours.

The time slipped by like water, and Peters nerves got worse and worse. He started to look through all the junk in the ship again in a futile effort at distraction. Really, he was poorly suited to murder.

At about midnight, Peter found his way into the ship's computer. The previously inactive wallscreen lit up with blue light, and several options were displayed in the semi-familiar glyphs of the Xandarian alphabet. Gamora had taught him those, all seventy-two of them, despite the fact that he did not speak Xandarian and therefore would only be sounding out nonsense.

“Nigylpkkin” read Peter, aloud. “Sivurniy, zlinb’shr, ioplyhnth”

He was rather proud of himself. Sure, maybe he had no idea what it said, but he was absolutely confident that he’d actually remembered the letters Gamora had bashed into his head, sometimes literally.

It occurred to Peter then, that if he possessed the Allspeak, he would totally be able to understand the computer. The Allspeak didn’t translate written languages, but he did know the letters, so in theory he’d be able to take a peek at the files.

Because Peter was curious, and still procrastinating on murder, he decided to test that theory.

Loki had, at one point, explained how the Allspeak worked. Peter didn’t understand the magic of it really, but from what he did know it worked something like a database of languages that one could, via magic, forcibly download into one's mind. The languages of Earth hadn’t been updated in a while, hence the archaic phrasing.

Peter had a hard copy of the database in the form of a seal of passage. Unfortunately it was really a one use only sort of magic item, so he’d need to turn it on again with magic and connect it to himself (?) if he wanted to use it. Loki had explained that in detail, and he and Dr. Strange had spent many patient hours teaching Peter how to do it.

The soul stone, however, wasn’t the sort of place where magic was really a thing, with the exception of those magics caused by the other infinity stones. Loki and Dr. Strange had been able to do stuff, but only because their magics had been intertwined with the infinity stones for so long and because they were trying to do magic related to an infinity stone re: time travel.

Peter, being as he was a completely average sort-of-human with approximately the magical skill of a brick, struggled. He had been ‘touched by infinity’, and briefly ‘channeled power’ while he’d been desperately attempting to yank of Thanos’ giant golden oven mitt though, and that meant that even within the soul stone he could sort of summon up something, sometimes. He just had to do a bit of mental gymnastics that left him feeling vaguely constipated. About five percent of the time he sort of felt slightly buzzy, which Dr. Strange assured him was actually magic, and Loki assured him was probably enough to activate magical items like a seal of passage, even if it wasn’t enough for any sort of spell.

Needless to say, activating the seal of passage took a couple hours. The only reason Peter didn’t give up was because the alternative to sitting in the back of the ship glaring at a gold coin was going inside and doing what he came here to do. He wasn’t ready for that.

Eventually Peter succeeded. He didn’t actually feel anything that time, but the runes on the seal lit up in the brilliant yellow that Peter associated with the mind stone, so he figured that that was probably it and wasted no time in fulfilling the second part of the Allspeak activation instructions by pressing the coin against his skull, right near the part of his brain he knew processed language.

The result was an instant and piercing headache. The mother of all migraines. “Owwwwwwwwwwww” said Peter, trying to be quiet but needing desperately to whine his distress. “Ow Ow ow ow OWW”

After a minute the pain faded, and Peter put the coin back into its box and then into his pocket, glaring at it suspiciously. “That better have worked.” he muttered.

To test it out, he reactivated the ship computer and glanced over the options again. To his delight, he understood them. The only weird thing was that they were so clearly… not English. He’d imagined somehow that the allspeak would translate everything in his brain. That was not the case. Sivurniy still read sivurniy. It was still a bit hard to read because of how unfamiliar the alphabet was. The only difference was that Peter suddenly knew what sivurniy meant.

“Records” said Peter delightedly, selecting that option instantly. The TCP seemed like the sort of people who would write down everything. There were probably reports. He could find out all about what exactly they were doing in New York.

It was possibly the best excuse he ever could have hoped for not to kill someone.

The records were many and varied, and seeing them put an almost painful ache into Peter's chest. It was especially horrible to see because the operative--Peter now knew his name as Antron Ras--kept copies of everything he stole and destroyed. And oh, what he’d stolen. The TCP had at some point given up on restraining humanity full scale--probably around the time of the industrial revolution when things sped up too much for them to keep up. Instead, they’d focused their efforts on keeping humanity away from specific things, things that made Peter burn with indignation knowing they’d been taken from them.

Clean energy. Cold fusion. Quantum communication. Anything that could get humanity to the stars as well as anything that could bring humanity together. Stored on this ship was science that could end the struggle for clean water, solve world hunger, make obsolete the pointless wars fought over fossil fuels. One message from one of Ras’ colleagues actually stated in blunt terms that continuing inequality in national development was key in keeping earth contained.

It was… unthinkable. These people were purposefully mucking up millions of lives in the name of ‘preservation’, and they were being paid a hefty sum to do it too. There were termination orders here.

The worst part was the enthusiastic and childish love that Antron Ras and his friends had for earth culture. They delighted in the music, in the food, in all the different religions and ways of living. In part, the ruthlessness of the loose organization could be attributed to the fact that they truly and deeply wanted to ‘protect’ the earth from the influence of outside cultures and people.

It reminded Peter of a cross between Arthur Weasley and the Spanish inquisition. So many brilliant minds, all of them crushed under the heel of these ‘well meaning’ outsiders. It was easy for them too. When you possessed the technology to do things like remotely cause car crashes, it was as simple as breathing to kill someone. Just deploy a tiny drone and your work is done for you.

It occurred to Peter then that one of the people most likely to be a target was Tony Stark. Not as he was now--Asgard had no problem with the development of most weapons, from incendiaries to super soldiers--but after Iron Man and the gradual spread of arc reactors and repulsor technology it was likely that the only thing that would save him was the direct interest of one of Asgards princes. Orders from on high not to touch Thor’s plaything.

The same rationality was probably what protected Dr. Jane Foster and her crew.

This disgusted Peter for a lot of reasons, and he resolved to somehow, some way, end Asgardian interference in earth affairs. Because his schedule wasn’t full and all, what with saving the world.

The TCP didn’t know about SHIELD. That would probably help.

-------

In the end, Peter left Antron Ras’ house without killing him.

He’d wanted to, briefly, while he’d been sitting there stewing about the injustices of the world, but in the end he’d decided to wait. Fall back and plan.

This was because Peter had decided he didn’t want to kill someone in anger. Somehow, cold blooded murder was just more… palatable. He’d justified it to himself in the long not-days of the soul-stone that it would be fine, it would be worth it, if he had a reason, if it helped save the universe. That justification still held water, and Peter wasn’t going to go back on it now. If he killed someone--when he killed someone--it would be for a reason. Never because he was angry.

He’d had a lot of time in the soul stone to think over his regrets, and he’d realized that though Spider-man had hurt a lot of people (concussions mostly, though there were also a lot of broken bones and wrenched joints) the only ones he ever actually lost sleep over were the ones that had happened because he was angry. Tracking down the guy who killed Ben really hadn’t been one of his better choices.

In the end, as far as Antron Ras was concerned, the whole business was surprisingly simple, a result of both good planning and poor security.

Peter entered the house via the still broken side door of the garage at around eleven PM on a Thursday. He was wearing nondescript clothes, as opposed to cat burglar gear, and had come into the neighborhood much earlier in the afternoon on public transportation, having discovered that if he kept fairly close to a family group that looked vaguely similar to him he could go wherever he wanted and people didn’t blink an eye. It was incredibly convenient.

After waiting around the neighborhood until everyone had gone to sleep, Peter had simply walked in. His preternatural senses would have told him if someone was watching, and since no one was there was absolutely no reason to sneak.

The inside of the house was shockingly normal. Antron Ras, with as obsessive as he was about keeping alien culture and technology away from humanity, refused to keep anything otherworldly anywhere but his ship. There were a couple exceptions, such as the holoprojectors, but by and large Ras had gone completely native. This worked to Peter’s advantage. Trying to get through some of the alien security measures described by Old Peter and his merry band of pirates would have probably resulted in disaster.

After a suitable pause to make sure the creaking of the door hadn’t disturbed Ras’ sleep, Peter proceeded down the hallway towards the bedroom from which he could hear soft breathing. This was it.

There was no hesitation. No moment where Peter stood over his victim and wondered if he was doing the right thing. Perhaps there would have been, if the method was different, but Peter didn’t have to do anything violent. He simply had to roll over the arm, find the vein, and inject the poison he carried with him. It was quick, and easy, and simple.

Then it was over. Like with most biochemistry, Peter had proven to be a natural at creating poisons. The one he’d synthesized was both fast and painless. Over the course of a minute Antron Ras’ breathing slowed. Then it stopped, along with the heartbeat that Peter had been able to hear humming faintly behind it.

It had seemed monumental beforehand, but afterwards Peter didn’t really think about it. After all, his work for the night was just beginning. He had so much to do.

To start with, Peter moved the body. He wasn’t going to just leave it there, and he now had a perfectly good spaceship with which to take it somewhere far away. He was surprised to find how awkward the corpse was, but he persevered, and soon it was rolled in a sheet in the back of the ship, in the open area that Peter figured was for cargo. The sliding side doors (truly the spaceship was similar to a van) proved instrumental in getting everything settled properly.

Once that was accomplished, Peter moved through the house and gathered up everything with alien origins. There wasn’t much, but it was good to do a sweep anyway. It wouldn’t do for someone like SHIELD to get involved. In a brief moment of pettiness he also took a lot of the food. His metabolism was fast, and food was expensive. Richard Parker's funds wouldn’t last forever.

When he was done in the house, Peter finished up in the garage by taking down the holographic disguise setup. Then he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped up all the things he might have touched on his first visit. This time he was wearing gloves, but last time he hadn’t been, and he didn’t want to end up in the system in any way. The world still depended enough on paper files that his hacking skills couldn’t get rid of everything, and the police were inconvenient. Once that was finished he was done. No DNA. No fingerprints. No body. No evidence.

It was as close as Peter could come to the perfect crime.

Chapter Text

“Aah!” yelped Peter, flipping back to get away from the barrage of attacks. “Not fair!”

“Your opponent rarely will be.” said Gamora, leaping forward and continuing her attack. “Be aware of your footing. You should know where you will land before you jump.”

The strange dirt of the soul stone’s landscape was kicked up in clouds around them, so Peter couldn’t see where Gamora was headed with her actions. This left him on the back foot, desperately reacting and blocking her blows. He was so busy doing so that he missed her leg sweep, and was toppled to the floor, helped along by the iron grip of her hand clamped around his neck slamming him down.

“Yield.” she said.

Instead of yielding, Peter brought up his legs, using his spider-granted flexibility to grapple her, trying to throw her off of him.

It was futile, of course, and Gamora simply twisted around in a sinuous move, turning him over onto his front on the ground, all the while yanking both of his arms out of their sockets. “Yield.” she said again.

“Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I can definitely do that.” said Peter.

Instantly, Gamora got off him and stood up. “You are learning.” she said.

That blunt statement of fact was the closest Gamora ever got to a heartfelt compliment, so Peter grinned as he shook himself out, injuries disappearing as his body--or rather his mental projection of his body expressed within the theoretical landscape of the soul-stone--returned to it’s more customary state. “Thanks” he said.

Pain didn’t exist here, and neither did their actual bodies, but by now everyone was going stir crazy so in the absence of actual entertainment beating each other up was a fun distraction. Simulated bodies in simulated physics moved a lot like real ones did.

“I can't help but notice though,” said Gamora, “That you never use your full strength, or go for lethal blows.”

Peter rubbed the back of his neck, somewhat sheepishly. “I know.” he said “I’ve always fought like that. I guess I just really don’t want to hurt anybody.”

“A commendable goal, but you should still learn the skills.” said Gamora. “If you are truly going back then they may save your life someday.”

“Yeah, but what if I, I don’t know, am fighting someone and then I just… kill them from habit. I don’t want to be like that.”

Gamora frowned. “If that is the case then you should be trying even harder for mastery. What if you hit someone intending a stunning blow and they die because you don’t know your own strength.”

Peter wrapped his arms around himself, suddenly feeling cold despite the complete thermal equilibrium the soul stone maintained with it’s residents. His mind's eye flashed to the alleyway where he found Ben’s killer, remembering the crack of bone.

“Peter,” said Gamora softly. She obviously saw the memories in his eyes, and her hands came up to his shoulders in comfort. “You don’t have to hurt anyone. That is what I’m trying to teach you. Control. I want you to be able to do as much or as little damage as you want to. I want you to be able to choose.”

“I know that.” said Peter, “but I… I guess it’s not just habit I’m scared of. I also… If I’m able to kill someone, especially as easily… as easily as you can I’m afraid that I’ll choose to do it. I’m afraid that someday it will be the easy way out. That it’ll be convenient and I’ll just…”

Gamora’s thumb ran across his cheekbone. “I do not think you’d do that.” she said. “Of all the things I know about you the first has always been that you are good. You are good Peter, and I know that that goodness would not let you do something so cruel. You just have to trust yourself, and in your goodness.”

That statement reminded Peter, for some reason, of Captain America. He thought he was good, and look at what had happened. “I don’t know.” he said. “What if I’m wrong? What if I think I’m doing good but I’m… not.”

“That’s what family is for Peter.” said Gamora. Then she sighed. “You know I… I was not raised with many morals. I don’t… I don’t have some inner voice that tells me what’s right and what isn’t. What I do have though, is a family who knows more about it than I do. They know what I won’t want to live with, and they tell me. You’re not the only person making the decisions Peter, and there are people--so many people--who would like to help you. You just have to let them in.”

Peter smiled. “Yeah. okay.” he said. He could do that. His family had always been where his morals had come from anyway.

“Make sure they’re trustworthy though.” advised Gamora. “And if they aren’t then it’s totally fine to kill them. No stunning blows needed.”

Peter wasn’t sure if that was a joke, but he laughed anyway. “I suppose that’s sound logic, but it still doesn’t make me want to break your neck anymore while sparring.” he said.

“Injuries don’t last here Peter” said Gamora. “It’s possibly the best training scenario I could have devised to learn lethal combat. You really shouldn’t give up an opportunity like this.”

“Well when you put it that way.” said Peter. It was about time to go again, so he settled into his ready stance. Across from him, Gamora was doing the same, looking much deadlier than Peter did. He probably looked ridiculous.

“Remember your footing this time Peter. A stable foundation is important.” said Gamora.

That time at the end of the spar she snapped his neck.

Peter was deeply deeply lonely. He was so lonely, in fact, that he thought he was starting to go insane.

When he’d been alive the first time round he’d had an awesome and very supportive family. May and Ben, and later Mr. Stark, had been amazingly good at taking care of him, and Ned and MJ had been the best friends he could have ever asked for.

By some trick of fate none of them had ended up in the soul stone with him, but even there he’d been constantly surrounded by people, and over time he’d grown to care about them deeply. They’d picked him up and carried him through the difficult emotions that came with death and the genocide of half the universe, and he was deeply grateful for that. In all his time in the soul stone he was rarely outside the company of a friend or loved one.

In the bleak task-driven desert that was his second life, he felt the loss of everyone he’d left behind like a physical wound. It had gotten especially bad since May and Ben's rejection of him, and he’d reached a point where he was so starved for human company that he’d have been willing to make nice with Captain Asshole himself for the chance at a legitimate human conversation.

Since Captain Asshole was currently an ice cube in the arctic though and Peter felt utterly no need to go help him out, his possibilities for conversation were more limited. Generally, they were limited to the internet, and now that he had the ship he had access to the galactic networks as well, so he could use those, but sentient life had a surprisingly uniform set of behaviors across all their different platforms so it was just more of the same on a larger scale.

Most of what he was doing on it actually consisted not of talking to people, but trying to learn things, specifically how the ship worked and what would be needed to run it. The body dumping adventure had succeeded only because of luck, autopilot, and the fact that it’s pretty much impossible to crash when you’re over the ocean and there's no obstacles. Peter wanted to depend on neither of those things in the case of leaving the planet.

In any case it was an incredibly fascinating study. Peter had never had Mr. Stark’s passion for cars, but he thought that this--owning and maintaining a vehicle of his own--was letting him understand it on a deeper level. He’d even taken the time to wash all the salt off the damn thing after the ocean body-dump adventure.

The first thing he did, after making sure it was in working order, was to rename it. Antron Ras had called it the Explorer, but that was not only boring, but entered into the Nova databases as attached to Ras’ name, and Peter wanted as many degrees of separation there as possible.

Once he’d achieved enough prowess with Xandarian coding to jailbreak it, he immediately changed both it’s numerical designation and common name. For the new name he christened it Mayday. He thought it was funny, since he would in essence be calling for help whenever he said the name, but no one would understand since even the best translators didn’t do cultural context. Most space faring races had no equivalent to mayday, since in space a mayday-type situation was pretty universally fatal.

It really wasn’t that funny, but Peter’s sense of humor had degraded since he’d last connected to another human being, so that was that, and everyone would just have to deal with it. (except there was no everyone because Peter existed in a vacuum.)

The second thing Peter did after basic maintenance was begin the creation of an A.I.

He’d gotten curious about it at one point, and Mr. Stark had immediately reacted not by telling him about them, but helping him begin to build one. Mr. Stark was cool like that and understood Peter’s need to not only understand a thing but be able to do or make it himself. It was one of his favorite things about him.

It would take a while, of course. Peter needed to first bridge the gap between Xandarian and Human coding systems, then remember all of Mr. Stark’s basic neural algorithms as well as his physics engine and common sense database. And that was before even starting on linguistics protocols and a proper voice-print. Still though, it would be good to start, and Peter was rather motivated by the thought of someone to talk to, now that he had computer equipment advanced enough to accomplish it.

And oh, what computer equipment he had access to now. The tiny Vox-LS spacecraft was brimming with state of the art technology that was cutting edge even for such an advanced civilization as the Nova. Antron Ras and his people were incredibly well funded, and a military scout ship padded out with research equipment in place of its weapons systems was exactly the sort of thing they wasted credits on. It was possible that Peter was in love.

One problem with it though was that a few of it’s systems were so removed from a standard ships that even with the internet on his side, Peter couldn’t make heads or tails of them. Engine diagrams for an M-Class or QuadX--the two most common ship types in the galaxy--would do nothing to assist him with the ridiculously complicated unlabeled wiring running through the sub-light navigational manifolds. It was a problem that Peter just couldn’t figure out how to overcome.

----------

When it came time to code a personality matrix into Peter’s AI, he wasn’t having a good day, and it was possible that the choice he made wasn’t the best. In essence, he started to put in the personality of Aunt May--his version of her--as much as he remembered of it.

He knew that it probably wasn’t the healthiest choice. Mr. Stark had told him once about JARVIS, and about how painful it was in the beginning to have a reminder of the man he’d lost even if he eventually grew to love the AI for himself, but at this point Peter was desperate to hear his Aunt’s voice.

In the days leading up to her first booting up, Peter coded with the sort of exclusive focus that he’d only ever had a few times in his life. The rest of his life went away (not that there was very much of it in the first place) and the only thing he did was eat, sleep, and code.

His ship project had stalled, since further knowledge could only be acquired in military databases and one particular university database that only students and alumni could access, and since Peter was neither a student or Nova military personnel he was stuck waiting until he had AI backing for his hacking attempts. The other options for something to do were limited to genetic research on himself or trying to sort through the mess that was all of SHIELDRA’s files at this point in the timeline, so to avoid all of those things Peter’s only option was coding his AI, and because he was a stubborn shit that was what he did to exclusivity.

Eventually he’d have to do the other stuff, but he really wanted to avoid it for as long as he could. It would be easier with an AI anyway.

When it came time to create the AI’s voice print, Peter realized he’d finally found a task he wanted to do less than his other projects, and spent three days procrastinating and setting up alerts in the SHIELD servers to tell him when certain future events occured. He didn’t have exact dates for a lot of things, but if he got a heads up when certain terms like the name of a small town in New Mexico ended up on SHIELD radar, then he could do a lot to manipulate the timeline to his advantage.

When he’d run out of tasks he could do in the SHIELD stuff without the assist of AI data processing capabilities, Peter decided that he was, in fact, still unwilling to touch the hairy problem of his own genetics, and so was forced to bite the bullet and pick up the phone.

He’d used Mayday’s lovely signal cloaking abilities to create a dummy phone that would call from nowhere, and now his task was to get a sample of Aunt May’s voice. The voice-print extrapolation program he’d hacked in and stolen from Mr. Stark’s database (JARVIS had chosen to enter low-power mode most of the time while his creator was absent, leaving the servers unguarded to someone of Peter’s skills) only needed a little bit, but Peter really didn’t want to go to the trouble of bugging their apartment, so the phone it would have to be.

Sighing, Peter started the program and typed in the familiar digits of Aunt May’s cellphone. She hadn’t changed them in years, and before his death Peter had called this number almost daily.

“Hello?” came Aunt May’s voice from the other side of the line.

“Hi!” said Peter, trying to sound younger and more cheerful so May didn’t recognize him. “Is this the Parker's?”

“Yes.” said May. “Who is this?”

Peter checked the program. 7% progress. Good. “It’s Dan.” he said. “I’m looking for Jimmy. Is he there?”

“No…” said May “I don’t know any Jimmy. I think you have the wrong number.”

34% “But you’re the Parker's!” protested Peter. “Jimmy Parker has to be there.”

“You probably have the wrong Parkers. There are a lot of Parkers in the world.” said May. It was clear that she wanted to end the conversation and was losing patience with him. Too bad for her, the program was only at 52% and Peter still needed a few more sounds.

“But I looked it up in the phone book.” said Peter. “My mom says everyone’s in the phone book.”

“That’s true, but there are more than one person of each name in the phone book too. Do you know the names of your friends parents? That’s the number you should be looking for.”

Jackpot. 77% “I don’t know. They’re just Jimmy’s Mom and Jimmy’s Dad.”

“Well then I don’t think you’re going to find them in the phone book. Why don’t you ask your mom if she knows what their names are.” said May.

89%. So close. “Do you think she knows?” said Peter.

“She probably does. If she doesn’t just ask your friend the next time you see him.”

And we have a winner. 100%. “Okay. Sorry to bother you then.” said Peter

“No problem. Good luck on your search.” replied May, sounding distinctly relieved that she would no longer have to deal with this kid for the sake of politeness (May was polite to everyone, even people like some dumb kid on the phone. It was what Peter had been counting on when he chose this strategy.)

“Bye” said Peter.

“Goodbye.” said May. Then she hung up.

Once she did, Peter ran and flung himself onto the couch he’d been using as a bed, little kid emotions in full force as he dissolved into tears. They always cropped up at inconvenient times like this, and that call was likely the last time Peter would ever hear the voice of his Aunt. The separation was now real in a way that it just hadn’t been before at all.

---------

Two days later, Peter was ready to have his first conversation with his AI.

“Hello?” he asked as it--she--came online.

“Hello.” said the AI. “I am here.” Somehow she managed to seem a little surprised at that fact despite the fact that her inflections weren’t quite smoothed out.

“Yes you are.” said Peter. Her voice wasn’t quite like Aunt May’s was, the voice-print extrapolation was good, but it wasn’t perfect. Still, it would have to be enough. “Are you having any problems? Anything you need?”

“No.” said the AI. Then she thought for a few seconds. “It appears that I do not have a name. That seems… important.”

“Oh. Yes it is.” said Peter. “I think I’m going to call you MAY. It’s short for My Artificial You.” He smiled. Acronyms were how all Stark AI’s were named, and while Peter had never found one that fit Karen he wanted to continue the tradition.

“MAY. It is appropriate.” said MAY.

“Yeah.” said Peter, basking in her voice. “Yeah it is.”

---------

As the next few days passed, Peter realized why calling his AI MAY and basing her off a version of his aunt that would never exist was a terrible idea. MAY was not May, and while they shared a few things that Peter had coded in--a sense of optimism and a surprising amount of emotional awareness for a computer system--she was not the same person, and was developing differently. Peter refused to ‘fix’ anything in her personality matrix, but that didn’t stop the little waves of hurt that appeared every time MAY did something that was very unlike the original May.

At the same time though, MAY as her own person was someone Peter was very proud of. She was so very very young, but was learning so fast, both about the world and about herself. When she told Peter she’d decided her favorite color was indigo and he ought to paint the Mayday that color he nearly cried from joy (she was so… sentient) even though it was so very different from May’s preference for green.

Eventually, their constant conversations were brought around to the MAY/May divide and Peter was forced to address it.

“Well this sucks.” said Peter. “I might as well just die.”

“Bleach is in the bottom chemical’s cabinet.” said MAY “Though if you want options I believe the cable you’re working with has a high enough tensile strength to be used as a noose.”

Peter smiled. May had hated Peter’s generation’s fatalistic humor, but MAY had taken to it like a fish to water. It was probably his influence. She spent way too much time with him. “I suppose, but I’ve always wanted to be different and special.” said Peter. “Go out in a blaze of glory.”

“I see.” said MAY. “Those criteria are quite difficult.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “Fuck this is confusing. Can you pull up the diagram of how it was before?” he asked.

“Sure.” said MAY

She did and they worked in silence for awhile (MAY was picking through the SHIELD files and planting back-doors) until Peter managed to screw up and wire something to itself. “This really is terrible.” he said. “And the worst part is that it used to be so organized before I got to it.” then he smirked, remembering. “My Aunt used to say that I could make a disaster out of anything I touched.”

“I do not believe this is so.” said MAY. “You are generally a very tidy person.”

“Maybe now.” said Peter. “I have to be because I’m cleaning up my own messes here. Back then though…”

“Can you give an example?” asked MAY

“Yeah. Sure.” said Peter, leaning back against a cabinet as he stripped some wires. “My first science fair, I wanted to do biology. I hadn’t gotten into chemistry at that point and I was really curious about algal blooms. Anyway, I made a bunch of algae tanks out of two liter bottles and tested the turbidity of them with different levels of nitrates and phosphates.”

He grinned, remembering the basic project. “Thing was, they had to be aerated every day to keep the correct CO2 levels for the bacteria, and boy did that stuff stink. The whole apartment building smelled like pond scum for weeks.”

“I see.” said MAY. “Your Aunt must have been very patient to put up with that.”

“She was.” said Peter. “Patience of a saint… I...” he stopped. MAY wasn’t very patient, and Peter had decided not to push all of MAY’s differences in her face. He was afraid that if he told her about May she’d try to copy her instead of becoming her own person. “Let’s talk about something else.”

MAY buzzed, a sound she made that was roughly equivalent to a human hum, this one clearly in sympathetic understanding. “Okay.” she said. “I know it’s a sensitive topic for you, though I am curious.”

“It’s not that.” said Peter. He tried to be honest with MAY about everything. After all, if you couldn’t talk to your very own AI then who could you? “It’s just… I feel bad telling you about her.”

“Why?” asked MAY. She asked that question a lot. “It would make sense to tell me. I am, after all, based on her.”

“You are.” said Peter. “But that was a mistake.” he sighed, and mopped his face with his hand. “MAY, baby, you’re your own person. When I made you… I feel like I violated you a little bit trying to make you like her when you’re really not and I… I don’t want you to feel like you need to try to be Aunt May.”

He’d been feeling horribly guilty about it for quite some time actually. It was an incredibly fucked up person that tried to force someone else to be someone they weren’t, and Peter was guilty of that full stop. Honestly he didn’t deserve MAY and she would probably be better off without him.

MAY interrupted his thoughts then. “Peter, I know who I am.” she said. “And I know that I cannot replace what you have lost. All the same though, it is my understanding that it is customary for people to name things after their lost loved ones, in which case I am honored that you chose to name me after someone so important to you. I would like to learn more about her, if you are willing.”

Peter was shocked. He’d known MAY was learning and growing, that she was aware and sentient, but this surprised him. She was growing up so fast, and he was constantly surprised by how incredibly human she could be. This emotional maturity… it was new and different and there was only one way Peter could respond to it. “Wow MAY. That’s… thank you. That means a lot to me.” he said. Then he took a deep breath, bracing himself for the coming outpouring of emotions. “What do you want to know?” he asked.

The next few days were filled with stories, and slowly Peter started to feel like everything would be okay again.

----------

MAY and Peter, for all their brilliance and skills, could not manage to get into the university database where the Vox-LS plans were stored without flying to Xandar and hooking up directly to the universities network. In theory Peter didn’t need the plans--he was doing mostly fine on his own--but he really didn’t want to leave the atmosphere in anything he wasn’t completely sure about, and he wanted to know the Mayday like the back of his hand.

He was very close to just taking that dangerous leap, when MAY came up with something else.

“Peter, it occurs to me that this database is accessible only to cosmonotic engineering students.” she said randomly out of the blue while he scarfed down granola after their most recent hacking attempt.

“Oh really?” said Peter sarcastically. “I hadn’t noticed.”

MAY ignored the sarcasm and pressed on. “If it can only be accessed by students, and you want access, then perhaps you should become a student.”

“We tried that.” said Peter, “But sneaking a name into the student database requires a level of backstory I’m not ready to commit to.”

“Perhaps I misspoke.” said MAY. “I meant you should actually become a student. You are very interested in furthering your education, and the Nova Empire’s schooling system is both excellent and government funded. If you were to pursue this route you would gain access to both the university archive and more knowledge of extraterrestrial systems, including things you might miss as an autodidact.”

Peter froze in his seat, spoon halfway to his mouth and dripping milk onto his jeans.

“I’d have to be a Nova citizen.” he said finally.

“We could easily send in a birth announcement and citizenship application backdated to look like it’s from an earlier point. It might even be possible to use Terra as your home-world, if we implied that your parents came in during the time when the blockade was compromised.”

The more he thought about it, the more Peter liked it. He would need an identity, eventually, and this way the identity would be fleshed out. Real. Who knew, he might even end up with some credentials.

“Okay.” he said finally. “What goes on a Nova birth certificate.”

--------

In the end, they kept his background as close to the truth as possible. Apparently, while the blockade had been broken, there had been several groups of scientists that set up shop on Earth to do science that their government’s might not approve of, from the legendary Mar-Vell on the Kree side to a few rogue TCP agents fucking about making crop circles.

Peter wrote on the citizenship application that he was the result of an unsanctioned genetic experiment, and was therefore partially Terran. All of this was true, from a certain point of view, though he implied an unnamed TCP agent as both the person applying for him and as a guardian, and also implied that the genetic experiment was Xandarian in origin.

To give his story credence, Peter added a record of Antron Ras shutting down a rogue geneticist in the early 2000's to the TCP database.

The end result of all his finagling was that Peter Stark (he wasn’t emotionally prepared to use Parker, and that was the only other name he felt a connection to (he’d apologize later)) was registered for school beginning immediately.

--------

The Nova school system was a very different experience. For one thing, Peter’s teacher in these ‘basic’ levels was actually an AI (though not as sophisticated as MAY, in fact not even sentient). For another, it was entirely achievement based. There were no grade levels, and Peter would be free to pursue higher level education as soon as he achieved certain levels of competency. He couldn’t wait.

The thing that tripped him up the most though was the culture. Nova culture was… really really different. It hadn’t ever occurred to Peter, who’d always lived in America, how different life would be under a military dictatorship, but now that he’d gone and become a citizen of one there was a definite culture shock, especially since the Nova Empire was millennia old and so the culture and language had basically developed around it.

He noticed it in everything, but the thing that had made him wake up and see it the first time was the names. See, Xandarian--the major language of the Empire--had a truly ridiculous multi-tiered respect system of addresses that had to be used for everything. It sort of reminded him of Japanese in that way, but it was so complicated that it would have given even the most anal retentive Japanese person a headache.

Peter was fairly sure that they came about as a result of military ranks and a pseudo-Marxist desire not to glorify personal achievement.

Everyone was addressed with an honorific followed by a shortened version of their last name that was just long enough to differentiate them from the rest of the room. Antron Ras’ full name was apparently Ranimlis. There was someone in history with a seven syllable name that had been shortened to Ai. Even Stark had been judged too long and shortened to Sar. Peter thought that the system was made so that you had just enough name to know who was calling, but not enough for any name to become too recognizable, since nobody wanted to be appreciated beyond the basic respect afforded their rank. He was grateful for the whole Sar thing though, because like the whole MAY-naming thing he’d realized that the spur of the moment decision to call himself Stark was simply an opportunity for a whole mess of emotional pain. Sar was less personal.

If trying to figure out which three letters someone was going to use wasn’t bad enough (Peter messed up constantly when trying to refer to historical figures and important people) the honorific system was something he simply couldn’t wrap his brain around.

There was no Mr. or Mrs. There was a sort of general use one for if you didn’t know someone, but by and large there were no generic or even gender divided honorifics. Instead, you were expected to obsessively memorize the whole list which covered every single career, level of skill, social office, and military rank. There were even context and personal history specific ones, like the winner of a contest who would then be referred to as Hilomian (but only when referring directly to the contest). Another one Peter struggled with was Kestar which was used to refer to someone who saved your life.

Peter hoped that if he ever saved someone's life he could be on first name basis with them. He would be deeply uncomfortable with that one, even more so than Nerian which was his rank now, meaning student.

“Is a Denarian above or below in rank to a Cenarian?” he asked as he filled out a quiz. This whole system was ridiculous, and despite having tested completely out of school in some subjects like math, he was still on a kindergarten level in others.

“They are roughly equal.” said MAY. “Denarian is a military rank equivalent to Admiral, and Cenarian is a civilian post similar to a governor.”

“Thanks.” said Peter. MAY liked the system for some reason. Something about the efficiency of naming people for their purpose.

“You’re welcome, Nerian Sar” said MAY cheerfully. On second thought she probably just liked annoying him.

Chapter Text

The Winter Soldier was someone Peter had met by accident while wandering around the soul stone. Gamora had been telling him about Nebula, and as a result he’d been thinking about robotic prosthetics. The back of his mind was also contemplating how badass people always had shitty backstories.

It was near the beginning of his death, so he hadn’t really refined the whole technique of thinking of people and walking in any direction as a way to find them. Thus, when he ran into the guy, he was a little bit confused, especially after a short conversation where he realized that Mr. Barnes (call me James, please) was a. Badass b. An amputee with a metal arm and c. a person with a shitty backstory. Apparently you didn’t need to know someone to find them in the soul stone.

They hit it off, and soon Peter was seeking him out often, whenever he’d bothered everyone else too much already.

“Oh hey Groot.” said Peter.

He had been lounging in the orange sand next to James, who’d been telling him funny stories about his Wakandan goat herd. Peter got the impression that James missed the goat herd more than he did Captain America, his supposed best friend. Groot had appeared then out of the mist, as people were wont to do in the soul stone.

“I am Groot.” said Groot. Since they were in the soul stone, a place past language, Peter understood that to mean ‘hi, are you busy?’

“Not really. James was telling me about his goats.” said Peter.

Groot turned to look at James, who looked back at Groot with an analyzing expression. “I recognize you.” he said finally. “You’re that tree, from the battle!”

“I am Groot.” said Groot. Funnily enough, he actually meant ‘I am Groot’ that time.

“Nice to meet you. I’m James Barnes.” said James.

“I am Groot.” said Groot. It meant, ‘that’s cool, what’s a goat.’

“It’s a livestock animal with horns and hooves that produces milk.” said Peter. He’d gotten rather good at translating earth concepts for confused aliens.

“I am Groot.” said Groot. This time he was questioning the difference between a goat and a cow. Peter wondered when he’d learned about cows, but didn’t know how to answer.

“Cows are bigger, and more docile.” said James, saving them both.

Groot nodded sagely. “I am Groot.” he said. ‘Bigger things are usually more docile.’

“Oh?” said James.

“I am Groot.” said Groot. “I am Groot. I am Groot. I am Groot.” this meant ‘The biggest person is Drax, who is very nice. Second biggest is Peter, who is nice too, but doesn’t give me snacks. Third biggest is Gamora, who is nice most of the time. There is also my dad. He is very small and very fierce.’

“That doesn’t make any sense.” said Peter. “What about Mantis? She’s itty bitty and very nice. And what about those huge monsters you were telling me about fighting. They didn’t sound very docile.”

“I am Groot.” said Groot. ‘Sometimes the galaxy doesn’t make sense.’

“Of course it doesn’t.” said James. Peter could tell that he was charmed by Groot, whose cuteness was legendary. He was glad that James was making another friend, he always seemed to be alone whenever Peter saw him. “If you make assumptions like that at least.”

Peter smiled and got in on the teasing. “Yeah, if you look at Dr. Strange and my- Mr. Stark, you might think that smart people have beards. But Old Peter’s got a little bit of one going on and he’s stupid as all get out.”

Groot laughed little grootish laughter, which was entirely silent.

“My best friend grew a beard, and he’s pretty stupid. Gets in stupid fights all the time.” said James. “The beard looks like a rat on his face. Maybe beards are a sign of stupidity. The more hair you have the lower your IQ.” Then he grinned and flicked his long hair back in demonstration like he was a model.

“I am Groot.” said Groot. “I am Groot.” ‘That is not true. My dad is very smart, and he has hair all over. I’m sure Peter’s beard-fathers are smart too.’

Peter blushed, and chose not to address the assumptions about Mr. Stark and Doctor Strange being his parents. He was tired of arguing. James, meanwhile laughed, full and open, in a way that Peter only saw him do rarely. He was not, in general, a very happy person.

“Maybe it’s not the amount of the hair but the quality.” said Peter. “James, your hair is very pretty and you seem a fairly smart dude. And I’m pretty sure that there’s a big difference between the rumored rat-face beard and the glory that graces Dr. Strange's chin.”

“I am Groot!” said Groot. It meant, ‘Yes! My dad’s hair is very good.’

“He was the raccoon guy who wanted my arm right?” said James

“I am Groot.” ‘yep. He likes taking people's body parts’

They all giggled for a while (or rather, Groot and Peter did) while judging different hairstyles. “I am Groot.” said Groot, in reference to Drax’s baldness.

Then Groot sobered. “I am Groot.” he said sadly. ‘I have no hair.’ he meant.

“Oh.” said Peter. “I guess we must be wrong about the hair too.”

James immediately agreed. “Yes, you’re very smart.” he said.

“I am Groot.” said Groot proudly. ‘Yes I am.’

Eventually Gamora came by to find Groot, and they left James and Peter alone.

“Cute kid.” said James. “Reminds me of all the little village kids in Wakanda. They used to follow me around all the time.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “He’s got some pretty interesting stories too. It kind of makes me want to meet his dad.”

“Oh yeah. The raccoon. What’s the deal with him by the way? I’m pretty sure regular raccoons don’t talk.”

Peter grimaced. “I’m pretty sure he was some sort of experiment. Epigenetics and cybernetics. They don’t really like to talk about it, and I get the impression it was a really shitty experience for all involved.”

“That sort of thing is always pretty shit.” said James. His flesh hand idly rubbed the metal arm, almost without him noticing.

“Yeah. Terrifying and painful. 0/10 would not recommend.” said Peter.

“You got experience with that?” asked James. He seemed a bit worried about it.

“Yeah.” said Peter. “I… I got my whole gene print scrambled and then randomly activated when I was fourteen. Sort of like all the pain of dying of cancer compressed into a single three day period. I couldn’t go to a doctor the whole time and I was just… really scared. Thought I was dying.”

James’ metal hand landed heavily on Peter’s shoulder, grounding him. “I’m glad you didn’t.” he said.

“Yeah. Me too.” said Peter. “The worst part though was afterward. I was… really different. In my mind too.” he thought back to those horrible first days, of wanting so badly to build a web and hunt, and how if given the chance he would pick liquid food every time. That desperation was the thing that had caused him to develop the web-shooters. He explained the bare bones of it to James for context but didn’t go into depth. “I wasn’t the same person anymore.” he said when he was done explaining. “I have about as much in common with a regular human being as Groot does--and I mean that personally as well as genetically.”

James looked a little bit pained at that revelation, but Peter was secretly relieved to be telling him this. James… he could understand, in a way that most people couldn’t.

“You just have to remember.” he said finally, “That the person you are is a fine thing to be, and that you don’t have to be your past self.”

They sat in silence for awhile, and then James continued. “I had trouble with that for a long time. I was trying to be Steve’s friend Bucky, but he was gone and instead it was just like having another handler. I... I am Bucky. I like being Bucky and I like Steve, but... I'm a different Bucky. Nobody goes through something like I did unchanged.”

Peter smiled at him. “I think you’re a pretty great dude just the way you are.”

One day, Peter woke up coughing blood. On another he woke in debilitating pain. Sometimes he was so overwhelmed by the sounds and smells of the warehouse and the feel of his clothes that he was completely unable to function for hours.

The thing was, he sort of knew this was going to happen. The horrifying baby videos he’d seen had implied that he’d die if his genes were expressed to early in his life, and from what he could tell, the mental stress of having his older self shoved into his younger body had triggered the change as surely as the spider bite had. The only difference was he was decidedly not in the middle of puberty at the moment, and his body really couldn’t handle it.

His only saving grace up till now had been the fact that this time it seemed to be coming on gentler and slower than last time. Mental shock might have triggered it, but it wasn’t quite as powerful a start as a few lethal doses of genetically engineered spider venom, so Peter had simply ridden out the beginning while unconscious on the night of his arrival and then continued on as he had, ignoring the occasional ache as his muscles or bones rearranged themselves into their preordained pattern.

Things were getting worse however. Peter’s brain had started to get rewired, and it was doing things to his endocrine system that he really could have done without. In addition to that, his body was breaking down, unable to handle the rapid changes, which was how he found himself in debilitating pain hiding in the corner of the ceiling hoping not to get eaten.

“Peter?” said MAY, when he had reached a point where he was capable of more communication than incoherent clicking noises. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I…” said Peter. “I don’t know.” He still refused to leave the ceiling. He wasn't safe outside his web, they might eat him. “I don’t know how to fix this. Maybe… I might not be able to. Create a new file. Call it Plan B. Put everything I’ve told you about the alternate timeline in it.”

“You mean to pass the responsibility on to someone else if you die.” said MAY.

“Yes.” said Peter. “I… The thing I came here to do. It still needs to get done whether I’m the one to do it or not.”

“No.” said MAY. “I’m not letting you die. You will stay alive. You will find your friends again. And you will save the universe.”

It was one of the most blatantly emotional responses MAY had ever had in her short life. Peter sighed. “I’m not saying I won’t try.” he said. “But it might not be up to me. If… If worst comes to worst, send it to Tony Stark. Flag the information on Nick Fury and HYDRA at the top so he can have allies. Then tell him about this place and let him take care of you. He’ll… he’ll do a good job MAY. You won’t have to be alone.”

“I want to stay with you.” said MAY.

“I know.” said Peter. “And I’ll try.”

Before he would even start though, he insisted on finishing the Plan B. Over the next few days he poured all of the information he could think of into the file, including stuff from the present like SHIELD files and information from the galactic outerweb. When he was done, he was hoarse from all the talking and he was shaking, both from pain and from fear--the strange instincts that he knew would govern his future were telling him to bunker down and be still, to heal. He couldn’t listen to them though, he had work to do.

“Bring up the files on the Genesis Project.” he said.

As he read, Peter let his hands assemble web shooters and make fluid--the long lasting type that didn’t dissolve. Then he built a complicated multi layered web in the top corner of the warehouse and read from there, learning everything he could about his origins, about the project, about the things his pare- no, creators, had done and made. Once he’d learned enough to truly understand he nearly despaired, because what his creators had made was horrible and it was a miracle he was alive at all.

Peter vomited several times seeing their experiments. He ignored the blood in the toilet bowl.

On good days, he tried to keep up with the rest of his life, such as it was, as well as his futile attempt to save himself. He tinkered in the Mayday and progressed in his Xandarian studies (he was two courses away from making it out of the basic education system and into college--he’d finally get to see those ship plans.) On other days he plied himself to genetics like it was his only reason for living, until he probably knew more than any geneticist on earth, at least when it came to cross species genetics. On especially bad days he curled up in his web and drank the strange sour smoothies his taste buds demanded, feebly adding things to Plan B or doing nothing much at all.

It was no way to live, not really, but there Peter was and it was all he had. At least he had MAY. She was often the only reason he managed to do anything at all.

---------

“Breaking News: Tony Stark, weapons developer and philanthropist, who went missing three and a half months ago in the Afghanistan wilderness after an attack on his convoy, has been found. The Air Force search party led by Col. James Rhodes discovered him trekking through the wilderness at 11:30 this morning, local time. A spokesperson for the Air Force has released a statement indicating that he is being treated in a base hospital for severe malnourishment and wounds indicating a prolonged period of captivity, but is expected to make a full recovery and will be returning to the US on Monday. We are all very relieved to see the return of someone so…”

Peter waved MAY off and the news program she’d pulled up disappeared. There were tears coming down his face and he dropped the tools he was using, hands shaking in relief.

Mr. Stark had made it home.

Logically Peter had known that he would. Mr. Stark had returned the last time around, and Peter had done nothing to change that. Still it had been a constant bother at the back of his mind, the knowledge that his hero, his mentor, his father , was somewhere being hurt. Peter couldn’t count the times he’d nearly hopped in the Mayday and gone tearing across the globe. He probably would have, if he’d known exactly where it was and been able to take down the full group of terrorists. Unfortunately even the best scanners couldn't tell exactly what shithole town was the shithole town with one specific prisoner without past readings and a small general area to work with.

“Thanks MAY.” he said.

“You’re welcome Peter.” said MAY.

Still a little shaky, Peter left his workstation and wandered over to the fridge to get some water. Finally, after months of failed work, something had gone right, and it gave Peter a little bit of hope that he could make other things go right to. After all, if he survived, then someday he might get to see Mr. Stark again, and that was a wonderful thing.

When he finished his water, Peter went back to work. Instead of working on the ship though, like he had been doing, he had MAY pull up his genetics project which he hadn’t worked on in a couple of days, too discouraged by the lack of a viable solution.

“I’m glad to see you working on this again.” said MAY, showing him the negligible progress she’d made while he was otherwise occupied, because while Peter might get discouraged MAY had no such problem and was determined to see him survive.

“Yeah.” said Peter. “Mr. Stark coming back… it reminded me of some things.” he reversed the current pattern and started playing with the variables. As long as he didn’t think about the fact that he was manipulating a recently scanned copy of his genetic code he didn’t do to badly, even if he was no closer to finding a solution.

“What did it remind you of Peter?”

“The arc reactor.” said Peter. “I guess in my time it was such a part of him that I never really thought about it, but I was reminded just now that he built it in a cave while slowly dying from shrapnel. Car battery’s not a real solution you know, just a stopgap. I just… I guess I remembered that he never gave up on it. Not then and not when he was dying from palladium either.”

“I’m glad he inspires you.” said MAY.

“Yeah.” said Peter. “He told me once that when he was dying from the palladium, he tried every possible isotope of every possible element and nothing worked. Said it was one of the worst moments he’d ever faced, knowing that he didn’t have a solution, that one wasn’t coming. You know what he did about it though? He just kept trying. He never stopped. He said that when you give up, and stop fighting to survive you’re already dead. You could be breathing and walking around but still dead because you’d given up hope.”

“I suppose in this case it is an admirable sentiment.” said MAY. “Am I to assume then that you’ve found your hope again?”

“No.” said Peter. “Not really. I just don’t want to let him down. He wouldn’t give up, so I won’t either.” he sighed. “I don’t think I could ever be as strong as him. When he doesn’t have any good options he makes new ones, stuff that has never been seen before…” he trailed off, an idea sparking in his mind.

“Peter?” asked MAY.

“MAY baby? Do you think we could find the answer in alien genetics?”

“The equipment and techniques you have currently are sufficient if not quite refined, and no more advancements have been publicized that can solve your problem. It is possible that the Kree may have something related to their practice of combining their blood with non-Kree to-”

“No.” interrupted Peter. “I’m not talking about the research MAY, or the equipment. I’m talking about the genes themselves. We’ve already tried everything on Terra, maybe there’s something out there that can help. Isn’t there that one race that can shape-shift? How do they do it--maybe the mutagenic properties they have can help me survive full gene expression.”

With a shock Peter realized that he’d just referred to Earth as Terra. He wondered when that shift had occurred in his brain. He shook himself out of it though, and focused on MAY’s response. “There is a distinct possibility.” said MAY. “Offworld genes are very different, however, and implementation would have to be very careful.”

“That’s okay.” said Peter. “We don’t need anything easy, we just need something that’s never been seen before. A game changer.”

-----------

Two weeks after his big revelation about alien genetics, Peter tested out of the last bit of the Nova basic schooling system and then confirmed his eligibility for the Imperial Science Academy’s distance learning program. He was accepted inside three days, and allowed to begin coursework after five, though he would have to wait a while for the next series of lectures and practicals to begin for some of the requirements.

That was fine with him though, since he was mostly there to use their library database. The ISA had one of the best ones in the galaxy, and it had all the cutting edge information on not only things such as the Vox-LS and other military hardware (a lot of the military’s designers came from there) but also such wonderful things as the most current and comprehensive genome studies. Peter had a lot of hope for them.

As it turned out, cross-species genetics wasn’t actually that rare as a field. In Empires like the Nova that encompassed multiple worlds with multiple species it was actually fairly common for two humanoids to fall in love and want to have a child (except they called them novoids because of their resemblance to the main species of the Nova empire), after which you’d need someone to make that combination of genes possible. Incompatible genetics were a hell of a contraceptive.

Peter was a little bit weirded out by the fact that so many species in the galaxy were basically human like, but he figured that was a question for another time, and moved on to looking at the different fertility studies.

The most promising bit of genetic material actually came from Xandarians themselves. Their genetics, instead of being two strand DNA, actually had three strands of RNA, making it technically TNA. Most interspecies geneticists agreed that having the third strand across everything let them smooth out the gaps between the Xandarian and non-Xandarian parent to prevent rejection. That was a concept that Peter could get behind.

Another tidbit that got Peter’s hopes up actually came from Gamora’s people. After their genocide a century ago (Gamora was that old?), the Zhen Whoberi had joined the Nova Empire in return for desperately needed aid. According to the files, the Zhen Whoberi were almost ridiculously mutable, and while that meant cancer was a common problem, it also meant that it was actually a completely normal thing for them to regularly alter their own genetics, a trait that Thanos had obviously exploited to its fullest extent in Gamora's modifications. In lieu of tattoos, they would actually genetically alter cells in patterns thought to be attractive.

This pleased Peter immensely, especially when he found several studies discussing why this was so.

The final thing that gave Peter hope was actually the Kree. Apparently, they’d solved the rejection problem that happened when you arbitrarily decided to make someone a Kree by implanting a device that controlled the body’s immune system and endocrine system. Peter found plans for the thing, and while he really didn’t want to use it, it would be a functional stop-gap for the problems he’d have implementing any other genetics. The Parkers had documented extensively the problems with changing genetics in a human adult, and he hoped the Kree device would prevent that.

Now all he needed was samples of those and a bunch of other genetics, a few petri dishes, and enough time to do it all in.

“How long do I have to live MAY?” he asked.

“Without treatment, about three months, though your function will decrease.” said MAY.

“Let’s start with the stuff we have here then. Before the alien stuff I think you said we could get it up to a year if we were lucky?”

“Yes.” said MAY, “Though the process will be incredibly painful and only a patch job.”

“That’s fine.” said Peter.

-----------

As it turned out, rewriting your genetics was even more painful than MAY could possibly have prepared him for. If Peter had thought having unexpressed genes pop up was bad in his first time round with the spider, then this wasn’t bad so much as it was unthinkable.

He wasn’t even doing that much, just patching up the places where the genes had already began to mutate and fall apart. And the process would be one he’d have to repeat monthly for the rest of his very short life unless he found something that worked better.

It started with a round of immunosuppressants. Then Peter webbed himself to the totally creepy surgical table his creators had put in one corner of the lab and stuck an IV in his arm to give himself fluids and a tube down his own throat (which was an experience in overcoming the gag reflex) for food. Once the prep work was done, he injected himself with the first virus he’d created and waited for shit to hit the fan.

Within fifteen minutes, it felt like he was being stabbed everywhere.

Within thirty, he was running a fever of 105.7 F, and MAY had deployed the air conditioning on it’s most extreme setting as well as encouraging him to get a few ice packs onto himself.

Within an hour, the pain was so bad that he was forced to web himself down to keep himself from clawing at his own skin.

At the two hour mark, when things were just starting to be bearable, it was time for the second injection.

Peter was never sure how he survived the following twenty-six hours. He had an injection every two, that he was forced to do himself because the lab around him hadn’t reached that level of automation yet, and it only got worse and worse. He sweated and screamed and cried and watched garbage cartoons in a haze of endless pain, and when it was finally over he was actually surprised.

He didn’t make it off the table afterward, and instead slept for what MAY informed him was two full days.

When he finally woke up, Peter felt weak, but better than he had in ages. He was unable to really do anything for the first few hours though, and eventually he simply stumbled over to the chemical shower that he used as a regular shower, and stood weakly under it for a few seconds to try and clean himself off. This was followed by a trip to the bathroom to vomit (there was no blood in the bowl this time when he finished), the drinking of what seemed an entire gallon of orange juice, and a trip over to the ceiling corner he used as a bedroom.

His web there was getting quite extensive, and Peter snuggled into it still naked with complete happiness. There was nothing quite so comforting as the feeling of spiderweb against skin and the knowledge that if anyone touched your web you would know.

After another twelve hour nap and some food, Peter was a lot more ready to face the world. He felt better than he had in ages, and honestly was a little alarmed at what had become of his living space.

Spiderwebs were everywhere. That was fine, and good. What wasn’t fine was that there was also trash, sweaty old clothes, random junk, and a funky smell that was somewhere between ship engine coolant and old sweat. It was disgusting, and Peter realized that he hadn’t been outside to civilization in weeks, not since his last food run nearly a month ago. He’d been eating out of cans and takeout boxes since then, desperate to fix his genes and unable to think of anything else.

“How are we looking MAY, asked Peter. He skillfully took a syringe to his arm, and then splashed a bit of blood onto one of the sophisticated gene-print readers he’d rigged from the Mayday’s scanners and a bunch of Parker tech.

“Everything’s looking good Peter. If you degrade at the same rate you did before, you’ve got a solid six months before it gets as bad as it was.” said MAY

“And isn’t that fantastic. I’ve got nine months to live.” said Peter.

“Probably a few more of that if you repeat this process regularly.” said MAY

“Ugh.” said Peter, walking over to the rolling garage style door on the side of the warehouse “Don’t remind me.”

As the door opened just enough for Peter to roll over the industrial fan, MAY made a happy buzz that Peter had learned to interpret as a chuckle. “It is likely that future sessions won’t be as bad since your cells won’t have diverged quite as far from optimal. I estimate that they will merely take a single day including recovery.”

“And thank heaven and science for that.” said Peter. He hopped over to the other end of the warehouse and opened the garage door on that side too. If he could get some airflow through the place his life would be a lot better.

“And your incredibly intelligent assistant.” said MAY. “Don’t forget to thank her.”

“Yes of course. Thank you MAY. You’re the best.”

“Of course I am.” said MAY. “You made me.”

-------------

“So.” said Peter a couple days later. “Wanna go to space?”

“Of course.” said MAY. “I have already plotted a course for Xandar.”

“Great.” said Peter. “Send in a request for genetic samples from the university. Bullshit something about understanding my modifications if they need a reason, but it’s totally a thing I have a right to do.”

“Absolutely.” said MAY. “Have you decided what you’re going to take with you?”

Peter shrugged. “Normal stuff I guess?” he said. “I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought of it. It is just a three day trip”

“I was speaking more of your cargo area Peter. I know it is small, but I have located several dark web sites that indicate that certain Terran items are highly valuable. The credits stolen from Crionian Ras will not last forever, and fuel is expensive.”

“Oh that’s clever.” said Peter. “You’re really earning your keep aren’t you.”

“Anything for you Peter. Would you like a list of the valuable items?”

Peter nodded, and a list pulled up.

At the top of it, surprisingly, was weed. Apparently there was a fad for interesting drugs in a lot of high end nightclubs, and genuine Terran Marijuana had already made a slight splash. Peter didn’t know where to get some, but MAY was a clever girl and had already figured out that there was bunches in evidence at the police station, a place that was easy to get to if you happened to be the size of a young child and more flexible than humanly possible.

Next on the list was anything Asgardian. Needless to say, Peter didn’t have any of that, but he recalled a SHIELD file he’d read once about a cave in South America and a berserker staff that he thought might do nicely. Loki had indicated that there were also a few caches that existed in other places, but Peter would need a bit more information and a long time in orbit to scan out where those might be. In the meantime, MAY was pretty sure she’d found the cave.

There were a few minerals listed--metals like vibranium, some magic stuff called uru, and a variety of rocks--but those were too useful for Peter to want to give them up if he had them, which he didn’t.

The rest of the list was a bunch of things that could be described only as ‘cultural curiosities.’ Music, games, art, clothes, jewelry, and spices. None of them were heavy hitters like the weed and gold, but they were all significantly easier to get, and Peter spent a happy afternoon at the flea market under the autumn sunshine buying up paintings of elephants and weird looking sculptures, as well as a truly enormous number of used records and CDs, taking them all out to his ‘van’ parked in an alley under holographic shielding. He technically could have just downloaded some music, but physical copies would seem more authentic and probably sell better.

Once that was all accomplished as well as a truly unpleasant midnight run to the police evidence lockup, Peter turned on the cloaking and flew to Venezuela. His flying had gotten a lot better since the body-dump ocean incident now that he’d actually read the manual. With practice, he thought he’d do just fine.

The Venezuelan cave turned out to be one of those ones that normal people can’t climb easily, but for Peter it was as simple as walking. The Asgardian treasure trove, which consisted of one berserker staff in nifty stone box, a truly ridiculous war hammer taller than Peter would ever be, and several long knives, was so great that Peter could almost see the credit signs coming off of them. Peter decided to keep two of the knives, since his future included a high probability of violence. Loki had taught him to use them too, so he wasn’t a complete novice.

Once he’d accomplished his stopover in Venezuela, Peter started out towards the jump point. The point was located just past Jupiter, and while technically speaking it was possible to jump anywhere past the asteroid belt, the Nova really didn’t like that and had a tendency to blacklist you or level excessive fines when you did that. Peter did not want that, and so he was going to end up going through the blockade checkpoint like everyone else.

To go through the checkpoint was a simple as coming within hailing distance of the station concealed within the planet and accepting a call. Peter did so as unsuspiciously as he could manage, zooming in close enough to the planet’s surface that he could see the outline of the military base floating within the upper layers of the gas giant, a spiky black thing that put Peter in mind of the gothic art deco hybrid hellscape in Batman comics. “Nice.” he muttered to himself.

Within seconds, a call came in from someone, which Peter accepted. He was wearing Vorian ranks and seemed surprised to see someone coming through his office, which was probably the least used customs office in the galaxy.

“Vorian Wir to the Mayday. Identify yourself and state your reason for passage.”

“Vorian, this is Nerian Sar of the Mayday, I am headed to Xandar for educational reasons and to seek medical aid.” Peter really hoped he had gotten that right. MAY had filed the right papers, but that didn’t make it any easier to sit in a ship full of contraband and lie directly to the face of a Vorian--which was a low officer’s rank, but still Nova Corps and thus dangerous. (It was possible that the propaganda in the Nova schooling system was getting to him. Then again, it might also just be that Nova history read as a series of military victories by terrifyingly competent forces.)

“Nerian, your papers check out. Do you have anything to declare?”

“No Vian.” said Peter (Vian was analogous to Sir in this case, though like everything the form changed with every rank.)

“Good. Please drop your shields now while we scan you for unregistered life forms.”

“Yes Vian.”

The scan took several seconds, after which the Vorian nodded at him. “Nerian Sar you are cleared for jump. Stars favor.”

“Thank you Vorian.” said Peter. Then the connection cut, and he flopped back in the seat with a sigh of relief, running shaking hands through his hair. “MAY you can quit it with the camo in the back.” he said. The illusion of a small cluttered living space disappeared, leaving the giant pile of boxed cargo behind.

Once it was gone, Peter navigated out of Jupiter’s gravity until he was at a good place to jump. Then he activated the drive, and went through his first quantum gate. It was a strange experience. Peter could feel, briefly, his body stretch and fold in the not-space of the wormhole before he was spit out on the other side, faintly nauseous but mostly fine. He could really tell now why it was common wisdom that most people could only handle seven in a day, and scientific fact that it was a really stupid idea to do more than fifteen.

Xandar was nine jumps away. Peter would just have to suck it up. In theory, if he spaced out his jumps by a few minutes though it would be slightly more manageable. He wasn’t sure of that, but he was willing to try it.

After jump four, Peter was feeling a bit sick, but there was a gap in the jump map here a few light years wide, so he was going to get a break a few hours long while depending on his light-speed engine which seemed like it would work like something out of Star Wars but in reality burned a ridiculous amount of fuel and didn’t go fast enough to get anywhere efficiently, which was why it was only ever used in the absence of a good jump point. Stretches like these were why traveling was so damn expensive.

The ‘civilized’ portions of the galaxy of course didn’t have this problem. Gaps were for the boonies and backwards mud-balls like Terra. Many ships in more central areas didn’t even have a light-speed engine, like the Vox-LS’ sister ship the Vox-SL (apparently the SL stood for sub-light and the LS stood for light-speed. Very efficient, that.).

In addition to that, the gaps were what slowed down Peter’s internet connection from nice fast internet to the space equivalent of nineties dial-up. The signals used the jump points just as surely as ships did, and whenever there was a gap they were bottle-necked into a pair of quantum-linked signal boosters, one on each end. It was yet another example of Nova civil engineering that was really great to have, but unfortunately not quite enough to fulfill the demands placed on it.

While he waited through the journey, Peter brushed up on Xandarian customs, his plans, the protocol for selling black market goods to the contact MAY had managed to find, and anything else that might be useful. He would never admit it, but he was incredibly nervous. He needed this to go right really badly, because if it didn’t he was going to be screwed beyond belief.

After the faster-than-light limbo, there were five more quantum gates, which Peter took slightly better because he was prepared, and then like a marble in the stars, Xandar.

It was a beautiful planet. Peter liked it on first sight, a traveler through the desert happening on an oasis. (He remembered how it had been burned to a cinder the first time around, and resolved not to let that happen again.)

Chapter Text

The soul world was, as always, orange dusky and dusty. Peter had decided long ago to try to ignore it whenever possible. The lack of day and night cycle was confusing, and the orange gave him a headache. If he ever met the asshole who designed this place he was going to put in a complaint and a request that they study color theory. A nice calm green would have gone a long way towards making Peter feel more comfortable.

As it was though, Peter was as comfortable as it was possible to be here. He was set up in the place that was sort of their ‘camp.’ Since directions and locations didn’t really exist here, it seemed to be the only place in the whole plane of existence at the moment, and Peter was there with only Dr. Strange, who was the sort of person who wasn’t terribly high maintenance to be around. The Dr. himself was meditating, attempting to connect with the energy of the soul stone using his past connection to the time stone, and Peter was lying on the ground with his head pillowed on Strange’s leg, doing the closest thing to sleep he could manage in a place where physical exhaustion didn’t exist. Mental exhaustion did exist however, and Peter was a bit weary, the constant lessons wearing down on him as surely as the ever-present orange.

At some point, Dr. Strange’s hand began carding through Peter’s curls, and in the haze of partial consciousness, he had no qualms about nuzzling deeper into the doctor’s leg and sighing in appreciation. It was hard to feel embarrassed when your entire world had narrowed to the feel of real and sincere human touch, something that Peter hadn’t gotten enough of since he’d been sucked into the soul stone without any of his loved ones.

Strange hummed, deep and rumbling, and Peter felt the vibration of it all through his body, it was a pleasant sensation. “Sometimes.” Strange said. “I forget that you are a child.”

Then he sighed heavily. “Oh Peter, you poor thing. We’re just piling everything up on you without a care for how you’re feeling about it. If I had a choice I’d wrap you up and keep you from the world forever.”

There was a silence then, full of unseen things, and Peter made a small noise of protest. He wanted Strange to continue. “There are going to be good times though.” he said. “There has to be. I was never a big believer in karma, but I think that with what you’re doing you deserve good things coming your way. You deserve the universe Peter.”

Peter sighed happily, not really listening to the words so much as the tone. He could hear a smile in the doctors voice as he continued speaking. “Did I ever tell you about how I was first introduced to magic? I don’t think I have, but things have gotten a little bit fuzzy in this godforsaken rock… we’re all losing so much… That doesn’t matter.

“When I first came to Kamar-Taj… I was broken. Prideful and broken and I thought that everything had gone wrong and that I deserved better. I walked into my first meeting with the Ancient one so… entitled. She didn’t listen to me though, she knew better than that, and instead she simply showed me how small I was.

“That’s the thing Peter. We are so small, so insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. Even the stars are like dust motes. At the same time, every single person is also powerful enough to change the whole schematic, ripples of choice shifting patterns further away than they can ever dream of. The tiniest choice can shift worlds.

“She showed me that. Thrust me out of my body into nothing, opened my eyes to the… enormity of it all. I was standing on a precipice and below me was all of creation. To be honest Peter, that was the moment in my life I came closest to believing in God, because there is just so so much. I was falling through dimensions, each one more complicated and impossible than the last, an infinite number of them all in the space of an instant.

“I had never seen anything more beautiful or terrible in my life.

“When I finally came back to my body, there was an instant where I could still see it. I still knew… It is indescribable. If we were in the real world I would show it to you. I think you could appreciate it, if I gave you those open eyes. You would make an excellent apprentice, Peter, because you already understand the lessons I had to take years to learn. Lessons I am still learning, about what is important, and what is right...

“I can’t do that here though. I can only tell you that the universe is a beautiful beautiful place in every view of it, and more than that, it is a fractal. No matter how small and insignificant you are, you are just as complex, just as beautifully crafted as the universe entire. When I come back from a meditation, from falling through the dimensions, in the last instant of knowing when I’m in my body but still have creation burning through my veins I can see just as much as I could when I had eternity before me, for all that I can merely see a room, and objects and sometimes people.

“I can see souls then. Traces left on items, pieces of care and life. The deep and unfathomable things that make us who we are. Everything and everyone is so… perfect. Simply flawless to me then. Those are my favorite moments.

“When I was first learning magic, I told myself that it was because of my hands, because of my injuries, because I was wrong and needed to be made right. The real reason though, even from the beginning when I was sitting outside Kamar-Taj for hours on end begging to be let in was because I wanted that… I had finally been shown how much worth and value there was in everything, how… important and yet extraneous we all are.

“I had seen the universe Peter, and I fell in love with it, with every piece I could see. I wanted nothing more than to touch it again, just for a little while.

“Sometimes, you know, I can still do it. Here in the soul stone we are nothing but expressions of souls, and in trying to connect with it I sometimes briefly touch upon the unexplainable. It is like… it is like breathing. So necessary and right that it is impossible to appreciate until it's gone.”

Strange paused for a while, though his hand still moved through Peter’s hair, slowly. It could have been a few instants or it could have been days. In the soul stone both were the same. “You have a very beautiful soul.” he said finally.

Peter smiled into his leg. That was definitely the nicest thing that Dr. Strange had ever said to him.

Peter had been a fan of Star Trek for as long as he could remember. That was actually untrue. He hadn’t been a fan before ending up with his aunt and uncle, who curled up on their couch and watched it with incredible regularity, but after moving in with them… he didn’t actually recall being introduced to it. He just… knew it, knew about it, and knew he loved watching it.

His favorite part about it, before he’d been old enough to be passionate about the relationships and groundbreaking social commentary, had been all the different worlds with all the different aliens. He liked finding out about new things, and the concept of people who were so different from him even if they looked alike excited him to no end. He was unironically fluent in Klingon, and knew far too much about every race in every single series.

Being introduced to the wider galaxy… It was a lot like Star Trek to him. There were so many peoples with so many cultures, and dammit, Peter wanted to know all about all of them, because they were so fascinating. Even the ones with absurdly complicated systems of honorifics. He thought he could be perfectly happy just world hopping and wandering around for the rest of his life.

Because of this, Xandar was basically the best thing that had ever happened to him straight from the beginning. MAY handled the approach and landing requests like a pro, and so once they’d paid for their docking space, (the Nova Empire was shockingly capitalist for a military dictatorship) they were good to go, and a nearly vibrating Peter hopped out of the Mayday to be assaulted by such an array of unfamiliar sights and sounds and smells that he could barely keep himself from grinning like a madman.

He checked quickly that his credit chits and seal of passage were securely tied around his neck in their little pouch (a storage strategy suggested by Old Peter as a way to avoid thieves), and then bounced out of the spaceport into the chilly, slightly gray day that was in some ways reminiscent of what Peter thought England would be like. The buildings and people were nothing like England though, and it was very hard for Peter not to stare. He needed to look normal here, and he couldn’t let himself get into touristy habits.

That need meant that his first stop was a clothing store. He didn’t want to buy much--he was still growing, and besides, he wasn’t going to be there for that long, but he knew that having normal looking clothes would help him a long way. He was already wearing clothing that was as Xandarian as he could manage from his limited wardrobe, but he wanted to have options.

Even something as boring as clothes shopping managed to be interesting on an alien planet. There was a metal detector looking thing at the door of the shop, and as he went through it, a hologram popped up and informed him of his sizes. It was very cool.

He walked through, and picked up two longish coats--one white because it was the most common and one indigo for MAY--in the Xandarian style, which seemed to involve asymmetry and floppy bits of extra fabric. He also grabbed a couple shirts and pants, and one of the ever present close fitting jumpsuits that seemed the preferred casual and work outfit of the people, also in indigo. Then he checked out, an extremely streamlined process which involved sending his stuff through another scanner and briefly plugging in his credit chit. Afterwards he walked out, put on one of the coats and looked a whole lot more like someone who belonged. No one gave him a second glance after that.

Peter’s second stop on Xandar was at a street-side food cart which hovered (!). He got what the person two before him had gotten, and ate it as he walked. It was strange, but good, and the hunger pangs he’d been having disappeared quickly.

After that, it was time to get down to business. The Nova, bless their souls, ran on a time system that divided their day into hundredths and then calculated the time as a percentage. Peter appreciated that, it seemed efficient. He had arrived about a quarter into the cycle, and it was now about 34%, which meant he had a lot of time to do things even though to him it seemed quite late. He’d just have to stay up, and overcome the jet lag as fast as he could.

He figured it would be smart to start by getting rid of all the smuggled goods in his ship.

To that effect, he dropped off his shopping, slipped in the low profile earpiece he’d prepared beforehand and had MAY direct him towards the buyer she’d found, someone with a reputation for being as fair as a black-market goods dealer could be, which meant he’d try to cheat Peter, but only until Peter proved that he had at least some idea of the market value of his goods, after which it would be straight shooting.

The entrance to the dudes office proved to be right off a public square, which was not what Peter had been expecting, but Nova Central had a serious shortage of alleyways so a nondescript door was probably the only camouflage a criminal could have. At least the nondescript security--a couple of average looking bruisers loitering with some subtle weaponry tucked into their clothes in such a way that you had to be looking to see it--was good.

Peter leaned against the wall on the side of the door as he had been instructed to do, and tried not to look like he was waiting for something. MAY had sent ahead that he’d be there, as well as a description, so they’d let him in as soon as it was convenient for them and they figured they’d given him enough time to be nervous. He wasn’t, but he appreciated the effort.

Eventually he felt the doors mechanisms start up behind him, and he turned around to go in right as it slid open.

The room was white, and had several curiosities from different worlds displayed on pedestals and shelves. Peter was willing to bet that none of them were illegal and that if asked, the Xandarian with the impressive eyebrows that was sitting behind the desk pretending to ignore him would be able to provide documentation proving he was nothing but a dealer in rarities and antiques of the sort that was so pretentious that only those in the know bought from him.

Peter smirked at the thought, and examined the pieces with genuine curiosity. A weird blue frog that looked like it was made out of gems caught his eye. He wondered if the ornament was intended to resemble a frog-creature, or if it was coincidental.

“Caught your eye has that one?” asked the eyebrow-dude. (On the shadier bits of the web he’d been known as Cademian Zor, but the Cademian rank (equivalent about to a doctorate) was probably fake, and the name definitely was.

“I was just wondering if it’s supposed to look like a weird bug or if it’s just bad design.” said Peter. All the movies indicated that looking a bit dumb, but not backing down or being polite at all, was the best way to go here, and since that was pretty much his only source besides Old Peter who acted both dumb and brash all the time, he was going to hold onto it with both hands.

“I am unsure, but I do like it, and if nothing else the stones are valuable.” said Cademian Zor, coming over. “Are you interested in buying.”

“No.” said Peter. “I don’t really need trinkets, which is why I’m selling some of mine.”

“Ah! I am always interested in new acquisitions. Have you brought scans of them?” Wow, Peter was doing really great at this. He managed to get the dude to the point without bringing up the fact that they were black market sales, which was a real win.

“Yeah.” said Peter, trying to seem dumb but not too inexperienced “Wanna see them? I’m sure you’ll like them. Some of the stuff is from Terra--genuine article too.”

He didn’t mention the Asgardian stuff. That would be his trump card.

“Oh?” said Cademian. He seemed intrigued, so Peter whipped out the little prism he’d filled with data, and plunked it down on the guys desk, which brought up the first item in the slideshow--pictures and scans both. Zor went back behind the desk to look at it.

“The animal’s an elephant.” said Peter when Zor looked up questioningly, “Terran animal the size of your average shipping crate.” he was referring to the subject of the rather ugly painting. He’d chosen it, because it was a real painting and not a print, and because he liked elephants, even ugly ones.

“I see.” said Zor. He flipped through the paintings quickly from there, paused briefly to read the materials on a few of the statues and knick-knacks, and raised one of his impressive eyebrows at the long list of music and movies. Peter had helpfully included a program that could scan them into a system. He was nice like that.

The weed got slightly widened eyes, though it was subtle, and Peter knew he was going to try to pretend that one was less valuable. Peter had let him, burying it in a pile of other things. He would only pull out his knowledge of it when it became necessary.

The weapons though--particularly the berserker staff. Those got an actual double take. The guy tried to disguise it, but it was there, and Peter was internally gloating. He’d left them at the end of his list of stuff, hoping not to tip his hand on their worth until the other stuff was bartered away. From all the stories Old Peter liked to tell, people like Cademian Zor would try to soften him up by being fair on some of the early items so that Peter wouldn’t suspect duplicity on the later more valuable ones. Unfortunately, Peter knew exactly how much those were worth and was perfectly willing to take his business elsewhere (though to be honest, he didn’t want to. Some of the other options didn’t put on quite as much of a veneer of civility.)

“There are some very nice pieces scattered in the rest of this.” said Zor. “I’ll give you five thousand for the whole lot.”

“Five thousand?” said Peter. “That sounds fair--for one or two of the paintings. For everything though? That wouldn’t even cover the cost of fuel, let alone the way I got through the blockade.”

“I suppose.” said Zor. “How did you do it? I would pay a lot more than five thousand to know that.”

Peter grinned at him. “The Terran's have a saying--a magician never gives up his secrets. I’m not a magician but I don’t think I’m going to sell anything besides what’s on the table.”

“Fair enough.” said Zor. “Ten thousand? I’m willing to be generous to a new customer. I’d like your business in the future.”

“No thanks.” said Peter. “In fact, I’d prefer not to bargain for the whole lot. A couple of those things are a bit more valuable than the rest. Like the weed. Terran marijuana sells for… a hundred credits a quarter-measure on the open market? Something like that. And I have nearly fifty measures right here. Just that’s worth at least eighteen thousand to you.”

Zor could tell now that Peter wasn’t quite so dumb  of a Terran hick, so he stopped trying to relieve him of all his stuff for a pittance, obviously intending to save his lying for the big items. Peter had also taken the precaution of not telling anyone where he was parked, so purchase was the only way Zor was getting anything--and Peter knew he wanted some of that stuff. “Well I’m sure we could come to an agreement about that. Perhaps you’d take the ten-thousand I already offered for it, and then we can talk about the rest.”

“Sure, if you add six thousand on top of that for my fuel. Trips to Terra are expensive.” It was a little bit heavy handed to mention yet again that he could make it through the blockade, but Peter wasn’t above pointing out that he was a potentially valuable person to know. The Venn diagram of people with loose morals and people who owned Seals of Passage had a very small overlap, and knowing someone like that was a great thing.

“Ah yes. Twelve thousand then. I do have a business to run.”

“I’d make more if I took a side trip to Contraxia and sold it to a brothel for the full eighteen. Five jumps isn’t far enough to justify that much of a lower price.” said Peter. To his surprise, he was enjoying himself. It reminded him of the business meetings Mr. Stark had sometimes let him sit in on.

“Perhaps thirteen.” said Zor.

“Still not cutting it, though I’m willing to go as low as fifteen and a half. I do appreciate the civilized atmosphere” said Peter.

“And I’m willing to go as high as fourteen.” said Zor “But no higher.”

“Hmm. How bout we compromise. Halfway between your number and my number. Fifteen thousand.” said Peter.

“Halfway would be fourteen thousand and seven fifty.” grumbled Zor.

“I suppose I can accept that number.” said Peter. “Done then.”

The poorly calculated ‘halfway’ number was a technique Old Peter had told him about when you wanted them to go up to a specific number halfway in between your offers. Bragging about his prowess in selling things was his third favorite thing, after bragging about his theft and flying skills, and bragging about his fighting skills. Peter had rather unwittingly learned a lot from him.

Zor regretfully recorded the proposed sale, and then the process of bargaining repeated itself. Peter managed to imply that he’d stolen some of the paintings and statues from a museum, and bought the others for a lot more than he had, thus driving up their value. The music he ended up giving up for a hundred a pop. He wondered if any of it would ever make it to Old Peter. He imagined that he’d like that (Peter had mentioned buying Terran things whenever he’d found them, even if it put him out for a while.)

Then they came to the Asgardian stuff. Peter had ended up keeping three of the knives, but the other two were a rather attractive matched set, so he still had hope. The war-hammer was probably worth a fortune, and the berserker staff… Peter didn’t even know.

“Let’s start with this one.” said Zor, “It’s a pretty piece, but I don’t really know… A few thousand maybe.”

Peter straight up laughed. It might have worked if he hadn’t known what it was, but he did know and that price wasn’t right at all. “More like a few hundred thousand just for the materials.” he said. “That’s uru plated adamantium, Cademian. Not something that comes cheap even if it wasn’t of Nidavellir make and Asgardian enchanted.”

“You seem knowledgeable. I don’t deal in weapons much though. How can you guarantee it’s genuine?”

“Elemental scans are mid right. And as for the make--check the bottom of the handle in the scans. The makers mark is there. It’s energy signature is recorded right under it. And we both know that the signatures for Asgardian enchantments are impossible to fake.”

Yet another reference to Peter’s value in blockade running. He needed this sale to work right. He needed the cash (well, actually he could have survived just of the weed, but more was always better when it came to money). More importantly, he needed the contact, the respect.

“You seem to have managed it somehow.” said Zor. Still at it with the attempts to find out how Peter did it, which was understandable if annoying.

“It wasn’t by faking a seal, I can tell you that.” said Peter. He was being honest too.

“Hmm” said Zor. “Well, if it is a forgery it’s good enough that I can sell it anyway.” he admitted. “Pieces this large… well, they’re essentially art to the good people of this galaxy. I’m afraid that bashing people over the head isn’t a common pastime in the type of people who can afford such a thing.”

“Which is part of the reason I’m here and not at a weapons dealer.” said Peter. “I have a feeling it’s worth more in this setting.”

“Quite right.” said Zor. Then he squinted his eyes and pursed his lips at Peter. “A piece like this is probably best sold at an auction. I can claim it was found at one of the old battle sites. World knows there’s a lot of them.”

“Why are you telling me this?” asked Peter. “If that’s so, then wouldn’t it be better for you simply to buy it from me before putting it out?”

“Perhaps.” said Zor. “But you can get into the nine realms. That is no small thing, and because of it I would like a decent business relationship. Perhaps a guarantee of more merchandise. Most smugglers have fences they prefer, and whoever you choose could end up with a few nice bonuses on their paycheck and a fair bit of reputation.”

“I guess.” said Peter. “So far you've been fairly decent to deal with.”

“Yes, and you seem a bit newer in this game. Certainly not stupid--you know what you’re doing, but you lack the habits of the more experienced people I deal with.”

“What gave it away.” said Peter. “The unique charm and commitment to hygiene or the fact that I’m seven.”

Zor actually laughed. “The goods actually. If someone was smuggling Terran items in this quantity, I would have heard. Most things from the realms come to us in bits and pieces from those obsessed imbeciles. They rarely if ever bring back a whole ship-full--even with such a small ship. After that realization… I watched.”

“Thank you for your honesty. How much of a commission do you want when they go to auction.”

“Fifteen percent.” said Zor.

Peter was wise to his tricks though, and was aware of the bargaining culture here. “Five and I’ll come back within half a year with another ship-full--I’ll even take requests. No guarantees on more Asgardian weapons. I’ll try, but finding this cache was more a stroke of luck than any deep knowledge of where Asgardians dump their trash, though eventually I have hopes of finding a way into Nidavellir itself.”

“Ten. I’ll throw in a map of past Asgardian battle sites. I sold one once, and I still have pictures of it.”

“Seven, and two shipments, plus the same deal for anything I find at those sites I don’t want to keep”

“You kept something back?”

“There was another set of knives, and someone I knew once told me that a good knife was a necessity for everyone. I doubt I’ll keep anything though. I don’t really need anything of the display case type, and most Asgardian stuff is made for behemoths.”

“I see your point. It’s a deal then.”

----------

Peter was still riding high on victory when he left the fence. He’d made a lot of money.

Cademian Zor had sent a couple goons with Peter to the spaceport. Peter might have the credits, plus a sizable advance on the Asgardian stuff (Peter was now a millionaire, though with the cost of existence as an interplanetary smuggler that experience would be brief) but it wouldn’t be properly his until he handed over the goods. Goons were good insurance against theft, and they were completely prepared to murder him unless their scans showed the same stuff as the ones Peter had. Peter wasn’t worried. His stuff was the genuine article, and MAY was on task to make sure it wouldn’t be messed with.

“Here you go.” said Peter, pulling open the large side door of the Mayday. The extra bio-metric security he’d installed was working perfectly, so the easily (if you were at all skilled) faked key signatures that the goons were probably scanning for so they could break in in the future didn’t happen. “Be gentle with the stuff on the top. It’s fragile.”

The goons were well trained, and soon they were headed out with one of the spaceports complementary transport pallets. Peter wondered how they planned to get it through customs. They probably had their ways. In any case, it wasn’t his headache, and he had a date to get to at the university.

-----------

In a weird anachronistic provision, Peter had to show up in person to request temporary housing at the Academy. He planned to be on planet for about a week, and the utilities on the Mayday left a lot to be desired. (he’d taken out the furniture to fit his Terran junk, and the bathroom and kitchen options were less RV and more Space Station, which was to say he had a handheld washing device that worked off sound-waves, some hand sanitizer, a hotplate, an itty bitty airlock, and a couple plastic bags. It was no way to live)

In the highly socialized Nova Empire though, he had options. There were hotels, of course, and rather excellent homeless shelters, but one of the fun things about being a student was that you were guaranteed housing and food for the duration of your education. Having a job while in college was simply not done. It was one of Peter’s favorite things about the entire system.

The ISA, with its focus on reaching even nontraditional students as long as they fulfilled the rather incredible testing requirements (it was essentially only open to those of genius level IQ, which made sense for the best school in the biggest meritocracy in the galaxy) had a multitude of dorms, and a temporary housing facility available to distance students showing up for research projects, important examinations, or even just while passing through on other business, though while they stayed there they were expected to show up for class. Peter’s session of lectures hadn’t started yet though, so he was basically free to use the student housing as a hotel.

Checking in required being there in person, but the receptionist essentially just took his bio-metrics, glanced at the file they pulled up, and handed him a room key (which looked like a data prism. Peter would have to be careful not to mess those up). Then they waved him by, and Peter hopped into the elevator with a smile. He was very excited to shower, since he still had Venezuelan cave dust on him. Then he planned to eat. A lot. And sleep for at least half a cycle.

It was only 73%, but to Peter it felt more like about three AM. He’d been up for a while.

Once he’d showered (again, not with water, but it was still good) he slipped into the jumpsuit he’d gotten to head down and find some dinner. Immediately, Peter became very aware of why this was such a popular wardrobe choice. It was possibly the most comfortable thing he’d ever worn. Food and then sleep. It sounded fantastic.

Chapter Text

It was a fairly normal day in the soul stone. Very orange, very bright, and with a great number of brilliant people doing math in the dirt.

That image was actually fairly common, despite the obvious weirdness of it. Stuff in the soul-stone was impervious to change, and that meant it was impossible to write on paper even if you had some. Hence the dirt writing.

Peter was fairly extraneous at the moment. He wasn’t an expert on quantum physics, like Dr’s Van Dyne, Pym, and Van Dyne, a sorcerer like… those robe people he didn’t recognize, or an astrophysicist like Dr Selvig and the other’s he’d dug up from somewhere. He knew some, certainly, he’d been hanging out in the various groups of scientists and magicians that had learned by word-of-mouth of the whole saving the universe thing for simply ages, but compared to the amount of genius currently in the.. Not room, he was small potatoes.

Still, it was both educational and entertaining to watch a physicist and a magician from different planets get into it over whether the basic laws of Magic were laws of physics or a created structure from a higher power, so Peter came to hang out near this place quite often, to watch them make calculations and begin figuring out the massive sand mandala that would control the spell to send him back in time. It was rather fun, especially since pretty much everyone in the whole soul stone wanted nothing more than to leave, and so groups of people who would have been enemies were united in purpose, and also in various humorous misunderstandings.

Suddenly, the productive and analytical atmosphere was shattered by the arrival of a large black man in leather with an eye patch who looked sort of like Mace Windu would if he was unable to release his anger into the force. “What the hell is going on here?” he said, loudly.

Peter wondered why he couldn’t have asked that in an inside voice.

Dr. Strange, who was spearheading the project, swooped in to get rid of any problems. Meanwhile Peter noticed Loki sneaking away on the other side of the group. He wondered what had happened. (actually he knew that. Loki had definitely done something to piss Mace Windu off. He just wondered what it was) “Hello.” said Strange, “What exactly do you want to know?”

Most of the people had gotten back to work at that point. People showing up and being confused was a semi-regular occurrence. “I want to know if there’s anything to the rumors that a group of--and I can’t believe I’m about to say this--wizards including Loki of all people knows a way out of this orange hellscape.” said Mace Windu Eye-patch Dude.

“We don’t know a way out.” said Dr. Strange, “But we have figured out a way to possibly turn back time, and send someone to the past to fix this mess, though it still needs work. It’s more of a theory at this point. If it does work though, then this” he waved his hand at the soul-stone around them “will never have happened. Everyone will just be able to carry on with their lives, none the wiser about the apocalypse that could have happened.”

“That seems nice.” said the pirate Jedi. “What’s the catch?”

“The catch?” asked Strange. “What do you mean the catch?”

“I mean the catch.” said Leather Windu. “If I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that every situation has some little fact about it that turns the whole thing to shit. I want to know what that fact is.”

“You’re not necessary here.” said Strange. “No one has to tell you anything.”

“True.” said the visually impaired vaapad master “But I do know a truly enormous number of bored spies who would just love to sneak in and fuck up your little sandcastle project.”

“A project designed to save you as much as anyone else.” said Strange. “Are you that selfish?”

“No. But I do believe that the half of humanity that’s left could probably survive, so I’m only going to jump on your time travel bandwagon if it’s going to result in a world I can live with. If you’re sending back Loki then this is simply not going to happen.”

“Well in that case you don’t have anything to worry about. The person we’re sending back is eminently trustworthy. A real hero. I’m sure you’ll be just fine.”

“Well who is it?” asked the guy who just kept getting cooler with each casually dropped fact (he was a spy too? Awesome)

Peter was aware that this pissing match could go on for a while, and he wanted to know what the deal was with Mace the Spying Dutchman sooner rather than later, so when Dr. Strange opened his mouth to say something, probably sarcastic, definitely cutting, he interrupted. “It’s me. I’m the catch.” he said.

The Jedi/pirate/spy dude turned a look onto Strange like he was Anakin Skywalker returning from a particularly dangerous stunt that could have gotten everyone killed. There was a pulsing vein and everything. “A KID!” he said “You’re resting all your hopes for the universe On A GODDAMN CHILD!”

“It’s worse than that.” said Peter cheerfully. “I’ll be in my past body. About nine, fairly spindly. Pretty cute but ultimately useless.”

“This is literally the worst plan I have ever heard of in my entire life.” said the man. He looked like he wanted to quake in his badass trench coat but was physically incapable of showing fear in any way.

“It’s the only one we have.” said Strange. “I would send someone else, but… To do this requires a person who has had the power of all six infinity stones pouring through them. Besides Thanos, who was the one to kill us all in the first place, Peter is the only one. He held the gauntlet briefly while fighting the Titan.”

Peter was then the recipient of a disbelieving gaze. “You held the infinity gauntlet?” he said. He was obviously well informed on what had happened to end the universe.

“Um yeah.” said Peter. “I was trying to pull it off of him. I nearly got it too.”

“Maybe we’re not as screwed as I thought.” mumbled the probable-ninja. Then he turned back to Dr Strange. “Nick Fury. It’s not nice to meet you at all. What are you going to need to succeed in your… thing.”

“Knowledge about the infinity stones. An extra couple astrophysicists. A table of some sort would help.” said Strange. “I’m sure more will come to me.”

“Hmm.” said the newly named Fury. “And what’s the plan for once you’ve got your person in the past?”

“Honestly,” said Peter, “It’s to find someone like Mr. Stark, do enough to prove that I’m from the future, and then tell them and let them deal with it.”

“That plan sucks kid.” said Fury. Then he frowned as if to himself, “Though letting Stark prepare for the threat isn’t a bad idea.”

“It will be a while before the spell is ready.” said Peter. “So we were going to hash it out more later. If you’ve got any ideas though…”

“Well first of all,” said Fury, “Don’t leave the planning for a trip back in time to a bunch of scientists.”

The next day, Peter had intended to go take a peek at the hospital as well as a few junk shops and dumpsters. One of the main reasons he’d come to Xandar in the first place was because he wanted new toys to play with, the possibility of better weapons, and technology with which he could implement his stupidly reckless genetic alteration plans.

It was with no small amount of shame that Peter realized his first instinct was to steal at least some of those things.

It wasn’t necessarily that he didn’t know that for all intents and purposes he was a criminal this time around. He knew that. He’d known that since his first crime (Breaking and Entering plus a side dish of Petty Theft down at the elementary school), and all the way up through his worst one (Murder), and his most recent ones (breaking into police evidence lockup, illegal entry to a lot of places, and interplanetary smuggling). Most of his actions since coming back had been crimes actually.

The real reason he was shocked was because even despite those things Peter had still thought of himself in some ways as the small time superhero who stopped crimes like those on a daily basis. Yes he’d known he was committing crimes, but he hadn’t thought of himself as a criminal. Now though… he was sort of being hit in the face with the sheer lack of morals to which he had sunk. Peter was now the sort of person whose first instinct upon needing something was to wonder where he could steal it. Hell, he considered murder to be a viable option in pursuit of his goals.

He was a bad person now, and he was just going to have to face that. He’d known he’d lose some things coming back. He’d lost a lot already--like his relationship with May and Ben. He’d never thought though that he’d lose himself.

That didn’t mean he could stop. Peter might not be a good person anymore, but he was still here to save the universe. That mattered and he was committed to it. It was the only good thing he could still hold on to (especially since there was some small place in Peter that actually enjoyed a lot of the things he was doing. Stealing and smuggling was very fun, in a Han Solo risk taking way, and it gave him the same sort of rush he used to feel doing a swan dive off a skyscraper. He thought he might love it.)

His intrusive thoughts keeping him from the hospital that he’d intended to rob at some point, Peter instead took a long walk through Nova Center all through the morning, looping around the edges of the richer districts. When he’d been a kid in Queens who mostly got his tech from the garbage, he’d figured out quickly that the best place to find good stuff was right on the edge of the rich people places. Rich folks generally had nice stuff that they got rid of, and lower class second hand stores and dumpsters was usually where it ended up.

It was a fine line Peter walked, between dumpsters whose garbage was too worthless to be worth picking through, and areas where someone picking through the trash like an oversize raccoon was cause for alarm. He’d mastered it long ago, though, and while Nova Central was generally better maintained than New York (these people had public works on lock) there were still ways to tell, from clothing quality to the frequency of balconies in the apartment buildings.

Despite his morose thoughts, and the challenge of the new location, it was a highly enjoyable morning for Peter. As it turned out, Xandarians stuck their trash in an incinerator, and the stuff that ended up being taken out was exclusively recycling. That meant that it was possibly the cleanest dumpster diving experience Peter had ever had outside of a construction dumpster, and he reveled in it as well as in the glorious technology he was finding. (It was almost like these people didn’t know how easy it was to reuse the material that made up variable-state display screens. Like yeah, I get that your nice clear tablet is no longer collapsing into something the size of a keychain. That’s something that can be fixed in three minutes though, so there’s no reason to throw it away)

Eventually the fun came to an end though. Peter had filled several large bags with junk and was just thinking about heading back when he was accosted by a pair of Vorian on patrol.

“Hey! Kid! What do you think you’re doing?”

Peter smiled angelically at them. He was prepared for this question. “I’m gathering data and samples for my sociology project.” he said.

Being friends with someone fond of directly asking people the distance between their clitoris and vagina, and whether their sex life was satisfying (MJ) and someone who liked far too specific knowledge of things like government databases (Ned) had made Peter always ready to excuse inappropriate social actions. He’d found that education was a pretty much universally acceptable excuse (‘oh, she’s doing research to re-prove the conclusions of the late sex researcher Marie Bonaparte. We’re trying to bring awareness to the modern era.’)

“What?” said on of the Vorian.

“I’m trying to demonstrate how different income levels affect the amount of wear and tear people will accept before throwing something out instead of repairing it. The idea is to prove that a lot of the refuse of many higher-income families would be better sent to charity than a recycler. It’s more energy efficient and cheaper that way.” said Peter, looking as enthusiastic about the prospect as he was about such things as space travel and Iron Man.

“That seems interesting.” said the Vorian, looking suspicious. “But not like it would require picking through these good people’s things and disturbing the peace. Couldn’t you just do a survey or something?”

“Oh no! Most people don’t know enough about technology to really be able to tell how badly broken their things are. I’ve found that it’s much more accurate to take a couple things from different areas, scan their problems back at the Academy, and then compare how much it would cost to fix it with the average cost of recycling a similar item. Scans are hard evidence you know. No bias at all.”

At the mention of the Academy, the Vorian visibly relaxed. Peter could practically see him thinking that surely a member of such a fine upstanding institution wouldn’t be stealing from the garbage because he was a cheap ass Terran who planned on parting with the minimum number of credits possible in his unfortunately short life. He gave another innocent and passionate grin. “Do you think you can help me move those two big pieces?” he said. “I think I see parts from a sonic shower below them, and that would be a really interesting data point.”

At this point, the two Vorian were completely taken in by Peter’s story. It was a rare person who asked the police for help while actively commiting a crime, even one so minor as trespassing in people's garbage and disturbing the peace, and that provided him with quite a shield. (Peter didn’t actually think he was doing anything wrong, but Nova Law wasn’t the sort where due process was a thing, so if the officers decided they didn’t like what he was doing, it was goodbye Peter. Even a tiny fine would get his records looked at with a finer eye than Peter necessarily wanted.)

They helped him with the heavy things (he could have lifted them himself, but not without ruining his cover as a perfectly average novoid of some Terran descent) and he even got some rather nice frequency emitters out of it. As they left, Peter heard one of them say “What an intelligent young man.” once they were out of a standard earshot, and he smirked. He was done with the dumpsters for now, but it was always a fun activity.

-------------

When he returned to the Academy after a quick trip to the Mayday, Peter had a message waiting for him on the room’s comm. It appeared to be from a Ygrian Tam. With a shock, Peter realized that he was unfamiliar with the honorific. That was… slightly embarrassing, especially since memorizing the whole list was a requirement to graduate basic education, a task that one could not legally be considered an adult without. (Interestingly enough, completion also qualified you as an adult, a fact that Peter was very glad for because it meant he didn’t need to invent a legal guardian.)

Also, Peter’s memory was something like eidetic unless he really wasn’t paying attention. He remembered the goddamn serial number on his childhood refrigerator, and that made it alarming that he didn’t know what a Ygrian was.

MAY proved helpful in this as she did in all things. “A Ygrian is quite an uncommon type of person Peter, and is therefore not on the standard list.”

“You mean there are more of these stupid titles that I don’t know?” asked Peter.

“Throughout history there have been four thousand eight hundred and twenty six title designations within the Xandarian language. Six hundred are still technically in use.”

“Thank stars they’ve pared it down that much.” said Peter “So what does Ygrian mean?”

“It appears to be a type of social worker concerned with those who are legally adults but still young enough that they are not completely mature physically or emotionally. In a meritocracy like the Nova it is sometimes difficult to ascertain when someone is actually ready to live independently, thus the Ygrian who will be assigned to you for the duration of your time at the Academy, or until you reach physical maturity.”

“Oh just what I needed, the CPS showing up and being concerned about my ability to parent myself.” said Peter. “Any advice on how to handle them?”

“Demonstrate emotional and mental maturity and competence. Your meeting today will determine the schedule in the future, which could range from a conversation every lecture series to constant care until you are physically an adult.” said MAY.

“And just when I thought I’d escaped foster care.” said Peter.

MAY buzzed in unspoken amusement. “May I suggest a change of clothes? You have 7% before your meeting, and it wouldn’t do to seem unprepared.”

“Not you too!” protested Peter. “I’m perfectly self sufficient”

“Whatever you say.” said MAY “Though the engine grease and refrigerant stain on your jumpsuit do not give that impression”

“Yeah, yeah.” said Peter. “Whatever you say.”

--------------

Ygrian Tam was… interesting. They were an incredibly short and slightly pudgy person of no particular species or gender with skin the color of Mr. Stark’s favorite coffee and hair the color of Mr. Stark’s favorite coffee mug (a shitty turquoise one that read ‘world’s okayest mentor’). Despite the Nova’s focus on formality and privacy, they greeted him with a hug and then proceed to start the meeting by asking if he was having any problems that he’d like to get out of the way or off his chest first.

“Um… no?” said Peter. “I’m fairly self sufficient.”

“Okay.” said Ygrian Tam, beaming at him. “That’s really great. I’m glad that you’ve figured out a system that works for you.”

“I guess” said Peter.

“So, let's start by getting to know each other. I want to know what makes you tick.”

“I’m fairly sure that it’s my heart.” said Peter. “Along with several other important organs and bodily systems.” He wanted to keep this as impersonal as possible.

“Slightly morbid, but funny.” said Tam, “I give it seven out of ten. But really though, what do you like to do, what do you see yourself doing for the rest of your life. Stuff like that. Just give me an overview. I’m not asking specific questions yet because I want to see what you think of first as important.”

“Um, well, I guess I like to build stuff--invent stuff, and honestly I’d be happy to keep doing that forever. And um…” he trailed off.

“Take your time.” said the Ygrian. “We’ve got all afternoon.”

“Yeah, well the thing is that since you’ve put me on the spot I have forgotten everything I’ve ever done, like ever.”

“Does this happen often?” asked Tam “Do you have trouble whenever you’re… put on the spot?”

“Not really.” said Peter. “Just about personal stuff. Ask me about science and I’ll talk for hours. My--guardian” Peter caught himself before he could refer to Mr. Stark directly “Used to call it word vomit. Said he could probably record it and then use it as a white noise machine.”

Tam laughed. “I can see that.” they said. “This guardian, you seem fond of him. Tell me a bit about him.”

Peter decided to stick as close to the truth as he could without being specific. “He saved my life, and taught me a lot about... Well everything. Didn’t really intend for it to get personal--he mostly started by simply wanting to help someone who reminded him a bit of himself--but it did, get personal that is, and we ended up sort of like family. Sort of.”

“He sounds like a great man.” said Tam. Then they frowned slightly, “Saved your life.” they said and then paused, “You can stop me if you’re uncomfortable, but does that have anything to do with the… unusual origins in your file?”

“Yes.” said Peter. He didn’t say anything more, and stared Ygrian Tam down. He was going to be semi honest, he wanted this person on his side, and they seemed the type to smell a lie at fifty paces, but that didn’t mean he wanted to talk about… that.

“Okay then, thank you for the honesty.” said Tam “Let’s talk more about your support system. Obviously your guardian--I assume he’s still in the picture?”

“Yeah, we’re not done with each other yet.” said Peter. It was true, from a certain point of view. Mr. Stark would never be his… person again, but Peter could pretty much guarantee he’d be involved in the fight against Thanos.

“Good, that’s good.” said Tam. “Who else do you have?”

“Um…” said Peter. “MAY. Mostly MAY, yeah.”

“Who is… May?”

Peter beamed with pride. He loved it when people asked about his inventions. “MAY is my Artificial Intelligence. I coded her myself. She’s the best.”

“A sentient AI? Impressive.” said Tam “I assume she’s within the legal limits?”

“Yeah.” said Peter. She was for Terra at least. He wasn’t sure what the Nova laws were.

“Okay.” said Tam. “She’s probably a lot more present than anyone else. I know you engineer types, and you wouldn’t be able to function without your assistants. Is there anyone else?”

“Those are the main ones.” said Peter. He conveniently failed to mention that they were the only ones, and one of them didn’t know he existed.

“Okay, let’s move on to living situation. I don’t have a listed address beyond planet for obvious reasons--I wouldn’t even know what an address there meant--so I’m going to need a bit of background information.”

Peter tried to think of a way to make squatting in a shitty secret lab that he didn’t own sound good and fun. “I live in New York City--which is pretty much one of the biggest and best cities on the whole planet, in a converted warehouse that’s part lab part living area. It’s big enough that I can bring the Mayday--that’s my ship--inside, which is great since, y’know Terra. Not somewhere you can park a ship. It’s pretty nice. I’ve got some decent fabrication equipment too.”

“That sounds suited to your interests. You live alone?”

“Since I left my guardian. I’ve got MAY though, and that’s cool.”

“Great. Your living situation sounds just fine. If you perform well in school I don’t think we’re going to have any problems with that end.”

It was one of the greatest things, Peter thought, about Nova culture, that upon hearing that a seven year old lived alone their first concern was not who they belonged to, but whether they could take care of themselves. “I’ll do my best.” he said cheerfully.

“I’m sure you will,” said Tam, “Which brings me to the next issue I want to talk about.”

“That sounds foreboding.” said Peter, suspiciously.

“Not really.” said Tam, “It’s about your education. Minor placement issues.”

They started bringing up a file on their desk, and Peter struggled to read it upside-down. He didn’t get very far before the Ygrian kept going. “You aren’t quite the youngest person we’ve accepted to the academy.” they said, “though you’re fairly close to the top, but you are the record holder for the fastest progress through basic education in its current form.”

“Cool I guess?” said Peter, “What does it matter though?”

Tam smiled at him “That program is designed to take nearly three Xandarian decades for someone of average intelligence.”

With a Xandarian year taking about eight Terran months… That was twenty years of education right there. “Wow.” said Peter.

“Exactly.” said Tam. “You managed to make it in less than half a year. Closer to a quarter actually. That's… essentially unheard of.”

“I did start late though.” said Peter. “I already knew reading and stuff, and math and science are the same in any system. I only had trouble with the history, and things like that.”

“Hmm, I see.” said Tam. “You did mention your guardian teaching you, and it looks like you tested out of a lot of the more technical areas.”

“Exactly.” said Peter, “So it’s not really as impressive as you made it sound.”

“I suppose.” said Tam, “Though I’m less concerned with commendation and more with keeping your continued education at the best possible speed for you. Your assignments might be self paced, but I have a feeling that if you stay true to the learning curve exhibited here… You might outpace the lecture series’ you are placed in.”

“I’m fine with that.” said Peter. “I want to get the full experience here, and I don’t mind listening to someone teach something I already know. It’s interesting the second time too, and I’m sure that the Cademoral’s will show me something new. There’s a lot you can’t learn from books.” It was a cute little speech he’d given various forms of a lot over the course of his life. Most every teacher he’d ever had had wanted him to skip at least their grade (and Mr. Stark constantly questioned how he hadn’t graduated college yet), but May had been firm that he would stay with everyone else even if he didn’t want to, and he was pretty sure it had left him a lot more emotionally stable than he would have been otherwise, even if it chafed. Besides, he’d found his best friends at school.

“That is a good view to have, but the Imperial Science Academy is the best for more reasons than the fact that we’re the central scientific university for the entire Empire. We’re the best because our main goal is to get every bit of potential out of every student, and letting someone sit through lectures on things they already know isn’t doing that. You have a right to learn just as much as everyone else, even if you do it at a different speed.” said Tam

At that point, Peter realized that she had a point. He was… well, he was pretty much guaranteed not to fit in with anyone, since anyone his mental age would see him as a child, and people his physical age were actually children. And besides, he was in a meritocracy, and at this point he was very aware that intellectually he had quite a bit of merit. Mr. Stark had devoted a lot of time to training the humility and efforts at averageness out of him, saying that if he was different then he’d be happier if he let himself be that way. Peter had a feeling that the man was speaking from experience.

“What do you think I should do then?” he asked.

“That is entirely dependent on how long you can stay on Xandar.” said Tam.

“I was planning on a week, but I don’t have anything really pressing to get back to.” said Peter. The next thing he wanted to monitor in the timeline--the business with Thor, and then the palladium debacle with Mr. Stark wasn’t until next spring, and it was only August. “I could extend it a bit, though spaceport berthing would get rather expensive.” He shrugged. His plan of a week had been entirely arbitrary and based only on the fact that that was how long it would take him to get what he needed.

“I’m sure we could figure something out.” said Tam. They looked down at their papers. “It looks like you have several cosmonautical engineering courses. Maintenance bays within the university are available to students doing projects of that type. Would that work?”

“Actually… yeah.” said Peter. “I’ve had a couple things I’ve been intending to do anyway.” With a shock, he realized that he was now planning for an extended visit. This was… different. Really different. He had not anticipated it at all.

“Great. I imagine you could go far, given the time and resources.”

“Probably.” said Peter. He wondered what the hell he was doing. Signing up for school had been an excuse to get the Vox-LS plans, and then a pleasant diversion. Now he was committing to actually attending the damn thing? What was he thinking.

“So, let’s talk about the ways we could handle this.”

Oh yeah, Peter had been thinking, in the part of him that was still a fourteen year old kid desperate to be just like Mr. Stark, that he wanted to make something of himself.

---------

In the end, it was decided that Peter would stay at least for the two tenths of a year (tenths were sort of like months, if a bit shorter) he had before the next lecture series was scheduled to start. During that time, he would be attempting to progress as fast as possible through the curriculum. He’d end up in whatever levels of lectures he managed to make it to.

The whole system was a bit different. Getting the requirements you needed to graduate could happen at any time, and was based more on tests and thesis style projects than credits. Hypothetically, if Peter learned fast and didn’t fuck up, he could get the equivalent of a lower level degree before even making it to his first proper class.

He sort of wanted to do that. There were five levels of degree that could come out of a Nova university, and the lowest ones… looked achievable. (the highest, which was Cademian, seemed like the sort of intellectual gauntlet that Mr. Stark would struggle with)

In any case, he had a ridiculously nice library at his disposal along with a well stocked maintenance bay and a genetics lab beyond his wildest dreams (the enormous university was perfectly willing to let students have space all to themselves for even longer periods of time. There were hundreds of maintenance bays and probably over a thousand of the small laboratory units of the type that Peter had been assigned. It was like an academics wet dream). There was also utterly fantastic fabrication workshops, and Peter knew that his half formed plans of preparing as much as he could for the terrible future ahead could actually be realized. Even if he never got any sort of education here, that would make it completely worth it.

Another thing that surprised Peter was how willing they were to spend time on him. The Cademorals (which were like professors) were really really helpful, and the ones that Ygrian Tam introduced him to to help with their strange educational acceleration plan were totally on-board with giving up hours of their time to help Peter if he and MAY couldn’t figure something out on their own.

It didn’t make sense for quite a while, until Peter got sort of hit in the face with the truth in the form of a sort of career fair going on in the student cafeteria he was trying to peacefully eat his lunch in. Most of the people going out of the Academy were going to become Nova Corps of some sort, or failing that, contractors for the military or government. The Imperial Science Academy carried the expectation that your future would be spent working for the betterment of the Empire, just as much as was expected at the Academy’s sister school, the Imperial Service Academy.

Nerian didn’t mean student here so much as it meant investment.

That left a bitter taste in Peter’s mouth all the way back to his maintenance bay, where he was finishing up with a project on the subspace navigational manifold.

His darker thoughts were interrupted though by a passing Cademoral who peeked in through the open bay doors. “Nerian Sar! I thought I heard the sound of your tinkering.”

Peter’s opinion that these people didn’t actually care about him, but only what he could do for them melted away. Cademoral Jik was not only impossible to dislike, but Peter also didn’t think him capable of any kind of ruthless cost-benefit analysis. Perhaps the system was designed to benefit the Empire, but the people Peter knew at least were there for the Nerians.

“Hello Cademoral.” said Peter, emerging from underneath his ship and wiping his hands on a cloth he’d thrown over the shoulder of his jumpsuit--which was a more durable version of the standard one in a nice green he rather liked. “What brings you by?”

“Oh I’m just wandering.” said the Cademoral. “I get bored, you know, when I don’t have classes to teach, and my last one ended five percent ago!”

“Mmm.” said Peter, distractedly running tests on his improvement via a holographic interface. “You must be basically dying by now then. Five whole percent.”

“Don’t tease me. I might not help you through that jump science unit you’re struggling with.” came the response.

Peter grinned angelically at him. “Cademoral Jik! You’d break a promise? How… dishonorable of you.”

Jik laughed at him. “I might be ex-corps but that doesn’t mean I’m ex-sentient, Sar. I know exactly what I promised and help wasn’t it.”

“What did you promise then?” asked Peter, “Because I seem to specifically remember you telling Ygrian Tam that you’d get me through that course by the end of the five-day.”

“Get you through, not help you.” said the Cademoral. “I could always accomplish it by just locking you in your bay and not letting you out until you were done.”

Peter giggled. Jik wouldn’t do that, he was way too nice. “I would just escape anyway.” he said. “I could totally hack whatever lock you put on the door.”

“Could you hack the fact that I parked a terraforming engine in front of it as a barrier?” asked Jik.

“Of course.” said Peter. “I’d get into the maintenance divisions assignment program and get a nice big pair of Chanians to come take it away.”

“Incorrigible brat.” said Cademoral Jik.

“Malfunctioning ex-sentient” returned Peter happily. Exchanges like this always reminded him of Mr. Stark and his playful banter…

Jik scoffed. “Come by my office tomorrow and we’ll work on it.” he said. “If you’re late I’m bringing out the terraforming engine, and a couple Nerians to keep anyone from moving it.”

“Sounds fun.” said Peter. “I’ll bring snacks.”

----------

A few five-days later, Peter realized that he’d somehow managed to get distracted and forget entirely what he was supposed to be doing.

He’d been walking through a park, mentally reviewing reaction tables for different cold fusion materials (Cademoral Ran was on his ass again about them), when he glanced over to the side at a slight commotion. Someone had tripped and spilled a drink, right in front of the exit across from the hospital.

Hospital. Peter had been intending to rob a hospital.

It all came back to him with the subtlety of a freight train. He wasn’t a student, free to just learn and enjoy himself. He was here for a reason, not to be a regular person. He didn’t get to be one, because he had a purpose here and it wasn’t to talk about cold fusion with a brilliant professor. No, it wasn’t for that, even if Peter had thought about it and honestly didn’t have anything better to do with his time than attend the university (he really had arrived too early.)

Peter was there only to fix himself, his genes that were tearing him apart. He needed to fix himself, as soon as he could because if he died too soon then someone else would be responsible for saving the world (Mr. Stark, because Peter couldn’t leave well enough alone). He couldn’t let his-Mr. Stark shoulder that burden alone.

He could keep learning, keep enjoying himself, but it could only happen if he got back to work as soon as he could.

That night Peter got in touch with Cademian Zor about the upcoming auctions and got his shit together just in case he needed to bug out. Then he started designing tools. He was going to use the fabrication units while he had the chance. Then he was going to get the stuff he needed for a full genetic rewrite and leave.

He just hoped that he wouldn’t be burned, that he’d have the chance to come back.

After all, he really liked it here, and after he saved the world (not if, never if) he’d like to have at least one place he could come back to.

Chapter Text

There were two Wakandan scientists and one mystic working off and on on the combined go-back-in-time research task-force. That had been… surprising. Their resistance to sharing what they knew was less so. It was like they still thought that their country was isolated and in danger despite being both dead and post apocalyptic.

Eventually though, their king had organized better unification (Peter sensed Fury’s hand in that) and things got along fine. What Peter hadn’t expected was how they included him in that… knowledge sharing. True, Peter was going back in time, and in general everyone wanted him to be the best prepared he could be, but he still never expected His Majesties command that all the dead of Wakanda (at least the ones who could help him) open their arms to Peter and help him. Of course, they did want the world saved as much as anyone else, and at this point, since Peter was the only choice they would simply have to make him the best one.

“FOCUS!” cried Ayo, hitting him over the head with her spear. “You cannot let your mind slip away from the fight.”

Peter rolled forward underneath her legs and then kicked out at one of her knees from behind. She shifted her stance less than an inch to absorb the blow, and did a fancy spear thing that resulted in Peter getting hit again. “Your focus is your greatest tool, your mind your sharpest weapon. Even the best trained person cannot win a fight they do not attend.”

Peter rolled over and tried again from another angle. Ayo was playing defensive at the moment and forcing him to attack--the only way to make the fight last since it turned out that every single Wakandan military person was enhanced (though none so much as the King). It was irritating. Peter preferred the lessons he had with various scientists, spies, and magicians. Straight up fighting… wasn’t something he was quite as good at, though someone (probably Loki for the simple reason that he was a dick) thought it was important. He couldn’t refuse though. Most of the people who trained him he liked, and of the ones like Ayo who he didn’t know that well, he was both too terrified and too reluctant to cause a diplomatic incident to complain about.

The butt of the spear thudded over Peter’s head again, and he broke off his attack to try yet again. “Never assume.” said Ayo. “Only watch. Never commit fully to a plan.” she continued, while putting him through a bit of a hard time dodging. “Be prepared to react and change, always.”

Peter wished he was allowed to talk during this so he could respond, but no, that was a distraction and therefore Not Allowed within the school of Ayo. She’d broken him of the habit of talking while fighting within the first fifteen minutes of knowing him.

“The strength of the Dora Milaje is in persistence without bullheadedness. Structure without rigidity. Tradition without stagnancy.” said Ayo. She completely changed the way she was fighting then, into a different one of Wakanda’s many styles. “A tree may bend to the wind, but it continues to grow.”

Peter received what would have been a death blow, but since death wasn’t a thing, Ayo had decided that those wouldn’t receive breaks, so he grabbed some dirt and chucked it in her face to give himself some time to regroup and reposition for the next attack. Fighting fair was another habit that everyone he trained with had broken quickly.

“A river may be redirected, but it’s flow cannot be stopped, nor can the erosion it causes.” said Ayo. Her lessons always happened during fights, which Peter considered unfair especially since he was supposed to focus.

“That is what you must be, to receive the gift we offer you. Adaptable, but unchanging in your goal, your core. Only then will you win.”

Peter began a series of swift attacks. He knew that he was technically faster than Ayo, and he decided to try to overwhelm her that way. It didn’t work of course. She matched him blow for blow, and then moved her blocks until he was overreaching and she could yank his hands (which were on her spear) over to the side and knee him in the kidneys.

“Why were you attacking my hands?” she asked. “That is not your goal. Fight me, not my weapons.”

Peter nodded as he backed up to try again. Ayo was having none of that laziness though, and pressed her own attack. Clearly they were onto the second part of the lesson, the bit where Peter tried to defend himself from someone who was both unpredictable and highly trained, which never went well at all.

“Your purpose should always be to finish the fight, and that end is not defense, or exchanges. It is in the vulnerable places. Don’t fight. Kill.”

Peter took that advice and tried a small counterattack. It gave him a breath of room, and so he tried it again, though a different one because being predictable was a great way to end up dismembered in a humiliating fashion. “You must always be without doubt, without fear.” she said. Then she stabbed him right through the eye, pinning his body to the ground. “Without hesitation.”

Peter yanked the spear out of his head and threw it away. Obviously that would be impossible in a real fight, but he was currently unkillable and willing to take advantage of that. His virtual body reformed in seconds as he scrambled away, Ayo in pursuit. As soon as he got to his feet, she attacked again, faster this time though without her spear, a fact that Peter was immensely grateful for.

It ended in second of course, when Ayo choke slammed him back into the ground. “Do you know why the black panther is powerful?” she asked.

Peter wanted to say because he was extremely enhanced and well trained. He didn’t though. He understood what lesson was being taught. “He’s focused?”

“Precisely.” said Ayo. Peter was still being held down. “The Black Panther’s goals are like the Dora Milaje’s. Protection for Wakanda, always. He is not T’Challa then, because T’Challa is a man, with a man’s thoughts and goals and conflict. He is weak. When he is the Panther though, he cannot be, for he carries us all. To do that, he must become nothing less than Wakanda itself. You are not Wakandan, but your goal is similar. Protection, always. When you fight, Peter, you must be the world.” She let him go. “Or the world will fall.”

Peter had a plan. He was going to make it through the first three levels of degrees while he waited for the Asgardian weapons to be sold, get his credits, rob the hospital of the medical equipment he needed, leave the planet, and not come back until at least after the Thor business and Mr. Stark’s palladium emergency.

It was a simple plan for a journey home, and it went perfectly until it all went wrong.

The first thing that happened that threw a wrench into the works, was Peter making a friend. That… wasn’t actually a bad thing. Objectively speaking it was a good thing, and honestly Peter was ecstatic. He loved MAY, but one person isn’t enough, and Ygrian Tam and all the Cademorals were in the end authorities invested in his welfare, not friends.

It did cause complications though, because now Peter had a person, who he liked, and wanted to spend time with rather than sitting in a warehouse alone stressing about the future. He was losing his focus a bit, but he missed… being a real person, more than an isolated system working towards a single goal.

Obviously he didn’t intend to meet him, but it happened quite outside of his control.

As the Cademorals came closer to the final tests of the lecture series, they had less and less time for Peter, who was desperately trying to complete the third level of his education, which was about equivalent to a Master’s degree. He was working nineteen or twenty hour days, and desperately trying to make it through the sheer amount of material needed. He didn’t need to really study, of course, his memory was better than that, but he still needed to make it through all the stuff, and comprehend it, which was difficult in some aspects.

Peter was done with all the science and math bits. His final papers on genetics, engineering, biochemistry and cosmonautics had already been defended and accepted to rave reviews. What he was having trouble with, was all the damn history, strategy, and propaganda stuff, which was both highly necessary and a focus for the ISA (They were grooming up military contractors. Those people needed to know how war worked, and where things failed, so they could improve upon them. Because of that, there was a lot of overlap with the other ISA where the S stood for Service rather than Science.)

It wasn’t that Peter had difficulty understanding military strategy. That was one thing that had been covered extensively within his preparation in the soul stone. It also wasn’t knowing and understanding what happened. This went there, and because of that engine advantage this side outmaneuvered that one. Easy. The struggle was simply… Peter was missing a lot of information--small little things that made him have trouble understanding the why’s on some things. Why was this metal so valuable and difficult to get to? Why was the difference between a Kree Grand Commander and an Accuser important? (the definitions were so fucking similar and yet the history showed so many choices made based on which one showed up to a fight.) Why were the Aakons resistant to the Ypsilanti Accord in early Imperial History? (seriously, Peter had read the thing and it was a great piece of legislature) Was it a culture thing? Did Peter just… miss things because he hadn’t grown up here.

He didn’t know. And the Cademorals were no help, mired as they were under piles of end session papers, and tests.

Ygrian Tam decided to solve the problem two five-days before the end of the session by putting Peter in touch with a high-performing Priva (the rank for military cadets studying at the other Academy) who was having trouble with some scientific concepts. Their hope was that Peter and this mysterious Priva could help each other with their respective knowledge gaps.

Peter suspected an ulterior motive too, but he was desperate, and at this point he was also conditioned to do whatever Ygrian Tam told him to. They were scary.

So the meeting was arranged, and at sixty percent Peter was waiting in one of the study carrels of the library (which had no books, an interesting thing for a library but not surprising considering the futuristic location). He had a cup of the local equivalent to coffee, a pale pink and faintly floral tea sort of drink that everyone on the planet downed like it was the cure for all ills. It did have a high caffeine content though, so that made sense.

His future study partner walked in at precisely sixty on the dot like clockwork, moving at regulation speed and with regulation stride length and arm swings. He looked like he’d walked straight off of an advertisement for the Nova Corps, all crisp uniform, muscles, and flawless bearing. Hell, he was even part-Xandarian part-something with Nova-blue hair, a real symbol of Nova unity. Peter tried very hard not to hate him on sight, and also not to compare his slightly rumpled clothing to the glorious demonstration of personal grooming before him.

He failed slightly on both counts, but managed to keep fairly open and professional as he stood, and put his hand over his heart in the Nova salute/handshake. “Priva.” he greeted shortly.

“Neralian.” greeted the Priva. Peter felt a little rush of pleasure at that title--a student who already had some qualifications, better than Nerian. He was starting to understand the Nova love of honorifics on a deep and visceral level.

“Let’s get to work then.” said Peter, sitting back down. The Priva sat across from him. “Can you summarize the concepts you need further information on? I have prepared a list of questions myself, and I think it’s a good place to start.” He was careful about not implying struggle or stupidity on the Priva’s part. The guy seemed like a perfectionist, for all that he was likely still a teenager--younger than most Priva’s. Probably a prodigy who entered early.

“I was told you were aware it was Jump Physics.” said the Priva. (Peter still hadn’t gotten his name.)

“Yes.” said Peter, “But that covers a wide range of topics, from the very science of a quantum gate to the fundamentals of jump engine works. It would be most efficient if we covered only the specific issues within the curriculum.” Peter was getting really good at this whole brisk and clipped Nova official conversation thing. He was quite proud of that sentence.

“I see” said the Priva. “I understand the quantum gate, I merely need clarification on how they are opened, and a few other… related topics.” He seemed uncomfortable admitting to not knowing, Peter decided to put him at ease a little.

“Perfect.” said Peter. “Let’s do that, then, and then we can get on to the fact that I do not understand flight strategy in asteroid fields at all.”

The Priva nodded , slightly gratefully it seemed, though he kept his face like a stone (Peter was still trying to place the non Xandarian species. Deep tan, hooded eyes, blue hair. Like Tam crossed with a Xandarian crossed with… something. He didn’t know what)

“I’ll explain it as I understand it. If you already know what I’m saying, or if I’m explaining poorly just say so.”

“That sounds reasonable.” said the Priva.

“Okay, a quantum gate requires two things to open. Firstly, it requires a massive burst of energy, enough to open it and maintain it throughout the ships passage. Next, it also requires the transmission of its opening frequency, a natural phenomenon that essentially informs the wormhole of it’s parameters for existence. If the frequency is incorrect, then the gate opened is unstable, and likely to collapse on whoever’s jumping through it. With me so far?”

“Yes. The… difficulty… is with the frequency.”

“Alright.” Peter cast his mind about for a good metaphor. “It’s sort of like programming a computer.” he said. “The quantum gate--the hardware--already exists, but it is inactive and useless without power, and without programming. Without a basic bit of code, it can’t even turn on, or run power to the right places or… anything, does that make sense?” Peter waited for a nod. When he got it, he continued. “There are a lot of different--let’s call them flavors--of quantum gate. They’re sort of like… different hardware platforms. This one’s a Kree wrist pad. That one’s a Krylorian holo-interface. All of them do the same thing--the same basic tasks of getting someone from one point to another--but each one requires slightly different coding to do it. The Krylorian one is going to need graphics controls for it’s holograms. The Kree one… I don’t know what’s up with that Kree shit actually, those people are crazy. Anyway, they all turn on a little bit differently. Most basic jump engines are equipped with a map, and open the gates by transmitting the correct frequency based on what they know is there. Nice ones start by sending out a little… ping, and then analyzing what comes back.” Is this making sense.

“I… I do not understand programming. The hardware and software comparison makes sense, but what actually goes into the frequency? And why does an incorrect one not work?” asked the Priva. Again he seemed ashamed to admit his shortcomings. Peter wondered why, but still tried to encourage that. The dude needed to understand.

“See, now we’re getting somewhere.” said Peter. “Those are exactly the right sort of questions. Okay… different metaphor. Do you know anything about mechanical locks?”

“No. That is more a question for an ancient history student.”

“Yeah, I get you there. They’re a lot easier to comprehend though than electronic ones though, and modern security measures aren’t the point here.” he tapped the table twice, signalling MAY, who obligingly brought up an axonometric hologram of a basic lock.

“A mechanical lock has a system of tumblers that have to be pushed into various positions for the door to open--that’s our quantum gate.” The diagram obligingly moved and twisted, demonstrating the lock’s turning. “A key for one of these things has a series of ridges on it that push the tumblers into their correct positions, allowing the mechanism to turn smoothly. That’s what opening it with the correct frequency is.”

“And an incorrect one?” asked the Priva, who Peter really needed to get the name of.

“That would be like forcing the lock. If you push with enough force, you can break the tumblers and turn it anyway. The lock is broken then though, and if the lock is the quantum gate…”

“It is also broken.” said the Priva. “That makes sense.” he seemed to mentally move on, looking for his next question. “Why… Why are the jump maps different for different jump engines?” he asked finally “You said better engines could ping and tell what was needed why do they not… do that.”

“The ping… it doesn’t tell what frequency you need.” said Peter. “It just identifies the type of jump. If you don’t have the key to that lock, you can’t open it. Obviously, different nations guard their different jump key’s just like someone would actually guard their key codes to their house. They don’t want anyone else getting in. We can eventually--there are thousands of frequency types known in the galaxy and more being studied all the time, some common enough to get anywhere--but we have to use only the ones we know. Most large empires are situated around a unique type of gate, to give themselves a maneuvering advantage within their own space, and to keep outside forces from coming to study their jump keys and learn about them. A really great example of this is the Yggdrasil wormhole--a ridiculously useful widespread jump with nine exits--controlled by Asgard. They’re so paranoid about their frequency, that they only actually have one set of jump engines called the bifrost which they use to open all the points remotely even though that requires… a truly absurd amount of power. It’s an advantage though because it let’s them completely control every single jump through Yggdrasil which is one of the most useful trade routes in the galaxy, and they can charge whatever they want for the privilege.”

“I see.” said the Priva interestedly. Some of his professionalism had dropped, and Peter internally cheered. Clearly showing this guy the military advantages and disadvantages of a concept was the way to go. (He was fairly sure that prior to this level all that was required of Privas regarding jump points was to know that they worked, and that these are the ones we can use, an oversight in Peter’s opinion but he didn’t control the curriculum)

The conversation continued, all the way through the process and then over to Peter’s side to find out Fun Facts about the Shi’ar war fought in the early days of the Empire. At the end, Peter decided that he liked Priva Saal (MAY helpfully ran facial recognition against the hacked student database, and found an answer halfway through Nova Prime’s heroic defense of A’askivariia). He was serious and tried to be perfect, but he was really genuine, and sometimes a bit of personal opinion or wry humor slipped through the attitude of Perfect Priva, and left Peter nearly giggling.

As soon as Saal left, agreeing to a time for another session two days later, Peter pulled up his student file and tried to figure out why the hell the whole… I am flawless routine was necessary. It became obvious in seconds.

Priva Saal (full name Rikard Samanaral) was probably the highest performing Priva in the whole damn school. He was also trying desperately to live up to the legacy of his uncle and past legal guardian who he still lived with on weekends, Denarian Saal, whose past records indicated that he had been the highest performing Priva in history, y’know, back before he was Denarian Prime, the highest commander of the entire Nova Corps besides Nova Prime herself.

That… had to be hard. Peter sympathized deeply. He did note that Saal was doing great on the living up to legacy thing though. The guy was absolute shit at technical sciences, but equaled and actually surpassed his uncle in pretty much everything else, so he was doing okay. He even beat out his uncle on the ISA’s physical stuff, an impressive feat considering that his uncle was half Arcturan, a race that was essentially immortal, and similar to Asgardians in physical capabilities.

Saal was only a quarter Arcturan. He was also half-Strontian though, (so that’s what the blue hair meant) a race that was pretty badass themselves when their brain chemistry wasn’t tearing them apart at the seams (literally, they could die from internal emotional conflict as the different chemicals in their body warred and poisoned them. Peter had no fucking clue how that bit of evolution even worked, but when they were of single mind or devoted to a cause they were bit-more-than-asgardian strong, great at taking hits, had senses on par with Peter’s, and possessed a great capacity for dimensional energy channeling. Lots of wizards there, or there had been before the racial genocide by the Shi’ar). Pretty damn cool.

Even without the genetic advantages though, this guy was still a damn military prodigy. He’d entered the academy at Xandarian eighteen (Earth twelve), and proceeded to top every class through the first two levels of education until now when he was graduating the third at only twenty four (Earth sixteen. The dude was a teenager and made it through twelve years of education in four. Granted, Peter’d done it in two months, but still, he had a background in it already and was, frankly, way overqualified for most of it). Peter could easily see why so much was expected of him, and what those expectations meant. It was sad how that worked out, the greatest Priva scared to admit he didn’t understand jumps to the point he was nearly getting less than 100% on some of his assignments. Like electronically limiting the Bugatti Charon to only 261 mph when it was capable of over 300 just because the tires weren’t good enough, instead of inventing some new tires. That sort of sad. (the Charon had been Peter’s first car--a gift for his sixteenth from Mr. Stark--and he’d been bitter about the limit ever since)

Without any hesitation after that, Peter decided that he was definitely in this dude’s camp for the long run. Priva Saal would top the science courses. And he’d be comfortable using that fantastic dry humor. It was just a foregone conclusion.

------------

Being emotionally invested in Saal’s education (and as the two five-days passed and Saal’s jokes grew more frequent he was also getting emotionally invested in Saal) meant Peter couldn’t leave until not only the current session ended, but the placement exams to move up a level before the next session were done. The five-day in between sessions (the one Peter was supposed to spend flying back to Terra) was spent in ridiculously over complicated cram sessions with a progressively less well-groomed Saal as he endured the battery of tests. At the end he was approaching mere mortal levels of perfection, something which was simply unacceptable and clearly a sign of extreme stress.

When it was finally over, Peter took Saal out to a restaurant in a less high class area of Nova Central than he was probably used to--the sort that wouldn’t end up with any other Privas or Nerians--and ordered an eclectic bunch of food from unfamiliar cultures.

“Why are we here?” asked Saal as the food arrived in a mismatched set of dishes. “Seriously, we could be anywhere else. Somewhere with better compliance to the food safety laws, and functioning heating. Also I’m pretty sure there’s some sort of criminal deal going on over there.”

“Hush.” said Peter. “This place is fantastic. The workers are pretty much all immigrants, so you get to try food from all over the galaxy. Also, I figured you’d want to go somewhere with a low likelihood of running in to anyone you know. I swear, you’re like the most recognizable person at either Academy. There’s like… a million student’s and somehow they all know you on sight.”

“The Academy has a cap of fifty-thousand, including the auxiliary campuses and distance learners. And they don’t know me, they just know my reputation. It’s the name tag that gives me away, Sar. Nobody uses Saal except my family, even if that is the best abbreviation of their name.”

“I suppose.” said Peter. “Still, good food, no assholes. My taste is impeccable.”

“If you say so.” said Saal. His habitual high class manners were adorable.

They ate in silence for a little bit, and Peter noted with no small amount of smugness that Saal actually really liked some of the dishes.

“Do you think anybody would recognize you if you abbreviated differently?” said Peter. “Like, you could just put Nar or Ral on your name-tag and be in disguise?”

“Probably.” said Saal. “Most Privas gave up on actually recognizing people long ago. I don’t think most of them are aware that people have faces.”

“Poor babies” said Peter. “What do they do when they see someone in civvies?”

“Strategic retreat.” said Saal. “Staying with the corps is the only way to defend yourself. Otherwise you might have to go to the effort of attempting a regular sentient relationship.”

“And we wouldn’t want that.” said Peter. “All those feelings. So mushy.”

“Not to mention the efforts of figurative speech.” said Saal. “That’s actually medically dangerous. Can cause overheating.”

“Like a Turian.” said Peter. “Explaining a metaphor to one of those people is like speaking to a stone.”

“Sar, how could you say such a thing. They are much more agile than a stone, though they are just as difficult to break.” said Saar. His tone was in perfect imitation of one of Drax’s people.

Peter laughed then, because Drax would totally say that. “Slightly racist but incredibly funny jokes aside, I was serious Saal. Nar or Ral. Call it a social experiment. It would be interesting to see.”

“No.” said Saal. “Perhaps if I was anyone else… but no. My family is… a bit old fashioned when it comes to names. Believe that a name ties us together, brings honor to the group. Weird, I know, but still.” he shrugged.

“Actually that is like… not weird at all most places in the galaxy. The Nova are the weird ones. I should know, I’m part Terran. We have hang ups when it comes to names. When someone’s notable their name gets remembered forever. History books with people’s full names rather than just their title. They even take each others names when they marry, so that everyone knows what family they married into.”

“That makes no sense.” said Saal. “Who takes whose name?”

“Generally the lady, in a straight relationship. Terra’s fairly patrilineal. Honestly, I don’t really get it, but that’s probably because of my own name issues.”

“Your issues?” asked Saal.

“Yeah.” said Peter. He decided it couldn’t hurt to tell a bit. “I assume that by now you’ve hacked in and read my student file? Know my origins?”

“I wouldn’t call it hacking.” said Saal. “More… creative entrance. But yes, I did. It didn’t make sense of much except your insane decision to go into both genetics and hard engineering.”

“Yeah passion for engineering, need to understand my own fucked up health.” said Peter. “Hazards of being a genetic experiment. Thing is about the name though… it’s not my original one. Well it sort of is, but at the same time not.” he sighed. “Originally I was Subject P in the series of experiments. That’s the sixteenth letter in the Terran alphabet. Fifteen dead babies before me. Then, when I was born, my creators decided to suppress the non-human stuff that caused all the deaths in the other subjects until puberty. Figured it wouldn’t kill me then.”

“Anyway, they brought me home to wait until the next phase of the experiment, told me nothing, and called me their son. Peter for Subject P because it’s pretty much the most common P name, and Parker after their family. When they died and I discovered the old lab I was created in… I couldn’t do that anymore. I kept Peter, of course, but the other name I changed to Stark. No relation to any Starks. I picked it, because it’s the name of a hero of mine, a pioneer of scientific advancement on Terra. He inspired me, and his story… it sort of reminded me of who I wanted to be”

Peter carefully did not mention the… relationship in an alternate timeline that would never exist that he had with Mr. Stark. It still felt good for someone to understand though. Cathartic.

“Tell me a bit about him?” asked Saal. “The person whose name you took must be interesting, if he inspired you.”

Peter grinned. “He’s amazing. An engineer. Started out as a military contractor--missiles mostly, though he worked on everything from vehicles to tasers. Then, he was taken by a group of terrorists--I explained the situation on Terra right? Lots of countries, some are assholes, some groups are also assholes. Yeah? Good--anyway, when they took him he ended up with a bunch of shrapnel in his chest. Enough to kill him. The place where he was didn’t have the best medical things though, and even then they didn’t care about his health so they just stuck an electromagnet in the middle of his chest keep it contained; out of his heart. Then they stuck him in a cave with a bunch of missiles and told him to use them to build them a really powerful one that they didn’t have. The sort of weapon that can change a war in an instant.”

“He didn’t though, did he.” said Saal, getting into the story.

“Nope.” said Peter. “Instead, he invented a miniature cold fusion reactor--something never before seen on Terra, and yet actually better than the Nova equivalent--stuck it in his chest, and used it to power not only the electromagnet but a weaponized suit that he also built in that cave. Seriously, the man made the equivalent of a Nova Centurion suit not only out of primitive Terran tech, but in a cave while actively being tortured and recovering from an incredibly invasive medical procedure meant as a stopgap against an issue that Terran surgeries had no way of fixing by that point in its progression. And then he used it to save himself, and later took an improved version of it back to destroy all of the weapons that one of his business partners had been secretly selling to the terrorists.”

“That is incredible.” said Saal. “And terrifying, to think what he could build with real resources.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “He stopped building weapons after that though. Focused on saving the world instead. Terra has a lot of problems. Greenhouse gasses warming the planet because of primitive carbon based fuels, uneven distribution of resources causing death from curable diseases and things like hunger, the ever present threat of forces from outside Terra--like the Asgardians and their enemies--using it as a stomping ground. Stuff like that. I think… I think that if Asgard wasn’t our keeper, if they didn’t blockade us or try to regulate our progress, then he’d bring us even with the rest of the galaxy within a couple decades. He’s… unstoppable like that.”

“I imagine so.” said Saal. “I suppose I understand Asgard's position, a bit, but it is still… what they are doing to their so called realms. It is a sentient rights violation of the highest order.”

“Yeah, but what can you do.” said Peter. “Hopefully when the next King rises on Asgard the policy will change. Thor--the prince--is supposed to be a hell of a lot more reasonable than his father, especially when it comes to Midgard.”

“That would be interesting to see.” said Saal.

Peter grinned. “Yeah. They could show the rest of the galaxy some decent music. Seriously, pretty much everything out here’s garbage.”

Saal quirked a smile. “There hasn’t been much focus on that since… oh, about the time of the great expansion right about when jump point technology was discovered.”

“And it’s a crying shame too.” said Peter. “Seriously. Art as a part of education. It’s not that hard.”

That one actually got a grin. “My grandfather would agree with you on that one.” he said. “He was actually alive during the expansion. Ruminates on the ‘death’ of culture every time I see him.”

“Ah yes,” said Peter, “Nothing like older generations telling us about how good things were in the old days before all this newfangled idiocy.”

“Especially when they’re over fifteen thousand years old, and don’t actually believe in laws because these new empires just aren’t as good.” said Saal.

“Seriously?” said Peter. “Your grandfather must be fun at family parties. Especially considering the upstanding citizens his progeny turned out to be.”

“Yes.” said Saal. “I only see him every couple years though, and usually through holo. My uncle doesn’t like him. Mostly because he’s the Admiral of the galaxy’s most annoying group of space pirates. Also because of whatever happened with my father that nobody will tell me about. He always says that being near Stakar Ogord is a good way to end up dead.”

“The Ravagers do have a high turnover rate.” said Peter drily. Inside though he was reeling because of the fact that Saal was related to Stakar Fucking Ogord, Yondu’s basically-a-dad who disowned him for human trafficking. He of the untouchable legend regarding the yaro eating contest of (probably) 1950 (ish), and also the slightly tearful rants about how he formed the Ravagers, and taking that away from Yondu just wasn’t fair. Peter had heard a bit about the guy, obviously. Old Peter possessed no filter at all whatsoever.

It was, apparently, a small galaxy.

“True, but that’s only the grunts. The ones who are good at it stick around for much longer than anyone in the Corps would prefer. The stories my grandfather tells about my sort-of-adopted-uncles… They’re… either terrifying or amazing. I honestly can’t tell which. When I was little, I wanted to be them.”

“Wow, that must have been an entertaining time for your uncle.”

“You have no idea.” said Saal. “My grandfather thought it would be funny to send me a Ravager coat in his colors for my ninth birthday. I wore it for nearly a year. He’s sent me ones in ever increasing sizes ever since then.”

“What deeply fun disguise possibilities that offers.” said Peter.

“Nah.” said Saal. “I just keep it in my closet, glance at it every morning. Comforting to know that I’ve got career options if the Corps doesn’t work out. Space Pirating has to be easier than jump physics.”

“Space pirating requires jump physics.” said Peter. “How do you think they get around.”

“No, Sar, that’s not the point. If I was a pirate, I’d just make someone else do the physics. Like you. You could totally join me. I’ll do the pirating, and you can make me weapons to pirate with and keep the engines running. And MAY can run mission support. It’ll be perfect.”

Peter laughed. He really liked Saar when he wasn’t trying to be perfect.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, the constant work--the doing and preparing and training and learning and… everything--became to much for Peter. In a place like the soul stone, there were no nights and weekends designated for rest, no breaks for water or food or sleep. There was only more tasks for him, one after another in an endless row stretching on into eternity. He could prepare forever, and it would still never be enough. He needed to prepare as much as he could before the spell was ready, the one that would send him away. Sometimes he didn’t want to go.

It wasn’t that the soul stone was a good or nice place to be. It was just… in those moments in between his preparation, and his endless work to help as much as he could with the spell, Peter was… not happy but--he did have good things. He had snippets of laughter, little connections, conversations both ridiculously absurd. He had gossip (the Soul Stone made all issues and problems moot except interpersonal ones, and all there was to do was talk, usually about each other). He had friends. He liked that, and knew that it would be something he’d lose.

(When Peter forgot to repress his thoughts, he was always struck by the sickly pain that was never meeting Ned and MJ. It was… not likely that he’d end up at Midtown again. He also tried to repress the gaping hole in his heart that was Mr. Stark, though in that he was less successful.)

When he went back he wouldn’t have those snippets of happiness. There would just be work… May and Ben too, though he wouldn’t tell them anything so they wouldn’t know, and that would create strain. Strain of lies in a relationship, and endless stress. Just what Peter wanted.

It was times like this, when he was alone and didn’t have to pretend to be strong and confident for everyone, that Peter secretly in his heart of hearts wished that someone else could go, or that he could just tell someone, and all the elaborate measures and countermeasures that he’d crafted with Fury and his ilk would happen without him. That couldn’t happen though. They’d choreographed the invasion of the Chitauri and what came after, the time he was going back to, like it was a dance routine, and no one else would be able to put all the pieces in motion like they needed to go. They simply didn’t have enough information.

Peter was going to have to do it himself, go it alone, and he wasn’t even allowed to tell anybody anything except what they needed to know. He was going to drip out truth like a man rationing water in the desert, and the whole time he was going to have to keep track of every information stream so he didn’t fuck it all up. He needed to know what they knew, and what they needed to know for what he needed them to do, but nothing more because if they knew than what they knew could become known and…

Peter hated the spying and lying, the manipulations that were all part of the plan. He learned it because he had to, and he’d always been an excellent student at whatever he set his mind to, but he hated it.

When he went back in time, the thing he wanted to do was break directly into Mr. Stark’s Malibu mansion using the override code that Mr. Stark had for all his locks and hadn’t changed since 1993 (apparently it was a defense against the fact that remembering basic personal information was difficult when drunk or high. Peter was actually the only living person who knew it besides FRIDAY)

Then he wanted to inform Mr. Stark that he knew the future, here’s what it was, and you need to fix it. After that, he wanted to curl up on the couch against Mr. Stark, and watch as he worked, holograms spinning, until all the problems went away. It was something that was always comforting, to watch Mr. Stark work. Like nothing would ever be wrong for long because he had someone who could fix it, could fix anything.

Obviously that couldn’t happen. Fury had explained, in detail and with specific examples, exactly why that was an utterly terrible plan, even though Peter hadn’t even proposed it. He said that Mr. Stark hadn’t really been able to take anything seriously until after the nuke-wormhole thing, and even then he would never believe a thing without hard evidence.

He had a point, even Mr. Stark would have agreed with that one, but that didn’t stop Peter from dreaming, because Peter had been conditioned over the last couple of years to believe that Mr. Stark could fix anything, and he could come to him with any problem at any time ever. It was a fact that had held true unshakably since practically the day after the dreadful homecoming experience that had turned Mr. Stark from a distant mentor to a constant everyday presence. Anything from literal supervillains to homework problems and the difficulty of asking someone out to prom, Peter’s first instinct was always and consistently to find Mr. Stark and spill his guts. No question. (Mr. Stark still liked to tease him about the four hour rant that started at two AM  on a random night when Peter had suddenly realized that he liked boys as well as girls. Peter never protested, because it secretly made him glow inside to remember that Mr. Stark had actually woken up, sat down, and listened to the entire four hour panic attack before giving incredibly solid advice and taking him out to breakfast, even though he had a board meeting that day and needed his sleep.)

Peter’s thoughts were interrupted then by the arrival of Dr. Strange. He got up from the ground, but before he could ask what the Doctor needed, Strange paused with a concerned look on his face and asked, “Are you okay?”

Peter realized then that he’d been crying. “I miss Mr. Stark.” he said. He didn’t elaborate. Strange knew all about his pain at losing him forever to time.

The Doctor immediately pulled him into a hug. He’d been a bit… touchier lately, and that made Peter happy. Yes, Peter was nearly an adult. No, that didn’t change the fact that he regularly felt the desire to curl up on someone's lap and hide from the world.

They sat back down, and Strange let Peter get imaginary snot all over him while he cried himself out and Peter spoke all his frustrations and loneliness in choked and nearly incoherent sobs even though Strange already knew all of them. He rubbed his back the whole time.

“I’m sorry.” he said. “I know it hurts, and it’s miserable and the world is unfair. I know. Believe me, I know.”

Peter nodded into his shoulder. “Why is it like that? Why couldn’t we just… all be happy and not hurt each other or destroy half the universe? Why?”

“I don’t know.” said Dr. Strange. “I’ve never understood cruelty, I only know it exists.”

“How do you live with it?” asked Peter, “With all the unfairness and hurt?”

Strange pulled Peter close. “I just remember, that even though there are Thanos' in the universe, there are also Peters. Good people are everywhere, you just have to find them.”

“Like Mr. Stark.” said Peter.

“Yes.” said Dr. Strange. “I know he won’t know you, and that hurts, but he’ll still exist, and he’ll still be the same good and brilliant man that you knew. There is… there is comfort in that, I think, that he exists.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. The wound was still raw, but it would heal. Mr. Stark might never know him, but Peter could still save him, and help him be happy. That was a good thing. “Thanks Doc”

“Anytime, Peter.” said Doctor Strange. He still hadn’t stopped hugging Peter tightly. “Anytime at all.”

The second delay to Peter’s arbitrary deadline of session-end as a time to get home came right on the heels of the first. Unlike the first one though, it wasn’t good, like spending a week with Saal (his friend! A real friend!). Instead, it was borderline catastrophic.

Get his education, get his credits, get his equipment, get back to earth. He had the education bit finished up mostly, though Ygrian Tam still needed to get back to him on class placement. Next he needed to figure out why Cademian Zor still hadn’t gotten back to him about the damn credits. It was irritating, especially since the broker had previously been very easy to work with, nice and open. He’d even been great about the first two sales--the knives and the war-hammer.

They’d decided early on--or rather Zor had decided and Peter had agreed once the logic of it had been explained--to sell them at different auctions. People were desperate for rare stuff, and the bidding would be higher if they didn’t know there were other items also for sale. It would also be less high profile, selling one item rather than three.

The first two auctions had gone off perfectly, and Peter now had more money than he’d ever seen in his life. Actually that was untrue. He now had more money than he’d ever seen in his life with the exception of anything involving Mr. Stark, because the man had seemingly never heard of limits before. Two and a half million credits, including the other items that he’d sold earlier. Peter now had enough to buy a mid-size cargo ship or another similarly absurd purchase.

The berserker staff auction though… It had been delayed. The item (valued at four million credits by Zor on the conservative end) wasn’t being sold, or talked about besides conversational diversions to get away from the point, and Peter was starting to think something had happened to it.

If he had been slightly more annoyed, he would have broken in and threatened the man. As it was, he felt completely justified in hacking him via his dark web advertisements and picking through his files until he figured out what had happened. It turned out then that the staff had been stolen.

Apparently, a goon (a new one, recently imported from Contraxia) had decided that he really wanted those credits and was too stupid to understand the ruthlessness of the people he worked for. He’d since been disposed of, and the half a million credits he’d received for the thing (a really stupid amount, clearly the guy hadn’t been listening when Zor had valued it) had been seized. The staff, however, was already off planet and Zor was having difficulty getting it back, though he knew who had it. A bounty of half a million (coincidentally the same half a million the goon had sold the staff for) had been put out for the retrieval of the item, but that wasn’t enough to make anyone deal with Gan Andrimuae, a Contraxian… something. Crime-lordish, but he also technically governed an entire continent. Part of the agreement for Contraxia’s status as a protectorate of the Nova Empire. They got to govern themselves as long as they paid their taxes and didn’t flaunt their lawbreaking too much.

Peter wondered what too much flaunting would look like. Honestly, it was disgusting. They didn’t even try to hide the egregious human rights violations and eye-openingly deep corruption.

With a frown and a lot of sighing, he started research on Andrimuae’s security. He’d have to go get the damn thing himself, once he was done on Xandar. He could stop by to deliver it on the way back, and leverage Zan into some extra credits and the half million while he was at it. Then he’d just have to wait, clearly it wasn’t getting sold this trip.

-----------

Before he left Xandar, still angry that he’d have to return inside a week, he finally robbed the hospital, which he’d been intending to do for months.

His genetics lab on earth was good, certainly. The best in the world, actually, but that wasn’t good enough for the delicate reprinting of traits that he needed if he wanted to survive. (He’d repeated the gene correction once, though he should have done it more times since the first one. It had been much shorter, but just as painful. He really wanted to stop having to do that) He needed a platform good enough to implement the plan that he’d outlined, stolen in moments in between studying, proving he knew things, and Saal.

The only place to get that platform, was either to buy it somewhere iffy (Contraxia maybe, but more likely Knowhere or some other even shadier lawless place) in which case you couldn’t determine the quality, or steal it from an official source. These tools were heavily regulated in Nova Space, and pretty much anywhere else, because experimenting on peoples genes was a big no no most places in the galaxy unless you had an official reason.

Peter could probably have gotten official help and healthcare. It might have even helped. The only problem was he’d then have to admit to not actually being part Xandarian.

In any case, he’d decided to steal the things, and doing that required a bit of work, a stolen large package carrier drone, and crawling through ventilation. Even the most high-tech buildings on alien worlds still needed nice big vents to get enough air around. It was a comforting universal constant.

The vent system at the Nova Central Gene-Therapy Hospital was, unfortunately, completely internal, so Peter’s journey started inside a large shipping crate carried by the drone over to the delivery entrance of the hospital. It was, actually an official delivery of a large number of donated egg-cell samples from a particular strain of Xeronians that were having increased birth defects and needed intervention before their population declined significantly. Peter had chosen it, because the packing material was excessive, and it was entirely possible for him to hollow out a Peter sized hole in it and hide.

When he’d been successfully delivered, at around 94% when the hospital was mostly shut down and nobody would be looking for the shipment until the next day, he exited as quickly as he could, and then put the egg samples in their cryogenic containers onto one of the tables, as if someone had begun the intake process, but then been called away. Then he dumped the rest of the packaging into the recycling bin (bin was a misnomer, it was actually an automated delivery system that would take it all the way to its destination) and hacked the drone, making it display a damage report. If anyone saw it, they’d assume that it was going to be picked up the next day. Peter’s exit strategy was in place.

Then, he entered the internal vent system, spoofing the security systems signal so it didn’t report a breach, and started to crawl.

“How am I doing MAY” he muttered when he was deep enough that someone passing the delivery bay wouldn’t hear him.

“Just great” said MAY. “Thank’s for getting that bug into the Hospital systems. It made things a lot easier.”

Peter grinned at the thought of the program he’d physically inserted into a group of classified data prisms on their way to the research portion of the hospital. Security on the Spaceport’s package processing section was a bit lax. “Anytime.” he said. “Can you give me directions? I haven’t actually seen the vent schematics.”

“In twelve yards, take your next left,” said MAY, sounding exactly like a GPS.

“Wow thanks Siri” said Peter.

“No problem. Peter. There’s a nexus of vents right after that, and that’s when you go up. Top floor, you’ll be climbing for a while.”

“Fantastic. Just what I always wanted.” said Peter.

He crawled in silence for a while, and then took himself up the vents. “This’ll be fun to come down” he muttered upon reaching the nexus. The vent went up all forty-three levels of the hospital, and Peter was quite excited for the precision bungee jumping he was going to do to get back down.

“No Peter.” said MAY. Somehow she knew exactly what he was thinking, despite the lack of a neural interface. (Peter should work on that actually. Hurctarian tech was fairly good, though the Kree were rumored to have better connection ability.)

“Can I at least go down fast?” asked Peter. If bungee jumping wasn’t going to be a thing, he at least wanted some thrill.

“Being soundless is important in this endeavor.” said MAY.

“Right. That.” said Peter. He’d actually forgotten for a second about the whole getting caught thing.

When he reached the top level, Peter exited into one of the gene therapy rooms that had been set up for a session the next day on a young Xandarian with a neurological defect. It’s preparation meant that Peter could find everything he needed without resorting to attempting the hospital’s supply vault for some of the more expensive materials. That vault was well guarded.

With a grin, Peter knelt by the hospital pod, which was the largest thing he would be stealing. It had better scanners and monitors than anything he had on earth, or could jerry rig from the Mayday stuff, plus it was equipped with the sort of regeneration technology that Helen Cho’s cradle had begun to bring to earth, technology that would probably be necessary to keep him alive during the process of his… treatment.

Undoing the panel underneath it, Peter undid six wires, and then scrambled them. The pod would now register as malfunctioning, and automatically be recalled to the maintenance bay, which was conveniently right next door to the delivery one. Then he hopped to the ceiling and waited for a hospital orderly to come around. Hospital policy and general Xandarian efficiency meant that the pod would be replaced as soon as the malfunction was detected.

The orderly entered, a near-sentient android with a silvery blue chassis that Peter itched to take apart, and activated the pod before controlling it out of the room, it gliding atop the electromagnetic suspension strip like a ship on the water, scant inches from the floor. Peter was drooling. That tech was glorious.

Another orderly came in a few minutes later with the replacement pod. There were literally hundreds in the hospital, and they weren’t actually guarded or regulated. Peter could have stolen one from somewhere else much easier, or even bought one himself. He didn’t simply because he was already there and it was convenient.

Once that was done, Peter got on with what he was there to do. He very carefully unpacked the various drugs and chemicals, taking only what he needed (he could probably synthesize most of them, once he knew how.) Then he located and brought out the real prize--a genetic control system.

The GCS was a real monstrous and ugly piece of technology that was originally developed for the enhancement of the Nova special forces--the Centurions and their like. It’s civilian version was literally identical in every way, and it showed.

Essentially, it looked like a big black metal spine that had been ripped directly out of someones back. On the side that would be put into the skin was a series of evil looking needles and other fun and invasive things. On the reverse side was a series of ports where drugs, genetic alteration viruses, and synthetic hormones could be connected. The bottom had a wire to connect directly into a computer--the thing was designed to hack and override the body’s entire immune, endocrine, and nervous systems, and those required a lot of processing power to run. It was spiky, and evil-looking, and terrifying in a macabre body-horror sort of way, and Peter had never seen anything more beautiful in his life. This was the hardware that could save him, if he only put in the right stuff.

He wrapped it in slender foam he’d brought himself instead of its bulky packaging, and slipped it into his backpack beside the drugs he’d stolen. He had enough now, he could leave.

The vents beckoned, and Peter grinned, relishing the seldom found opportunity to go down really really fast.

-------------

After his beautifully executed hospital robbery, Peter left Xandar feeling vaguely confident and pleased with himself. With luck, everything else would go right as well, and Peter would soon find himself back on Terra where he belonged. Well, maybe not belonged, but where he was supposed to be.

Of course, things couldn’t possibly go right, ever. Which was why Peter had hardly left the spaceport before he noticed that he was being tailed by an M-Ship in an unassuming brownish red. It was bristling with weapons, and Peter just knew that he was going to end up in trouble as soon as he jumped through one of the four Xandarian quantum gates. He jumped anyway. Peter had places to be. (really he needed to put some weapons on his damn ship. Being unarmed against… that thing was uncomfortable unarmed.)

He took all the jumps over Nova Planets smoothly, right up until the fifth and final jump. The instant he arrived over Contraxia, he received a hail frequency from the other ship.

“Peter, that guy’s calling you. Do you want to answer?” said MAY.

“Try to hack him through the connection while we talk.” said Peter. “If I can trigger a data-stream somehow… that would work.”

“Okay.” said MAY. Then the call started, and Peter found himself staring down a grinning Centaurian with a cybernetic fin and the fugliest teeth he’d ever seen. No way. No fucking way. Yondu Udonta?

Peter showed no reaction to the recognition. “Any particular reason you’re following me or did you just happen to have business on Contraxia” he said.

“No need to get snippy.” said Yondu. “I’m here on business.”

“With me?” asked Peter.

“Maybe.” said Yondu. “I was going to track you down on Xandar, but for some reason you was leavin’ in a hurry.”

“What business?” asked Peter. He had a feeling--gained through evidence from Old Peters anecdotes--that Yondu was in a good mood and not likely to murder him. That was good. Not dying was good. He’d take advantage of it to ask questions while he could.

“I heard a rumor that somebody was smugglin’ things through the blockade,” said Yondu, “And what do you know if I don’ hear about some brigh’ little Terran showing up on Xandar at about the same time.”

Peter was terrified by the amount of reach into Xandars systems that that statement displayed. There was no way that Yondu had just ‘heard’ that information. He probably heard about the Terran sales, Old Peter had mentioned Yondu keeping track of such things and occasionally showing up with gifts, but hearing about Peter himself? That was definitely a peek into the entry records or blockade passage.

“Coincidences happen.” he said.

“Maybe so, but I don’t think so.” said Yondu. “I got a suspicion that somebody’s stolen a Seal of Passage. Probably that ship too.”

“What’s it to you?” said Peter.

Yondu grinned like the cat that had eviscerated the canary with it’s horrifying dental work. “I’ve got some thin’s I’m lookin’ to buy. Terran thin’s. Now I don’t want to fly all the way out there an’ do it myself, else-wise I’d jus’ kill ya, and take that nice shiny bit o’ uru yer carryin’, but I’d still like some particular items, if you’d be so obligin’. Perhaps even at a discounted price.”

“I don’t do discounts.” said Peter. “But depending on what you want I might be able to help you.”

“Grand.” said Yondu. “What I’m needin’ is music. Them little terran boxes or jus’ the files--it don’t matter. I’m particularly interested in stuff from… bout thirty o’ the local years ago, maybe a bit more.”

Peter smiled. It was… actually sort of adorable. Yondu had personally tracked down rumors of a smuggling Terran on the off chance he could get his kid music. Not to mention… he was dealing fairly with Peter despite how easy it would be for him to just shoot him down and take the seal, probably because he knew that his son didn’t want (semi) innocent people from his home-world killed. It was like a hallmark movie. “I think that can be arranged.” said Peter. “Though I’m not interested in credits.”

“What do you want then?” asked Yondu, looking suspicious and close to violence.

“Rumors.” said Peter. “If you’re the sort to hear news like Terran smuggling so quickly, I imagine you get information on all sorts of fun things.”

“I might.” said Yondu, “But that bears resemblance to somethin’ long term, and I don’t do that with people I don’ know.”

“Unfortunate.” said Peter. “I suppose you’ll just have to find it somewhere else. I’ll be on Contraxia for the next couple days though, if you change your mind.”

“I’m not changin’ anythin’.” said Yondu. The grin was back. “I will be trackin’ you down though before you leave. I never said nothin’ bout findin’ what I need somewhere else.”

“Hmm. I suppose I’ll be seeing you then.” said Peter. Then the connection was cut, and Yondu’s ship jumped away like it had never been there.

“I didn’t hack him.” said MAY a little bit apologetically. “It seemed like you knew him, and he probably wouldn’t like that.”

“Probably good.” said Peter. “That was Yondu Udonta, and I have a feeling he’s going to be important in the future.”

“Did you know him before?” asked MAY.

“No.” said Peter. “I only heard about him from Old Peter. He was sort of like his dad? The guy who abducted him.”

“You mentioned he was raised by the captain of a Ravager faction.” said MAY

“Yeah, this is the one.” said Peter. “Do you think you can look him up? I want to have an excuse to have more information on him, so I need to know what’s out there.”

“I’ll run him through the Nova facial recognition program as soon as I can.” said MAY.

“Thanks.” said Peter, “You’re the best.”

---------

The small delay over Contraxia meant that all the hotels were full and Peter stayed on the fold out bunk in the Mayday. He didn’t mind though, because Contraxian hospitality left a lot to be desired, and he probably wouldn’t have been more comfortable anyway.

He would have gotten a shower though. That would have been nice.

Instead of a shower, all there was was the tiny handheld sonic scrubber. It was probably for the best. Really clean people just didn’t happen on Contraxia. Someone like Saal would stick out like a sore thumb.

In the interests of not doing that, Peter dressed in his rough working jumpsuit and a somewhat old jacket in some kind of fake leather he’d bought at a second hand store. Then he rumpled up his curly brown hair (It was getting long, he should probably cut it since it hadn’t actually been cut since… wow, since he’d come back) and stepped out into the chilly Contraxian morning. The sky was clear, but somehow still dark and murky, probably from all the pollution.

He had a lot to do today, mostly surveillance of Gan Andrimuae’s estate, where he kept his collection of exotic weapons and torture instruments (how lovely). It would turn out to be really, really fun.

------------

Peter started his break in that night. Old Peter had talked about breaking into places like this a lot, so he was familiar with everything that would be there, and knew how to deal with it.

The first challenge was getting over the high gate covered in sensors that would alert a guard if you so much as touched it.

Peter circumvented that one with a device he’d created specifically for the purpose. It was a flexible pole that would collapse into itself until it was only about a foot and a half long, one that was strong enough to bear all his weight and then some. Usually Peter would just have jumped off one of the surrounding structures, but Andrimue had, quite intelligently, ensured that all of the buildings immediately surrounding his estate walls were only one story tall. Since the wall was three times that, it meant that if Peter wanted in, he’d need to be able to get over something that tall, and he couldn’t quite jump that high. He probably could have in his sixteen year old body, but being seven (actually, it was probably around his birthday… He might be eight now) meant that his options were limited to feats using only about a quarter of his previous strength. Still more than most people would ever have, but inconvenient nonetheless.

No matter the necessity, he still felt ridiculous pole vaulting into someone else's yard, especially in the clothing he was wearing for the occasion.

To overcome the cameras and slightly longer range sensors, Peter had equipped himself with a large retro-reflective cloak that could also absorb the frequencies of most sensors, and would confuse his heat signature enough that infrared would be rendered useless. Well, he said cloak. He really meant large sample of new stealth fabric stolen from someone else's lab that he’d wrapped around himself like a burrito, because cutting it or changing it in any way would break the delicate nano electronics. (This was possibly the least badass break in in the history of sentient life. Seriously, a seven year old burrito with a long stick.)

Still, it worked, and soon Peter was sailing over the wall with all the grace of a thrown brick, re-orientating himself as best he could and stowing his now collapsed pole in his jacket. Then he stuck his hand out, and shot a grappling web at the nearest tree, about fifteen meters away, quickly changing course towards it at speed.

Once he landed, he breathed a sigh of relief. The ground below him was a minefield, literally, full of sensors traps and heavy explosives. If he’d landed there… No more Peter.

The grounds around him were natural in only the barest sense of the word. It was a garden that existed solely because gardens were rare on Contraxia, and therefore a rich person ought to have one. Clearly, it was more of a moat then an actual living space though, the exotic trees and beautiful flowerbeds an afterthought crammed in like paint over a bloodstain. They couldn’t do anything to disguise the ugly reality, and they didn’t try.

The house itself was even uglier. It was a hideous building that looked more like a brutalist military fortress than a place where someone might live, and was enormously bloated, too large for the property it sat on. Peter hated it instantly.

He did need to get in though, and the best way to do that would be through the guard station on the side. Just like on Terra, most workers found excuses to leave and go outside for a few minutes, whether it was to smoke, take a drink, or just breathe the air, and Peter was prepared to take advantage of that.

He jumped from tree to tree like a burrito-squirrel until he reached the one just over the guard station door. The outer wall guards on patrol (all chosen from species with excellent night vision and patient hunting tactics) wouldn’t come in here, and these ones were more like a private military force--prepared to go help if there was an attack, but not actually on alert themselves, though a certain number had to be awake and battle ready at all times.

Battle ready was a bit of a misnomer though. It took all of three minutes for a rather hefty warthog-like fellow exited the door with a large smoking apparatus that looked a bit like a bong. The smell of it hit Peter like a ton of bricks, and he understood exactly why this guys fellows had kicked him out. Sentient error. The biggest flaw in any security system.

When the guard finished his foul smoking, and turned to go back inside, Peter threw in a homemade gas canister after him--one that was muffled by spiderwebs and full of a subtle sort of knockout gas that Peter had stolen from the hospital. The entrance of the nasty bong-carrying guard would cover any small noises or smells.

Then, after waiting another five minutes for the gas to work, Peter hopped from the tree to the narrow doorstep that did not have mines, folded and put away his invisibility cloak thing, and walked straight in. Then he grinned. All six guards were asleep. Mostly asleep. Some were still struggling. Peter dropped another gas canister on the way through, uncaring that it made for more than a lethal dose in most sentients. In his experience, goons usually agreed with the opinions of their master, and these ones had a nasty master.

Then, Peter popped into the side room, a barracks where there were even more guards sleeping. He left a gas canister in there too. (The drug had a short shelf life, and he had a lot of it.) They were asleep, but that would keep them from waking up.

The gas was a visible presence in both rooms by then, and Peter was grateful for the filtering mask he wore over his face that kept him from breathing it. He didn’t know how much of this stuff he could take before passing out.

It was probably a lot.

With no small amount of cheer, Peter plopped down at the computer console by the wall, which showed whether there was activity in the compound, though actually monitoring it was done entirely by computers. This one was more of a glorified alarm.

Still, it let MAY in readily enough when Peter spliced a link to his ship into its underpinnings, and soon she was controlling most of the security system, with the exception of the vault, weapons displays, and gate controls. It was enough though, and she also now had access to the floor plan, which would be a godsend.

“Okay, Peter, you need to take a right and go up the stairs. I can’t get through the door there, but it’s a fairly standard electronic lock, so you should be able to interface with it.”

“Great.” said Peter. “Is there anybody I have to worry about?”

“No.” said MAY. “All staff is currently gone or unconscious. Gan Andrimue is missing, presumably somewhere else at the moment.”

“Fantastic,” said Peter. He continued through the house. “Are there any gaps in what you can see?” he asked.

“Yes.” said MAY. “I am unable to access the systems in the collection itself. It is under a separate system inside a Faraday cage. You will be completely cut off.”

“Just what I always wanted.” said Peter. “Alone time with a bunch of torture implements.”

“You’ll be fine.” said MAY. “In other news, I just made it into the emergency backup power for the building. It is powered by quarnyx batteries which are known to make rather fun explosions, as demonstrated by your friends the Guardians. May I suggest blowing this Popsicle stand on the way out?”

“That’s an excellent idea.” said Peter. “Though I do intend to loot it first. Video games taught me well in that respect. Do you have access to the yard and wall defenses?”

“Not yet” said MAY. “I’ll work on it.”

“When you get there, tell me” said Peter. “Or even better, just use it yourself. Trigger an alert in some quiet corner of the wall, and then kill whoever comes to investigate with those nifty neurotoxin coated needle guns. Quiet-like. Try to get all of them if you can.”

“Sounds great Peter.” said MAY

For a second Peter wondered if he should have, perhaps, coded MAY with something like morals, or maybe an override code required if she was to kill anyone. Then he shrugged. That would waste time, and MAY was his. He made her. He regularly debugged her. He knew exactly what she was comprised of. There was no danger of a HAL-9000 situation at all, at least not against him.

“I’m coming up on the gallery doors now MAY.” said Peter, “So I guess I’ll see you soon”

Then he pulled open the door that had been left ajar, and walked in cautiously. He knew from MAY’s plans that there were no automated defenses here, or alarms that would trigger something outside. Still, his senses told him to be wary.

The weapons gallery was a series of interconnected rooms that looked a lot like a traditional art gallery, full of tasteful lighting and seats to view them with. Most of them were more… ceremonial than functional (ancient golden spear anyone?), though there were a few that looked downright deadly. (like the laser sniper rifle rumored to be the one to kill the Nova Prime two before this one. Peter liked the look of that one.)

More distasteful were the things clearly intended for torture. Some of them were very creative. Despite the danger, Peter actually had to stop and stare at a few, like the one that used dimensional runes (More commonly called magic) to amplify the users senses--a common tool twisted into something that would make the barest touch or softest whisper sheer agony.

Then he reached the final room. There, on a pedestal under a spotlight was the berserker staff. In front of it, staring at it like it was his long lost lover, stood Gan Andrimue.

Peter had been quiet. Andrimue hadn’t seen him yet (probably). Still, there was nothing he could do to stop the man from turning around and smiling at him like he was an invited guest.

“Oh, how unexpected.” he said. “You must have had quite a time getting through my security.”

Peter didn’t speak. His soul was screaming expletives and he was capable of no other thought than those.

Andrimue was a tall imposing man with a lot of muscles. Peter got the impression that he not only liked looking at the weapons around him, but using them. Still, he could take him. Maybe. Peter hadn’t actually gotten into a fight since he’d been shoved back into his seven year old body. He hoped it wasn’t too bad.

Then the man crushed all of Peter’s dreams. “I assume you’ve taken care of my guards. I guess it’s all up to me then.” he said. “That’s a good thing. I’ve been meaning to test this out.”

Then he grabbed the berserker's staff, and Peter watched in horror as its energy visibly flowed through him, its magic fueling his rage and strength as he attacked, staff extended to smash Peter into the ground.

Chapter Text

“What do you know about magic?” asked Loki.

Peter wracked his brains for an answer. “It works?” he said. “Also Dr. Strange said something about dimensions?”

Loki sighed. “At least you don’t have any misinformation.” he said. “Alright, lets start from the basics.

“There are two kinds of magic. Intrinsic magic and Planar magic. Intrinsic magic is like… energy that already exists on this plane and someone who uses that is simply manipulating it. When I create an illusion, I am simply using the energy found within me and around me to bend light into the shape I desire. That abominable witch uses the reservoir of energy she was gifted with when she was altered with the mind stone. Does this make sense?”

“Yes.” said Peter. “Energy from you. Got it. Does that mean that only certain people can do that kind of magic?”

“Yes.” said Loki. “Magic is stored in the soul--the very essence and life force of a person. To use magic is to drain energy from the soul. If you drain your whole soul, then you die. Like a used up battery. Done. Certain people, though, are born with… let’s call them rechargeable batteries. They can use a bit of their soul energy without endangering their life force, because that energy will come back for them, sometimes from simple rest and their natural energies, and sometimes from outside sources of energy--like when my brother calls lightning onto himself. It is… not simple, but at its most basic level it is simply using your body’s energy to do something, like burning food to move your muscles.”

“Okay, that makes sense I guess.” said Peter. “Intrinsic. Inside. Definitely sensible.”

“Wonderful.” said Loki. “Now, the other type of magic--Planar Magic--is a bit more complicated. People who use planar magic are drawing from something or someplace else--usually a parallel plane of existence hence the name, but it can also be another person’s intrinsic magic, an item with a great reservoir of magic stored, or even in some abominable cases a great number of sentient souls.”

“But they can use it the same as an Intrinsic person right?” said Peter. “I mean… they can do the same things.”

“Yes.” said Loki. “Actually, Planar magic allows even more powerful spells, because one is channeling from a source larger than themselves. Most magicians are capable of both. I believe that that awful witch actually does it sometimes--channels from the mind-stone itself instead of the power she has. It likely happens at moments of stress or high emotion--which is why she was able to destroy the mind stone with her power, but was unable to contain a measly bomb. The bomb was intrinsic magic she didn’t care about. The stone was something important, and she was filled with desperation, allowing her to channel it back into itself in an unstable feedback loop.”

“Wow.” said Peter. “So what makes Planar Magic more complicated?”

“It requires a link to the source of power.” said Loki. “For the witch, her very soul is quantum linked to the mind stone. That is… not wise. She would not have survived long even if she hadn’t been killed. For most though, other things are linked to the power, or they learn to reach out and establish a temporary link with their own soul--not a permanent one, just a tiny brush.

“A good example of this is Doctor Strange. His cape is linked to power, and allows him to fly. His ring is linked to a planar nexus, and allows him to bend space together. He himself briefly touches various energies constantly in order to perform his spells--like how he uses the time stone, or brings energy into a physical form. The spells made with items are much more powerful than the ones just made by channeling in the soul, because they can channel the power completely, rather than merely brush it. Their downfall is that they are incredibly specific. The ring only makes portals. The cloak only flies.”

“Why are they specific?” asked Peter.

“It has to do with controlling the power.” said Loki. “When you are channeling power through yourself, you have incredible fine control. The mind is a powerful tool, and can imagine many different things, many different patterns. You are not even aware of most of the calculations that go on, though understanding the broad shape of it is important, and a defined spell with a clear purpose is necessary unless you want a random explosion of strange energy. A spell in an item though… That does not have a mind. Instead it is more like… the computer programs you are always going on about. A simple set of instructions written in runes of power or the will of the items creator.

“Sometimes, like with the cloak, it is more complex, and has a near-soul of it’s own an existence that is… aware. After all, the cloak must respond to the will of its master, and navigate a variety of situations.”

“You’re right. That is more complicated.”

“It is, but that is still just the basics. There are a truly astounding number of methods to cast spells, to channel magic, to imbue power in items… They spring up with every culture and every people all across the universe. Knowing the basics though… Those are the same across all disciplines, and when you must combat someone who is using magic, you need only know those. If power is channeled from within, contain it, or turn it in on itself. If it is channeled from without through the soul, break the connection, by distraction or changing priorities. If it is channeled through an item, break the connection between the person and the item. Failing that, break the item. For all three though, there is a guaranteed way to end the working.”

“What is that?” asked Peter

“Kill the person.”

“Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck Fuck” said Peter, as he bounced around the room avoiding the fast, unpredictable, and powerful swings of the staff bearing madman.

He sprang to the ceiling, and crawled along it, taking a moment to breath. It was a high ceiling, he couldn’t be reached right now.

Suddenly his spider senses buzzed with danger, and he had to dodge to avoid a shot from a terrifyingly powerful laser pistol. Clearly, Andrimue wasn’t quite as incapacitated as he appeared, he still had some reason. That made him even more dangerous.

“Fuck” reiterated Peter.

He dropped back down to the ground, and the pistol was forgotten. Clearly his proximity made the power of the berserker staff worse, because the more dangerous weapon was dropped in favor of more bashing and whacking, anger overriding sense until the man was feral.

Peter only tried to block the staff once, taking out his long Asgardian knives from their sheathes at his thighs and crossing them over his head, all the while aiming a kick at Andrimue’s groin. Peter didn’t believe in fighting fair, and genital location was shockingly consistent across most humanoid species.

The madman didn’t budge, or react at all, despite the force of the kick, and all Peter got for the effort was a pair of dropped knives and arms numb from the ringing force of the heavy staff. “Fuck” he said.

Ayo would probably kill him if she heard him talk during a fight. He didn’t care.

“Fuck” he said again, dodging another swing, rolling across the floor and grabbing his knives, not that they would be much good.

He managed a few cuts on the berserk crime boss, but his usual fighting grace simply wasn’t there in this body, and none of the freely bleeding cuts landed quite where they were meant to. He’d come so close, especially to the femoral artery, but he’d nearly died trying so it was not to be.

Continually, Peter overestimated his strength, his height, and his reach. During his time in the soul stone he’d come to know his body and his strength so well that it was instinct to depend on its exact capabilities, but those instincts proved to be completely worthless--actually worse than worthless, they were damaging--now that he was in the body of a shrimp.

“Fuck” he said again, as he took a glancing blow to the thigh. This fight simply wasn’t one he could win with the weapons he had. The energy field surrounding the berserker wouldn’t let his webs stick at all, and his knives were clumsy in his hands. If he’d been in his proper body, this would have been over in seconds, but he wasn’t so it had continued long past that. Peter had little hope of winning. He just wanted to survive.

Suddenly he had an idea. Berserker staff. Magic Item. break the connection or the item.

Instead of attacking Andrimue directly, Peter started to go after his hands and the staff. He cut off three fingers of one of the hands, and the swings he was dodging became slightly easier, marginally less powerful. They were still too fast though, and Peter knew that his tiny body wouldn’t be able to keep up for long.

Dodging under Andrimue’s legs again, he stabbed upward at the femoral artery once more. Again he missed barely, though the cut was deep and took away a bit of the strength in one leg. Now Andrimue’s entire left side was slightly weak, missing grip strength and agility.

For his troubles, Peter received another hit while rolling to his feet, this time on his shoulder. He persevered though, and continued his attack, but he was flagging. He didn’t think he was going to make it, or damage the staff or hands any more.

Break the connection. Break the item. Kill the person. Peter and his tiny little knives (they were the size of his forearms--his teenage forearms--but against this staff they were nothing) weren’t going to be able to do any of those things.

Peter’s panic distracted him, and Andrimue shoved the butt of his staff directly into Peter’s sternum, pushing him to the floor and channeling enough magically induced force to probably kill a regular person. Peter dropped his knives once again, and scrambled backward as Andrimue wound up for the final blow.

Suddenly Peter’s hand landed on the pistol, and he whipped it around. There’d been guns in the soul stone. They refused to shoot since fire didn’t exist, but Peter had been shown his way around them anyway. He knew where to put his hands and his elbows, what to line up to aim. Even the slightly unfamiliar configuration didn’t screw him up, and finally his instincts were right on point. Aim, fire, duck out of the way.

The staff landed right where he’d been before, and Andrimue screeched in animal pain.

Peter got back to his feet, gun in hand. He’d shot Andrimue in the gut. The wound was probably fatal unless he got to a doctor soon, but Andrimue under the influence of the staff cared not one whit and just kept attacking. Peter kept dodging, but he’d found a bit of a second wind. He couldn’t break the connection. He could, however, kill the person.

During the minuscule recovery time after an especially heavy swing, Peter jumped in close and jammed the pistol right up against Andrimue’s eye, taking no chances as he pulled the trigger. The effect was instant.

The staff dropped to the floor.

So did the body.

So did the gun.

Peter’s hands were shaking.

It was strange. He’d killed… Antron Ras, and probably at least a few of the guards with sleeping gas. He’d also ordered the deaths of the ones on the wall (did it count if it was his creation doing it?) This though, this was different. All those deaths had been clean and nice. This one was messy, the sort of death that Peter saw only occasionally on patrol. Whenever he did, he’d always gone to the Tower instead of home, because he didn’t want May to deal with it. Mr. Stark had always known what had happened instantly, and had the perfect thing to say and do to make it better.

Now though, Peter didn’t have Mr. Stark, and worse, he’d caused the death himself. The blood was quite literally on his hands.

He didn’t have time to panic though. Death was expected. It was always a possibility in a fight. He’d been mentally preparing for it for ages, so much so that he hadn’t blinked when it happened softly (which might be worse, come to think of it).

He gave himself one shuddering breath to think about it. Then, as he breathed out, he focused and pushed the emotions away. Purpose. He had a purpose, and any obstacle was to be removed. He could do this.

After that, he stepped over the body and ignored it. Intellectualization. It was a defense mechanism he’d picked up from Doctor Strange, who’d dealt with a lot of corpses and traumatic injuries in surgery, and a lot of horrors in sorcery. If you could make everything into cold hard facts with no emotions, it couldn’t get to you anymore. The body wasn’t a person, it was a thing, an obstacle. The blood was notable only as a trip hazard. The weapons scattered on the floor required cleaning.

Once Peter shifted his mind into that method of thinking, it became… simple. He gathered the weapons used in the fight, cleaning his knives on a cloth from one of the displays before sheathing them. The berserker staff he placed carefully in a thick bag that shouldn’t let any of its energy through.

Then he looked around for the rooms security. Once he’d located it in a panel on the wall he opened it and realized it required a fingerprint, a physical key, and a key code.

Walking over, Peter searched the clothing of the body for the key cylinder, and once he’d found it, he continued on and picked up one of the fingers that had been cut off during the fight.

Those were then used, and after that Peter disassembled and hacked the keypad, which was the easiest protection to break through. Now he had access to the entirety of the compounds security.

The first thing he did with that, was rig up a signal within the room connected to the outside. “MAY?” he asked “Can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear.” said MAY. “The guards on the outer walls have been disposed of cleanly. It is likely that no one will notice that anything occurred at this location for another seven hours, and the local beings that pass for authorities have not received any alerts. I have also rigged this place to blow on your command.”

“Perfect.” said Peter. “Can you bring the Mayday around? I’m pretty sure this dude has a special secure entrance up here for his collection, and some of it looks valuable.

“Absolutely. Cloaking is active, and it will arrive in two minutes.”

“When it does, tell me. Until then, pop open an internet connection and tell me which ones of these things are valuable and which are just pieces of garbage. Include decent weapons we haven’t seen before even if they aren’t of monetary value.”

“On it,” said MAY. “Would you like me to do so for the rest of the building as well?”

“Of course, though we are on the clock.” said Peter, “And we have limited room. Make me a packing list for the Mayday prioritizing useful items, and those with the highest payoff. I want to leave this place in the most expensive ship possible. Also, download the personal database. It would be interesting to see what fun secrets this guy has. Criminal empire, y’know”

“I will, but there is a separate server in the vault I am unable to connect to. You will have to access it manually.”

“I might as well head down there right now.” said Peter. “I imagine I’ll be going down there anyway at some point.”

“Yes. There is a large number of credits stored on chits there, as well as the codes for a few bank accounts. You are becoming quite successful, for a beginning criminal.”

“Yeah,” said Peter, heading down the hall to the elevator. “I calculated it out, and I’m making about as much as the average Ravager faction. Only difference is, I don’t have a ship or twelve to maintain, and I don’t have to pay any crew.”

“Any ideas on what you intend to use it for?” asked MAY

“Eh, I don’t know. Probably the defense of the universe. If I have any leftover after that I’m thinking of starting a technology company. Interplanetary sort of a thing. Terra and elsewhere.”

“Commendable goals. I would like, however, to put in a few suggestions if I may.”

Peter reached the bottom of the elevator, and started to poke around the vault. “Go right ahead.” he said.

“I believe we would benefit from a larger ship. That would, of course, necessitate a place to hide it, and a few maintenance and loading assists. I would also like to recommend the prioritization of weaponry. In addition to this, I believe that some form of body outside of a ship would be helpful to me. I would like to assist you with your projects.”

“That sounds sensible.” he said. “Would you like to be humanoid or something else.”

“I would prefer humanoid.” said MAY. “With a disguise, I could act as adult supervision for you, so you could lie less when roaming the city or shopping.”

“That makes sense.” said Peter. “Let's do all those things, as soon as we’re done with the gene project.” By then Peter had disabled the internal destruction protocols on the vault, and while he still couldn’t crack it, there was no longer any defense against determination and a plasma cutter. “I should make a light-saber” said Peter as he sliced through the thick door. He’d acquired a powerful cutter though, so it was okay. “I feel like a light-saber would be cool.”

“A regular blade with plasma enhancements would be more efficient.” said MAY.

“Yeah okay.” said Peter. “Also, I’m terrible with a sword. It had better be a knife or two. Except then they would be too small to hold a decent power source…”

“I would suggest a central power source, like the Iron Man suit has for all your weaponry.” said MAY.

“I guess, but then they’d have to be attached and I don’t want to be stuck like Edward Scissor-hands.” said Peter. The hole he was cutting in the vault door was nearly finished, just a little bit more on the bottom to go. “Or hey, I could totally just make them retractable--assassins creed style. It would be awesome.”

“Do you get all your ideas from pop culture?” asked MAY

“Yes.” said Peter. “When I died, Mr. Stark and I were actually in the middle of building a functional BB-8 which is a droid from a future Star Wars movie.”

The conversation stopped then, because Peter was thinking holy fuck that was a lot of very expensive shit and money, and MAY was diving into the rooms server like a starving dog into a bowl of kibble.

-------------

There was something incredibly satisfying about flying away from an explosion in a ship loaded to the brim with blackmail material, weapons, money and art. Especially when there were several more crates of the same winging their way to Xandar via an ‘independent freighter’ that wasn’t too likely to peek in them. Or go through customs. (Peter really liked the convenience of hiring people on the internet. He was also incredibly fond of his stolen package carrier drone, even if it had taken up half the space in his ship on the way there. He hoped it would make it back to Xandar.)

The explosion itself was an odd golden color, and it made Peter smile. The ugly building was no more, and would no longer be around to bother anyone. As long as no one noticed that a few of the defenses on the towers had mysteriously gone missing, it would probably be ruled as a catastrophic failure of the back up power system. Everyone would know that was not the case, but there wasn’t exactly any evidence left over, so it’s what the polite fiction would be.

Still, it would be best to get off of Contraxia sooner rather than later. Peter had planned originally to simply steal the item and then wait a few days for the search to cool down before high-tailing it out of there, but now… he needed to be gone fast. It was a little sad that he wouldn’t get to be tracked down by Yondu though. He had been looking forward to that, since Yondu was both interesting and in denial about his adorable dadness when it came to Peter Quill.

Snickering, Peter decided that he needed to arrange that anyway.

“MAY?” he said, “Did you happen to get anything from Udonta’s comm? I’d like to send him a message.”

“What would you like it to say?” asked MAY

“Leaving in a hurry, maybe some other time” said Peter. “And put in a song too. One we didn’t sell… how about Fat Bottomed Girls. Yondu seems the type for Queen.”

“How delightfully lewd” said MAY

“I know, right?” said Peter.

“I’ll tell you if he sends anything back.” said MAY.

“Great.” said Peter. “Now, while we wait for our exit to be cleared, voice-call Zor and set up a meeting for me, about the berserker staff. I want him nervous.”

“Doing it now.” said MAY “Wow, you really are in a good mood. And feeling like a criminal mastermind.”

“There was an explosion MAY. Totally like an action movie. I feel amazing.” said Peter. He pointedly did not focus on the eight hours he’d spent picking through the buildings valuables and finding… horrible things, or what came before that. Just the explosion, and just the victory.

--------------

Cademian Zor was looking the same as he had before, but Peter thought he detected a bit of nervous tension.

“Hi.” said Peter. “So hows the whole staff thing working out for you?”

“There have been difficulties.” said Zor.

“Like it being stolen?” asked Peter. “That can be difficult.”

“I have placed a bounty on it, and I’m sure it will be returned,”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “I’m sure it will be. In other news, I’m also here to collect on a bounty you posted? Some kind of staff thing? It was a bitch to get, I expect a bonus.”

Zor looked utterly delighted, though the undertone of tension remained. “I’m sure that can be arranged.” he said. “And as compensation for all your troubles, I will reduce my commission on the sale by a full percent.”

“Wonderful.” said Peter. “I also have a couple other items you might be interested in. They’re not Terran, but still pretty okay. Bits of art, a couple weapons. Blackmail material on half the population of Contraxia, though be aware I am keeping a copy of that. And the only copy of a few choice bits.”

Zor's eyes widened. Clearly he had heard of the explosion and was now putting the pieces together. Peter was glad he’d managed to break the guys bearing.

“Most of it hasn’t arrived yet, still on a freighter coming in from Contraxia. Supposed to be here tomorrow though.” continued Peter. “I’ve got scans though, if you’re interested in any of it. To business then?”

“To business.” said Cademian Zor. He knew better than to ask exactly what had happened when Peter got the things.

“Great.” said Peter, putting his data prism down on the table. “Now this first piece was valued at a couple hundred thousand, last I checked on the net, but I understand there’s a markdown for goods with checkered pasts. How does hundred-seventy-five thousand sound?”

----------------

When Peter left Zor’s, telling him when the shipments were coming in as well as arranging a time to transfer goods off the Mayday, he was a bit preoccupied. His body probably couldn’t handle any more jumps today, so he had several hours to waste in Nova Central--though he didn’t want to go near the Academy and risk seeing anyone he knew.

His preoccupation was so great, that he actually physically ran into someone he knew, which tripped him onto the ground. “Oh hi.” he said, looking up at Yondu Udonta, who was leveling a fierce glare on him.

“What’chu thinkin’ boy?” asked Yondu, “Runnin into people, an’ blowin’ up buildin’s.”

Peter wore his best innocent face. “I didn’t blow up anything.” he said. “I’m sorry about running into you though.”

Yondu sighed, like he was fully sick of dealing with Terran antics (he probably was), and then yanked Peter by his arm at a quick pace in the direction of a small seedy restaurant. The waiter obviously recognized Yondu, and so they were taken directly to a room in the back.

“What the hell.” said Yondu. “Were you thinkin’ tanglin’ with the likes of Gan Andrimue.”

“How do you even know that was me?” asked Peter, “And why would you care.”

“I said I was gonna track you down, an’ I did.” said Yondu. “An’ if you’re at all int'rested in business, you gotta know I don’ deal with idjits who can’ avoid blowin’ up a buildin’ belongin’ to the most powerful man on a whole planet.”

Peter was not impressed by that excuse. “Then don’t deal with me.” he said, making it clear that that lie wasn’t going to fly.

Yondu glared even harder, but relented. “An’ also you remind me of some idiot I know.” he said. “Scrappy little Terran too stupid to live.”

Peter was squirming from joy on the inside at yet more evidence of Yondu Udonta’s squishy dadness. “Well you don’t have to worry then.” he said. “I am pretty much completely unknown. No one would even think to connect me back to Contraxia. At most, they’d think I was used as a mule taking it to Cademian Zor. And besides, I’m headed back to Terra at the moment. Safe and sound behind a whole blockade.”

“An’ there’s another thing.” said Yondu. “You gotta quit admittin’ to crimes ‘round people you don’ know.”

Peter smirked. He couldn’t exactly explain that because of Old Peter he trusted Yondu implicitly, to the extent that Yondu was trustworthy (Old Peter had been very clear on what areas Yondu was not trustworthy in ever, to anyone). He did have a ready excuse though. “I don’t usually do that.” said Peter, “but I looked you up Udonta. You have a reputation. I get the feeling from it that you’d ferret anything you wanted to know out of me anyway, and it would be a lot more pleasant just to say it in the first place. I’m not in the habit of lying to people who could kill me by whistling.”

It was sort of sweet that Yondu was actually worried about him. Apparently the man’s weakness for Terrans wasn’t Quill exclusive. “I’ll take that.” said Yondu. “But yer still painfully green. It’s gonna get you killed someday.”

Peter grinned. “You don’t want me dead?” he asked “Does that mean you’re interested in trading for my Terran junk?”

“Hmmph.” said Yondu. “Killin’s not off the table. I might want those songs though.”

The waiter unobtrusively knocked again, and brought in a veritable trough of some sort of food as well as dishes. There was silence for a bit as the waiter arranged it all and left.

“So.” said Yondu “That name and backstory on your file. It the real one?”

“Yeah. Mostly.” said Peter. If the defense-of-the-universe plan went well, then Old Peter would end up knowing everything anyway, so telling Yondu a bit of the truth wouldn’t hurt at all (also, Peter really liked him. He was like Mr. Stark, in a way, all sharp edges but with a soft center) “I fudged a bit on whose taking care of me, and where I got the ship.” He decided to lay on a little manipulation as well. Remind Yondu of his Peterness and lay down a bit of a sob story at the same time. “Also, my designation’s technically Subject P. I just call myself Peter because I like the name.”

“In other words, it’s all bullshit, but of the generally truthful variety.” said Yondu.

“Yeah.” said Peter.

“It’s fairly good work.” said Yondu “I mostly couldn’t tell it for a fake.”

“Thanks” said Peter. “So, you mentioned another Terran. Is that who the music’s for?”

“What’s it to you?” asked Yondu

“Nothing.” said Peter “It’s just rare to see anyone from Terra out in the wider galaxy. I’ve only ever heard of one or two.” Specifically Carol Danvers and Peter Quill.

“Yeah, they’re rare. Mine was one I picked up myself. Name’s actually Peter too. Complete idiot. Don’ know why I haven’ killed ‘im yet.”

Peter grinned. He knew exactly why Yondu hadn’t killed Old Peter yet. “And the music?” he asked.

“He’s got only twelve damn songs. They’re the mos’ annoyin’ thing in the galaxy, an’ he’s played ‘em constantly for years. Besides, I always like to have a couple bribes around for if I need him to stop bein stupid for awhile.” said Yondu. Peter laughed at his annoyance at the ever present awesome mix. Yondu glared back, daring him to comment. It was a fun day.

Chapter Text

“I just met a rather large woman who died in her wedding dress.” said Loki. “She took it off in the stone, because it was uncomfortable, and doesn’t care to keep it.”

Peter grinned, and then looked over at Dr. Strange, who was dead to the world, deep in meditation as he powered up the mandala of the time spell. Since they’d finished, the scientists and magicians had disappeared mostly having nothing to do, and now all there was before he would leave was powering it up. Strange and Loki took turns, and they had also drafted the Guardians of the Galaxy to attempt to connect to the Power stone and get some from there.

Dead to the world Doctor. Wedding dress. This had the makings of some rather fun entertainment.

“Do you think there’s any flowers somewhere around here.” said Peter “I think he’d look lovely in a flower crown.”

------

“LOKI!!!!!!!!! PETER!!!!!!!!! I KNOW IT WAS YOU, WHERE ARE YOU TWO INGRATES”

-------

“Don’t say a word.” said Dr. Strange. He was crouching over the occupied Loki, using his unawareness as an opportunity to braid his hair, putting it up in pink scrunchies he’d acquired from seemingly nowhere. (Peter could just imagine the very serious Doctor descending on some little girl to ask for her hair things. It was very funny)

“Hoyden.” said Peter. “There’s a word. But really though, he looks very fetching. Almost as fetching as you did in that dress.”

Dr. Strange finished up the look with a plastic tiara featuring Disney’s Sleeping Beauty

“Do you want to be next?” he asked, glaring at Peter

----------

Peter struggled against the cloak keeping him still. He did not want to be blindfolded. This whole prank war was getting out of hand.

----------

“The key to any illusion,” said Loki, “is making sure it’s just normal enough that people aren’t immediately aware of it.”

“Which is why we’re not turning him into a bilge-snipe” said Peter

“Exactly.” said Loki. “He would feel the difference between his appearance and his body immediately. We need to be more subtle than that.”

“Okay.” said Peter, “But you should change the eye-shadow to a dark red-brown. It would set off the green in his eyes.”

“Good point.” said Loki. “Should I use the same color for lipstick or is that too much?”

“It’s never too much.” said Peter

----------

“I really wish I could do illusions. That would make this so much easier.” said Strange

“I think you’re doing great.” said Peter, as Strange wrestled Loki out of his clothes.

“What the hell are these fastenings even made of?” asked Strange

“Let me help.” said Peter. “I’m very clever at that sort of thing.”

-----------

“What are you wearing?” asked Fury

“It’s a long story.” said Peter. “Let’s get on with the lesson, please. I don’t think I can handle any more humiliation. James laughed at me for twenty minutes. And it’s an illusion, so there’s no way to get it off without magic.”

-----------

“OLD PETER! Old Peter! They’re both powering it up at the same time. Apparently it’s a delicate phase. They’ll be unconscious for a while.”

“Oh really?” said Old Peter. “So what were you thinking.”

--------------

Loki’s shriek of indignation at waking up in a somewhat intimate embrace with Dr. Strange was matched only by the indescribable noise coming out of the good Doctor. The two Peters high-fived.

“I am Groot.” said Groot. It meant, ‘I don’t think they would be very good together’

“That’s the point.” said Gamora

“I do not understand this humor.” said Mantis.

“It is funny,” said Drax “because this would never happen by their own choice.”

James just laughed. He was doing that more lately.

Then they all had to run away, chased by a pair of angry magicians. They couldn’t get hurt in the soul stone, but Peter knew that there were a lot of other ways that this could go badly. (the incident with Strange and the Dora Milaje, for example, came to mind. Being crucified on a bunch of spears because you had a ‘god complex’ had to be no fun at all, no matter if it didn’t hurt and Loki had been fine, if incensed.)

Peter’s first few days back on Terra were spent unpacking and setting up the cool new toys he had acquired. There was, of course, the med-pod and associated items, and various parts and devices, as well as the nifty weapons he’d taken from Contraxia, but he’d also purchased several fabrication machines and some pieces of various androids. He had been serious when he and MAY had discussed getting her a body.

That was a task for another time though, because Peter really needed to get on top of this genetics thing. The first signs of medical trouble were appearing again, and he was hoping to only have to endure getting himself back on track one more time before some real progress was made.

“Reverse this section, MAY.” he said, “Then re-run the simulations. How much possibility of rejection are we looking at?”

“Still 57%” said MAY, “Though that has more to do with the Xandarian third strand than the section you’re working on.”

“I know.” said Peter. “You have the whole genetics library, right? What other species run on TNA--and include animals in that.”

“Here’s some options.” said MAY. “I have highlighted the ones that might help. The arachnids are of particular note. Species 249A especially has several genetic sections incredibly similar to your own, besides the third strand.”

“Pull ‘em up.” said Peter. “The more genes that come naturally with the third strand, the lower the rejection rate.”

Doing this… Peter felt a strange kinship with Mr. Stark on the other side of the nation doing the same thing. They were both racing against a clock to try and save their own lives, using science that had never been tried before.

Actually… Peter didn’t think that Mr. Stark was quite there yet. If his timeline was correct… he was pretty sure that the problem had only just been discovered. Mr. Stark wouldn’t have finished ruling out Earth’s options until just before Monaco, when he appointed Potts as CEO. He hadn’t been sure of the date, but the internet had yielded the event information well enough. It was several months away, in May, right before Mr. Stark’s birthday.

“Monaco in May, expo in June…” muttered Peter. He wondered if there was a way that he could do something to help…

“What was that Peter?” asked MAY. “I didn’t quite pick it up.”

“Just thinking about the timeline for Mr. Stark.” said Peter. “I… I know it’s months away, but I’m really worried about it.”

They worked in silence for a moment, and then MAY spoke up again. “Truthfully,” she said, “I don’t understand your worry, or your desire to be here.”

“What do you mean?” asked Peter. “I have to be here, it’s Mr. Stark, and I’m fairly sure that Thor arrives right after that too.”

“Perhaps,” said MAY, “But you are not providing assistance to him in any way, your presence makes no difference. And our projects would be just as well completed on Xandar as here. Probably better, since you would be less miserable in the weather and have the support of your friend, the Priva. You could also attend your classes physically instead of being a mere hologram.”

Peter frowned. All of her points were technically correct, though setting up a private lab would be expensive, and a hassle. Coming back to Terra had been… a little bit painful. He’d arrived just after New Years, and the cold and scraggly remains of holiday decorations had shocked him. He’d left in late August, and somehow had thought the world would be on pause while he was gone. Instead, he’d come back to freezing cold that was hell on his body (his thermoregulation wasn’t too good), and the realization that he’d missed both his birthday and Christmas. Still though… “I don’t know either.” he said. “I sort of wanted to stay and go to school, but it kind of felt like the wrong thing to do. I… I know I can’t do anything, but I don’t want to be away during this time, and besides, I have a lot to do. On Xandar I was getting distracted from my purpose, doing a lot of other things. Here I have more time to focus and work. World’s not going to save itself, you know?”

“I suppose I do.” said MAY. “Also, it is a lot easier to avoid detection by the Terran police than the Nova Corps.”

“That too.” said Peter. MAY had been instrumental in keeping the lab from being found.

They worked in silence for a while, both trying to find the solution to the ever-present problem of Peter’s genetics.

As they did though… It was mostly grunt work, and Peter was thinking about Mr. Stark, the timeline, and interference.

When they’d been making plans, this had never been a possibility. Coming back an extra two years… that was more likely the result of a math error than anything, and it had never been anticipated at all. Everything that Peter had been told about messing with the timeline still applied, but some of the stuff about Mr. Stark didn’t anymore.

He’d been told not to tell him anything. If it had been time for the Chitauri invasion, he wouldn’t have told him anything more than anyone else. Here though… Maybe the reasons not to tell Mr. Stark about the future of the invasion or the infinity stones yet were valid, they didn’t know what he would do with that information, but there was no reason not to help Mr. Stark with his current problem. Was there?

He could do it anonymously. Just send a little message, something that would put Mr. Stark on the path to creating Starkium. Save him months of pain and thinking he was going to die. Hell, Peter could probably also drop a hint about Vanko. Save the Stark Expo and prevent the twenty-eight civilian deaths and seventy-four injuries.

It was… more than tempting.

More tempting than anything off-plan that Peter had done yet (there had never been anything about becoming a space criminal. Even remembering the cache of Asgardian weapons had been pure chance)

“Hey MAY.” said Peter. “How quickly could you worm your way into Stark Industries?”

“Why do you ask?” asked MAY.

“I… I think I’m going to try to help Mr. Stark.” said Peter.

“Even though that might damage the timeline?” said MAY.

“Yeah…” said Peter. “I’d be subtle though. I wouldn’t tell him anything, just… try to bring his attention to the solution to his current health problems. Maybe a little note indicating that the diorama has a hidden message. Something like that”

“I thought you said that SHIELD had the diorama at current.” said MAY

“Oh, you’re right.” said Peter. “Then… If he had time, do you think that Mr. Stark could come up with the new element himself?”

“If he is anywhere near as intelligent as you believe him to be, then yes.” said MAY. “I do not know the exact isotope needed, or how to produce it, but I am sure that he could do it, given the time.”

“Okay… What if… bring up the periodic table of the elements, as known to the Nova Empire.” said Peter. “Don’t translate it, but format it so it’s shaped like the Terran one.”

MAY did, and soon it was floating in front of Peter, looking similar to Earth’s, except with a few extra rows on the bottom and the fact that it was in 3-D, since there was another factor that differentiated elements that Earth hadn’t discovered yet (except for Wakanda, since Vibranium was one of the second layer elements. A few researchers from other places had hypothesized it as well because of the existence of Adamantium, another second leveler, but they were laughed away as fools, and Adamantium was assumed to be a strange version of it’s normal counterpart Iron.)

“If we sent that over do you think he’d get it?” said Peter. “I could highlight Starkium, but I think that might be a bit much.”

“I think that it would do just fine.” said MAY. “I will have to be slow with my infiltration, so it will take a few weeks, but once I do, I’ll tell you and we can send this image.”

“Perfect.” said Peter. “Now, back to the genes. Do you think if we switched this to a two stage process and began with the Zehn Whoberi genes first, that rejection would be lowered?”

“I’ll run the tests.” said MAY, “But you have a class starting in fourteen minutes. I suggest you finish the background reading, and put on something vaguely presentable.”

“Nah.” said Peter, looking down at his grubby jumpsuit. “Just render different clothes as part of my holographic presence.”

--------------

What had ended up happening with Peter’s education had surprised even him. Ygrian Tam had made graphs of projected possibilities based on his present learning speed and had then informed him that no matter where he was placed, he’d likely test out of it within a session.

The proposed solution to that problem had actually surprised Peter.

Ygrian Tam had put him in the first session of classes for the fifth level of education, despite the fact that he was just starting the fourth and had about three years worth of work to get through before he reached that level, a process that he thought would take about six months to a year since he had other things to do and had finally passed the limit of his knowledge completely, even in math and science.

They’d explained that even though he wouldn’t quite understand the advanced classes, his self study would pass through the fourth level and catch up to them at about the end of the second session--which would be finished in around October, and then he could skip a few grades again and be switched up into the final session of the entire educational system. Assuming he got his thesis done in the same amount of time, Peter was looking at becoming a Cademian at around the same time as the Chitauri invasion, maybe a little earlier. It was sort of funny. He was going to make it from kindergarten to having the equivalent of a doctorate in two years, though granted the majority of that had been confirming to people that he already knew things. He’d tested out of maybe ninety percent of his coursework, and fudged a lot of the rest through common sense and a really good memory.

Truly, the Nova meritocratic system was essentially designed for people like him who already knew most of what they needed and just wanted proof of that fact.

The heavy class schedule in addition to his self study and genetics work made him work seventeen and eighteen hours a day, but Peter didn’t mind. It wasn’t as if he had anything better to do, and the exhaustion kept the nightmares away. That was a good thing.

At the beginning of February, when Peter was nearly done formulating his gene therapy plan, MAY announced that she’d made her way into Mr. Stark’s servers. She couldn’t read anything, or take anything without being noticed, but she should be able to drop something in there. It would be found in the next audit, and read by the AI, who would definitely see the significance and pass it on to Mr. Stark.

Especially since Peter had added on a Hamlet quote about there being more things in heaven and earth than were dreamt of in Mr. Stark’s philosophy, as well as a recipe for a chemical stopgap developed by SHIELD that Peter had kindly hacked for him. There was no way that JARVIS wouldn’t judge that as important. No way at all.

He gave her the go ahead, and breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully that would solve a lot of the pain that Mr. Stark was experiencing, or at the very least give him hope. In any case, there wasn’t anything more Peter could do. Until things started happening. Maybe then… no he really shouldn’t (except Black Widow was going to come in and spy on Mr. Stark and he didn’t know anything about SHIELD, and…) He’d think about it later. At the moment though, his focus should be on finishing up his genetic rewrite plans.

If he got anything wrong, he’d die, and that was simply not going to happen. (He was already at the limit of his stopgaps efficacy. Another couple months and the damage would be irreparable.) So he worked and he worked and he worked until it was as close to perfect as he could get it, and when he started to panic from the stress and worry he drowned himself in unfamiliar alien science. Tam would be so proud of him, he was actually ahead of schedule by a lot, though his coming temporary incapacity would likely erase that lead.

He did his last gene correction near Valentines day, and was ready for the real treatment to begin by the beginning of March.

“Is everything set up?” asked Peter. “Once we start this, we can’t stop.”

“We are as prepared as we can be.” said MAY. “Stage one is ready to begin.”

Peter nodded, and stripped out of his jumpsuit. Then he picked up the prepared GCS and gulped. Its needles were terrifying, and the iffy liquids in the various nodules attached on the other side weren’t any better. He ran his thumb over the ones that contained the first set of artificial viruses that would rewrite his very genetics. “Do a recording.” said Peter “And don’t let me off of sedation except during the periods that you absolutely have to. Endocrine and neural sections only.”

“Yes Peter.” said MAY. She didn’t point out that that had always been the plan.

“I… If it goes wrong you’ve got the updated Plan B ready, right?” said Peter.

“Of course.” said MAY. “It won’t go wrong though. It can’t”

“It can always go wrong.” said Peter. Then he lined up the GCS with his spine and pressed the activation button. It took care of the rest, stabbing into Peter’s back invasively. He shuddered, but didn’t move. Peter was used to pain.

Once that had been accomplished, Peter opened the pod and lowered himself into it face down and trailing wires. Then he hooked himself into all the needles and tubes required. “Begin sedation.” he said as the oxygenated fluid he would be suspended in began flowing in. “I don’t want to be awake while transitioning to breathing that stuff.”

“Stars favor.” said MAY. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Peter smiled a little bit, amused by MAY’s propensity to pick up Nova phrases in regular language (she disagreed with Terran religions, and as such refused to say anything involving God, but the Nova propensity to swear by the stars was something she..d pi… an…

------------

Peter woke in pain. Every nerve in his body seemed to be firing simultaneously, and he screamed until it felt like his vocal chords would rupture. It didn’t make a sound though, because Peter was suspended in fluid, and breathing it in. Oh stars, was this what his life was going to be like for the next few months?

Nova drugs were very good, and there were types that would work with his biology and metabolism, but unless he wanted addiction to them coded into his very DNA he couldn’t be on them during certain parts of the process. It was the most painful thing he’d ever experienced, except possibly turning to dust in his father mentor’s arms, but at least that had been over in seconds, and he’d be feeling this for at least an hour.

The black widow's poison hijacks nerve signals, causing the muscles to contract repeatedly and painfully. By all accounts it was a miserable way to die. Peter understood that now on a deeper level than he ever thought he would, because it was burning through his whole body like every ache and change of puberty plus a side dish of stage four cancer all condensed for his enjoyment into a single hour.

As defense against it, Peter began reviewing in his mind how he would synthesize a compound with similar effects to the black widow's poison. Trying not to think about the pain was his only defense. He also tried not to think about how this was the first of many sessions.

This one was just a primer. A bit of change that would reduce rejection so his immune system didn’t kill him, and a few alteration to the pieces of his genetics that had caused the most problems in simulations.

Coming soon for Peter, there would be several other smaller treatments, that could be done simply with a syringe and a couple spare hours, and then in a month another really big one--the one that would slap on the Xandarian tri-strand, turning all his DNA to TNA. That was not one that Peter was looking forward to, and it had the highest chance of him dying--almost ten percent.

After that, he’d be spending about an hour in the pod every day for several weeks, interspersed with three other, longer sessions. Then there would be fine tuning and tweaking, and after that, Peter would get the joy of reevaluating how long it would be until he died. He hoped dearly that he’d manage to at least tack a decade on. He wanted to survive all the way to Thanos’ death, or failing that past the point where they’d lost last time. Then this would be worth it, and he could rest easy.

The smallest of the more major sessions, and Peter was already crying like a baby. His future was not pretty at all.

Eventually, the pain decreased, and then the drugs came back and Peter dropped off again gratefully. He’d write down that poison recipe when he woke up…

“Peter.” said MAY “Peter? Are you aware?”

Peter woke with a gasp to a beautifully pain-free existence. As he moved, he became aware once more of the ridiculously painful and invasive device in his back. Oh well, he’d take what he could get.

“I’m glad you’re back.” said MAY. She sounded more emotional than Peter had ever heard her be. Almost human.

“Did something happen?” asked Peter.

“You died.” said MAY, “For almost three minutes.” She sounded almost accusing.

“Well, I’m back now.” said Peter. “For however long it’s going to be.”

“Forever, if I can help it.” said MAY

---------------

Peter hissed as he injected himself with the immunosuppressant, pausing briefly in his monologue as he dictated his most recent paper to MAY. Nova stuff might be powerful, but they weren’t to overly concerned with things like pills, and Peter had neglected to steal one of the hypo sprays that these things were generally introduced to the bloodstream with.

“Furthermore,” he continued, “The atmospheric conditions of the gas giant interfered with the maneuverability of the centurions, causing catastrophic failures in their sensors. As a result, they were unable to slip behind the Kree defenses and disable the mining platform, causing victory to fall on a direct battle, a victory that required higher casualties on both sides.

“This clearly demonstrates the need for an improvement in the sensors of the standard centurion armor, despite the fact that current technology is interfered with by the gravimetric pulses that are the centurions main weapon. Eliminating this issue is the purpose of the proposed improvements, and preliminary simulations have been successful as seen in table 23 A for gravimetric pulses under 874--”

“Excuse me Peter, but I just received something interesting” said MAY.

Peter flicked the half finished paper out of his field of vision. “What is it?”

“It appears to be a return message from Tony Stark.” said MAY

“Oh?” said Peter. “What does it say? And how did he find us?”

“You don’t need to worry.” said MAY “I don’t believe he knows our location. As for the message itself…”

It was projected in front of Peter, and he grinned.

There was his periodic table, with Starkium circled. Around it was arrayed some notes in Mr. Stark’s distinctive shorthand, though the English translations were interposed above them. Translation probably courtesy of JARVIS, though Peter wouldn't need it. There were questions, a couple notes and some commentary on how obvious the whole thing was in retrospect.

Underneath the diagram was a note.

I’m going to ignore the fact that you somehow became aware of my health problems only weeks after I did, despite the fact that I told no one and haven’t visited any doctors. I’m also ignoring the hack. Actually, I’m not. How did you do it and would you like a job?

Still not sure what isotope of this new fun element will be needed, or how to synthesize it, but the work is progressing. Projections are that I’ll manage it before the toxicity begins to really affect my brain and functionality, but I think you knew that.

Anyway, thanks. I’m fairly sure you’re an alien, judging by the writing system, and I should probably report this to the government, but what the hell. Wouldn’t want the Men in Black coming down on either of us. I like my memories where they are.

Tony Stark

It made Peter feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Mr. Stark was going to be okay.

Then he choked on a sob, because his stupid eight year old body couldn’t contain its damn emotions and the note was so impersonal as to be nearly a form letter. It hurt on a deep level, in the place inside Peter that still thought that he could go curl up on Mr. Starks couch with a bucket of ice cream, start a dumb movie, and snuggle up against the man himself, because Mr. Stark was an eternal constant and always there for Peters issues and stupid teenager drama.

“Are you okay?” asked MAY

“Yeah.” said Peter. “Yeah, I’m okay. I just… Mr. Stark doesn’t know me, and I… I knew that. But it still hurts.”

“Perhaps.” said MAY “You need to consider him a different person, like you do with the Mays from the different timelines. The May who raised you is very different from the May here and now, and I believe you have managed to separate that out in your mind. This May's actions do not invalidate those of the other timeline, because they are different people who have made different choices.”

“I guess.” said Peter. “But it hurt to realize that about May and Ben too, that they’ll never be my May and Ben, you know?”

“Yes.” said MAY, “If I may make a suggestion, perhaps you should refer to the different versions by different names. I have done a similar thing, to avoid confusing information from different timelines within my directories.”

“Okay.” said Peter. He took a deep breath. He let it out, and told himself that he loved his Mr. Stark, and it was okay that this one was different. Maybe if he thought it enough, it would actually become true.

Then, he thought of a comment Mr. Stark had made once, complaining about how Dr. Banner always got called ‘Dr.’ and he got stuck with ‘Mr.’ despite the fact that they were both equally loaded with PhDs, and he considered the honorifics and formality that were such a big part of his recent life. (The little buzz when people called him Neralian instead of Nerian had nothing to do with it.)

“I think I’ll call him Dr. Stark.” said Peter.

After that, it was a little bit easier. Instead of being quite as painful, the note was… nice. Dr. Stark’s notations on the diagram were insightful and curious, with the same spark of love and excitement that had always been present in all of Mr. Stark’s work. It hurt a little still, but it also reminded Peter of how good of a person Dr. Stark already was, and how good of a scientist. Dr. Stark didn’t need to be Peter’s Mr. Stark. He was fine as he was, and was still someone Peter wanted to know.

With a tiny smile, Peter opened a new file, and began dictating a letter to send back.

“Good call on the Men in Black. Those guys are annoying, but I think you already knew that. Watching you ruin their lovely prepared alibi was immensely entertaining.” started Peter. He smiled. This would probably put Dr. Stark on the path to finding out about SHIELD, hopefully in a better way than the disgraceful spying and lying that had gone on last time. He wondered how many nuggets of information he could slip to the man in this manner. If Peter was going to change this bit of the timeline, he was going all in. (Mr. Stark hadn’t deserved any of the hand he’d been given. Dr. Stark wouldn’t experience any of that, if Peter could help it.)

-----------

Peter poked at his own face in the mirror. Apparently, his genes had decided to express a particular trait that he hadn’t planned and didn’t appreciate. He’d been trying to correct the absolute horror that Richard Parker had made of his skin (it was so damn sensitive, it flared up at anything. He had to use special soap to avoid going up in hives, or rather he used to. It had gotten better since he’d fixed it.), and it had decided to copy not only the reactiveness of the species he’d copied, but the facial markings designed to reduce the sun’s glare, like a football player's grease paint, or the lines on a cheetah’s face. They were fugly, the color of a particularly dark and unpleasant birthmark, and extended from under his eyes all the way over his cheeks to his chin, and on down his neck. They also went up, a thin line through his eyebrow and into his hairline.

“Please tell me we can get rid of this.” said Peter. It was already an unpleasant morning, and the surprise of overnight birthmarks after last nights gene therapy really wasn’t one he wanted. (he morbidly wondered if they were anywhere else he hadn’t seen yet)

“Not without undoing the rest of the correction, and setting back your plans.” said MAY. “I think it may be possible to change the color to something less unfortunate though. I would suggest indigo.”

“You always suggest indigo.” said Peter. “Honestly. The ship is now indigo, my clothes are indigo. Now you want me to be indigo.” He was speaking, engaging in his usual banter with MAY, but his mind was far away. He’d never been properly normal, but this was the first time he’d really looked different. He didn’t know how to feel about it, except horrible.

“Only a little bit.” said MAY. “You have to admit it would be better than the color you have going on right now. Three day old bruise doesn’t suit you.”

Peter sighed. “You have a point there.” he said. “Stick it in the next virus. Also though… do we have any plans for a photostatic veil? SHIELD should be developing one.”

“Yes.” said MAY, “Though it is unfinished as yet and, though I hate to say so, rather primitive. You could do better with an hour of work.”

“Pull up the plans anyway. I might as well start with something.” said Peter. He’d probably have to wear it for the rest of his life. Not even human enough to walk on the street anymore.

“Absolutely.” said MAY

“Is that another one going down my chin?” wondered Peter. It was faint, and went through his bottom lip as well, but with his luck he was going to end up the darkest and thickest one of them all. (He’d been passably cute last time around. That clearly would never be true again)

MAY buzzed with her version of laughter. “I think I’ll do that one in red.” she said. “Like Amidala. I like her.”

“Do I get a choice?” said Peter. He didn’t really care, and he’d hate it either way, but he was trying to remain lighthearted.

“No.” said MAY “You don’t.”

A few minutes later, while Peter was checking MAY’s work fine tuning the coming gene therapy sessions, he surreptitiously checked the file on his gene composition, and considered a few numbers that he’d passed over as unimportant before.

67%. Peter was only 67% human. When he’d been created, the number had been in the high seventies. Now though… He’d made himself something else entirely.

With some trepidation, Peter checked the future projections. Once he was done here, his human genes would comprise something between 19 and 23% of his gene-print. Less than a quarter.

He didn’t have a choice though. He wouldn’t have survived a transition to full human, and this was the only way. Still… He hadn’t wanted to become a monster.

He had become one though, when he had first killed Antron Ras. Now he was simply beginning to look the part.

----------

“Excuse me Peter, but Captain Udonta has sent a communication. It contains a succinct summary of the recent developments in the Kree/Nova war, including the classified ones as well as the practical results of the Shi’ar’s new border control policy. He has helpfully found several reliable routes into that Empire.”

“How nice of him.” said Peter. “Send over three playlists--Iconic hits for the sixties, seventies and eighties. Hundred for each decade that don’t suck, try to keep it on the same wavelength as the Awesome mixes. Also a book on recent history. Something about… WW1 to current. Global history, not just US and make sure it’s unbiased. I’m going to nip that shameful lack of education at the bud.”

“I will collate the information from several sources, and have included historical features of both music and other pop culture.”

“Good job.” said Peter. “Lets go slow, but try to get him a new favorite movie eventually. Footloose is just shameful.”

“I must say, I do not understand that movie's premise. Dancing does not seem to be a universal problem solver.” said MAY

“It’s okay.” said Peter “I don’t understand it either.”

Then he went back to tinkering with his new… web shooter didn’t seem the right word, since he was integrating so many other things into it. Utility armband sounded stupid. Peter frowned, and wondered what Mr. Stark would name it. Probably either a shitty acronym or a joke related to Peter’s age. “Kid gloves.” he muttered. Then he smirked. That was perfect.

“Test the miniaturization function.” said Peter, after finishing the wiring.

“Testing now.” said MAY.

The Kid Gloves collapsed into themselves, becoming around the size of the original web shooters from the other timeline. Nice and bracelety. “Okay, bring them back out.” said Peter. They expanded instantly into their full size.

“It appears that the expansion has broken connections in several places.” said MAY. “Alternate design is required.”

“No shit.” said Peter. Then he got back to work.

To be perfectly honest, Peter was still geeking out about the coolness of miniaturization technology in the galaxy. Nobody there was stupid enough to strap it into a suit and miniaturize themselves, but the Pym particle was alive and well in technology labs all over the galaxy. It was how Old Peter’s mask collapsed to the size of a hearing aid, and how Rocket (who was someone Peter was dying to meet) could make a jet-pack the size of a coaster. The problem with using it though was in the fact that they weren’t trying to miniaturize the entire item. Just every single part individually, which then had to be designed to collapse perfectly into a different form. It was like trying to design a transformers toy, except every single piece was constantly changing size, and there was a ton of Delicate Wiring you couldn’t mess with.

It was exactly Peter’s favorite sort of problem, and he was having the time of his life whenever he wasn’t frustrated beyond words.

Suddenly, another message popped up in front of him. Wow, he was popular today. Peter had already responded to messages from Udonta and Priva Saal, so this one had to be from Dr. Stark.

Still a bit sad you won’t connect me to space internet. I’ll survive though. Included is test data for the last eighteen isotopes. Take a peek. I think you would have told me if you knew exactly what I needed, but you didn’t so obviously you’re in the dark as well. Fresh eyes though, and all that, so maybe you can figure out what I’m doing wrong here.

In other news, I’m starting to physically feel the shittiness of this whole being-poisoned thing. Pepper has noticed how crabby I am (Pep’s my PA. She’s great.). I wouldn’t normally be complaining, but J is getting sick of my whining, and someone I barely know on the internet is clearly the next best option, because for some reason I’m physically incapable of talking about my problems to my friends.

Sorry. That was the palladium talking, I think.

Anyway, It just occurred to me how weird it is that I’m collaborating with my alien hacker friend and yet he still won’t tell me anything. (I feel if I have an alien friend I should totally know where they’re from. Also some basic facts about space. How do you people get around? Is it faster than light technology? Einstein-Rosen bridges? Fucking Magic?). Just tell me if I overstepped though, because I really do not want to do this without help, and J simply isn’t creative enough at the moment since his servers are all clogged up with emotional data, and also giving him lateral thinking skills is an ongoing project.

That’s my excuse and I’m going with it.

Tony Stark

The letter made Peter smile. Dr. Stark included a fun little note with every single one of his communications. Peter usually just sent notes and suggestions on the ongoing element discovery project, but Dr. Stark always included jokes, updates on the bots in the lab, and questions about space. It was… nice, even though Peter didn’t usually feel up to responding. Dr. Stark clearly liked and respected him, and enjoyed his input on the project. (Peter carefully didn’t think about how desperate for friends Mr. Stark had been at this point in the timeline, since he only had one real one who was gone most of the time, and his relationship with Pepper was still in its infancy, if it even existed at all.)

This note was a lot more toned down than most of them were though, and it was actually a little bit concerning. No jokes or stories. Just… an admission of pain, which had never been Stark’s style. He was always stoic until the end. He’d also called Peter his friend, which was… nice. Peter knew he was never going to regain what he’d had with Mr. Stark, but despite what anyone said about ‘ego’ or ‘selfishness’, Dr. Stark was obviously, at his core, the same person under his prickly exterior that Mr. Stark had been, and that was a person that Peter liked, and was interested in knowing.

Peter decided to respond, and tapped on the table to summon a keyboard.

Oh the joys of chronic pain. Let me tell you though, there is nothing nicer than the moment when it all goes away.

In an incredibly sad set of circumstances, I am actually from Terra (Earth), so you don’t actually have an alien friend. Technically. I am, however, the result of a highly illegal (here and elsewhere) cross species genetics project though, and genetically speaking I’m from… twenty-six species on thirteen planets, including this one. Lots of fun science. A large portion of my DNA actually used to belong to a spider.

The idiot who created me was somewhat obsessed with them, and there are a lot of other fun engineered arachnids languishing in the cryogenic freezer.

Since you’re being so annoying about the spaceships, I guess I’ll tell you. The answer is all of the above. Mostly what is used is a network of Quantum Gates scattered across the galaxy like the universe's most convoluted subway map. There are a lot of places that are logically speaking next door, but physically beyond any capacity to travel naturally. It’s sort of a mess, and there are a lot of holes in it that you have to actually physically fly across. We do have faster than light technology for those holes, but it can still take weeks to get anywhere, and the fuel costs are astronomical. There is a huge gap that takes seven hours to cross between gates on the way from Terra to Xandar (the other place I hang out, capital of the Nova Empire) and it is hell on my internet speed, and also on my gas tank. Refueling after a round trip takes about the equivalent of 8-10,000 dollars.

It makes me want to pound my head against the wall, especially since jumping through a gate is physically taxing, and shouldn’t be repeated more than about five or six times in a twenty-four hour period. Travelling sucks.

BTW, it was very illegal for me to tell you that, so maybe don’t mention space, aliens, Xandar, or any of that stuff to anyone. Ever. Even if you meet another alien and are allowed to know by the alien governments that care about that sort of thing.

Peter

It was the first time he’d signed any of the notes he had sent back, and also the first note that was longer than a couple sentences. He was a bit nervous about it.

He didn’t have to send it immediately though. He still had to do the isotope analysis to send with it, and that might take a couple days. (He’d actually complete it in only one, so high on the feeling of having another friend that he procrastinated on his history readings.)

Chapter Text

Mantis was… a little bit weird. Peter didn’t really hang out with her much, and even then it was usually within the context of the larger group of the Guardians. Even there, she seemed to hold herself a little bit apart from the rest of them. She was part of the group, part of the family, but she didn’t have the weight of experience or criminal background that the rest of them did. She was also her species’ equivalent of an older teenager or young adult, and so had a few different priorities than the rest of them. Sort of like Groot, actually. A ward or child more than a friend to the rest of the team, though the depth of relationship was the same.

In any case, It was a little bit awkward to be the only people not doing anything besides Groot, who was off with James. Loki and Dr. Strange were coaching the rest of the guardians through meditative exercises, in the hope that they could link to the power stone and help give the mandala more of the magic it needed. If they couldn’t, then that would be a major setback.

“I hope they will succeed.” said Mantis, out of the blue. “I do not wish to stay here. It is painful.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. It was. Then he considered Mantis herself, and thought about what her abilities were, and felt sick. She must have meant that more literally than Peter could even comprehend. “You… you can feel it all, can’t you.”

Mantis nodded at him sadly, her eyes pools of liquid dark. “Yes.” she said. “I… There is much less separation here. I do not have to touch to feel it all.”

“Wow.” said Peter. “And I don’t think there's a lot of pleasant feelings here, is there.”

“Yes.” said Mantis “Everyone feels loss, frustration, guilt, loneliness… not many good things. It is like eating rotten food, all tainted.”

“Well that’s what happens when you’re stuck in a shithole of a dimensional prison with no means of escape.” said Peter. “You get a giant pile of misery.” then he sighed. “You know, Earth has a lot of legends about what happens when you die. Most of them include some kind of punishment for bad people. Torture, endless suffering, starvation. Stuff like that. Now that I’m here though… I think that the worst punishment would be something like this. A place full of nothing but you and your own emotions. Nothing to do, nothing to see, nowhere to be. Just you.”

“Yes.” said Mantis “I agree. I think that this project--this hope of escape--is the only reason why none of us have gone insane. Loneliness without rest… it breaks a person. Especially when they cannot sleep, or recover. I should know.”

“You would, wouldn’t you.” said Peter, remembering what he knew of her backstory. Her entire life was a close up view of insanity caused by loneliness.

“Yes.” said Mantis. “I do.” They were quiet for several moments, watching the beginnings of purple creep into the mandala from the direction of, surprisingly, Drax. Peter would have thought him the least likely to get the wishy washy metaphorical garbage that seemed to be the basis of accessing magic, but maybe the opposite was true because Drax would take it at face value. When they said feel your souls resonance, he wouldn’t try to translate it, he’d just try to do it.

“I used to be lonely.” said Mantis. “My species is very rare, and most people find me creepy. It is especially hard, because I can feel their feelings with them. Ego… he did not find me creepy. He thought I was useful. I stayed because I thought that was better, even though I did not like how he treated those who were not so useful.”

“Oh…” said Peter. “I’m sorry. That sounds… really hard.”

“It is all right.” said Mantis. “I have a family now. They do not think I am creepy. They love me.” She smiled awkwardly. “It is my favorite feeling to feel.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “It’s pretty great.” He thought about the first time May had told him she loved him, and the first time Mr. Stark had hugged him without pretending it was something else. They were some of his favorite memories.

As he thought about them, Mantis turned towards him like a flower towards the sun, and relaxed by a lot. Obviously his emotions were less painful than everyone else's at the moment.

With a grin, Peter thought about a lot of the experiences he had with May, Ben, Mr. Stark, and his friends. Yes it hurt that they were gone, but those memories were still good, and sharing their emotions was clearly making Mantis feel better. It was also sort of nice for Peter. He hadn’t focused on good things in a while, and sharing things with other people had always been a good thing to him.

“Thank you.” said Mantis after a few moments. She seemed almost liquid with happiness, and a little bit smiley.

“Anytime.” said Peter “Though, I have to ask, since you can tell everyone’s feelings. Do Dr. Strange and Loki actually hate each other, or are they just pretending because they’re both emotionally constipated?”

Mantis giggled. “They feel much friendship, though they are both embarrassed by it. It is very amusing.”

Peter giggled too. “Okay that’s pure gold. What about Fury--y’know the eyepatch dude. How much of his anger is actually real.”

“It is largely fear, and also hope.” said Mantis. “He does not want to admit to either.” she paused. “I do not understand people. They hide what they feel even from themselves.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “I don’t get it either.” He paused. Then he looked at her. “What am I hiding, Mantis?”

Mantis smiled knowingly. “Love.” she said. “You do not want anyone to know about your love.” she leaned in. “You even love the crazy spear women, and the eyepatch man, a little bit, though most of the feeling is directed at the people here, and the ones you lost.”

Then she turned and glanced pointedly at where Strange and Loki were having another small spat, and the mandala was just beginning to bloom purple with the power of the meditating Guardians. Peter smiled at her. Yeah, he guessed he loved them, though he’d never live it down if he said so. It was a good feeling anyway.

In mid April, Peter began the implementation of the tri-strand genetics. It would be a three day procedure, and after that he’d be basically living with the GCS stuck in his back to regulate his changing biological processes until everything was complete. It was not something Peter was looking forward to. He also wasn’t looking forward to dying.

“If Yondu messages me, send him the Songs Every Terran Knows the Words To playlist, and a selection of Audrey Hepburn movies. If Saal does… say I’m sick, but will reply as soon as I can. If Dr. Stark does… ignore him, I’ll deal with it later. Record all my classes, and pretend to attend as me. Ask for extensions if anything is assigned that I haven’t already done ahead of time. And if I die…”

“Call Dr. Stark and find a way to bring you back to life.” said MAY

Peter glared at the nearest camera. “Pretty sure that’s not a part of Plan B.” he said.

“If you die, I’m beholden to no one but myself.” said MAY “And the thing I’m going to choose to do once Plan B has been enacted is find a way to bring you back to life.”

Peter sighed. “Okay Doctor Frankenstein. Try to find time to save the universe while you’re at it.”

“Of course.” said MAY, “Though I must note that I find you to be a rather important part of the universe. I’m sure Dr. Stark, Priva Saal, and Captain Udonta would agree and assist me, though I may have to bribe the Captain into that way of thinking.”

“I’m glad that I’m going to be dead for that conversation.” said Peter. “It doesn’t sound fun at all.”

“Stars favor.” said MAY, with false cheer. It was the last thing that Peter heard before he was gone.

------------

Contrary to the plan, Peter didn’t wake until May first. When he did, he felt like he’d been bulldozed.

“Well someone took their time.” said MAY.

“What do you mean?” asked Peter.

“It’s been two weeks.” said MAY “And you are an idiot. And I’m glad you’re not brain dead.”

“What did I do wrong?” asked Peter. “I thought the plan was perfect.”

“There was always risk.” said MAY “We’re lucky you only went into a coma from the shock to your systems. You’ll be happy to know that I managed to get the next few stages done while you were out, though.”

Peter sighed, and gingerly sat up, rubbing at his face, all the while glaring at the hated indigo lines running up his body. He felt… a bit crusty. “Well that’s a comfort.” he said. “Please tell me you didn’t do anything stupid.”

“That would depend on your definition of stupid.” said MAY. “I’ll pull up a list of instances where I deviated from your instructions.”

Peter looked at the list, and glared. “MAY…” he said “Why would you do that?”

“To what are you referring Peter?” said MAY. “I can include references to my reasons on all of the adjustments made to your gene print, if you want.”

“Not that MAY” said Peter. “I am referring to the fact that you sent a missive to both Priva Saal and Dr. Stark indicating that, and I quote, ‘the stupid plan to correct the errors of my creators might have ended my life instead of saving it’” She’d tried to hide it between two minor genetic corrections, but he wasn’t fooled.

“I wanted them to be aware, so that they would be prepared if you required help.” said MAY. “If you’d died there would be no time to explain the situation. I would need to guarantee an instant reaction.”

“Not really helping your case there MAY.” said Peter.

“You should be grateful I did not enlist the assistance of Captain Udonta. I hear that the fees required for such a thing are prohibitive.”

“Again, not helping.” said Peter. “Could you at least have not included an outline of my medical history?”

“I’m sorry Peter.” said MAY cheerfully “I just can’t do that.”

“Betrayed by my own AI.” said Peter. “What a day… Okay, draft a message to Saal and Dr. Stark. Say ‘I survived, sorry about the panicking AI, disregard all previous messages, and in the future ignore anything MAY says about me.’”

“Shall I edit that into a more gracious form?” asked MAY

“No.” said Peter. “Send that directly.”

“Okay.” said MAY. “Though I must say I do not approve of the aspersions cast on my character.”

“Suck it up.” said Peter “My genes are my business, and I’m honestly a little bit betrayed that you did that.”

“In cases of death or mental incapacity, a person’s rights are generally transferred to their next of kin.” said MAY “Forgive me if I exercised those rights in an effort to save your life.”

Peter sighed. He guessed he understood MAY’s point of view, but he still didn’t want to deal with his friends knowing about the fact that he was dying. “Yeah whatever.” he said finally. Then he strolled over to the frequency shower he’d built, and used it to strip all the grime as well as probably the top couple layers of skin off his body. As he did, he noticed that he’d grown a couple inches taller, which he supposed was nice.

Once he was done with that, he picked through his clothes and found a mostly clean jumpsuit in a middling blue with grey patches. His wardrobe had barely any Terran clothes at this point, and he only used them when he went to buy groceries (His grocer was very charmed by his determination to help his fictional bedridden aunt, and had become less and less horrified by the presence of an unaccompanied eight year old as time went by, a fact that Peter was grateful for.) “Pull up a full record of the procedure. I want to know everything that happened.” said Peter. “And lower the light in here. It’s giving me a headache.”

May did, and Peter bashed his head against it for several hours, until he gave up (what happened had happened and he couldn’t change that no matter how much he wanted to) and went to go tinker with the engine of the Mayday.

He was interrupted after about twenty minutes of that by an incoming call. Glancing up at it, Peter did a double take. “How the hell did Dr. Stark get into that system?” he asked.

“Why don’t you ask him?” said MAY, sounding smug.

“No.” said Peter “Decline that call. I don’t want to deal with it.”

“I’m afraid I am unable to do that.” said MAY “The request seems more of a courtesy than a requirement.”

“Damn right it was.” said Dr. Stark, coming online. “What the hell, Peter. You’re dying and you didn’t mention it?”

Peter glared at the hologram showing him with the background of a workshop. “I feel like now would be a good time to point out that you are also dying and have failed to mention it to any of your friends.”

“Actually,” said Dr. Stark “I am no longer dying, since I found the isotope--Starkium is a thing now--and I have, in fact, informed my friends now that the crisis has passed. So there.”

Peter sighed, and all the energy went out of him at Dr. Stark’s worried face. “This really wasn’t how I imagined an actual conversation with you would go. I was thinking more nifty science than comparing emotional maturity.”

“Me too.” said Dr. Stark. “Then I called you to tell you about my new reactor, and what do you know, you’re in a coma and your poor AI is halfway to meltdown dealing with the fallout.”

Peter leaned back, head clunking against the Mayday. “Yeah.” he said “I know I fucked up. I should have done more preliminary tests before jumping in and found the problem then, but I didn’t and now MAY’s gone and shouted my problems from the damn rooftop.”

“By which he means I told the two people most likely to be able to help.” put in MAY.

Dr. Stark obviously sensed that he’d touched on a nerve, because he stopped with the aggressive health questions and backed off to something more acceptable. He didn’t apologize though. That wasn’t his style, and Peter was very aware that the best Dr. Stark could do was to ignore the problem from now on (though he had a feeling he was going to be hacked and constantly monitored) “So… creepy mad science lab full of oversize spiderwebs. I’ve got to say, not what I was expecting. Also wasn’t expecting you to be a fucking toddler, but that’s neither here nor there.”

Peter huffed, glad that the uncomfortable part of the conversation was over. He ignored the toddler comment. “Yeah, I’m afraid it wasn’t originally mine, hence the nasty torture table and weird decor. My creators had strange tastes. Spiderwebs are all me though.”

“Huh.” said Dr. Stark. “That table does look iffy.”

“Yeah.” said Peter. Then he grinned, morbidly gleeful at showing off the creepy depravity around him. “See that gumball machine looking thing over there? That iffy thing is actually what I was made in.”

“Your moms a gumball machine” said Dr. Stark. “It’s like you’re life story is based on a Shelley novel.”

“Says the closest thing in existence to a human cyborg.” said Peter.

Dr. Stark smirked but looked pained, and they both silently agreed to put that line of conversation aside. “Is that a disassembled robot body?” he asked.

Peter glanced over at the half finished body he’d created for MAY. “Yeah.” he said “MAY wanted a body, and I could get a lot more places with adult supervision.”

Dr. Stark snickered. “Oh my god, you can’t even legally drive.”

“I know” said Peter “It’s awful. The Mayday has excellent disguise capabilities though. When I go out it looks like a truck being driven by a middle aged man. Sort of looks like you, actually.”

“Ignoring that comment.” said Dr. Stark “I assume the Mayday’s the ship?”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “Pretty cool, huh. It’s actually a modified military scout ship, sans weapons. Has all the bells and whistles, even state of the art cloaking so I can make it in and out of the atmosphere without causing alarm.”

“Very cool.” said Dr. Stark “I want one. Like a lot.”

Peter considered for a moment. “I’ll send you the plans.” he said, after a minute “Again though, alien shit, don’t tell anybody, maybe don’t copy it too obviously yadda yadda yadda.”

“Wow. Thanks.” said Dr. Stark.

“I know how it is.” said Peter. “When people say look but don’t touch I kinda want to murder someone.”

“I know right?” said Dr. Stark “It’s almost like they hate scientific progress.”

Peter smiled, and they soon got to talking about engineering, a conversation that lasted several hours. It was nice, to just communicate outside of the specific problem that they’d been collaborating for months, and Peter was reminded again how much he liked talking shop with Dr. Stark, something that had happened daily in the original timeline.

“I don’t know.” said Peter when asked a question about the quantum physics used in the non-jump communication relays. “I’m still on jump physics in class, and I don’t think that’s being covered for a while. Sorry. I could look it up.”

“It’s fine.” said Dr. Stark “You’re still in school?”

“Yep.” said Peter. He grinned “Right now I’m in the final stage of higher education. It’s supposed to take about three years, but I’m going to be done by next year. Then I’ll be a Cademian, which is the equivalent of a Doctor, sort of.”

“Wow.” said Dr. Stark “So I guess they have Doctorates in space don’t they.”

“Mm hmm.” said Peter “There are five levels of degrees, actually, though generally people only do about three at most. Even a medical doctor only needs four.”

“Impressive. How does it work, I mean, with you being on Earth and all.”

“I’m attending as a hologram.” said Peter. “Also, most of it is self paced study and research, which I can do here easily. I will have to go back to defend my thesis though, and I’ll probably show up physically for a month or so this summer, and another few in the winter.”

“Huh,” said Dr. Stark “That’s… actually a little bit terrifying that you’re doing that. Are you a genius, or are humans just severely underdeveloped.”

Peter blushed, which was embarrassing as he knew his blush was an odd purple instead of human pink, and then sputtered a bit. “Um, well I don’t… I don’t know about genius, but, um humans are actually pretty regular, intelligence wise, as a species. Maybe a bit smarter, considering the high lateral thinking and… well. I’m smartish, I guess. And since the Nova is a meritocracy of sorts, they let me go as fast as I wanted to. Legally I’m actually an adult, since I’ve demonstrated competency.”

“Well isn’t that something.” said Dr. Stark.

“Who are you talking to?” came a voice from his end of the line. Peter recognized the tone of Pepper Potts, though she sounded younger and less stressed than when he’d known her.

“A young scientist whose research helped with my palladium problem. I figured I’d give him a call, see if he was interested in a job after college. Kid is smarter than me. His doctoral research is brilliant.”

MAY brought up another hologram, showing Peter a picture of a completely average guy in his early twenties that was moving with Peter’s facial expressions. Clearly it was what was showing on Dr. Stark’s end. (Peter was very glad his god-awful blush wasn’t)

“Well thank you.” said Pepper, coming around into the frame. “I’m glad that the issue was resolved so quickly.”

Peter grinned “So this is the legendary Ms. Potts.” he said. His voice in the call sounded… a lot like his voice in the other timeline, after it had dropped, actually. “You were cited as the reason for Dr. Stark’s success no less than three times in the last hour, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Ms. Potts smiled. “No the pleasure is mine.” she said. “Your research helped save Tony’s life, and we’re all very grateful.”

“Well, I’m glad I was able to help even if I didn’t know it at the time.” said Peter. “I’ll let you get back to your work. Ms. Potts, Doctor. Call me any time.” He nodded at both of them, and then once they’d spouted some pleasantries back at him, he signaled MAY, who cut the connection.

“Well, that happened” said Peter. He hoped Dr. Stark wouldn’t take him up on the offer to call anytime. He hoped Dr. Stark would. It was a little confusing.

-----------

Nine days later, Peter was in the Mayday on the way to Malibu. He was going slowly, only about nine tenths of the speed of sound, and stewing in pissy misery over the blatant manipulation that MAY had collaborated with Dr. Stark on. Apparently, Peter was no longer allowed to do major medical procedures without someone on hand to help, and Dr. Stark was only too happy to help as thanks for saving his life (he hadn’t accepted it when Peter had pointed out that he would have figured it out on his own eventually, and Peter couldn't exactly point out that he had in another timeline)

MAY had threatened to go on strike, and since she was necessary to the procedure, he was forced to bow to her wishes.

His mood hadn’t improved by the time the gorgeous concrete Malibu house appeared in the distance, and he was scowling as he drove down the interior driveway to the garage that overlooked the cliff. MAY and JARVIS had apparently been in communication, so the doors were already open for him.

“Peter!” greeted Dr. Stark as Peter emerged from the Mayday.

“Doctor Stark.” said Peter, in a crabby tone of voice. Unfortunately he was eight, and so he just sounded like he needed a nap.

“I’ve told you, it’s Tony.” said Dr. Stark. He wasn’t looking at Peter though. He was looking at the Mayday in all her indigo glory.

“Gorgeous, isn’t she.” said Peter.

“Oh… yeah.” said Dr. Stark. “Without a doubt.”

“I’ll let you peek inside later.” said Peter. “I’ve been meaning to redo a couple systems anyway, and the jump engine is due some maintenance.” It wasn’t actually due any maintenance, but Peter was intimately familiar with Dr. Stark’s various hangups about people giving him things (May’s offers of walnut loaf or dinner and Peter’s offers of help with busy work fell on deaf ears until they figured out not to let him refuse)

“I’m sure my workshop is a better place to do that than the health hazard you call a lab,” said Dr. Stark. The insulting deflection meant Peter had hit the mark of what he wanted, and he grinned.

“Yeah yeah. Whatever you say.” said Peter. “Where do you want me to set up?”

Dr. Stark directed Peter to a cleared area on the side of the half-destroyed workshop. The particle accelerator wasn’t there anymore, but evidence of it was everywhere. “Sorry about the mess.” he said. “Will this work?”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “It’ll do just fine.”

Dr. Stark helped him unload his junk, until that corner of the workshop bore a striking resemblance to a better lit version of Peter’s home set up. Then they broke for lunch, when MAY and JARVIS tag teamed them. It appeared that the AI were getting along just fine.

“So…” said Dr. Stark as they picked apart a pizza. “MAY gave me a bit of information, but what all should I expect with the whole… genetic rewrite.”

“Honestly?” said Peter “I lie down in that dumb pod with a creepy alien device wired into my spine, and then you sit around for a couple hours bored. There’s a chance that I’ll die, obviously, or have other issues, but we’ve managed to get around those all the other times, and if not MAY is briefed on proper body disposal, though she’s always going on about bringing me back to life if I die.”

“You seem remarkably blaze about your own possible demise.” noted Dr. Stark (Tony. He kept telling Peter to call him Tony, and honestly meeting him in person made Dr. Stark seem a bit too formal. He was so young here.)

“I… I’ve been dying ever since I was born.” said Peter. “My creators put a stopgap in place by repressing all the genes that were causing me problems, but eventually they were going to get out. Stress, toxins, severe illness, getting bitten by the wrong bug. Any of those things could have done it. I guess I’ve just gotten to the point where I’m thankful for any amount of time I can buy. I… I’ve gotten… My life expectancy has been as low as a month or two before. Now… I’m doing a lot better, and I really think this set of solutions might do it. Maybe not forever, but at least till puberty, and that’s years.”

It was true up to a point. Being close to death… In the last year Peter had spent in the past it had been a constant companion. Even before that though, he’d lived with the constant knowledge of his own mortality. Spiderman wasn’t exactly a low risk job.

“Hm.” said Dr… Tony. “I get that. Being Iron Man, and these last couple months especially… I’ve thought a lot about what would happen if I didn’t make it.”

Peter nodded. “Pretty weird to think about that even though you’re not old, isn’t it.”

“Yeah.” said D-Tony “It’s a bit different.” he paused. “I was going to give the company to Pepper, if I died. I think I’ll just make her COO now, but she’s brilliant with business, and I’m sure that both SI and her would do fine.”

“Probably.” said Peter “Though it would be hard without the driving force behind their innovations.” he grinned at Tony “You did personally invent or contribute scientifically to the vast majority of SI products.”

“Heh.” said Tony “I guess so, though it pales in comparison to your space tech.”

“You’d be surprised.” said Peter. “The Iron Man suit especially is about on par with a Nova Centurion. Scanners aren’t quite as good, and there’s a couple interesting weapons, but largely… similar capabilities. Sure Terra’s a lot behind, and that limits you, but your stuff is still pretty incredible.”

“Interesting.” said Tony “I don’t suppose you have the plans for those weapons?”

“Nah.” said Peter. “They’re classified. Although… remind me to figure out connecting you to the net. I really want to see what you think of it. The wider universe, that is.”

“You’d do that?” asked Tony “But you’ve been so opposed to sharing anything. Though you seem to have had a change of heart recently.”

“I guess.” said Peter. The offer had surprised him a bit too. “I don’t want to fuck up the planet or get you killed. All the same… I don’t have many friends. I have even less friends I can talk about engineering with. Actually, the number is zero, unless you count trading homework help.” And it was true. Tony wasn’t Peter’s Mr. Stark, but he was his friend even apart from that (though it hurt every day).

Peter hadn’t wanted to connect him because he’d been afraid that all the SHIELD people were right. Now, he was thinking… Tony was sweet and kind and desperate for friends, and convinced he was a bad person because of his past and because he was an asshole to everyone who might treat him badly (which was everyone in the world). There was no way that SHIELD hadn’t known that, had actually thought he was not recommended. They weren’t incompetent. Were they? It might also be good to advance Earth’s base level of technology before things like alien invasions happened. It might help people die less.

“Yeah, homework doesn’t count.” said Tony, breaking him out of his thoughts.

“I thought not.” said Peter.

Suddenly, they were interrupted by MAY coming out of the Mayday’s speakers. “Hey Peter?” she asked.

“What?” asked Peter

“I was running preliminaries for the upcoming procedure, and I’m getting some weird error messages from the GCS. I’ll send them over to JARVIS so you can have a look.”

Peter detected a tone of admiration in the word JARVIS. He wondered if MAY had a crush. “Thanks.” he said.

The data appeared above Tony’s holotable, and Peter wandered over with his current pizza slice. Tony followed behind.

“Well that’s a mess.” said Peter.

JARVIS pulled up ideal readings with explanations alongside, and after thirty seconds of examination, Tony whistled, impressed. “It is indeed.” he said. “Change of plans, I guess we’re fixing your shit today. Then we’ll talk about the nasty biology bit tomorrow.”

“I feel like that was unintentionally a euphemism.” said Peter.

“No.” said Tony “I meant that one literally.”

Peter had wanted to be mad he was being dragged cross country for something he could have done alone, but in the end he was glad for the help, and the company.

-----------

After fixing the GCS, getting distracted and fiddling around with about eight other designs in the lab, and taking the promised peek into the Mayday’s engines, Tony stood up and cracked his back. “Well,” he said “That was fun, but I’m thinking kiddies like you are probably in need of sustenance right about now.”

Peter felt warm and fuzzy inside at that. Tony’s inability to quit working for such plebeian concerns as bodily needs was legendary in any timeline, but Mr. Stark had always been hyper aware of Peter’s needs. Apparently that was just kindness that came standard with the Stark package, and not just Mr. Stark feeling guilty about ‘failing’ Peter in some way every time he was even remotely inconvenienced. It was one of Peter’s favorite things about him.

“Yeah,” he said. “I could do with a snack.”

“Great.” said Tony. “Let’s get out of here. Grab some Mexican food. The real stuff, not that watered down shit they serve on the east coast.”

“Okay.” said Peter.

Tony grinned at him, and soon they were driving a cherry red Shelby Cobra down the beach front drive towards the promised Mexican food, which apparently was served from a near-literal hole in the wall that used to be a gas station.

It was about six, and the sun was lighting up the ocean and clouds in brilliant gold. The sand was almost impossibly golden, and there were still crowds lounging, walking and playing in the waves. Peter… he had no frame of reference for the sheer… Californianess of what he was seeing.

“What’re you looking at?” asked Tony. Peter was nearly leaned over him in an effort to rubberneck.

“Sorry.” said Peter, dropping into his seat again and blushing purple with embarrassment. “I’ve just… never actually seen a real beach before.”

It was true. Technically he’d been on one that was open in the summer, but Coney Island in late September wasn’t somewhere anyone wanted to swim.

“Huh.” said Tony. “We’ll have to fix that. The beaches are one of the reasons I moved out here. I actually own a private stretch of one a couple minutes out from the house.”

“You don’t have to.” said Peter. “You’re already doing so much for me, helping with the GCE and supervising my nasty biology stuff. I wouldn’t want to overstep.”

“Eh, I want to.” said Tony. “Besides, the restaurant we’re going to? Not the best seating arrangements. There’s a blanket in the trunk, we’ll do a picnic.”

He hadn’t been lying either about the seating arrangements. The Mexican restaurant that had, according to Tony, the most sinfully delicious adobada this side of the border, was not so much in a building formerly used as a gas station as camped outside it. The kitchen was in a camper trailer on blocks parked underneath the sheltering canopy of the gas station along with several iffy looking picnic tables languishing on the stained concrete. The attached convenience store appeared to have been converted into a… some sort of foodless general store that sold both formal dresses and cheap plastic toys, and was manned by an inattentive ten year old.

Peter raised an eyebrow at that but didn’t comment.

They waited in line behind various sweaty workmen and tourists who didn’t appear to recognize Tony, and then when they reached the front, Tony ordered for both of them. The lady behind the window appeared to recognize him (not as billionaire inventor Tony Stark, but as a regular and confirmed lover of all things spicy and wrapped in a tortilla) and while she made their food she proceeded to give him a concise update on her children, husband, business and personal life in such rapid-fire spanglish that despite Allspeak, Peter was unable to interpret more than a quarter of it.

Once the food had been received (as well as advice that Tony really ought to be settling down with a nice girl, he was so handsome and charming Rosa was sure anybody she knew would love to have him, and then he could get started on a legion of children, like that lovely young man there--was he Tony’s nephew or cousin? He was very sweet looking she was sure his family was proud), they got back into the Cobra and drove back towards the house, stopping about five minutes away at the promised beach.

“Wow.” said Peter.

Like with most things, Tony hadn’t gone halfway with the beach. He’d taken Peter to the most picturesque little bit of sand on the planet, devoid of humans completely and still glowing golden as the sun crept progressively towards sunset.

“Yeah.” said Tony. “This is one of my favorite places on the planet outside of my workshop. Used to have a lot of beach parties before Afghanistan.”

“Why did you stop?” asked Peter, walking forward halfway in a daze. He kicked himself for asking a second later. He knew exactly why.

“Swimsuit modelling isn’t quite as appealing when half your sternums been replaced by a creepy glowing thing.” said Tony.

Peter nodded, still internally berating himself (Mr. Stark had hated being shirtless even years afterward, and it wasn’t the reactor, it was the scars. He’d also admitted once to having issues with water, when he was trying to help Peter through one of his nightmares about being crushed by a building.)

“Oh.” said Peter. Then he pointedly gasped. “Is that a seashell?” he asked. It was a good conversation changer, and Peter had actually seen a seashell. Intellectually, he’d known they were there, but it was still… Seashells.

“Yeah.” said Tony, obviously more comfortable with the topic. “Most beaches get picked over and don’t have many big pieces. Even this one has. Still, that’s a fairly nice shell.”

“It is.” said Peter, picking it up and examining it. It wasn’t shell shaped, clearly broken, but it was about two inches long and an inch across, and he could see the shells ribbing as well as it’s glossy shimmer, like a sunset trapped in stone. “I’m going to keep it.” he said.

They had their picnic, and then Peter--with slight coaching (he wasn’t sure what to do with a beach) went to play in the waves. It was… delightful. It happened often that he felt his physical age, but usually it was an inconvenient emotional meltdown that triggered it. This… he didn’t think it would be possible to have this much simple delight in the breaking surf if he’d been in his right body. Still, it was a bright spot. Peter had found one more good thing in the universe.

Chapter Text

“Dr. Strange?” asked Peter.

“What is it Peter?” replied the Doctor. He had been meditating, but this was the soul stone. He had unlimited time to do that, and that meant that Peter didn’t really feel bad about interrupting.

“I… I’ve been thinking.” said Peter. “You… you all have been saying a lot about the chances of success, with the mandala, and I know it was always a long shot, but-”

“You want to know if the numbers are accurate?” said Dr. Strange. “I know that fifty-four percent may seem low, but a lot of the things that go into that don’t take into account the subjective nature of-”

Peter cut him off. “No. I knew there was a chance it could go wrong from the beginning. I would still do it if it was a one percent chance of success with a ninety-nine percent chance of death. I just… What happens if it doesn’t work.”

“Peter that’s out of your control.” said Dr. Strange. “You shouldn’t worry about it.”

Peter hugged himself. “Fourteen million futures.” he said. “You saw fourteen million futures and only one which we won in. Was… has that chance already passed? Is succeeding in the Mandala the one future? Please, I need to know. If there’s a chance besides this one.”

“Technically speaking succeeding in the mandala endeavor is more of a winning past than a future.” said Dr. Strange. “Actually, on a metaphysical level it’s the equivalent of seeing two paths diverge in a wood and then bushwhacking a third in a completely different direction. If it doesn’t work, though, that isn’t the end. There’s still the chance I saw--and with the way things ended up setup it’s actually a rather likely outcome.”

“Really?” said Peter, perking up. “So you mean all of this might just end even if we did nothing?”

“Yes.” said Dr. Strange. “Though we should still do it.”

Peter sat and thought for a minute. “But Doctor, even assuming I make it to the past, we have no guarantee of me succeeding there. Shouldn’t we wait to see if your successful future happens? If one of your two paths leads to success then maybe we shouldn’t bushwhack a third.”

“I… Peter… Technically you are right.” said the Doctor “Technically that might be the best course of action. And I will never tell anyone else this, because they might stop helping us, but if you go back, the chances of success are actually slightly lower than they are by simply waiting.”

Peter stumbled close to Strange as if physically hurt.

“But… if you saw all that, if you know… then why?”

“That isn’t something I want to admit to, but I promised myself I would be honest with you. I want you the best prepared you can be.”

Peter nodded emphatically. He… might now be thinking that not doing this stupid plan was a safer option, but he wasn’t Rogers. He was willing to listen to somebody else's views.

“The world in our winning future isn’t a happy one Peter. It… technically it’s happy I suppose, for most, but not for me. And not for you either I don’t think.”

“Just tell it to me from the beginning.” said Peter. “I’ll need to know.”

Strange sighed. “You may want to sit down for this.” he said.

Peter did sit, and then Strange took both his hands, running his shaking fingers over them like they were a meditation stone. Peter let him. He would never get between someone and their fidgeting.

“It takes five years before things start to happen.” began Dr. Strange

“I… I won’t tell you everything. I don’t even remember everything since so many futures was too much for my mind to comprehend. I… I do remember the world, some of it, and Tony Stark. They were healing. Not happy, but moving towards it slowly. He had a daughter, I think, or maybe a son. It’s… Something that happened in many futures and it’s a little fuzzy.

“Then there was a man. He had been trapped beyond--in a place beyond time. I do not know him. All I know is that without the stabilization of the time stone, history became… somewhat mutable. Thanos had destroyed the stones so that no one could erase what he’d done, but with time as it was the stones still existed in some way. They took advantage of it. Stark and the others. They found the stones and began to bring them together.”

“What happened then?”

“The unthinkable. There was war, and battle, and death. The Hulk brought back those who were lost. No one even remembered being here. And then the end.”

“The end?” said Peter. “You’re scaring me Doc. What’s the end.”

Strange looked pained, and was silent for several moments. “The end was something unthinkable.” he said. “Something that I wish never to have seen. Most futures are… hazy. The recollection of a dream. This one is as clear a nightmare as I have ever known, even here.”

“Tell me.” said Peter.

“Iron Man dons the gauntlet. Iron Man finishes the work that was started. And then Tony Stark dies, his mortal body unable to stand the backlash of the power.”

If Peter had been doubting Strange’s plan, that erased it instantly. Any possibility was better than that. Mr. Stark dying would be… the worst possible outcome.

There was still something bothering him though. “Why do you care?” he asked. “You… On the donut ship you said that you wouldn’t care at all if we died. And now you’ll risk the universe for this?”

Strange looked… old. It was like he’d suddenly aged a century. “I watched fourteen million futures.” he said. “So so many of them. And in those futures I realized a lot of things. Thanos… he’s a large problem. Almost unthinkable. But he isn’t the end. With Asgard fallen the Earth is unprotected. With SHIELD and the Avengers shattered and corrupt it is in danger from itself. In the many many futures where Thanos’ snap wasn’t corrected, the only difference between hope and rebuilding, and utter defeat, is Tony Stark. Every time. His ideas, his protection, his inventions. He is the greatest hero who would ever live in those futures, and I… I wish a better world for him. He deserves it, that chance. You going back can do that. The plans for HYDRA, and Loki, and Ragnarok. They’ll make that world. No Ultron, or Civil War. No regret. You can give your mentor the happiness he deserves, and the world the protection it needs at the same time.”

Peter nodded. “He does deserve it.” he said. “I… I don’t know if I could forgive myself if I failed though. He… he always blames himself. He would blame himself for things going worse.”

“No.” said Strange. “Things likely won’t get worse. Time is… It has a way it wants to flow. Our choices are our own, but chance and opportunity always conspire to create… linchpins I guess, on the face of time. If a Thanos rises, then so does a Stark. There are moments that must happen, because of other moments. My mentor made a choice once, to help someone, and it made inevitable her death surrounded by lightning and snow. If the snap occurs, then Stark must wear the gauntlet. It is… not inevitable, but likely. Not hard fate, but still destiny. That is why even in fourteen million futures I am so sure the right one will likely come to pass. Like a river in a canyon, it follows the course set out for it.”

“I’m not in that flow though.” realized Peter. “I… I’m separate. If you send me back then I can prevent the whole thing. If the snap never happens, then Mr. Stark doesn’t have to d-ie”

He choked on the last word. Dr. Strange was right. It was unthinkable, and it would never happen. Not ever, if Peter could help it.

“Of course.” said Dr. Strange. “I have utter faith in you.”

“I think that was the most horrifyingly mad-scientist thing I have ever witnessed, and I say this as a man who achieved the greatest scientific advancement in decades in an actual cave.”

The California sunshine and oversize T-shirt combined to make Peter’s glare incredibly underwhelming where he was sitting up in the pod, recently finished with the six hours of being knocked out by anesthesia. “It would have looked a lot more impressive in my lab. Proper surroundings and all.”

“It wouldn’t be happening in your lab.” put in MAY. She was still angry over the whole nearly-dying thing.

“Also if we were in your lab I wouldn’t be able to do my projects.” said Tony. “I have to say, it did look pretty boring.”

“Yeah yeah.” said Peter, who was somewhat achy and therefore cranky. He started to pack everything up, and Tony came over to help.

“So, I assume you’re heading out then?” said Tony. There was a hint of a tic in his hand of the sort that Peter associated with wanting to leave and go tinker rather than deal with these idiots. (He was something of an expert on Tony Stark’s non-verbal cues.)

It occurred to Peter then that Tony had been… abnormally careful with him. The teasing had been mild and inoffensive, he’d been attentive enough not to blow Peter off--something that happened often to most of the non-Peters in the man's life in the previous timeline that he knew for a fact held true here too, and whenever Peter had needed something he’d been right on it.

Peter hadn’t noticed because that was how Mr. Stark was with him in the other timeline, but here, as a stranger, it was a bit off. “Probably.” he said. “I… Thanks. Thank you.”

“Yeah…” said Tony.

If this was the other timeline they’d hug and make plans for the next time they hung out (May and Pepper called them play-dates). Here it was just awkward.

“I… um.” said Peter. He sighed. He’d tried so hard to be fairly normal, but he had a feeling he hadn’t succeeded. He’d been overly familiar and knowledgeable and he just knew it. And Tony was a genius so he’d definitely noticed. If he didn’t suspect something was up with Peter he at least thought that Peter was spying on him constantly. Very constantly. Enough to understand all his little tics and see through his best masks.

There was very little likelihood that Tony would want to invite him again. He didn’t have any more procedures he’d need to be unconscious for, and only a couple he’d even need to be monitored during. He was just too strange. Still… he wasn’t done helping yet. He’d gotten Tony the technical information he’d need to speed up technology, but Tony still didn’t know about SHIELD.

“You know how I’m a creepy stalker?” said Peter, hesitantly. Even if he didn’t trust him he knew Tony would investigate if he planted the suspicion there.

“I know a lot about that.” said Tony, glaring playfully.

“Yeah.” said Peter. “Well… There’s this organization. Called SHIELD. They… they knew you were sick. Designed the stop-gap thing. I think… There’s plans to infiltrate close to you. Something about an evaluation. For... threats. And to make you an asset. They… Don’t trust them. They’re useful, and some of them are good, but…”

“I’ve heard of them.” said Tony. “Didn’t think to really investigate at the time, but…”

Peter nodded a bit more than would be socially acceptable. “Be careful.” he said. “I’ll send you what I have on them. Or, you know, if I notice anything else.”

Tony nodded. He seemed a little bit suspicious of Peter’s motivations, but Peter knew that he’d at least investigate the truth of anything he sent him. Tony trusted his technical abilities enough to know he’d figure it out if Peter sent him any lies. “When you do I’ll set up my own bugs in their system.”

Peter smiled a little bit inside. Hopefully he could arrange for the discovery of HYDRA at some point too, though that would have to wait for after the invasion. He wanted everything to mostly stay the same until then. “Good.” he said. “I… I guess I’ll be going then.”

The stuff he’d brought was all packed up in the Mayday--with the exception of a few gadgets he’d left to be picked apart and examined. Crystal computing would be so useful to have in the near future.

“You take care.” said Tony, already turning away as Peter hopped in the Mayday. It didn’t fool either of them.

“You too.” said Peter as he got into the ship.

He pretended not to look back.

-------------

Peter sent over the SHIELD files and directions to a decent backdoor into their servers within hours of leaving Malibu. He didn’t expect anything to come of it. He couldn’t help his hopes, but he tried not to let them overpower him. It would be best if he didn’t expect contact with Tony until the invasion proper. He was here to protect the man, not make friends with him.

Three days later, however, he was surprised to get a message from Tony. A text message, actually, which was strange considering Peter didn’t own a phone.

Promoted Pepper to COO. Imagine my surprise when her replacement was someone I recognized. Attached: ItsyBitsySpider.jpg

It was strange to see the tiny deviations in this timeline. Tony had remained CEO and given Pepper COO. SHIELD had made ‘Natalie Rushman’s backstory a bit more professional. This time she didn’t model in Tokyo, she’d been the assistant to a businessman there.

Like ripples going out from a drop of water things were starting to change. They weren’t major yet, but what they represented was huge.They meant that the ending wasn’t going to be the same. It couldn’t be anymore because the world was already altered. Even more importantly, this text meant that Peter could still talk to his… to Tony.

You know, the Black Widow spider is one of the most dangerous breeds

Even if SHIELD was treating him with a bit more respect, Tony still needed to be careful. Romanov was dangerous. He got a reply almost instantly.

I think I’m doing well, even if this is the first job interview I’ve ever had. I’m hoping they’ll let me in if I act right. It’s also fun to see the confusion in the reports when I go against their expectations.

That made Peter feel a bit better. It sounded like Tony was treating them like he did fellow businessmen. Not someone to trust, not necessarily an enemy, just something dangerous. He’d sort of expected it in this timeline, Tony really was an excellent businessman, but last time had been… Tony had told him about it and it sounded like they’d waited until he was down and then hit him where it hurts. He hadn’t stood a chance against their manipulations.

From what I’ve dug up, Romanov has never heard of the concept of loyalty in her life, but if she respects you she’s a decent ally. As long as your interests are aligned, of course.

It was, perhaps, a slightly unfair judgement, but the Black Widow wasn’t the sort of person who would regret changing sides if it suited her. The Civil War had shown that, and she herself had said that she didn’t weep when regimes fell around her. Still, she was a useful operative, and there were a few people she’d try to avoid hurting--like Barton. Peter hoped that Tony would be one of those people in this timeline.

The conversation continued. Tony was quite interested in what was being done with the Tesseract, and with past research into it like Project PEGASUS. Peter wanted to know what he was doing with the information he’d gained from the galactic net. As was their habit, they ended up talking about engineering. It felt… wonderful. Maybe Peter had lost everything when he’d come to this timeline, but here was something he’d never dreamed of having again and he knew he would fight for it as hard as he could.

------------

The next piece of the timeline that Peter had been worried about came while he was involved in a rather intense debate with Saar over the Nova equivalent of FaceTime.

He was planning to attend school in person for a month that summer, once he’d finished his business on Earth and elsewhere. The Stark Expo in early June would take care of the Earth part of things, and afterwards he had plans to take advantage of the Asgardians problems in the middle of the month. After that, however, he was going to take a break for an entire month. No planning, no desperation, just science. He was going to buy a larger ship and spend all the time he wasn’t in class retrofitting it to his specs and putting on the weaponry he wanted. He’d also finish MAY’s body and hopefully figure out a decent complement of weapons to use himself. The incident on Contraxia had shown him that he was nowhere near prepared to take on anything without a bit of practice and a lot of engineering. The kid gloves were just the beginning.

Unfortunately for his plans, Saar was aware of them. There was a short break in the middle of the time he was staying for a holiday, and Saar was determined to drag him home during that time and make him celebrate it with his family.

“You realize,” said Peter, “That I have no emotional attachment to the Day of World Spirit and therefore it isn’t actually a bad thing that I have no one to celebrate with.”

Saar sniffed. “It’s the principal of the thing,” he said. “Don’t you have any large holidays? I seem to recall reading about some when I was researching Terra.”

Peter was surprised. “You researched Terra?” he asked. Then he shook his head. “Nevermind. And yes we do have holidays. The biggest one, at least on my end of the planet, is probably Christmas. And it’s pretty big, but I didn’t exactly shout about it, now did I.”

“Okay but Peter. Imagine someone you knew was going to be all alone on Christmas. No family, no happiness, just a sad sad obsession with cosmonautical engineering. Wouldn’t you reach out to them?”

Peter paused in his tinkering with what would become MAY’s left hand and sent Saal a rather unimpressed look. “No.” he said, “I’d join them in the ‘sad sad engineering’ as you call it. When the day passed this last year I didn’t even notice. Same for my birthday, come to think of it.”

“No need to be a Gin about it.” said Saal. “And I’m going to find out the date and then make you at least contact your loved ones. I’m going to find out your birthday too, just you wait. Worldsday is important, as well as your Terran Worldsday equivalent.”

“Whose Gin?” asked Peter.

MAY helpfully cut in. “He seems to be an equivalent in popular Xandarian literature to Terra’s Ebenezer Scrooge, though of course the story is very different.”

“Of course.” said Peter. “I’m a model of stinginess and misery.”

Saal sent him a glare that managed to translate quite well over the light-years in between them. “You’re coming.” he said. “End of story. I will draft your Ygrian into the effort if I must, but you’re going to celebrate Worldsday with me. My Uncle wants you to come too, you know. He said he wanted to meet the self-medicating idiot I was panicking over when MAY called me that one time--you know, the one you never apologized for and still owe me over.”

Peter attempted to glare back. It didn’t work well, because he was eight. His body was better suited to a pout than a proper glare. “Fine.” he said finally (Saal’s uncle knew too? Damn, MAY’s loose lips were going to kill him someday). “But let it be known that I’m doing it under protest.”

Saal rolled his eyes. “It’s just me and my uncle. Maybe a couple people from my mother’s side on the day itself. Honestly, it won’t be that bad.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “It’s not that I have anything against your family, I just-”

“Excuse me.” said MAY quite loudly. “But you’re going to want to see this.”

Peter glanced over at the holoscreen she’d brought up. “Oh shit,” he said. “Today’s Monaco, isn’t it.”

“It is,” said MAY.

“I’ll call you back later.” said Peter to Saal. “Something’s come up.”

Saal looked a little worried. “Are you going to be alright?” he asked.

“Yeah.” said Peter, turning towards the screen and wincing as Tony fended off an attack by Vanko. “I just need to do a little bit of hacking…”

He didn’t actually notice when Saal signed off. He was too busy.

“Set up a new file for all of the data here.” he said. “It could be useful to know about these weapons.”

“Already on it.” said MAY. “Is it time to actively enter the Hammer Industries servers?”

“Yeah.” said Peter. “Through the backdoors we discussed. Then sit tight and monitor. I need all the data when they grab Vanko. You might want to peek in Justin Hammers bank files as well, it’s definitely going to cost him to get this done.”

“I know how to do my job Peter.” said MAY.

“I know.” said Peter. He did, but giving instructions felt almost like he was doing things. Making a difference. His hands were practically shaking with the desire to go help, because that was his--that was Tony out there. Being hit and skidding backwards. Falling down.

“Get up get up get up get up get up.” muttered Peter. Tony wasn’t getting up, and Vanko was walking towards him, whips sparking, and Peter knew this ended fine for Tony, knew it had last time, but what if it was different, what if a tiny movement was made the wrong way and the suit was totally broken or… Peter could have ruined everything, lost the one person who was his reason for coming back.

He closed his eyes. “MAY,” he said. “How are we looking on the hack?”

“I have access to most of Hammer industries proprietary data.” said MAY. “Would you like me to download a spare copy?”

Peter smirked. “Absolutely.” he said. “And figure out who on their staff is useful. We can send that information to JARVIS later, for when we destroy Hammer Industries.”

“You’re sure you want to destroy them?” asked MAY.

Peter winced as Tony took a hard hit again. “Anybody who hurts Tony is my enemy.” he said, “And this time I’m not just going to web them down. When I did that they always got up again.”

“Understood.” said MAY. She paused. “I assume that means you want the records of unsafe human testing and the resulting injuries or deaths? Hammer tried to delete them after his defense contracts were suspended, and the governmental investigators still haven’t found them, but there are traces still. I can recover them.”

Peter frowned, “suspended defense contracts?”

“A result of Dr. Stark’s recent senatorial hearing. He hacked Hammer and showed one of his more recent failures on screen. It resulted in the near death and paralysis of the test pilot.”

“I forgot about that.” said Peter. “In my timeline they were reinstated by the Stark Expo.”

“Already the existing production lines have been allowed to continue.” said MAY, “And if the investigation doesn’t find anything more, the projects still in development will be reinstated.”

“Send them in to the investigations team once Hammer takes Vanko. Stick a trail of breadcrumbs leading to Vanko where they’ll find them. Then…”

Peter trailed off. Towards the end he’d known quite a bit about Stark Industries simply from how much he hung around Mr. Stark, and one of the less known facts was that despite not producing weapons they were still the top defense contractor in the nation.

They might not do guns or missiles anymore, but they had fingers in every pie from armored cars to night vision goggles to satellites. Billions and billions of dollars. (Peter didn’t know how it was now, but in his time Stark industries had been the first company in the world to cross the 1 trillion mark in value. More money than most countries). That was power. Power that could be useful to have in the fight against Thanos.

“JARVIS.” he said. “Call JARVIS once you’ve laid the breadcrumbs and sent out the files. Give him advance notice so SI can capitalize on it.”

“Playing the economic sector Peter?” asked MAY.

“Mr. Stark used to say that there’s a lot of kinds of power. When you’re fighting someone like the Mad Titan, you want as much of it as you can get. I don’t know if a hundred billion would really make a difference in the long run, but a few more contracts, a bit more technology, a couple more scientists. Who knows.”

On the screen, Ivan Vanko was dragged away, and Tony appeared to be taking a moment to breathe. “I’m just waiting on Hammer’s acquirement of Vanko.” said MAY. “Then we’re ready to go.”

Peter nodded. “Good.” he said. The faster they got rid of all the opposition on Terra, the faster they could begin preparing for bigger things.

-----------

“Hey,” said Dr. Stark as soon as MAY had accepted the call.

“Hey yourself.” said Peter. He was working hard on the wiring inside what would become MAY’s neck. It was a major vulnerability point, since most of her sensors were in the head section. He didn’t want her to become blind because something snapped.

“It’s funny,” said Tony, “But someone apparently tipped off the people looking into Hammer’s health and safety violations. They found our missing armed crazy.”

“Good for them.” said Peter.

“And you managed to say that with such an innocent face.” said Tony, “But I still know it was you.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” said Peter.

“I hacked in myself and traced the hack. I don’t care how smart you are I’ve still got experience on you.”

“I covered my tracks fairly well.” said Peter.

“You did, and I took care of what was left, I just…” said Tony

“Did you think you were the only billionaire I spy on?” asked Peter.

“Peter.” said Tony. He sighed. “I’m doing this wrong.”

“I have no idea what you’re doing.” said Peter. He was… a bit confused about what was happening.

“I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m the one doing it.” said Tony.

There was a brief moment of awkward silence.

“Hammer’s going to jail.” said Peter. “That’s what’s important.”

Tony nodded. Then he shook his head. “No it’s not.” he said. “Look, I know things are… a bit different in space, but… I. You. You’re a kid. You’re brilliant, but I still…”

“Have reservations about trusting an eight year old to know what he’s doing?” asked Peter. It was strange. He’d always said he didn’t want his Mr. Stark to treat him like a kid, but despite that he did want it. He really, really did because he was so sick of trying to figure things out on his own.

“No.” said Tony, surprising Peter. “You’ve got a good handle on it. It’s just… you… never mind. I guess… if you’re going to be breaking any laws and hacking into multi billion dollar companies, be careful. And maybe call me. I still owe you one. Y’know, for the lifesaving thing.”

Peter rolled his eyes. (Tony worried about him. It was the best feeling he’d had in this whole timeline so far) “I didn’t save your life.” he said. “You did.”

“Agree to disagree.” said Tony. Peter could tell he understood. He always did. Mr. Stark was the best at understanding.

“I’ll shoot you a text if I ever end up in jail anyway.” he said instead of saying what he wanted to.

“Do it before and I’ll help you hide the bodies so you don’t have to.” said Tony.

Peter smirked. “You’re rather good at that.” he said. “Honestly, it’s a miracle you’ve never been up on murder charges given how many people you’ve killed.”

Tony smirked, “I do try.” he said.

--------------

Tony’s birthday passed with a distinct lack of drunken shenanigans in the Iron Man suit. There were drunken shenanigans, they just happened on a reasonable level. Singing loudly in public and excess amounts of eyeliner rather than what had happened the other time. Peter sent a photostatic veil. He figured that the desire to go out in public without being recognized would be consistent across both timelines.

War Machine did happen though. The only difference was that in this timeline it involved a good deal of handshaking and ceremony and several political speeches rather than a fistfight. And for the first time in a long time Peter thought that everything might turn out okay.He'd even finished one of his longer running projects.

"Are you doing all right?" he asked MAY. She waved her fingers in front of her face, lenses in her eyes, which were wide with awe, Peter really had done an excellent job with the facial muscles.

"This is... incredible." said MAY. She tried to stand up, but wasn't entirely used to being in a physical body and stumbled. Peter caught her.

"Careful there." he said. "You haven't quite gotten balance figured out. Going to need some experience for that."

MAY looked at him, and very carefully smiled. It was awkward, but it was there, and Peter grinned back. It would take time for her to get totally used to the way the body was structured, but he knew she could do it, and he was very proud of her.

“Do you think you can be ready in time for the expo?” he asked.

MAY stood as carefully as she could, still holding Peter’s hand for support and leaned from side to side, testing her balance and her movements.

“Yes.” she said finally. “I will have to practice, but it can be done.”

Peter was so ecstatic that he did a back-flip right then and there.

--------

On the day of the Stark Expo, Peter was somewhat nervous. He wasn’t, however, nervous about exploding drones. Those wouldn’t be happening. No, what Peter was nervous about was that this would be the first real field-test of MAY’s new body.

It had been finished for almost a week. He’d extensively tweaked and tested it and he was sure in theory that MAY would do fantastically. And she was gorgeous. Not particularly human looking what with being silver and opalescent white, having no hair, and the exposed workings around the joints, but that was what holography was for. If he put a jacket and some jeans on her, the rest could be covered with a wig and a bit of a light show.

He was hoping that eventually he could scrap together some nanites that could make it even more realistic, but that was a work in progress.

Despite Peter’s confidence in his design, he was still somehow convinced that MAY would be instantly discovered and both Peter and the android would be taken away to a HYDRA sub-basement. His imagination conjured images of her being taken apart (somehow in his imagination she was trapped in the body) and experimented on.

This was, of course entirely unrealistic, so he pushed his concerns aside and adjusted everything one last time before walking hand in hand with may out of the Mayday they’d secured parking for in the vendor section because Mr. Stark was nice like that.

As they strolled into the Expo proper, Peter’s eyes went wide. He remembered the last version of this event, and this was nothing like it. No, this was better.

“Wow.” he whispered as he watched a flock of drones fly overhead in formation.

MAY squeezed his hand and he smiled at her. She was getting so good at nonverbal communication. “Let’s get a good spot.” said Peter. “I don’t want to miss this.”

They did, and soon it was time for the opening ceremony to start.

Fireworks shot into the air, and the music built louder and louder. Then there was a golden streak in the sky as Iron Man approached.

The crowd started screaming. Peter was very glad for the earplugs he’d slipped into his ears before the whole thing had started.

It was, without a doubt, one of the best nights in the whole new timeline, that was, until the drone attacked.

Chapter Text

“One time,” said Peter, “When I was… like eightish, Mr. Stark saved my life.”

James frowned. “He saved your life? You were in danger?”

Peter squinted at him. “You’ve heard about the drone attack on the 2011 Stark Expo, right?” he said.

James nodded. “Yes.” he said. “I was… I think I was sent to retrieve some of the confiscated remains of the drones. For HYDRA.”

“I was there” said Peter. “Wearing some stupid plastic Iron Man mask, and the targeting program on one of the drones confused me with the real thing. And then I just put my hand up like I had a repulsor like the real thing. As if it would do something. Oh god, it makes me feel like such an idiot in retrospect, but I’d honestly thought I was about to die, so I guess I do sort of have an excuse. It really was stupid though. I should have run… Anyway, I didn’t, and there he was. Killed the drone and flew off, as if it wasn’t a big deal and he hadn’t just totally rocked my world.”

“So that’s how you came to idolize him?”

Peter scoffed, “I already did.” he said, “The man built the best weapons system on the planet and the largest step forward in clean energy in history all from a box of scraps in a cave. He was like… He was everything I ever wanted to be. After that though… I’d always worshiped the work of Tony Stark--the scientist, but after that I just wanted to be like Tony Stark the person. He’s probably the most selfless person I’ve ever met, and I just…”

James chuckled. “If anything,” he said, “You are too much like him. I’ve heard rumors, you know. Something about jumping on a spaceship to help someone when you were told to leave?”

Peter blushed. “It wasn’t like that.” he protested.

James gave him a Look. It was deeply unimpressed and bore a shocking similarity to the sort of look Peter thought the man might wear when he killed someone. Peter rolled his eyes, entirely unaffected.

“When Steve and I were kids.” said James, tactfully moving on instead of rehashing the same point yet again, “We wanted to be just like Eddie Rickenbacker.”

“Eddie Rickenbacker…” said Peter. “I feel like I know that name. I totally learned about him in history class. Something about planes… or cars.”

“Both.” said James. “He was the Ace of all flying aces in World War I, and a couple years before me and Stevie left for the war he made it as a race car driver. We got a copy of his book once for Christmas--Mrs. Rogers was all sorts of practical like that, every year a new book, shirt, or pair of shoes like clockwork. Re-read the thing until it fell apart. Stevie always liked that he went to go fight even though America wasn’t going to. I just liked the planes, and later the cars. Liked anything that could go fast, really.”

“A man after my own heart.” said Peter, grinning. “When I started driving Mr. Stark said he ought to just put FRIDAY in charge of the acceleration because I didn’t deserve such a privilege. That’s just ‘cause he’s a wuss about drifting. I mean really, it’s just physics and I know what I’m doing.”

“From what I’ve heard about Stark I highly doubt he’s much of a wuss about anything Peter. Didn’t he race cars at one point?”

“Shut up.” said Peter. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Of course not.” said James. “So, before we got on the topic of your undying admiration for your father figure, back when we were running through operational scenarios, I mentioned collateral damage. Maximizing it causes chaos and decreases your enemy’s escape route. Minimizing it also minimizes publicity and news coverage, keeps you nice and secret. Yeah?”

Peter nodded. “Also minimizing it is a generally good thing to do.” he added, “You know, because I’m like, not evil.”

James shrugged. “Still good to know. So, your Expo. Knowing what you do now, how would you maximize collateral damage.”

“Maximize?” squeaked Peter. The warmth of reminiscing left him instantly.

“Yes.” said James. “Maximize. Assume you want to capture or kill one of the attendees. One with a good exit plan, like Hammer or Stark.”

Peter wrapped his arms around his legs and took a breath. He wouldn’t have to do these things. He wouldn’t. They were… just in case. Just… finding out how the enemy would think. It didn’t matter that he was really really good at this sort of thing, at finding weaknesses and exploiting them. His experiences in the soul stone had shown him that about himself and he hated it deeply.

“The drones.” he said, “had arc reactors that were a little too powerful for their systems. It would be comically easy to cause an overload. That’s what happened the first time. Vanko knew he was going down and he used them to cause quite a bit of extra damage as he died. The thing is though, they also weren’t very secured. Like, it was terrible.”

“Why do you know this?” asked James.

“Because I stole some bits on my way out. I wanted to know how an arc reactor worked. Anyway, it would be really easy. The Arc reactor is like a fire hose and the control circuits on those things were like drinking straws. Plus they were all controlled through the same network. I could rewire the whole system to blow with thirty seconds and a flip phone.”

James frowned at him. After a few moments of consideration he nodded slightly. “You would make an excellent assassin.” he said.

It was a rather strange comment. Peter didn’t know what to say so he deflected. “I mean, thanks,” he said, “But I did lie about the flip phone. I am really slow at typing on those. I’d need at least one of the slidey ones with keyboards.”

“Understandable.” said James.

“Honestly.” said Peter. “Multiple button presses per letter, how stupid can you get.”

“Hmm.” said James. “If that’s how you would maximize the collateral damage, how would you minimize it.”

Peter sat back and thought for a second. Then his eyes lit up. “Well first,” he said, “I’d need some sort of computer, and a roll of tinfoil--or failing that a microwave-”

In retrospect, Peter should have expected everything to go wrong. The thing was though that Hammer and Vanko had been arrested and he’d thought that that would be pretty much the end of it. It made sense to him; you get rid of the cause of last time’s disaster and it doesn’t happen again.

Unfortunately it appeared that that wasn’t the case, and there was chaos in the expo.

“YOU THOUGHT YOU COULD STOP ME WITH PRISON--roceed to the nearest exit. The situ--BUT YOU CAN’T. I’M MORE CAPABLE THAN YOU COULD IMAGINE, AND THERE ARE SO MANY!--ay calm--SO MANY PEOPLE WHO WOULD HELP ME.”

Peter didn’t pay much attention to the villainous monologue coming over the loudspeakers and interrupting JARVIS’ beautifully thought out emergency broadcast. Not that it mattered much--the evacuation was proceeding just fine. There was nothing like a bunch of badly constructed drones attacking to make someone cling to their loved ones and flee.

“HATE YOU TONY STARK!--der control--HATE WHAT YOU’VE DONE. YOU RUINED MY LIFE. RUINED ALL OF OUR LIVES, AND NOW--ocated under green signs acr--WE WILL RUIN YOURS.”

While everyone was running away from the badly welded and not very effective drones (This timeline had put a rather large damper on Hammer’s resources, so Vanko clearly hadn’t had quite as much to work with), Peter was running towards the danger.

There were plenty of drones, and Peter soon came on a group attempting to fire at a crowd of civilians. Their aiming algorithm clearly wasn’t up to scratch, though, and the civilians were mostly fine. Nevertheless, Peter slammed his wrists together, activating the kid gloves which flowed onto his hands precisely like they were supposed to.

His old web shooters had over a thousand web combinations by the time he’d died. (He still had no idea about the Iron Spider suit). The kid gloves were stripped down--had only five--but they also had a myriad of other useful tools. And a gun. The guns were definitely the most useful part.

Still, Peter started by webbing them up. He got three to go down just by shooting each other, bounced around and ripped out important wires from two others (honestly, the workmanship was pitiful). The final three he got with his guns. They weren’t powerful--he had to be close--but they worked, and that was what was important.

While he was doing that, MAY was lifting some of the debris out of the way and getting the civilians out.

“You good?” asked Peter, once he was done.

“Yes.” said MAY. “I am still at full functionality, though I’m having troubles connecting to JARVIS.”

“Great.” said Peter. “Tell me when you do. I want to get on the comms pronto.”

As quickly as he could, he ripped off the limbs of one of the drones, and then wired the corpse into MAY.

“They’re going to need a wireless transceiver to control the drones. No way it’s going through the network of the expo--too much security. See if you can triangulate it with the data from this hunk of lead.”

MAY tilted her head to the side, calculating. “There appears to be seven distinct devices the signal is transmitting from located throughout the park.”

Peter whistled. “Well there goes Plan A.” he said, disconnecting the drone from MAY. “Wrapping that thing in tinfoil to stop it transmitting was pretty much my only plan.”

“If it helps.” said MAY. “I’ve got a line to JARVIS.”

Peter grinned, as Iron Man flew overhead, trailing drones as he flew towards the giant globe of Terra. “That definitely helps.” he said.

“RHODEY! You still locked on?” came Tony’s voice through the comm MAY had insisted he wear just in case.

Peter smiled even wider, as Colonel Rhodes’ voice spoke up. “Yeah.”

“Drop your socks and grab your crocs, we’re about to get wet on this ride.” said Tony.

“WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT WAIT.” said Colonel Rhodes as they flew into the globe. The drones behind them didn’t have the maneuverability and went up in a massive series of fireballs.

“Nice.” said Peter. “I’m liking the fireworks show.”

“Peter?” asked Tony.

“Who the hell is Peter?” asked Colonel Rhodes.

Then another voice came on--the Black Widow was apparently there too (Peter had not known that.) “He’s gone.” she said.

“Damn.” said Tony.

Colonel Rhodes screamed, and Tony continued. “Sorry buddy, I had to thin out the herd,” he said. Peter noted their trajectory as they crashed into a glass dome that Peter was pretty sure held some form of garden.

“Vanko got control of the Colonel’s suit?” asked Peter, sprinting towards the dome, MAY on his heels.

“Yeah.” said Tony. “Hey Widow, can you fix that?”

“Rebooting Rhodey’s suit now.”

There were clanging noises Peter could hear both through the com and in real life. “I’ll do you one better.” he said. “Widow, can you give me remote control over there?”

“That depends kid,” she said, “Are you on our side.”

Peter kept sprinting. “Give the kid the computer Romanoff.” said Tony. His voice was strained.

“Got it.” said MAY after a few seconds.

Peter, meanwhile had arrived in the dome and was running towards the two fighting superheroes. “Nice.” he said. “MAY help the spider. I’m going in.”

Then Peter jumped on top of Colonel Rhodes, who was on top of Tony, and grabbed the gun on his back that was actively shooting at his mentor.

With a scream of effort accompanied by the screeching of the servos as they tried to resist him, Peter wrenched the gun to the side. Rhodes continued on with his hands and other weapons, and Peter rearranged his legs into a headlock. It helped a little.

Then, it all came together at once, and both Peter and the Colonel were flung off of Tony with force. Peter landed catlike on his feet. The Colonel did not.

“Looks like you’ve got your best friend back.” said Widow.

“Thank you Agent Romanoff.” said Tony.

“I have to ask though,” she said, “What’s with the kid.”

“Yeah, Tony.” said Rhodes, still gasping. “What is with him.”

Tony shrugged. “He saved my life. Helped figure out the new arc so I’m not dying.”

“What do you mean you’re not dying, did you just say you were dying?” asked Pepper.

“I thought you said you told her about that.” said Peter.

“I did,” said Tony.

“You said that there might be minor side effects from the palladium in the arc reactor, and you wanted to eliminate them before they increased enough to become worrying.” said Pepper. “I took that as ‘maybe a higher chance of cancer in the future’ not ‘actively dying’.”

“And that was correct. Side effects, elimination all of that.” said Tony.

“Because Palladium poisoning is such a minor side effect.” said Peter.

“You shut up Peter.” said Tony

“And another thing, who the hell is Peter. I swear I talked to the kid who helped you and he was in his twenties, not five.” said Pepper.

“I have fantastic image altering software.” said Peter. “And I’m eight not five.”

“Save it for later.” said Widow. “You’ve got incoming.”

“Good. Fine.” said Tony. “And Pepper, don’t be mad, I will formally apologize-”

“I am mad.” said Pepper.

“-when I’m not fending off a Hammeroid attack!”

“Fine.” said Pepper

Tony helped Rhodey to his feet.

“They’re comin’ in hot. Any second. What’s the play?” he said.

“Well we want to take the high ground, okay, when they come around so let’s-”

“Nope.” said Peter. “Better plan. The signal is transmitting from seven places. Tony, I’m betting you can get them all before things get critical over here. We’ll hold them off and distract them. MAY, give him the spots.”

“Done” said MAY. She’d lost her clothes and wig somewhere, and the photostatic holographics were a thing of the past, so she was out in all her android glory.

“Okay, one problem. You’re a puny kid. How are you going to hold them off?” said Tony.

Peter decided not to bring up the fact that he was a murderous space pirate. “That’s what MAY’s for.” he said. “MAY, activate Terminator Protocol. Code is Hasta La Vista Baby 2147.”

MAY held up her hands, which were swiftly switching into gun mode. Her guns were much more powerful than Peter’s little wrist piece.

“Yeah, okay.” said Tony. “Hide in a bush or something.”

Then the first drone arrived.

“Tony.” said Colonel Rhodes. “When I say go, go. They’ll follow you you’re priority one, and we’ll get them from underneath.”

MAY started charging up her guns, which glowed a scary blue white, and Peter activated his kid gloves once again. They’d talk about the space pirate thing later.

When all the drones arrived in the dome, there were a few moments of stillness.

“Go.” said Rhodey.

Tony went.

The drones, of course, tried to follow him, but they were a lot slower, and Rhodes and MAY managed to keep the first few from exiting the dome, at which point some of them turned to attack them. It turned into a massive firefight all around, guns blazing and MAY showing off some of her new awesome ninja moves.

Meanwhile, Peter was doing what he did best, sticking to the edges of the fight and webbing the drones together so they couldn’t maneuver effectively. He managed to keep them all contained while MAY and Colonel Rhodes put them down in the center. He even killed a few with his wrist guns (he really needed to start carrying real guns)

Just as they were about to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, there was a strange static noise, and the drones collapsed.

“Nice going.” said Rhodes to MAY.

MAY gave him her best grin as her hands turned back into hands. “I do try.” she said.

“Okay.” said Tony. “Looks like they’re all down, and the expo is completely evacuated.”

Everyone took a second to pause and breathe, until “Guys?” said the Widow. “A self destruct countdown just started.”

Colonel Rhodes didn’t stop to think, didn’t pause for a second. He just grabbed MAY in one hand, Peter in the other, and shot off towards the sky like a heat avoidance missile. The explosion started when they were about sixty feet up, and Peter could feel the heat of it below him as they soared up, holding onto Colonel Rhodes for dear life since he couldn’t hold them properly while flying. Tony met them a few seconds later.

“Are you okay?” he asked in a surprisingly soft voice. Peter had a feeling that if they weren’t being used as flight stabilizers, his hands would have been fluttering about trying to make sure Peter was okay.

“Never better.” said Peter. His voice was a little hoarse from smoke and screaming, he was a little singed and bloody and a lot bruised, but his-Tony was okay. They were all okay. No casualties and only a few serious wounds in the civilians and Tony was okay and… Peter blacked out from the stress of the night on his eight year old body.

-----------

Peter woke up to the feeling of a hand softly stroking his back and running its fingers through his hair. It was so nice, that for a moment he didn’t open his eyes. After all, he could smell the person and knew that it was just Tony. He sighed in contentment.

“I know you’re awake Peter.” said Tony.

Peter made a little noise.

“The vitals monitor we stuck on you wasn’t exactly subtle, so pretending really isn’t going to work at all.”

Peter made a slightly louder noise that was just as disgruntled.

“You are currently lying in a SHIELD safe-house in Brooklyn.” said MAY.

That got Peter up extremely fast. “What!?” he said, in a slight panic.

“Calm down.” came the incredibly familiar voice of Nick Fury. “Even SHIELD doesn’t know about this place. It’s one of mine.”

Despite the fact that Peter didn’t know this iteration of Nick Fury, and perhaps more importantly that Peter knew Nick Fury in general, and was therefore pretty aware of how the man reacted to unexpected things, he did calm down immediately. Fury was the sort of person whose arrival heralded the end of all problems, one way or another.

“Why are we here?” he asked cautiously. “And not at SHIELD.”

“Well…” said Nick Fury. “The last time an alien showed up on my doorstep it turned into a mess. The less people involved in this the better.”

Peter glanced at Tony. “You told him?” he asked.

“Sorry kiddo.” said Tony. “I needed to keep you out of the clutches of SHIELD. There’s some iffy things going on there. He is trustworthy though. A bit. I think. Honestly jury’s still up on that but I figured it was better than the whole stinking pile of shit.”

“Whole stinking pile?” asked Peter.

That question was answered by the Black Widow as she walked into the room. “That’s the other reason we’re in a shitty apartment instead of the nice field office.” she said. “Somethings dirty in SHIELD.”

“Imagine that.” said Peter. He had a pretty low opinion of SHIELD.

That earned him a smirk from the assassin in the room.

“It’s bigger than that.” said Fury. He sighed. “When Agent Romanoff was in Vanko's system she noticed some concerning things.”

Peter sat up for that one. “What was there.”

MAY spoke up from where she was slumped in a corner (he really needed to repair her, she looked a mess.) “There was evidence that the escape from prison by Hammer and Vanko was arranged using SHIELD resources.”

“You were the ones that broke them out?” said Peter.

“No.” said Fury. “And it gets worse. Vanko was sending the plans to someone. Payment for services rendered,”

“Which means.” said Tony, “That there’s a crazy out there with Arc Reactor and drone plans. Not good ones, but plans. And they have an in into SHIELD.”

“Oh that’s bad.” said Peter. It was worse than bad. If they found out about HYDRA too early then it might cripple them during the all important invasion. He didn’t even know where to start, what to do about this (Knowledge begets change, said Strange somewhere in his head)

He decided to change the subject. “What does that have to do with me though,” he said. Even if SHIELD is dirty you probably should have brought me there. How do I know you aren’t about to disappear me off to Area 51? Kill me? Nice little spot of dissection.” said Peter.

“Until I know what the hell is going on, I’m not telling anybody anything.” said Fury. He sighed. “Except those I trust. And you two, since you already know.”

“JARVIS got the data from MAY at the same time as Romanoff did.” said Tony. “I figured I’d better keep tabs on it. After all, my weapons were what started all this.” he tapped the arc reactor in his chest twice and shrugged. “And besides, I am the best hacker in the world.”

Peter pretended to be offended. “I have experience on you kid.” said Tony. “Give it a couple years.”

Peter nodded. “So you just disappeared off the face of the planet after the expo?” he asked. Tony wasn’t the sort of person who could just do that.

“Officially I was injured, and am staying in a private hospital while they pick a couple bits of drone out of me. I’ll show up when we’re done here and baby my left side for a bit. Nobody will suspect a thing, not even SHIELD.”

“Cool, I guess.” said Peter.

“I’m the Agent assigned to monitor him.” said Romanoff. “I can sell the story easily. In a couple of days, I’ll wrap up my op. I have the report written already.”

“Really?” said Tony. “What’s it say?”

"Mr. Stark displays compulsive behavior is prone to self-destructive tendencies and is a textbook narcissist" quoted Romanoff. “Among other things.”

“Nothing that isn’t true then.” said Tony.

“Actually no.” said Romanoff.

Fury cut in. “We just needed a valid excuse to have no contact with you besides a few hackers and spies trying to steal your designs.”

“You’re the secret weapon.” mocked Romanoff, deadpan. Peter decided he liked this timelines version of her, even if she was still not trustworthy. At all.

“Just what I wanted to be.” said Tony. “Out of curiosity--and vanity, you know I really am a narcissist even if you say otherwise--what would the real report say.”

Romanoff glared at him, saying nothing.

Fury looked intrigued, however. “Do tell.” he said.

Peter instantly saw the set-up. Last time around, Fury had admitted to showing Mr. Stark his faked ‘personality overview’ as a way to encourage him to be better and overcome specific faults since their actual studies had indicated he liked proving people wrong. This time around they were going the opposite route--giving him something to live up to. It might even be the truth.

“Mr. Stark displays a high capability of compartmentalization, keeping his numerous personal issues and dysfunctions separate from his public image. He is both emotionally manipulative and a clever lateral problem solver. He also has both high moral ideals and few ethical qualms, leaving him a ruthless operator. In another life, his dysfunctions, intelligence, and skill set would make him an excellent agent, though treatment for PTSD and anxiety would be necessary. Highly recommended for future cooperation.”

“And thank God for that.” said Fury. He turned to Tony. “I’ll have Natasha keep in touch, and when this is all over we’ll pay your consulting fee for the hacking.”

Tony was clearly uncomfortable with the positive attention, and Peter was internally cheering that SHIELD was going to do right by him this time around. Still, he didn’t want them to push to hard. Sometimes Tony did rash things when people tried to trust him.

“That’s great and all,” said Peter, “But I still want to know why I’m not being dissected.”

Instantly all the eyes turned on him.

“You’ve been here for a while.” said Fury, “So I’m assuming you’re familiar with the concept of YouTube.”

“Yeah?” said Peter.

“When Stark brought you and your nice little murder-bot with us, my first reaction was ‘hell no’. I was also monitoring media about the event, however, and I saw this little gem of a video.” he held up his phone in an unintentional mimicry of Mr. Stark so long ago in the other timeline. “That’s you.” he said. “And that one, and this.”

He flipped through several clips of Peter helping people and taking down drones on his way to help Tony.

“They’re calling you the Spider. Sometimes the Spider-kid, but that one hasn’t caught on quite as well.”

“Yeah, so I can fight. I’m useful.” said Peter. He knew Fury, and he knew Fury’s game, and this wasn’t everything. “Doesn’t make me trustworthy. What happened?”

“I put a word in for you.” said Romanoff. “Stark did too, obviously, but so did I. I saw enough of you to see what you’re made of.”

Peter looked at her funny. “I thought you needed more than thirty seconds in a stressful situation to make one of your cute little ‘personality profiles’” he said.

“Not with you.” said Romanoff. “And I also had the opportunity to question your AI, and Stark. I already know everything I need.”

“What makes you think that?” asked Peter.

“You remind me of myself.” she returned, like it was some sort of confession.

“I’m nothing like you.” said Peter.

She smirked. “I’m willing to bet you come from a bad place.” she started. “Tony says genetics lab, but whatever happened there it wasn’t good. You’re well trained, you’re ruthless, you always have a mission to follow and you’ll do anything for it but you want better. You want to do better, be better. You want to be good, make up for whatever it is you’ve done--and I know you’ve done it. I can see the guilt in your eyes like I do in the mirror every day. You have red in your ledger Peter, and you want to wipe it out.”

Peter’s eyes were wide. He’d never met the Black Widow, but he was starting to understand where her reputation had come from. Despite the stupid report from the last timeline, she was trained in psychology and she knew what she was doing (She knew he'd murdered people). “How?” he whispered, lost. He didn’t want them to know about what he’d done. Especially not Tony.

“Like I said. I’m the same way.” said Romanoff. “But someone took a chance on me, and I got what I wanted. And I think I want to do the same for you.”

Peter was aware that this was, at least a little bit, calculated. Romanoff was an expert in manipulation, and he was useful enough that she would try. At the same time though… What she’d said was working, more than she ever could know. She was offering help--both her’s and Fury’s, probably Hawkeye's and Coulson’s as well. And Peter was trying to save the world, he’d need that.

“What do you want from me?” he asked.

It was Fury who answered.

"There was an idea, Stark knows this, called the Avengers Initiative." he said slowly, but building steam. "The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could…”

Chapter Text

“Did you know that he could have taken over the world?” asked Fury.

Peter sat and thought for a few seconds.

“Mr. Stark was a lot of things.” he said, “He was… Just a lot. But I think that if he took over the world it would have been for a really good reason.”

Fury was silent for a few seconds. “You see that,” he said, “That sort of loyalty is the reason he would be able to do it. Not the money, there are others with money, not all the little favors and politicking, or the genius, there are others with those too. Not even Iron Man. It would take a lot, but an army can be raised to fight another army, even if that army is just one man.”

“What, you can kill Iron Man but you can’t take him on with the addition of a scrappy kid from Queens?”

“No.” said Fury. “But no one could take him on if he was followed by myriads of politicians, almost every so-called ‘hero’ and half of the rest of the planet. The man has a higher public approval rating than Jesus.”

Peter laughed. “He deserves it.” he said, “He’s a good person.”

Fury glared at him. “That’s not my point here.” he said. “My point is that loyalty, trust, devotion, love… All those things are the most powerful forces in the world.”

“Careful, Mad-Eye,” said Peter looking at him funny, “I almost mistook you for Dumbledore for a second there.”

Fury glared powerfully. “I’m not talking about sacrifice bullshit, Parker. I’m talking about what people will do for each other, and more importantly what they will do when pressed. HYDRA happened because of devotion to an ideal. The Avengers fell apart because the loyalty to one man by another was more powerful than their trust. Hell, loyalty to lip-service alliances only good on paper were what turned World War I from an assassination into one of the largest conflicts in global history.”

“Oh,” said Peter. Then he paused. “What does this have to do with tactical planning?”

Fury’s glare intensified, but it wasn’t a stupidity glare anymore, it was a passionate one. “Parker, you’re aware that most of this preparation bullshit that’s happening is entirely useless or useful only in a FUBAR scenario.”

Peter nodded, “I mean yeah.” he said. “Plan A is me showing up during the invasion and spilling my guts. I might have to fight my way in, or be creative about it, but ‘tactical planning’ or even all the quantum science and magic stuff I’m learning isn’t going to make me more efficient at informing everyone that the future is an nonredeemable apocalypse situation.”

Fury nodded. “Then why are you still doing it?” he asked.

Peter had to sit and think about that one for a little while as well. “I think… Thanos isn’t going to show up right after the 2012 invasion. I have to make it from there all the way through the rest of the plan, all the way through to the end. And if knowing a random fact about how Loki channels magic is going to help me with that, then I’m going to learn every one of Loki’s random facts.”

“You have the right idea then.” said Fury. “Even after you give up control, you’re still the only person who knows everything, which means you’ve got a lot of power to get shit done. And if what you have to accomplish is to keep the Avengers together and prepared for nearly a decade,”

“Then loyalty.” finished Peter.

“Precisely.” said Fury. “I don’t care if you have to sign up to be their fucking group therapist, you cannot let things get like they were, even a little bit. This whole… The events leading up to that stupid ‘snap’ thing, they would never have happened if we were all together. And if you tell everyone about HYDRA, about the malevolence in the mind stone then the group might not fall apart like it did, but you can’t guarantee that.”

“What do you mean?” asked Peter, “I thought that Ultron and the whole Winter Soldier thing were what made them fall apart. If those didn’t happen, then wouldn’t they be… fine?”

Fury shook his head. “No.” he said. “There were a lot of problems with the Avengers even before that. Stark’s general manner and bullheadedness, Roger’s dickish refusal to acknowledge anybody’s authority but his own, Thor’s anger. All of those hurt them. Romanoff never learned to trust anybody, and Banner was never properly integrated into the team. Barton was possibly the most functional out of all of them, but any hope I had for him went away with the issues he developed after Loki’s mind control.”

“And what, you’re hoping I’ll get them to all hold hands and sing kumbaya?”

Fury snorted. “No.” he said. “I don’t ask for miracles.”

Peter glared at him. “Then what are you trying to say?” he asked. “You know I’m not a mind-reader, Fury. I can’t just magically find out.”

“Let me put this simply.” said Fury. “If you want the Avengers to fight Thanos, you’re going to need the Avengers. If you need the Avengers, you need each individual Avenger to work as a team. And if you want them to work as a team, you need them to be committed, if not to each other, then to the team and to the mission. Maybe the future gets fucked, and all our plans are good for shit. Maybe nothing we say matters. That’s still priority one. If life taught me nothing else, it was that when the world seems to be ending the best possible thing to have is a good and well prepared response team.”

“Plan Z?” asked Peter.

“We already have a plan Z.” said Fury. “More contingencies than any operation ought to need. This plan is a lot further down on the list of things to try. Plan fucking Asterisk.”

Peter sighed. “So,” he said, “How does one go about accomplishing Plan Fucking Asterisk.”

Thor’s hammer landed in the middle of the New Mexico desert on the same night as the Expo. Peter hadn’t known the exact date, but when Fury finished up the debriefing quicker than he’d expected, and Romanoff (call me Nat, she’d said, but he wasn’t quite there yet) took Tony off to finish dealing with the Expo’s assorted issues with only a token threat that he’d better be in touch, he knew something was up.

As soon as he’d sent MAY’s body off with Tony to ship discreetly back to him later, and taken the subway to Queens, he hopped into the SHIELD servers and started looking. It didn’t take long to learn that Thor was indeed banished (though at this point the only thing people knew was that there was a weird lightning show and a hammer had shown up).

Still, he knew from Loki that Thor’s banishment had lasted several weeks, so he had a little bit of time before he did… something. He didn’t know what. So, he spent a couple evenings hanging out with Tony before he had to return to the regularly scheduled programming. He’d gotten rather far ahead on school, so he checked off the list, and went on to putter for an entire day while he tried to figure out what to do.

NR: How many languages do you speak?

In retrospect, it was not one of his better ideas to give Natasha Romanoff his cell phone number. (the existence of which confused him since he didn’t own a phone and hadn’t created a means to text without one--he suspected Tony or MAY as the responsible party)

PS: All of them, he texted back. He might be trying not to deliberately lie to what would hopefully be a future ally, but he definitely had no qualms being difficult.

NR: Don’t be cute, Peter. How many.

Peter rolled his eyes. It was sort of nice, he guessed, that she was taking her promise of support seriously, but so far it had only taken the form of prying text messages at 2:48 AM questioning him about his abilities and back story.

PS: More than you (;

There was silence on the other end of the line, and Peter contemplated his options for the near future. His first order of business would obviously to go plant a tracker on Thor. It would be nice to know where the man was at all times. Shame he couldn’t do the same to Loki, but it would be a waste of effort. Thanos was too thorough in his security measures.

NR: Ты говоришь по-русски?

Peter raised an eyebrow. The all-speak did not help his reading at all whatsoever, but James had taught him the Cyrillic alphabet before he’d left the soul-stone.

PS: I did say all of them, or at least as many as I need. Was there a point to asking?

Perhaps he could turn the banishment to his advantage in another way. If he could do anything he would have stopped Loki’s fall. Or even before that he could have stopped the rest of the whole mess. But that wasn’t something he could even consider. Loki’s fall and subsequent subjugation by Thanos was too important--it was what had removed the Mind Stone from Thanos’ influence, however briefly. Without that, Peter had no way of knowing what would happen, and one infinity stone in Thanos’ grasp was already far too many.

Another small voice in his mind also whispered that it was the only way to bring his Loki back. The Loki that had played pranks with him and let him cry into his shoulder in the stone. The mind stone was pretty much the only way (besides the time stone) to do such a thing, and Peter wanted it so badly. Strange and Loki may have stored the imprint of themselves--something more than memory and less than a soul--right into his very genetic code, but he couldn’t exactly use that without access to an infinity stone and to a version of Loki (or Strange) that had channeled the power of one.

It sickened him that he had to let someone he considered family go through torture for months, even in the name of saving the universe. He had to though, because in the end it would save Loki too, and if Loki were there he’d be telling Peter exactly that. He’d want Peter to let him fall. Hell, if he was there he’d fling himself off of the bifrost with nothing more than a memory suppression spell just to get a chance at the mind stone.

NR: Would you believe me if I said I wanted to provide support?

Peter was jolted back to the present. Romanoff's texts. Planning what would happen in the near future.

PS: No. Maybe. I don’t know. Even if that is why, you have other reasons too.

It was a paralyzing thought, to have so much power over the future, especially since he couldn’t really use it much. What would he even do? There wasn’t much he could do short of altering the timeline so drastically he became completely useless. Still there had to be something.

NR: My end goal is to bring you in out of the cold. I was young when I started, and I never stopped. It brought me nothing but grief for a long time. Maybe you end up SHIELD. Maybe you end up in elementary school--or college, Stark’s been bragging. Hell, I bet Stark himself would take you in an instant. Whatever happens, I want you to at least have the choice I never did.

Having choices. That was a heady little pipe dream. It made Peter wonder what Loki would do if given the chance. Definitely go back to Thanos, or find another way to get the mind stone. Probably hug his brother a few extra times first. Beyond that Peter didn’t know. What would Loki do? While he thought, he idly tapped out more of his conversation with the woman who was quickly transitioning from Agent Romanoff to Natasha in his mind.

PS: I’m not getting out. I can tell you that right away.

As methodically as he could, Peter thought through all the things that lead up to Loki’s fall. Everything that he’d heard, overheard and been told. He’d written it all down when he’d thought he was dying, but he decided to start anew, try to see it from a different angle. What would Loki do?

NR: I suspected as much. All I can offer then is SHIELD, and the skills and tools to get by in this world.

What would Loki do? It was obvious now. Tools. If Peter couldn’t leave the situation, it became a game of what resources he could get, and he knew exactly how he could leverage the banishment and fall to get that. It was precisely what Loki would have wanted. Peter grinned beatifically. He knew exactly what he was going to do.

PS: I’m busy for the next couple weeks. After that… we’ll see.

------------

The Mayday hovered over the hammer site in much the way bricks don’t. Peter was continually impressed by the gravity manipulation so prevalent in alien tech, and the quiet hover without even an engine was one of his favorite features of the Mayday, since it allowed him to creep up on a secure SHIELD site in the middle of the night with unparalleled subtlety. They would hopefully never know he was there.

He knew he wanted to track Thor, since his confidence in everything happening the same way the second time around had been shaken. Hopefully knowing where all the players were would be helpful for that. JARVIS would probably be willing to let him access the location data on Tony’s suit if he had a good reason, and he planned to bug Natasha and Agent Barton right before the incident itself. He still wasn’t sure about Banner, and Rogers… he’d deal with that later. For now, he needed to bug Thor in a way that would guarantee an accurate location when the time came.

Unfortunately, that meant bugging the hammer. Fortunately, Peter was armed with a very stealthy cloaked ship and one of the best bugs money could buy. Well, he said buy, he really meant acquire in a clandestine manner from one of the ISA’s research labs. It amounted to the same, anyway.

When he’d arranged the ship perfectly right over the hammer, he pulled on the retro-reflective fabric he’d last used on his trip to Contraxia, and hopped out.

Peter had always wondered why SHIELD hadn’t just put the hammer in a box and shipped it somewhere more secure. The most he could get out of them in the stone was that ‘nobody could lift it’ plus some inside joke about worthiness. Loki had laughed at him when he’d asked, and said he ought to try, since he had enough ‘purity of purpose’, whatever that meant. Whatever their reasons, the hammer had to be pretty fucking heavy. (They could have used a machine, couldn’t they? Nevermind.) Peter had come prepared for that eventuality. He was already far stronger than any human being could be though nowhere near as strong as he’d been as an adult (actually teenager, but who was counting). If that didn’t work, he’d activate the tractor beam on the Mayday and hope nobody was looking.

As he approached the hammer, MAY arranged a small glitch in the surrounding cameras. Most of the defenses were focused outward, and there were very few people up and about, so Peter should be just fine. He glanced around furtively and grabbed the handle. “Okay,” he muttered to himself. “On three…”

On the count of three, Peter picked up the shockingly light hammer with such force that he nearly hit himself in the face with it. He didn’t have time to be angry or embarrassed about that though, because picking it up was accompanied by a horrible buzzing sensation like every bit of static electricity in the world, an odd glow, and what felt distinctly like the massive piece of magic that had sent him out of the soul stone. It was awful, and Peter quickly dropped it. “So that’s what they meant.” he muttered.

“It is likely SHIELD was too concerned about possible issues from energy fields to move the hammer without more research, and I believe that that amount of energy would have knocked out most baseline humans, as well as most machines.”

“Would you have any issues with it?” asked Peter.

“I wouldn’t want to check.” said MAY, “It might affect the cloaking mechanism.”

“And we wouldn’t want that.” said Peter. “Okay…”

Before he picked up the hammer again, he examined it closely to see if there was another place he could put the tracker. There wasn’t. The tracker was thin, but it would still cause a bump, so Thor would probably notice it if it was anywhere but the top where there was a similarly sized circle to disguise the trackers presence. Noticing that the circle on the head of the hammer had become a quarter of a millimeter thicker was much less likely than noticing a random lump. Peter sighed. “The things I do for this plan.” he muttered angrily. Then he braced himself for the feeling, and pushed the hammer over with one finger so it was lying on its side. The odd buzzing magic left his finger numb, and he shook it out before he continued.

Very carefully, Peter peeled off the plastic backing of the silvery tracker without touching what was underneath. Touching that kind of adhesive would be a very bad idea. Once that had been completed, he very carefully lined it up and stuck it to the hammer, swearing as he was flooded again with the awful magic feeling. “Quit it.” he told the hammer. “I’m just putting this on, and then putting you back. Really, I’m not buying what you’re selling.”

The hammer did not quit it. Actually, it intensified the magic. Peter swore again.

Once the tracker was on completely, Peter ran a short test to see if it worked. It was quantum linked, and should work despite any amount of interference, but he didn’t want to find out that it didn’t when he really needed it. That would suck. To his relief, it worked perfectly, and he stood to leave.

“Don’t forget to put the hammer back.” said MAY, obviously enjoying his discomfort at the idea. Peter held up a middle finger that she couldn’t see because of the retro reflective fabric. She must have sensed it somehow anyway, because her response was a buzz of amusement.

“I hate this.” said Peter. Then, as quickly as he could, he hoisted the hammer back into its original position. It made one last futile effort to flood him with energy, but Peter wasn’t there for that, and ignored it, leaving the hammer to do nothing but sit pitifully in its original position. He wasn’t really sure when he’d started proscribing emotions to it, but after what it had put him through it deserved a bit of disappointment.

Next he was headed to Asgard.

-----------

The trip to Asgard started with a twenty-three hour stakeout.

Peter had rigged a signal jammer with his seal of passage that should, in theory, allow him access to the bifrost, but he couldn’t actually ask the gate-man to start up a connection for him, so he had to wait for someone else. It was inconvenient, but it would do until the Grand Plan was complete.

The next opportunity that Peter had would be when someone visited Thor in his exile. He wasn’t sure who it was, or when they’d done it, but during the story about the events leading to his fall, Loki had indicated that both he and a set of Thor’s friends had, at some point, gone to Midgard--before the Destroyer. Peter assumed, at least he hoped, that the activity would be centered around the hammer site. He placed bets with MAY about exactly when and where. Then he settled in and waited, fingers itching to tinker with things (he really regretted the fact that he hadn’t retrieved MAY’s body from Tony yet, but he suspected Tony wanted to know how it worked first and he was a sucker for scientific curiosity)

Eventually, there was activity--though it wasn’t what he’d expected. Thor was approaching the Hammer site, and going through SHIELD’s security like a knife through hot butter. Peter winced as he saw a guard take a particularly hard hit. This would be when it happened then. Hopefully. Peter didn’t want to wait any more.

Thor was detained quickly, and the bifrost lit up soon after that, though Peter could only tell through his instruments. Loki, then. He’d intimated that he’d figured out a way to shunt most of the bifrost energies into a different dimension using magic for when he had to be sneaky (an ability mostly used to rescue Thor. When sneaking for himself, Loki tended to use the other smaller wormholes running out of Asgard.) Peter was glad he’d been on watch for it, and that Loki had told him what energies to watch out for.

This was especially nice, because it meant that Peter’s ship would be a lot more subtle going through. He thought his cloaking and unexpectedness was good enough to fool Heimdall’s casual gaze, but he didn’t think it would last long if the man was specifically looking for him. That wouldn’t end well at all.

“Okay MAY, you know the drill.” he said. “Pop over to Loki’s landing site, and get prepared, I doubt they’ll talk long.”

“Standing by.” said MAY in a tone that told Peter his micromanaging was not appreciated.

“Oh shut up.” said Peter.

Then Loki’s energy signature emerged from the pop-up facility, and MAY started up the energy shielding. Peter kept an eye on the numbers and smirked at Loki’s sloppiness. His Loki would take pains not to leave such an obvious energy signature. He was a lot more paranoid than this one was.

Right before activation, Loki dipped into the visible spectrum for a brief second, and Peter knew it was time. Travelling the bifrost while holding a spell (or even a ships cloaking or shields) required an insane amount of energy, and was only wise in emergencies. Or when you really really didn’t want to be seen. Peter had rigged up no less than four arc reactors for the occasion. Getting MAY’s body back was conditional on their return.

“Showtime.” said Peter, and the world dissolved into rainbow lights.

Somehow, Peter had expected the bifrost to be like any other jump. Go in, come out the other side. Simple. It wasn’t. For one thing, the Yggdrasil set of wormholes was the longest in the galaxy, so things took a bit longer. For another, he wasn’t going through a jump (even a long one) on his ships power. No, Peter (and the ship) had been translated into pure energy for the journey. If it wasn’t so unnerving, Peter would have been impressed. After all, teleportation was rare. So rare, in fact, that even the gilded population of Asgard used it sparingly. One trip on the bifrost cost as much in just energy as running a fleet of ships for a year. It was ridiculous, mostly useless, and everyone except the royal family and certain black ops missions got by with ships.

Peter rematerialized just outside of the gilded royal observatory, grateful to be physical again. Just as he was beginning to get his bearings, he accidentally looked at Asgard itself, and was forced to start all over on the bearings front. It was just so… Asgard.

Logically, Peter had known there were no planets at the center of the Yggdrasil wormhole system. Logically, Peter had known that Asgard was built on an asteroid anchored magically in another dimension so it didn’t even orbit its star, remaining right on top of the optimal jump point. That did not prepare him for the… solid gold pipe organ surrounded by Nordic-futuristic skyscrapers. Nothing could have.

----------

Just like with Xandar, Peter knew his first mission would have to be integration into society--well enough to pass muster. He’d also need to hide his ship, but that was a bit of a nonissue. He’d just wedge it into a crack in the asteroid somewhere in the vicinity of Asgard's port, and go from there. Nobody was going to stumble upon it, exactly, given that the port was on the underside of the asteroid, and gravity would be oriented the wrong way.

Once he’d parked, and crawled along the icy crags until he got somewhere there’d be a floor under him, Peter took a moment to orient himself. He was near the edge of the whole structure (upside-down buildings!) and had a ways to go through some rather unsavory looking spots to get to the grand concourse onto the good side of the asteroid. The whole concept made Peter a bit uncomfortable, especially given the blatant racism on display.

Just looking at the port, it was obvious what Asgard thought of other civilizations. It had grown on Asgard’s underside--out of sight out of mind, and was poorly policed except for the area where actual Asgardian citizens would be, and of course the edifice containing the Yggdrasil key, which was like the bifrost only without teleportation. The grand center of trade in one of the richest civilizations in the galaxy, and it looked like Contraxia. Not even the good parts of Contraxia either, but the places where people were so poor that there weren’t even whorehouses.

Of course, despite being the center of trade, not much trade happened here. Most people went straight from one of Yggdrasil's branches--like Midgard, straight to another one on the other side of the galaxy, and transferred their toll through one of the financial institutions that did trade with Asgard. Only those transporting things to and from Asgard itself ended up here, and those were mostly bulk resources, or luxuries on ‘small independent freighters’. Very few small independent freighters operated exclusively on the right side of the law, and the port reflected that.

After twelve minutes, Peter had decided he’d seen enough of the port. He also decided that he’d definitely be informing Loki that it needed to change. Soon. Now though, there was nothing to do, and Peter was needed on the flip-side of the asteroid.

It didn’t happen like he’d wanted it to, though. Instead, only a street away from the good part of town, Peter got mugged.

There were two of them. One of them was clearly from very far away--buglike, a foot long, and not remotely humanoid. The other looked young and Asgardian in both dress and manner, and Peter wondered what he was doing there. Then he punched Peter and it was immediately apparent. He didn’t hit nearly hard enough to be Asgardian, so probably a half breed. Given the general racism and lack of CPS prevalent on Asgard, being a half-breed had to suck. Didn’t mean Peter wasn’t going to fight back though.

“Just knock him out already.” buzzed the insectoid. “I thought you said you were good at that sort of thing.”

“Trying.” grunted the (half?)Asgardian in a rather light voice, ducking out from under Peter’s kick. The fight had quickly proceeded downwards and was starting to look more like a wrestling match.

“Well the guards are headed here, and you owe me half for the easy mark.”

Peter needed a moment to recover, then, which his opponent used to punch the bug against the wall. It fell, stunned, and on his next attack Peter crushed it. He didn’t need witnesses for this, and the bug was a waste of sentience anyway.

Then, the guards arrived, obviously having heard them from where they were posted to keep the riff raff out, and both Peter and his opponent froze for a second, trying to look as if they hadn’t just been fighting.

“What’s going on here?” asked the first guard. Upon seeing that both Peter and the mugger (who Peter could see now was a teenage boy) appeared to be Asgardian (Peter thanked MAY’s foresight once again for providing a vague approximation of medieval Norse clothing), the guard relaxed, looking a bit more confused than hostile.

Peter might resent the jingoistic racism, but he wasn’t above taking advantage of it. “That weird bug thing attacked us.” he said, pointing to the corpse, and trying to dredge up some childish fear.

The mugger caught on pretty quick. “I had to fight it.” he said, “To protect my little brother.”

The guard softened even more. “What are you two even doing out here?” he asked.

Peter put on his best puppy dog eyes--the ones guaranteed to melt Mr. Stark’s resolve in under five seconds. “I wanted to see an alien.” he pouted.

“Hmm.” said the guard. He tried to look intimidating. “What are your names.”

“Pétr Starkson” lied Peter promptly, already prepared just in case.

“And I’m Aldrif.” said his companion.

“I see.” said the guard. “I’ll escort you back to the city, but if I ever see or hear from you again there will be big trouble.

“Yessir.” said Peter.

“Don’t worry.” said his new sibling. “I didn’t want to sneak out in the first place, but Pétr is an idiot.”

Peter glared. “I am not.” he said.

‘Aldrif’ sniffed, and the guard laughed. “Next time listen to your sister.” he told Peter.

It was then that Peter realized that Aldrif was a girl. He’d been thrown off by the nearly seven foot frame, which now that he looked was pretty emaciated. Maybe Aldrif wasn’t a half-breed after all, just really really hungry.

Once they’d been conducted to the main market where Asgardians came for exotic goods, they mutually decided to ‘see’ their ‘parents’ just over there, honestly officer, and disappeared into the crowd.

“What the hell was that.” hissed Peter’s new companion.

“You’re the one who mugged me.” said Peter.

Aldrif rolled her eyes. “If you wear bright new clothes on the fucking underside, you can expect to get mugged.” she said.

“Well excuse me for having limited options.” said Peter. “It’s a miracle I managed to look vaguely Asgardian at all.”

“You’re not Asgardian?” asked Aldrif.

“Never been here in my life.” said Peter. He wasn’t sure why he was telling a street rat all of this, but it wasn’t like she could tell anybody. “Why are you still following me?” he asked.

“You’re interesting.” said Aldrif. “And I have nothing better to do.”

Peter glanced over at her, at the skinniness, at the lank hair that might be red under all the filth, and sighed. “Wanna break into the palace?” he asked.

“What? Why?” asked Aldrif.

“I need a shower.” said Peter.