In retrospect, the flash of fear he feels upon seeing Peter lying motionless and maskless on the concrete floor is not nearly strong enough. It should have taken him out at the knees, his entire world should have fallen away from him, crumbling and cracking under his feet ready to swallow him whole.
As it is, all Tony does is hurry over to Peter and shake his shoulder.
“Come on, kid, nap time’s over,” he bites out, glancing behind him where Steve and Nat are waiting at the door. Karen hasn’t alerted him to any problems, so he doesn’t even think to worry.
He shakes Peter again.
The others are looking over at him. Steve walks forward, his brows drawn low over his eyes as he kneels across from Tony. He glances up at Tony for the briefest second before hovering a hand over Peter’s mouth. Then he presses his fingers to Peter’s neck.
As Steve looks up and solemnly shakes his head, Tony, for the first time in his life, wishes he could say that he doesn’t understand. Wishes he could ask why Peter isn’t moving, why Steve is looking away from him with guilt and pain written all over his face. He wants to be one of those people that screams and fights and demands an explanation, demands that Steve check again. He wants to deny it so insistently, so stubbornly, so certainly that the universe has no choice but to listen.
But he knows. He knows.
He can feel it.
Tony falls heavily backward, sitting down hard.
Natasha is suddenly next to him, her hand on his arm.
In his nightmares, Tony has always found that the world ends when Peter dies. Tony watches him fall, blood and Tony’s name on his lips, and then the world stops spinning.
Tony sits and waits for everything to fall to ash around him.
And then he remembers that life is worse than his nightmares. Because Nat and Steve are still looking at him as he sits frozen, staring at Peter’s slack face. They’re expecting him to react, to do something, and eventually he’ll be expected to carry Peter’s body to the quinjet and take it to his aunt and bury him and keep living without Peter there knowing that it’s all his fault.
Please, he thinks. Please give me this one thing. I don’t want to do this anymore.
It’s his fault. There are certain undeniable, universal truths, and Tony has known from the moment he met Peter Parker that if anything happens to him, it would be Tony’s fault.
“Tony?” Nat murmurs and Tony sucks in a breath. He doesn’t look at her.
He knows Peter is beyond hearing him now, but, “Peter,” he whispers. “Peter. Kid.”
Tony reaches forward, his hand trembling slightly as his fingertips brush Peter’s hair.
Steve gently catches Tony’s wrist, but Tony jerks back, yanking his hand away. Steve’s face crumples in pain.
“Just...,” he trails off, not even sure what he’s going to say. When he speaks again, he hears his voice beak. “Just let me hold him. Please, I want to hold him.”
“Tony.” Natasha’s voice is steady, but her eyes are squeezed closed like she can’t watch.
He knows he shouldn't. He shouldn't have his last memory with Peter be cooling skin and stuff limbs, but that's his kid. His child laying limp and motionless on the floor and Tony feels some primal need, more instinctual than fear, more necessary than breathing, to cradle his son one last time.
Finally, Steve relents. “Ok. Ok. Just for a minute.”
Tony scoots forward. He suddenly isn’t quite sure how to touch Peter, where to put his hands. Normally he'd just hold out his arm and Peter would tuck himself into his side, curl into his space with zero regard to Tony's prickly façade and halfhearted protests. After a moment of ghosting his trembling fingers across Peter’s chest, he slides his arms under Peter’s shoulders and knees, carefully lifting him and settling him in the space between Tony’s crossed legs.
It is the semblance of tenderness—a perfect vignette of a father holding his child—until Peter’s head lolls off Tony’s shoulder at a sickening angle, his muscles unresisting and loose.
Steve looks away. Natasha covers her mouth with her hand like she is trying to hold in a scream.
Tony’s vision blurs as he looks down at Peter. He can't stop the flood of concern, of attentive worry. He makes a small shushing sound as he adjusts Peter so his head is nestled in the crook of his neck; like a parent calming an infant.
“Peter,” Tony whispers. He brushes Peter’s hair out of his eyes.
What else can he say? What would ever make up for the life that Tony has stolen from Peter, all of his potential, all the memories he will never make? How can Tony tell Peter that the rest of his life will be spent in a grief-laden haze of regret and longing?
A tear falls, landing on Peter’s chest.
The boy is horribly still against him. Tony pulls him closer as if trying to keep him warm.
“I-I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Tears are running steadily down Tony’s face, dripping unheeded off his chin. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t think he’ll ever care about anything ever again.
He finds Peter’s limp hand and delicately tucks it against his chest, covering it with his larger palm. “I’m sorry, Pete.”
It’s the nickname that does it. This is Peter. Tony’s Peter. Peter Parker, genius, superhero, who likes pickles on his sandwiches and snores in his sleep and hums the Star Wars theme under his breath without realizing it. Peter, who, until this moment, was going to be the Avengers’ future, SI’s future, Tony’s future.
In the next moment, Tony’s face screws up and he takes a ragged, gasping breath.
“I’m sorry,” he coughs out, burying his hand more firmly in Peter’s hair, tightening his hold. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I love you, I love you, I love you.
Tony’s shoulders are shaking, sobs tearing through his chest. He bows his head over Peter’s like he’s praying, like he’s begging.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Please, please, please.
Each breath aches, each repetition of his apology closer to a whimper.
He clutches Peter tight against his chest, presses his lips to Peter’s hairline.
“I’m sorry,” he sobs against Peter’s skin like a brand, a confession.
Finally, Steve can’t take it any longer. He puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder. It does nothing to ground him, nothing to tear his attention away from the child in his arms.
“Tony,” Steve says. His voice is even, but he’s crying too.
“No.” He doesn’t want to let Peter go. He doesn’t care that he’s going to grow cold, he doesn’t care that he’s just clutching a body right now, that everything that made Peter Peter is gone. He wants to stay here, where he can hold Peter just a little longer.
“Tony, we need to go. Come on, give him to me.” Steve’s voice is gentle. Another tear drops from Tony’s chin and lands on Peter’s suit, darkening the material where it fell.
Tony looks down at Peter. That one stubborn curl is sweeping across his forehead. Tony winds it loosely around his finger, like he used to when Peter was just waking up in the morning, when he would squint one eye open and see Tony next to him and instantly relax.
“I’ll carry him,” Tony whispers, tucking the curl back. He kisses Peter’s forehead. “That’s my job, huh, kiddo. I always carry you when you can’t walk.”
“Ok,” Steve says. “Ok.” He helps Tony stand, Peter still in his arms, and then adjusts his arm so it isn’t hanging limply behind him.
When Tony’s knees almost buckle, Steve holds him up.
He has held up buildings and nuclear bombs and whole entire countries on his back. Peter’s body is the heaviest thing he’s ever held.
Natasha goes in front, Steve behind. And Tony, in the middle, carries Peter to the quinjet.
When Clint sees their procession, he punches the wall and storms off to the pilot chair. Sam sags where he stands, his eyes instantly closing as if in pain. Tony ignores all of them.
As the ramp closes, a presence, invisible and inaudible, confused and concerned, slips on board.
Peter Parker watches as Tony carefully arranges his limbs on a cot.
“Mr. Stark,” he tries for the dozenth time. No one hears him.