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the world is not kind

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Aunt May dies on a cold piece of pavement, brown bag spilling out of her hands. The bread at the top tumbles out first, then the eggs – cracked, messy, wet.

Peter remembers exactly three things: screaming until his voice gave out, the feeling of Aunt May’s warm blood pumping out between his useless fingers, and the way the eggs looked, mixing with her blood on the sidewalk.

Aunt May dies on a cold piece of pavement in April not four blocks from their apartment, and a significant piece of Peter Parker dies with her.

 

***

 

“Remember Cedric,” May intoned, voice dropped low, in the gravelly pitch of her Dumbledore. Peter’s tears had been flowing freely since the beginning of the chapter. “Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy, remember what happened to a boy who was good, and kind, and brave, because he strayed across the path of Lord Voldemort. Remember Cedric Diggory.”

She paused, long enough to smile and reach over to swipe away some of Peter’s tears with her thumb. He was old enough to read the books on his own, now, but May always did the best voices. He was 12, but he pressed his cheek into May’s palm anyway – it wasn’t like she was going to make fun of him for it.

“How do you know what’s right?” Peter asked, suddenly.

If May was surprised, it didn’t show. She let her free thumb rest inside the book, saving their place, and her other hand moved from Peter’s cheek up into his hair, toying with wayward curls.

“You might not always,” May told him, as though it were a secret. She always said things like she was imparting the wisdom of the world; and to Peter, she was. “Sometimes, it’s not easy to see.”

“Then...how do you know?” Peter frowned, tear tracks drying on his face. Aunt May chuckled, leaning down to press a kiss to his temple.

“You don’t.” She said it simply, like that wasn’t the most moral grey Peter had ever encountered in his short life. “But Dumbledore is right. Remember Cedric. Remember the choices that he made, because he was good, and kind, and brave. Sounds like someone I know, doesn’t it?”

She tickled Peter and he laughed, the tears forgotten.

“M’not any of those things,” Peter managed, in between giggles, as May looked at him seriously over the too-thick rims of her glasses. “M’not Iron Man.”

“Yes you are, Peter. You’re all of those things and more. Well,” She smiled teasingly. “Maybe not Iron Man.”

Another bout of relentless tickling, until Peter was curled up defensively around his pillow. May dropped another kiss to his cheek. “You’re better than Iron Man.”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

They laughed, and May set aside the book. They’d finish it tomorrow, and move on to Order of the Phoenix (if Peter took Cedric like this…well, they’d probably better read the next one with a box of tissues on standby).

“I want you to remember something, Peter,” May smoothed his hair back as he turned back to her, pillow still clutched tight in his arms. “Because sometimes what’s right isn’t obvious. Sometimes, it’s not easy; it’s hard, and sometimes it will be the last thing on Earth you want to do.”

Peter stared at her, wide-eyed, as May imparted the wisdom of the universe (it wasn’t, it didn’t belong to the universe, it was hers and hers alone).

“The world is not kind,” She propped her chin in her hand, still looking at him over the rim of her glasses. “So you have to be.”

“You may not always know what’s right, but in your heart, you’ll always know what’s kind. So if you can’t figure it out, baby, go for what’s kind. Even if it may not be right. Nine times out of ten, being kind is better anyway.”

 

***

 

In another world, Aunt May is home when Tony Stark drops out of the clear blue sky to talk to the boy impressive enough to win a fake project grant. In this one, Ben is busy operating a crane, which leaves Peter to find a disgruntled billionaire camped outside his locked apartment door after school.

In another world, Tony Stark confronts Peter Parker in his bedroom. In this one, the conversation happens in the kitchen, and Peter’s reveal happens with an air horn instead of a well-placed poke to the attic door.

“Mr. Stark!” Peter squeaks from the ceiling, having jumped right the hell out of his skin. Despite everything – despite the bags under his eyes, or the way his arm has been throbbing ever since Bucky Barnes tried to put a bullet through his hand – Tony can’t stop laughing. Everything’s going to shit, but there’s a child on the ceiling having the gall to look indignant about it and Tony can’t. Stop. Laughing.

“I didn’t think that would work,” Tony admits, wiping the tears from his eyes as Peter drops back down, looking wary and more than a little chagrined. “Cut the crap, kid.”

“Yeah, you got me.” Peter’s sigh sounds way too old for his body – that sigh sounds existentially tired, like something he’d hear out of Bruce – and he doesn’t even try to deny it. “Can’t believe this. You know, I was having a really good day today Mr. Stark.”

“So what is it? Crime-fighting spider? Spiderling? Spider-boy?” Tony’s fingers drum against the table – as amusing as this is, half his brain is on the other side of the world, worried for his team. He knows he shouldn’t be doing this, and he wouldn’t be, if the situation weren’t as dire as it is.

“Spiderman.” Tony nearly cracks a smile at how begrudging Peter sounds, and the way the kid won’t meet his eyes. Aw, bless.

“Who else knows? Anybody?” Peter shakes his head, tucking his hands under his armpits. “Not even your…parental units?”

"My Uncle,” Peter levers him a look that was probably meant to be a little intimidating, but mostly came off panicked. “ - can’t know, and he’s not going to know.”

Tony raises his hands in surrender, though he does nothing to dislodge the smirk stretching across his lips. Peter sighs again and runs a hand through his hair, agitated. Tony supposes it isn’t nice to keep him panicking, if he was going to ask the kid for a favor – as amusing as it was.

“You’re in dire need of an upgrade. Systemic, top to bottom. Hundred-point restoration, that’s why I’m here.” If a frown touches the corners of Peter’s mouth, well, Tony will kindly overlook it in favor of not getting offended. He leans forward, bracing his forearms on his knees and ignoring the twinge in his arm as he studies Peter. “Why are you doing this? I gotta know, kid. What gets you out of bed and into your long-johns in the morning?”

“Because,” Peter wets his lips, looking like he wants to bolt, but he doesn’t, and Tony can’t say he isn’t just a little impressed. “Because I’ve been me my whole life and…I’ve had these powers for six months. I…read books, I build computers.”

Something that resembles a shadow Tony can’t quite make out passes over the kid’s face, and something in his voice gets a little stronger (Tony knows, from experience, that it usually happens when you’re trying your best not to cry).

“And yeah, I would love to play football. But I couldn’t then, so I shouldn’t now.” Tony finds himself nodding, and Peter looks down at his hands, having a conversation with himself that Tony’s all too familiar with.

“The world is not kind,” Peter says quietly, but firmly, and if there was any doubt that this squeaky fifteen-year-old is Spiderman, it’s erased as Tony watches him, awe slowly building in his chest. He could never have been that good-hearted at Peter’s age – hell, he wasn’t that good-hearted now. “The world is not kind, so we have to be.”

The world could use a little kindness, Tony thinks, even while his brain screams, The world’s not ready for you, kid, and it definitely doesn’t deserve you.

But the world doesn’t matter, because Tony’s family is in danger, and he doesn’t even feel a little guilty when he fabricates an internship conference and whisks Peter Parker off to Germany (that’s a lie: he feels immense guilt, every second of the day, but then again, that’s just his life).

He does know one thing, though: the kid is safer in his Stark-suit than he would be in sweats, and if that’s something Tony has to tell himself to sleep at night, well. What else can he do about it?

 

***

 

“It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.” He’s really trying his best to stay awake, but May’s voice is a steady tempo and his blankets are warm.

“Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.” May paused, brushing a hand over Peter’s cheek. “Baby, you awake?”

“Mmhm,” Peter mumbled, not at all convincingly, and May laughed, the gentle thump of the seventh volume hitting Peter’s bedside table.

“Uh huh. A likely story.” Peter groaned, cracking open his eyes, one hand reaching out to grab May’s hand as she started to get up off the bed.

“But I want to finish the chapter!” She smiled, leaning down to press a kiss to Peter’s forehead.

“Tomorrow, buddy. Can’t have you falling asleep on Professor Dumbledore.” Peter grumbled something like a half-hearted protest, snuggling tighter in his blankets. May stood up, stretching as she did, and stuck her feet back into her panda slippers (Peter had picked them out for her just the other day at the grocery store, and she dutifully wore them all over the house).

“May?” Peter asked, just as May had opened his door, prepared to turn out the light. She turned, smiling, waiting patiently while Peter collected his thoughts.

“What’s a mantle?” She leaned against the doorjamb, long brown hair spilling over her shoulder (Peter liked to brush her hair, sometimes, while she read to him. Sometimes, Ben would come in and find them both passed out, and he’d be the one to turn out the light.)

“A mantle is something important, that passes from one person to another. Like if Ben’s not home, and I cook dinner. I’ve taken up the mantle, see?” Peter scrunched his nose, obviously in response to the idea of May cooking, and May couldn’t help but laugh. “Hey! It’s not that bad.”

“Sure,” Peter said with a toothy grin, and May rolled her eyes playfully.

“Go to bed, kiddo. I’m making breakfast in the morning.” Peter groaned again, and May paused with her hand on the light. “Love you, Peter.”

Peter smiled, eyes warm and sleepy. “Love you too, May.”

May sucked in a big breath and exhaled, exaggeratedly blowing out the light as she turned it off. Peter devolved into giggles as she closed the door.

 

***

 

The first time Ben Parker meets Tony Stark, he punches him square in the face.

Tony bites back a curse and ignores the way his eyes water as he looks back up at the man. Ben’s not angry, which is part of the reason the punch took him by surprise. They’re lucky the door is closed, or Happy would have tackled him to the ground.

“Did that make you feel better?” Tony asks, the sarcasm in his tone biting, but Ben takes it as a serious question.

“No.” If Tony didn’t know any better, he’d say the man almost cracks a smile. It’s hard to tell, and Tony’s never met a man he can’t read, but Ben doesn’t look angry (seriously, why doesn’t he look angry?), even though that punch felt angry. “...Maybe a little.”

“You’re not bleeding,” Ben says simply, before Tony can say anything. He’s studying Tony with a…well he doesn’t know what to call that expression, because it certainly can’t be as calm as it looks. “Consider it my thanks.”

“What?” Tony mutters, but Ben doesn’t explain. Instead, he offers him a hand up off the ground, which Tony takes, suitably bewildered.

“Mr. Parker-” Tony starts, but Ben cuts him off, his hazel eyes vaguely amused. Tony sees the family resemblance to Peter in the shape of Ben’s jaw, his nose, the way his lips twist, but the rest of it is totally unfamiliar. It’s a little disconcerting.

“Call me Ben. I’m certainly going to call you Tony.” Tony blinks, mildly surprised at the rudeness – except, how can it be rude, when Ben seems so polite?

Yeah, he punched him in the face, but he helped him up afterwards, and he hadn’t made Tony bleed (Why is his life this weird? Why are those his standards?).

“Ben,” Tony begins again, and this time, Ben lets him finish. Lets him finish, in his own damn office. But he swallows his pride (it’s hard to have pride with a man like Ben Parker looking straight through you), because Tony knows he was wrong, and it was stupid to think his mistakes wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass like they are right now (they always do, it’s nothing new).

“Look, Peter is a great kid. I shouldn’t have taken him to that airport, especially not without your permission. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Ben says, and Tony almost does a double-take. He expected a lot more yelling, and maybe another swing, but Ben looks completely put together, just staring at him with those hazel eyes. It’s a bit unnerving, especially coming from a man who has every right to flip his proverbial lid.

“This is not an excuse,” Tony continues, because what the fuck else is he supposed to say, holding up a finger. “But Peter was doing this before I came into the picture. I’ve tried to keep him safe.”

“I know.” Ben tilts his head, thumbs in his belt loops, and there’s a whole lot about this conversation that Tony doesn’t think he’s ever going to understand. “But he’s not safe, is he?”

The silence stretches for a moment, and Tony can honestly say he’s a little speechless. Ben stands there in his work boots, dust from the construction site settling into Tony’s carpet, and he stares at him with eyes too old for a face that young (and he is young, younger than Tony, but there’s just something wise about him, which is not something Tony would ever have guessed from someone related to the human disaster that is Peter Parker).

“Why aren’t you mad?” Tony can’t help but ask, because if Ben isn’t going to do him the decency of giving him something to latch onto in this confusing conversation, he’s at least going to get some answers. Ben shrugs, and something about the move is so Peter that Tony just stares at him for a second.

“Never had the temperament for it. That was always my wife’s area. She’d holler, and I’d put the Band-Aids on.” Ben studies Tony for a second longer before he moves to sit in the chair across from Tony’s desk, and Tony takes it as his cue that Ben is done with formalities, circling to sit in the chair opposite.

He thinks he can understand now why Peter was so nervous about Ben finding out – Tony always thought yelling was the worst you could get, but Ben’s brand of calm is a thousand times worse. Ben’s gaze can see right through him, and it’s making him twitchy, because at least with the yelling you knew what the other person was thinking.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ben starts, and this time he’s the one holding up a hand to stop Tony. “I got my lick in. We’re square. I’m not going to hold onto it if you don’t.”

“You’re lucky my wife isn’t here,” The chuckle that escapes the man is fond, as he crosses his legs, work boots kicking up a small cloud of dust. “She’d tan your hide, Tony. But you’re lucky, you got me.”

Something tells him he isn’t very lucky at all, that the kid’s the one with all the luck here, having a guy like Ben Parker raising him.

(In another life, May Parker screams at Tony in his office for three hours straight, and Pepper doesn’t even make a halfway attempt at saving him. In another life, May Parker slaps him so hard his teeth rattle, and Ben isn’t there to offer him a hand up off the ground.

Tony still counts Peter as the lucky one. That kid is so, so loved, no matter how you slice it.)

“You shouldn’t have taken him. And I trust you’re not going to do it again.”

Ben doesn’t pause for Tony to confirm or deny, running a hand back through his hair the same way Peter does, without the typical nerves (or maybe there are nerves, there, that Tony can’t see. If they are there, Ben hides them far better than Peter). “He’s an incredible kid. Best damn kid in the whole world, and you’re gonna agree with me because it’s my kid and you’re not stupid.”

“Best damn kid in the whole world,” Tony repeats, and Ben does actually smile at him this time because he knows Tony means it, that he didn’t just say it for Ben’s benefit. How could he deny it? Spend five minutes in the kid’s orbit, you’d be blind not to see it. But the smile - it’s not fake, it’s definitely real, and Tony still can’t get over how damn calm Ben is.

“Glad we’re on the same page.” Ben folds his hands – hands that look like Tony’s hands, hands that have worked, every day of his life.

(In another world, May’s hands shake with rage, then the all-too-familiar fear, and Tony covers them with his own. It’s not much, but at least they can shake together.)

“But he ain’t safe,” This is the first time Ben’s looked troubled, his brow furrowing slightly, and he leans forward a little. “He’s not safe, people dropping buildings on him – “

“Someone dropped a building on him?” Tony interrupts with such ferocity that Ben blinks, and nods slowly. He rounds on F.R.I.D.A.Y., already tapping out the commands on his keyboard. “Pull up the Baby Monitor Fri, show me when the hell Parker had a building dropped on him!”

“He wasn’t in your suit, Tony.” Ben’s words stop him in his tracks, and the horrible realization crashes down on him, while Ben watches him cautiously from the sidelines. Clearly, revealing the depth of his worry for Peter had been more than Ben was anticipating. “He was in those old sweats he stole out of May’s side of the closet.”

“Oh.” Tony says, as the panic turns into something sickening in his stomach. Ben just leans back in his seat.

“Yeah, oh.” He lets the silence sit (Tony has never done well with silence, but Ben seems to command it, like he wants the time to think about what he’s saying. Tony owes him that much. In another world, May fills the silence with well-earned screeches, and Tony takes that punishment, too). “I know you were trying to do right by him. You were trying to teach him a lesson, one he’d earned but – ”

Ben interrupts himself with a laugh that doesn’t sound funny at all, shaking his head. “It’s one the kid’s already learned. And the rub of it is, as good as your intentions might have been, Tony, you’re not a parent.”

“I’m not,” Tony agrees immediately, and Ben scrubs a hand over his cheeks.

“You’re not. But I trust you won’t make the same mistakes twice.” Tony has no idea what he’s done to earn all this trust Ben is extending him, but he’s not going to look a gift-horse in the mouth.

“You came into Peter’s life, and I’m here to tell you, you’re not allowed to back out of it. Not when he needs you the most.” Ben’s smile is a little sad, but accepting. “He was doing this before you, and he’s already proven he’ll keep doing it after. Maybe neither of us can keep him safe, but you’re the one with a real shot at trying. I’m not asking, Tony.”

If Tony ever wondered where Peter got his bravery, it’s obvious here, with this blue-collar man who walked into Tony Stark’s office, punched him in the face, and made his demands politely in his homegrown Queens drawl.

Ben Parker is a one of a kind, but then again, Tony thinks that anyone related to Peter Parker must be.

“I’m trying.” Tony says honestly, and it’s not an excuse, which Ben acknowledges with a tip of his head.

“You weren’t before, but you are now.”

(In another world, May screams, “I don’t care if you’re the goddamn Pope, that is my KID, Stark.” Tony thinks it amounts to the same damn thing. The threat is implicit, and not at all empty.)

Ben stares at him for a long moment, and he must find whatever it is he’s looking for, because he leans back with a quick nod to himself. He uncrosses his legs and stands, offering Tony his hand.

“Thank you for your time, Tony. I expect I’ll be seeing you.” Tony takes Ben’s hand, returns his strong grip, and watches as the man makes for the door, just as calm as when he’d entered it.

“Oh,” Ben turns, as though he’d forgotten, smile on his lips, all the gravity of the previous discussion wiped from his expression. “Do me a favor, would you? Make Peter’s internship real.”

He expects Ben to say something about college credit, but instead he says, “Kid’s been getting shit for it at school.”

Tony nods, noting that the ache in the bridge of his nose has faded through their conversation, but when Ben grabs the handle of the door, Tony’s gripped suddenly by his need to know why. He’s never liked a puzzle he couldn’t figure out, but somehow he feels like it would be impossible not to like Ben.

“Why? Why are you trusting me?”

Ben turns to him, openly amused. Ben Parker, with the dust on his boots and the light in his eyes, looks at Tony like he can’t believe a genius like him asked a question with such an obvious answer.

“If I can’t trust Iron Man, then what the hell’s the point?”

(In another world, after hours of shouting, Tony would practically beg, “Trust me, May.”

I don’t.” She’d say stiffly, eyes red and angry, puffy behind her too-thick glasses. “If Ben were here, he would, so I wouldn’t have to.”

But he wouldn’t be there. So she’d have to.)

 

***

 

Aunt May died on a cold piece of pavement in April, not four blocks from their apartment.

She was buried exactly one week later in Calvary Cemetery next to the empty plots for Peter’s parents (there were no remains, when the collapse of the World Trade Center practically atomized them, but Ben held a burial anyway).

Aunt May was buried further away from their apartment than where she died, and Peter didn’t know how he felt about it.

He didn’t want to talk at the funeral, and Ben wasn’t going to make him, but Peter felt guilty. He felt like he’d regret it if he didn’t, so he dragged his too-heavy feet up the steps to the podium, and took the crumpled paper out of his pocket.

(He’s not going to look at the mahogany coffin, he’s not going to look, not gonna not gonna not –)

“I wasn’t May’s kid,” Peter started, and he’d already lost the battle against the tears, but if Ben wasn’t going to be embarrassed – and he wasn’t, sitting front row, tears streaming down his face unabashedly – then Peter wasn’t either. “I wasn’t May’s kid, but she treated me like I was. She was my mom.”

“She was funny, and smart, and she couldn’t cook to save her life.” The titters from the meager audience are quiet, but genuine. Peter felt like he could come apart at the seams, but he felt like he might make it, too. “May liked the Beatles, and dancing in the kitchen. She liked waffles at one in the morning, even when I burned them. Especially when I burned them.”

“She loved cats, even though she was so allergic,” Peter thought he saw Ben snort, and that’s something, right there, some type of victory. His hands shake, but his voice doesn’t, and that’s a type of victory too. “She liked to take me to the shelter sometimes, even if she almost sneezed her brains out.”

“May was kind,” Peter’s tears have stained the paper, but it wasn’t like he needed it anyway. “May was kind, even when the world wasn’t.”

“I love you, May.” Maybe, if Peter tried hard enough, he could hear her whisper it back to him. “And if you were here right now, I know exactly what you’d say.”

He paused, looking out at the crowd through watery eyes, and then down to the casket. There were flowers there, lining the whole thing. Marigolds, even though it wasn’t really the season yet. Orange, May’s favorite color.

Peter didn’t think he’d ever met anyone else who said orange was their favorite color.

But his gaze landed on the book, sitting neatly among the flowers. May hadn’t said in her will whether or not she wanted to be buried with anything. Ben was sending her off with her wedding ring, and the necklace he’d gotten her when they renewed their vows. Peter was sending her off with a copy of The Deathly Hallows.

“You’d tell me not to be sad,” Peter couldn’t help but smile, his page truly ruined now with water streaks, illegible; but he’d never needed it.

“That happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

 

***

 

The sun is bright, and the line of mole creatures they’re fighting seems to be endless. Peter calls them Weevils, and Tony doesn’t even pretend to understand enough nerd to know what he’s talking about.

Spiderman swings overhead, bowling down two more, and Tony sets off repulsor blasts left and right but somehow, through sheer numbers, it feels like the moles are gaining on them.

“Are they going to come up with a giant drill?” Peter asks, chattering over the line in a way that Tony knows he’s stressed. He allows it, tries not to get a headache, and watches Rhodey’s progress in a corner of his display while he mows down another line of these things (Rhodey’s not going to get there fast enough, Tony just knows it. It’s him and the kid and fuck-all else, because Rogers took to the wind and now mole people are going to be the death of him).

“A what?” Tony says, not that the kid really needs anyone to talk back to him (Peter is perfectly capable of filling the silence himself; he didn’t get it from Ben, but Tony can make an educated guess).

“Did you never see The Incredibles?” Peter says, and the judgment in his tone makes Tony snort, even though the situation is far from funny.

“No, can’t say that I have,” Tony spins around, picking off another couple of – fuck it, he’ll call them Weevils, Peter wins this round even if Tony will never admit it on pain of death – before they can jump the kid.

“Mr. Stark! There are like these things that come out of the sewers with this big drill and they’re all like, ‘we are the underminers’ – whoops.”

Tony’s heart sinks like a stone at Peter’s ‘whoops’, because only this fucking kid would say whoops when he’s in mortal danger. He sees Peter miss the web shot because he’s ducking around another Weevil, sees the kid go flailing, sees him smack face first into a building and go plummeting to the sidewalk.

And there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. He’s too far, and there are too many of these fucking things and Peter isn’t moving

Except he is, with a groan, shifting to get a hand under himself, and Tony doesn’t want to look but Peter’s rolling his mask up over his nose, spitting out blood. Great.

“Kid, you good?” Tony asks, and if his voice shakes as he lets out the breath he didn’t quite realize he was holding in, Peter blessedly doesn’t mention it. He gets to his feet while Tony cuts a path to him, making sure none of the damn things can touch him. Peter offers him a weak thumbs up, one hand on his side as he straightens up, and Tony lands next to him, ignoring the way his heart constricts at the sight of blood on Peter’s mouth.

Rhodey’s not going to get here in time. There are too many of them, and the rest of the Avengers are gone. Spiderman’s not even an Avenger, and he’s here. He’s here, and Steve’s not, and if Tony gets taken down by mole people he’s never going to hear the end of it, even in the afterlife.

“Mr. Stark, I think I’m kinda done with this,” Peter says, his jaw tight, and Tony blinks. If the kid is saying he’s done, then he really is fed up. Tony doesn’t think he’s ever seen Peter fed up. He’s not sure he knew it was possible.

“Alright,” Tony says, his voice sounding more level than he feels, as the red enemy trackers pop up on his display, highlighting all of the approaching Weevils. “What’s your play?”

He expects the kid to be just as lost as he is. He expects a movie reference, maybe, something that might spark an idea with Tony if they’re lucky, something obvious that Tony overlooked (the kid is smart, not as smart as Tony, but he doesn’t have to be).

What he doesn’t expect is for Peter to take a step forward and shout, “Hey!”

The Weevils don’t stop advancing, so Peter stands his ground, puts his hands on his hips, and shouts again. “HEY!”

That gets their attention. They pause in their advance, sniffing the air and making strange gurgling noises. If Peter’s perturbed, it’s not showing. Every bone in Tony’s body is screaming at him to grab the kid, to get him behind the line of fire and shoot down everything that moves, but Peter got them to pause.

Tony’s going to have to let it play out.

“Go home.” Peter orders, like they’ve been playing schoolyard basketball and their moms are going to call them for dinner, and it’s so ludicrous that Tony wants to laugh. The Weevils stare at them, and don’t move. “I said, go home!”

“Kid,” Tony mutters, extending one arm, ready to pull Peter back, but the kid stops him, holding one arm out behind him to signal Tony. He looks out, uncertainly over the frozen horde of Weevil creatures and –

They start retreating. Tony can’t believe his goddamn eyes, but the Weevils are backing up, slipping down into the sewers. Is this real? Did Tony die a Weevil-related death already, or is this actually fucking happening?

“Kid,” Tony says again, his tongue feeling like sandpaper with how dumb he’s been struck, and he flips the faceplate up to stare at Peter in astonishment. Peter turns to him, the line of his shoulders telling Tony he’s totally expecting a lecture, the set of his mouth something sheepish (it’s not apologetic, but for all the reasons Peter says sorry, Spiderman normally isn’t one of them).

“What the hell? How did you know that was going to work?”

“I didn’t,” Peter admits, and if he weren’t already bleeding Tony would throttle him. Peter can’t help but smile, and it looks odd, on the half of his face that Tony can see – fiercely happy, but fiercely sad, too, and Tony’s not quite sure what it means. “But, you know, being Spiderman, you sort of start thinking anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.”

“It’s a good thing you’re on our side, kid,” Tony sighs, resting a gauntlet on Peter’s shoulder. “Cause, Jesus Christ.”

“Language,” Peter taunts, because he can, and Tony grabs him and flies off to medical, ignoring Peter’s yelp of surprise, because he can.

 

***

 

May’s grave was cold, the grass just beginning to poke back through the earth where it had been churned up when she was laid to rest.

May’s grave was cold, and Peter didn’t think he’d ever been able to associate anything cold with May before.

The fresh marigolds he brought mingled with the old ones, and Peter sat there, in the dirt, and stared at a cold grave.

He’d visited every day after school, because Ben had to work and Peter hadn’t really felt like going to any of his clubs, recently, and if he wasn’t going to clubs, the other option was to sit at home, in the empty apartment. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that, even a month after May’s death.

He knew that he would be eventually – that time healed all wounds, even if we didn’t want it to. The grass was growing over the churned up dirt, even if it felt like nothing should grow there, nothing at all.

“I got a B on my Spanish test,” Peter said aloud. The first time he’d talked to her, he’d felt silly, but there was no one around to hear him. Besides, he knew she’d want to know. “But I aced the pop quiz in Gov class. Even got the bonus points, for naming the, uh, 13th president? Millard Fillmore but you – knew that.”

Peter remembered the day he’d been frustrated, trying to cram for Academic Decathlon, when he couldn’t remember all the stupid presidents. May had pulled out her computer, and they’d learned the Presidents song, singing it to each other until he had it down pat. They’d annoyed Ben with it for weeks until he’d started singing Yakko’s Nations of the World right back, and they’d come to a stalemate.

“Ned’s good. He wants to build the Starfleet Command vessel this weekend.” Peter pressed his hands down into the dirt, willing them not to shake. “We’ve run out of Star Wars Legos, so now we have to go for Star Trek. Shocking, I know. I think he’s trying to distract me. It’s…not working, but it’s nice, you know, that he tries?”

“I miss you.” Peter mumbled, voice thick, and he ducked his head as the words Mother, Wife, & Friend blurred in and out of his vision. “I miss you so much, May. Sometimes...it feels like I can’t breathe.”

He slumped down, letting gravity take its hold, and buried his face in the grass, with the marigolds and the dirt and it wasn’t enough. It was cold and uncomfortable, and it wasn’t May’s arms, it wasn’t the tightest hug in the whole wide world that she didn’t let go of until Peter cried Uncle (and Uncle Ben said, “Yes?”, because the two of them were partners in crime and he was totally waiting for Peter to give, and he piled on top of them).

“I’m Spiderman,” Peter whispered into the dirt, eyes stinging. It wasn’t enough, it never could be, but it’s all he has.

 

***

 

Peter’s injured, because what the fuck else is new (if Tony knew how much heartburn this kid was going to cause, would he still have taken him to Germany?), but this time it’s Bad. His heart stopped twice on the table, and Cho is insistent that if Peter didn’t have advanced healing, he wouldn’t be making it out alive.

Somehow, it doesn’t make Tony feel any better, but she gets her message across. Don’t ever let this happen again.

Well, shit, it wasn’t meant to happen in the first place.

Tony broods over the situation at Peter’s bedside – the kid is out like a goddamn light, hopped up on whatever super strength painkillers they’ve concocted – and Ben settles in the chair next to him with a loud exhale. He presses a cup into Tony’s hand without asking (Tony doesn’t think Ben has ever asked him permission for anything, why start now?), and it smells like coffee, so Tony takes a sip even though he doesn’t really want to.

“You should stop,” Ben says conversationally, wearing the same work boots he was wearing the last time Tony saw him (the same boots he wears every time). Ben’s eyes are glued to Peter’s face, watching the slow rise and fall of the kid’s chest.

“Stop what?” Tony asks, making a distinct effort not to grasp the coffee cup too tightly.

“Pretending like every scrap this boy gets into is your fault.” Tony can’t help but start at that, and despite his best efforts, the coffee ends up stinging his hand anyway as it sloshes out of the cup. Ben turns his gaze to him, finally, and Tony really has no goddamn idea how Ben can manage to hold it together the way he does.

(He didn’t, before. Ben had run down the hall, and the look on his face when he saw his kid open on an operating table was that of a man on fire. Somehow, though, he’s since calmed, even though Tony still feels like his flesh is singed.)

“Kids find trouble. Peter’s old enough to take the blame on this one.” Tony can’t help the mirthless laugh, the incredulity hitting him as he processes what Ben’s said. Ben, for his part, just sips his coffee.

“I think four bullets to the chest counts as a little more than trouble.” Ben’s gaze doesn’t waver, and Tony wonders if the man has ever been shaken in his life (he knows he has, knows there’s a plot in the Calvary Cemetery just for the Parker family that Ben’s been filling up for years now, knows that he must wonder whether it’ll be him or Peter who will be the one to fill the final spot).

“It’s not your fault,” Ben maintains evenly, draining his cup. “If anything, blame me.”

You? ” Tony frowns, and Ben nods, looking back at Peter, the gentle beep beep of his heart monitor.

“Yes. I’m the one who raised him to be the kind of person who stands in front of four bullets. Well,” Ben sighs, propping his chin in his hand. “Technically that would be May, but I don’t mind taking her heat.”

Tony lets the silence linger, because he knows that Ben’s a man who prefers his silence, who doesn’t mind that Tony doesn’t know what to say when he casually brings up his dead wife. Tony doesn’t know May Parker, but he knows enough from the way Ben talks about her, and the way Peter doesn’t.

(There is no world in which Tony truly knows Ben Parker. But he knows how loved Ben is, and that’s enough to know the sort of man he was.)

He knows the kid blames himself for May’s death, the way Tony will blame himself for Peter’s if, God forbid, that ever happens. He knows that Ben blames neither of them, for anything, and he knows that neither Peter nor himself believe him.

(In another world, May doesn’t blame them, either. She yells and she worries, because Ben isn’t there to translate her frenetic energy into something easier to understand, but she doesn’t blame either of them.)

“I hate seeing him lie there, like this.” Ben admits, and Tony watches another breath pass from Peter’s lips, nasal cannula fogging up. “But there’s no stopping that kid. You do the best you can – if you don’t, that’s when it’s on you.”

“That’s all anyone can ever ask of you.” Ben’s hand comes down on Tony’s shoulder, warm, strong. Tony doesn’t know how old Ben is, but it doesn’t matter because Tony thinks Ben is wiser than he’ll ever be. “That’s all I’ve ever asked of you. Don’t go asking yourself for more than I did, that’s just rude.”

Tony coughs up a laugh, because if he doesn’t, the wetness in his eyes will overflow. Ben leaves his hand there a moment, in solidarity, before his chair scrapes against the linoleum. He gets up, and returns with a paper towel, to clean up the coffee Tony’s spilt.

(Tony thinks he understands. May is the fire, but Ben is the protector – Ben is the hand on the back of the bicycle, making sure you didn’t fall. Ben is the grounding force – Ben is dusty work boots and a steady nine to five, and May was the light in his life, the one who painted the kitchen walls yellow and made a little boy who lost both his parents laugh for the first time in over a week. May is the bedtime storyteller, but Ben is the one who gets sent in to check for monsters under the bed. They’re a team, they’re partners, and they’re unstoppable.

In another world, Peter doesn’t get his driver’s license until he’s nineteen, and Tony is enlisted to help because May freaking out makes Peter freak out – but in this one, Peter gets his license at seventeen, just shows up in the lab one day with a great big grin, and shows off the plastic card with a flourish.

In neither world is Tony ever looking to replace either of them, but in one world, he has to be the one to pull May back down to Earth and promise her that everything will be fine and in the other, he has to be the one to take Peter out for the biggest ice cream sundae on the planet to celebrate, because Ben is operating a crane, trying to make enough for rent.

There is no world where May and Ben are together, and maybe that’s the real tragedy here.)

 

***

 

Peter wakes up four hours later, and Ben’s smile is bright enough to light up the whole room. It’s only a few hours after that, when Ben’s propped up in the corner, snoring with a magazine on his chest and Peter’s managed to keep enough food down to kick start his healing, that Tony confronts Peter.

Whether or not what happened was Tony’s fault – four bullets to the chest, had to restart his heart twice, lost nearly half the blood in his body, could have nicked an artery – either way, it doesn’t matter, because if there’s one thing Ben’s right about, it’s that this is a two-way street, and Peter’s the one who flung himself in front of four goddamn bullets.

Tony knows this is the reason Ben didn’t bodily throw him out of Peter’s life – because this is the conversation Ben can’t have with Peter, from the ground. Tony’s not sure when exactly he was knighted a co-parent to Peter Parker, but this is his responsibility. This is him, pulling his weight.

“Pete, we need to talk,” Tony starts, and Peter at least has the decency to look guilty. It’s not apologetic, but Tony figures he’ll take what he can get.

“We’re talking right now. See? You and me, talking.”

Peter’s normal gesticulations are weak and fluttery, considering he can’t move very far from his current position. Tony stares him down, unimpressed, and Peter huffs a sigh. There’s a wild smile that flashes across his face – quickly, because this is serious and he knows it – but goddamn if Peter Parker isn’t a stinker.

“You’re funny,” Tony tells him, in a tone that makes Peter wince. “Four bullets to the chest funny, Parker.”

“I’m sorry,” Tony raises an eyebrow, unable to help himself, and Peter picks at a loose thread on his sheets.

“For?”

“For?” Peter repeats, confused, and the furrow in his brow matches Ben’s. Tony wonders if he’ll grow up to be the same sort of man Ben is, whatever that truly means.

(If he lives that long, a not-so-helpful corner of Tony’s brain provides.)

“I’m sorry for worrying you.”

“You’re not sorry for jumping in front of the bullets?”

Peter looks at him like Tony just told him Empire Strikes Back was the worst Star Wars movie, and Tony wants to laugh, wants to laugh so hard he pukes. This kid is going to be the death of him, he just knows it. And, of course, Peter continues to open his mouth.

“Of course not!” Of course not, Peter says, and Tony doesn’t know why it still manages to surprise him, how little regard the kid has for his own life. The anger that rises in him is unlike anything he’s ever experienced (it’s not anger, it’s fear, but how can you direct your fear at another person? In another world, May does the yelling for him.)

“What the hell do you mean, ‘of course not’? You should be! Jesus, kid, you took four bullets for what?” Peter opens his mouth to respond, but it’s a rhetorical question, and Tony throws his hands up, barreling forward. “A goddamn drug dealer, who would’ve pumped two more in your back if he could have!”

“It –” Peter hesitates, like he knows what he’s about to say is going to make this worse, but he’s going to say it anyway. Tony has never felt as exasperated and tired as he does right now. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It doesn’t matter?” Tony’s voice climbs an octave, and he’s pretty sure the vein in his head is throbbing, but Peter stares him down with wide, brown eyes. He looks worried, he looks guilty, but above all, he looks firm.

“Every human life is worth the same,” Peter says, and Tony’s never met May but he sees her fire living on in Peter. He wonders what it’s like for Ben, to see his wife so clearly alive in their son (if Tony can see her, there’s no way Ben can’t). “And worth saving.”

“The hell it is.” Tony’s teeth are grit, but he knows as he stares back at Peter (the kid is defiant, strong, in pain, scared to death but holding his ground anyway) that there’s no changing this kid’s mind. Ben was right (when wasn’t he? Tony thought desperately), and he knew there was no saving Peter from himself, but he’d asked Tony to try anyway.

“Where I come from, yeah, it is.” Peter says patiently, as if that makes any of it okay, and Tony feels like his skin is too tight, like he’s fit to burst.

“Listen, kid,” Tony wants to sound righteously angry, but he knows he just sounds panicked. Peter’s eyes soften and he hates it, he hates that this kid is so goddamn good, and kind, because the world is not and Peter’s decided it’s his mission to make up for it. “Maybe you’re right, maybe we are all equal but not – not to me, and not to your old man over there.”

Peter’s eyes dart to Ben, who’s still snoring (how the hell had he slept through the yelling?), and the guilt in Peter’s eyes intensifies more than Tony thought it could. Tony presses the point home while he can, resting a hand on Peter’s arm, careful not to touch the IV. “Not to us, okay kid? Don’t make me try to figure out how to live without you, cause I’m not going to do it. I refuse. It’s impossible, like dividing by zero.”

“I don’t believe in no-win scenarios,” Tony wants to laugh, but he doesn’t, because Peter’s expression pinches and Peter’s eyes are watery and God dammit, his kid was just shot.

(He thinks of Steve, when they first met. He thinks of the Mind Stone, sowing discord. He thinks of his glib response, “I think I would just cut the wire.”

It seems like ages ago. He’d cut every wire for this kid, laid out on this hospital bed.)

Tony squeezes Peter’s arm, and lets his free hand come up to cup the kid’s head, leaning forward to give him as tight a hug as he dares with Peter’s condition.

Peter cries into Tony’s shirt, and Tony lets him. He wonders if this is what being a parent is supposed to feel like.

(It’s awful, but so damn wonderful at the same time.)

When Peter’s finally settled, dozing quietly as the tear tracks dry on his face, Tony feels a warm hand on his shoulder.

“You tried,” Ben murmurs, because of course he wasn’t really sleeping, and Tony nods, staring down at his hands. “May really did a number with that kid. Never been more proud and infuriated in my whole life.”

Tony’s smile is thin and it’s not enough, but it’s there, he’s trying, and he reaches up to squeeze Ben’s hand with his own. Tony’s never had a brother, but it’s something like family, the two of them trying to do right by this wonderful, wonderful kid.

 

***

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came out in November. The grass had grown over May’s grave, and the frost that preceded the bitter New York winter coated the ground in crunchy ice crystals. Peter kept bringing marigolds, kept talking to May, and kept wishing it was enough.

He went out at night, in sweats he’d bastardized from May’s side of the wardrobe, and tried to be kind. He caught a car with his bare hands, but he helped a lost little girl find her mom, too, and maybe that was better.

Fantastic Beasts came out, and Peter watched it on opening night. He cried the whole way through, and the following day, Ned took to him to see it again. The second time, he only cried for the first half.

It wasn’t enough, but it was a start.

Three days later, Peter came home and found Tony Stark – genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, Tony Stark – on his doorstep.

 

***

 

Tony makes it back to Earth. Peter doesn’t.

Steve is the first one to the spacecraft, not even winded from the sprint across the yard. Tony is weak, starved and racked with illness, but it’s not Steve’s super-serumed size that makes him feel smaller than he ever has before.

“I couldn’t stop him,” He’s not talking to Steve so much as at him, and he’s seconds away from a goddamn breakdown. Bruce was right – it didn’t matter who was talking to who, because at the end of the day, Steve couldn’t hurt him even one-tenth of the hurt he was feeling right now, with the Peter-shaped hole punched right through his heart.

(There is no arc reactor to save him from this shrapnel.)

“I lost the kid.” He says it as if it’s not obvious, from the way him and Nebula are the only ones who’ve emerged, and then Steve says something but Tony’s not paying attention, he’s got his arms full with Pepper – or her with him, because he’s so damn weak he can’t help but sag against her.

If Steve knows what he means or doesn’t, it doesn’t matter. Tony can see Ben Parker over Pepper’s shoulder, Rhodey’s hand resting firmly on the man’s arm. Ben Parker has always been the rock, but it looks like he might float away at any second. If Tony thought Peter disintegrating in his arms was bad – so bad, so very bad, the pain of it takes his breath away like a hot knife – this is an incredibly close runner up.

Ben’s whole body slumps, like a marionette whose strings have been cut, and his knees hit the ground. It feels like an earthquake but – oh, maybe that’s Tony shaking, while Pepper desperately tries to hold him together.

He’s never seen Ben mad, in the two short years he’s had the distinctly confusing pleasure of knowing him. He’s never seen him raise his voice with Peter, he’s never seen him raise his voice with Tony, even when they’ve both definitely deserved it.

Tony’s seen Ben cry, because for all his calm, collectedness, for all his blue-collar, dusty work boots, punch-a-billionaire-in-the-face attitude, he’s not an overly macho man. He’s strong, but he’s tender, the type of dad Tony’s always wondered if he could be, given the chance.

But Tony has never seen Ben devastated until this moment, and goddamn, if Tony feels like this, he can’t even imagine living the pain on that man’s face.

Rhodey quickly bends down, talking to Ben too quietly for Tony to make out, and Ben buries his face in the dirt, hands twisting in the grass. Tony already saw it, though: the agony of a parent losing their child, the silent scream on Ben’s face.

It’s the worst sound he’s never heard, but it echoes in his ears anyway.

(Maybe there is a world where May and Ben are together, but maybe there’s no Peter, there. And it’s no contest, really, because a world without Peter is no world at all.)

 

***

 

“Mister Stark.”

No.

“Mister Stark, I don’t – I don’t feel so good.”

No.

Tony turned, struck with horror. Not the kid. Please, God, not the fucking kid.

Of course, it was the kid. Tony couldn’t even remember a time when it was anything else.

Peter’s fear reflected his own, as the kid staggered forward a step. There was a blue woman off to the side, watching them with an unreadable expression, but Tony only had eyes for the seventeen-year-old who was beginning to get a little fuzzy at the edges. No. No.

“You’re alright,” Tony said instinctually, but they both knew it was a lie. Peter collapsed in his arms, his super strength nearly crushing with the full force of his terror behind it, and Tony grabbed him just as tightly.

It wasn’t enough.

“I don’t want to go,” Peter was crying, and Tony buried a hand in his hair, willing him not to go. He wanted to say, “Then don’t” or, “Don’t worry”, or literally any-fucking-thing, but he couldn’t. Peter was too raw, shaking with primal panic, and all of Tony’s words died in his throat.

He’s Tony Fucking Stark, and he couldn’t even help Peter die peacefully, let alone stop it in the first place.

“I’m sorry,” Peter whispered, looking at him with that awful fucking look of his, and Tony wanted to say, “For?”

But Peter was already gone, crumbled to ash, carried away on the wind.

(There is no world where Peter Parker survives.)

 

***

 

“It’s been twenty-three days since Thanos came to Earth. World governments are in pieces. The parts that are still working are trying to take a census...”

They lost.

It’s been twenty-three days since he last saw Peter’s face, and suddenly there he is, staring back at Tony through the hologram, among the list of casualties. It hurts just as much as it did before, but the rage clawing at his insides is new, and Tony embraces it with relish because God dammit, at least it’s something to distract from the gut-wrenching grief.

What the hell kind of photo is that? Where did they get that? It looks like a bad yearbook photo or hell, maybe it’s his passport photo. Peter’s not even smiling – when the fuck was that kid not smiling?

It’s so simple, and it very much does not matter, except that it does, because that’s his kid and he should be smiling.

(Tony’s blood wants to boil, and he lets it. Ben Parker isn’t in the room to stop him.)

His responses are biting, even though he’s affecting his usual light jokes (Build-A-Bear), but Rhodey gives him a look that he ignores. His best friend knows he’s an eggshell and he sees the first crack, but because Rhodey is the best friend in the universe, he doesn’t warn the others.

(Maybe he knows Tony needs to crack.)

“-and we got nothing.” Tony zones back in on Steve, noting that the man’s attention has been turned to him. “Tony, you fought him.”

Peter’s face isn’t on the hologram anymore, but damn if it isn’t etched behind Tony’s eyelids.

“Who told you that? I didn’t fight him.” Tony shakes his head, and the laugh that bubbles up in his throat feels like it could tear him in half. He doesn’t let it out, because he’s not done yet, and as soon as he does he knows it’ll be over. But he’s not fucking done yet.

“No, he wiped my face with a planet while the Bleecker Street Magician gave away the stone. That’s what happened. There was no fight.”

Steve’s eyes are full of pity that Tony doesn’t want, with a hard, desperation behind them that he does want. He wants to fight, he wants to scream, but most of all he wants to forget the way Peter looked when he died.

(He doesn’t mean that. He wants to remember every second with that kid, and it kills him that he can’t.)

“Did he give you any clues, any coordinates, anything?”

“Pfft,” Tony waves Steve off, lets the anger grow, ignores the look in Rhodey’s eyes, and plows forward. “I saw this coming a few years back. I had a vision. I didn’t wanna believe it. Thought I was dreaming.”

The vision. God, Wanda showed him the truth, right there, and even she hadn’t believed him. She’d seen it too, but she’d thought it was all in his head. How wrong they all were, and him most of all because he’d thought that was as bad as it got. But, no, it was worse, because the universe gave him a kid who wanted most of all to be kind, and ripped him away, proved the kid right in the worst of ways.

It didn’t even leave Tony a body to bring home.

(“The world is not kind,” Tony didn’t know it then, sitting in the Parker’s kitchen, Peter’s footprints on the ceiling, where those words came from. Peter’s never explicitly told him, but it’s not rocket science.

The boy’s hands clenched with something like determination, and Tony didn’t know it then but he thinks Peter has more strength of will in that moment than Tony’s ever had in his whole life. “The world is not kind, so we have to be.” )

“Tony, I’m gonna need you to focus.”

Rhodey inhales, like he knows Steve’s just stepped on the landmine, even before Tony fully registers it. His mouth is open and he’s spitting words at Steve, but if they hurt him, well, shit, they hurt Tony twice as much. It says something that he doesn’t even care anymore.

“And I needed you. As in past tense. That trumps what you need. It’s too late, buddy. Sorry. You know what I need?” He’s pushing himself to his feet, scattering random shit across the table, and he doesn’t fucking care at all. He doesn’t have any strength left in him, but he’s not done yet.

(Peter once lifted ten tons of concrete, in nothing more than an old, messily-sewn-together pair of his Aunt’s sweats. Tony’s current body weight is insanely, dangerously low, at 106 pounds, but it feels just as heavy when he lifts himself out of his chair.)

“I need to shave. And I believe I remember telling you, Cap.” Rhodey is in front of him now, but if he’s trying to hold him back, it’s not fucking working. Rhodey’s hands flutter around him uselessly, until he settles on waiting to catch Tony, should he fall. “That what we needed was a suit of armor around the world! Remember that? Whether it impacted our precious freedom or not – that’s what we needed!”

Steve stares at him, with those baby blue eyes, and Tony radiates hostility, but it hasn’t fucking worked yet, hasn’t unlocked the desperation he can see right there, and God dammit if he isn’t going to get it out of him. Rogers owes him that much.

“Well that didn’t work out, did it?”

“I said, we’ll lose. You said, then we’ll do that together too. And guess what, Cap? We lost. You weren’t there.” Rhodey sees it coming a mile away, tries gently to pull Tony back to his seat, but what little strength he has, Tony uses to rip himself out of his best friend’s grip. “But that’s what we do, right? Our best work, after the fact? We’re the Avengers, we’re the Avengers. Not the Prevengers, right?”

He’s a wild animal, and he doesn’t have much left in him but Tony is not done yet, he’s not. He’s going to dig that nugget out from behind Steve’s eyes and he’s not going to feel any better, but he’s going to make Steve understand, at least.

Tony babbles, and pushes Rhodey to the side, points at Carol, who studies him with an unfamiliar expression – she doesn’t know him, doesn’t know him at all, but he likes her instantly, likes the barely concealed fire in the set of her mouth.

(In this world, he’s never known May Parker, but he imagines her mouth would look something like that, too.)

“Bunch of tired old mules!” Tony declares, and the room is dead fucking silent (not as silent as Titan, not as silent as Peter’s quiet whimpers fading into nothing, leaving Tony with a blue robot woman light-years away from anything resembling home).

He jabs his finger at Steve, and as much as he’s thought about saying these words, the past two years, they feel empty. They don’t matter, because what’s done is done but Steve is going to understand him, God fucking help him. “I got nothing for you, Cap! I got no coordinates, no clues, no plan, no options. Zero. Zip. Nada. No trust.”

Liar,” The last word comes out as a snarl, and Tony finally, finally sees something flicker behind those cold blue eyes, and maybe they never understood each other. Maybe they’ve been on different wavelengths this whole fucking time, him and Steve, all six years they’ve known each other, but they’re finally aligning and, ah. There it is. He dug it out of the good Captain, finally.

But he dug it out of himself, too, because he knows the wild, feral, desperate, agonizing grief is showing on his face.

(“I think I would just cut the wire.

But there is no wire left to cut. Steve couldn’t be bothered to hand him the scissors – or maybe Tony never really told him where the scissors were. They’ve been missing each other by inches, and though they’ve got it now, it’s too late.)

Tony rips the nanotech arc reactor from his chest and it crunches in his hand. He shoves it at Steve, presses it into his hands, drives his point home.

“Here, take this. You find him, you put that on. You hide.”

And then Tony collapses, lets the darkness take him. He’s done, now.

 

***

 

Tony wakes up in the medical bay, the soft beeping of his various monitors muted in cotton ears. The curtains are drawn – Tony can’t tell if it’s day or night, and honestly, he doesn’t really care. It takes a long minute to turn his head – his tongue feels like sandpaper, his limbs heavy with exhaustion.

He turns his head towards the glass door of the medbay – ah, it’s night, judging by the hallway – and who does he see first but Steve fucking Rogers.

Steve’s not looking at him, and Tony’s gaze drops to the back of a head, a hunter green threadbare jacket hanging from broad shoulders. Ben Parker has the same exact hair color as his nephew – brown, maybe a little bit of red in the sunshine – and Tony’s stomach rolls unpleasantly.

He can’t hear what Ben is saying through the thick glass, but it’s obvious from his body language that he’s blocking Steve’s entry purposefully. Steve says something else – Tony has never been the best at reading lips, and he’s too tired to give it an honest try – but Ben is planted on the tile in his dusty old work boots.

(Steve took Peggy Carter’s “plant yourself like a tree” to heart the day she died, but he’s no match for Ben Parker, the man who’s been living it his entire life, the steadiest tree in the forest.

Compromise where you can, Peggy had said through her niece’s mouth, where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move. It is your duty, to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, ‘No, you move.’

But, “How do you know what’s right?” Peter had asked.

“You might not always.” May had told him. “Sometimes, it’s not easy to see.”

“Then...how do you know?”

“You don’t.”

Steve had taken a good lesson to heart. Peggy Carter was a remarkable woman, a woman the world needed, and woman who did a lot of good in her life.

But maybe the world didn’t need Peggy Carter anymore. Times change, whether you want them to or not. Maybe what it needed now were people like May, and Peter, even if it wasn’t ready for them.

Even if it didn’t deserve them.

“Sometimes what’s right isn’t obvious. Sometimes, it’s not easy; it’s hard, and sometimes it will be the last thing on Earth you want to do.”

“The world is not kind,” May Parker had said, through her nephew’s mouth, in a yellow kitchen, his footprints on the ceiling, his clenched hands in his lap. “The world is not kind, so we have to be.”

What had Peggy released on the world? What had May? Did either of them know of their legacy? Did it even matter?

“You may not always know what’s right, but in your heart, you’ll always know what’s kind. So if you can’t figure it out, baby, go for what’s kind. Even if it may not be right.”

“Nine times out of ten, being kind is better anyway.” )

 

***

 

Tony wakes up again, and this time, he isn’t alone.

He must have dozed off, he thinks, while Cap was trying to move the immovable. Ben Parker is sitting at his hospital bedside, with Peter’s hair that tinges red at the right angle. But he’s staring at him with eyes that aren’t Peter’s (Tony never knew May, but he’d seen photos. She wasn’t related to Peter by blood but somehow, they had the same color eyes, the very same shade), and Tony tries not to shake under his gaze.

“I just convinced Pepper to take a nap,” It’s not what Tony expects to come out of Ben’s mouth, but when has this man been anything Tony expects? He stares, and Ben stares back, silent.

(It’s some kind of joke, isn’t it, that Ben’s taking care of Tony’s family when Tony couldn’t fucking take care of Ben’s.)

The man sighs, drops his leg from where it was crossed, and scoots forward on his chair. Ben takes Tony’s frail hand in his strong, warm one (why were all the Parkers so warm, all the time? Peter was like a goddamn space heater, and his smile was bright enough to rival the sun.) He encloses Tony’s hand in both of his and squeezes, something grounding, and Ben’s hands don’t shake.

(In another world, May and Tony sob together until the sheets are soaked with their tears, hands clasped much the same, and they shake. But Ben was not made to shake – that’s why he had May.

Ben’s hands are rough, like Tony’s. They have moved bricks and operated cranes for nearly twenty-five years – and they’ve picked up a little boy, whose parents were never coming back from work, and carried him home. They are hands that have chased away monsters, and hugged his family so tight they were fit to burst.

In another world, May’s hands are soft. They are the hands of a nurse; slender, helpful to reach difficult, tender places, but strong enough to keep their patient from bleeding out, if need be. They are hands that have flipped through too many books to count, hands that have tickled her nephew until he cried laughing, hands that have burnt lasagnas and waved the smoke out afterwards.)

“Peter loved Iron Man so damn much,” Ben is the one to break the silence, his hands still clasped around Tony’s, and Tony wonders if he’s finally going to see Ben angry. He knows he’s not, but his heart aches painfully, and Tony thinks anger would probably be better than whatever Ben’s about to tell him.

Ben hesitates, just like Peter. Like he knows what he’s about to say might make things worse, but he’s going to say it anyway. Tony knows he deserves it, that he owes it to Ben to listen.

(He couldn’t even help Peter die peacefully.)

“He loved Iron Man so damn much, you know? Had all the action figures. Had the lunch box, the backpack. We got him this helmet, you know, with the little gauntlet and everything? Wouldn’t take it off for anything.” Ben’s laugh is fond, but for all Ben’s calm, collectedness, Tony can see the tears.

(He was right; this is worse than anger.)

“You shoulda heard May hollerin’ at him. They got into this fight, she’s trying to get him out of his clothes for the tub and he won’t take off the helmet.” Ben shakes his head, smiling even though the tear tracks are carving their place on his cheeks. “Now the kid’s butt-naked, ‘cept for this cheap Iron Man helmet, oh Lord, I laughed. And then May’s steamin’ at me, because to her it ain’t funny at all – except that it is, she doesn’t want to laugh, though, but she can’t help it.”

“So we’re both laughin’, and Peter’s still got the dang helmet on, and I have to say to the kid, ‘You know, Iron Man doesn’t always have his helmet on.’ He considers that, you know, like how could Iron Man not have his helmet on, he’s Iron Man? And you know what I said?” Ben’s looking at Tony, not necessarily for participation, but to make sure he’s listening. And he is, he doesn’t think he could bear not to.

“I said, ‘If he’s got his helmet on 24/7, how’s he supposed to be Tony Stark? ’”

The silence sits for a moment, and Tony wonders if the air is actually thinning, or if it’s just him.

“Peter loved Iron Man, sure,” Ben squeezes Tony’s hand tight in both of his. “But he loved Tony Stark a helluva lot more.”

Tony stares, and Ben smiles at him like he’s not grinding Tony’s heart into little, unrecognizable pieces. Smiles like he can’t believe Tony can’t see what’s right in front of him. Tony wonders if there will ever be a day when Ben Parker isn’t nine steps ahead of him.

“Wouldn’t stop talkin’ about your inventions. I swear, I should have half a bachelor’s degree just from sittin’ through it, ‘specially after I took him to the Stark Expo.”

“You took him?” Tony’s voice is sudden, sharp, and it hurts, like razor blades in his dry throat. He hadn’t known Peter had gone to a Stark Expo. Why hadn’t Peter told him?

Ben’s quiet for another long moment, and though Tony knows the man is gathering his thoughts, he’s impatient, burning to know. To reach for some nebulous connection to the kid he lost, the kid he failed.

“You remember, the day I came to your office?” The change in subject has no preamble Tony can detect, but the look in Ben’s eyes stops him from interrupting. It’s sad and it’s tired and it says, firmly I’ll get there in a minute, hold your horses.

He’s waiting for an answer this time, and Tony wets his lips with a dry tongue and says, “Yes.”

“I punched you.” Ben tells him, and his thumb presses into Tony’s palm, a firm pressure. “But I didn’t make you bleed.”

“You didn’t.” He says. Peter did, he thinks.

“I told you to consider it my thanks.” Ben tilts his head, studying Tony for a moment. He does that, sometimes; Tony’s mostly seen it directed at Peter. Rarely does anything come of it, except for the one memorable time Ben had paused, looked at Peter, and told him to go apologize to Ned. Tony still doesn’t know why Peter had needed to, or how in the hell Ben had known.

“You saved my kid, Tony,” Tony wants to say No, I didn’t, but Ben’s not stopping for commentary from the peanut gallery. “ - at the 2010 Expo. He was wearin’ that stupid helmet, and he scared the living bejeezus out of me.”

“That was him.” Tony whispers, sagging into his pillows. The image of a little boy has been burned into his retinas (it begs the question, when has Peter not been behind his eyelids?): raising his hand against a nightmare come to life, the lone figure on an empty battlefield. Ben’s hand rubs a circle on top of Tony’s limp one, firm and warm.

“That was him.”

(In another world, May brings him a box of drawings. They’re crumpled, and old, colored outside the lines because Peter was too excited to sit still, and they should all be of Iron Man, except they’re not. There’s Tony Stark, too, in a purple polka-dot suit straight out of nine-year-old Peter Parker’s imagination, with the robots he built and showed to Bill Nye. She tells him about the Expo, and the way Peter cried so hard he almost puked when Iron Man flew into the wormhole above Manhattan on the television, a nuke strapped to his back.)

“Unless someone like you, cares a whole awful lot,” Tony opens his eyes, and Ben shakes his head. “Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Ben cracks a grin, unable to help it. “May loved her literature, made sure Peter was well up on it. I was never much for it, though; I mostly stuck to the good Doctor.”

“I can’t, Ben.” Tony murmurs, because he knows what Ben is saying, and he was right this is so much worse than the yelling.

“You can.” Ben says it like it’s simple, like That’s That, and Tony’s heart hurts. “You can. Doesn’t have to be today. Doesn’t have to be tomorrow. But you can, and you will.”

“We lost.” Tony wills him, desperately, to understand, but Ben Parker just blinks, slowly.

“And I trust you won’t make the same mistake twice.”

Ben’s not asking, because when has he ever asked Tony for anything?

(In another world, May Parker doesn’t ask either. She knows what she wants, same as her husband. They’re a team, through and through.)

“And if – I can’t?” Tony asks, after a moment. They both know he’s going to try, though, that Ben has fanned the flame Tony was trying to putter out because the Parkers don’t believe in goddamn no-win scenarios, in any fucking world.

(May loves books, but Ben loves movies. Ben checks for the monsters under the bed, and helps Peter put the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling, in accurate constellations.

In another world, Peter sobbed his way through his first viewing of Star Trek Beyond in July, instead of Fantastic Beasts in November. In both worlds, Ned sat through the movies with him the second time, and he only cried for the first half.)

“Well,” Ben leans back in his chair, as if considering. “Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed. Ninety-eight and three-fourths percent guaranteed.”

Tony doesn’t care if Ben’s math is wrong, via the good Dr. Seuss, who never really earned that PHD.

That’s why he has Tony.

 

***

 

It takes three months for Tony to fully recover. Pepper is there, because she is his partner, she is his other half and she’s not perfect but neither is he. She’s perfect for him, and that’s what matters.

(Pepper is the Ben to his May, he thinks, because she is there to steady his hands when they shake. There is no world where she is not the light of his life.)

But Ben is there too, smoothly assisting Rhodey in pulling Pepper away when she needs to rest. Ben is there, in his work boots, making piles of breakfast to feed the ragtag group of extraordinary people who couldn’t save the world the first time, who aren’t going to make the same mistake twice.

He’s also there to make sure they eat it – Tony wishes he knew what the hell Ben murmured to Nebula to get her to reluctantly pick up her fork, but maybe that’s just another piece of Ben he will never fully understand.

(In another world, May holds court in the living room, reading aloud to Rocket, to Nebula. Rocket interrupts, and Nebula whacks him to get him to shut up. She doesn’t cook – that will always be Ben – but she goes down to the training room where Clint is slicing a practice dummy to smithereens and helps him cry. May’s hands shake, but so do Bruce’s, and it’s better to shake together than alone.

There is no world where the Parker family doesn’t take care of others.)

Ben is there, with Rhodey, blocking Cap entrance to Tony’s room.

“You don’t have to do that,” Tony finally says, two months into his recovery. Ben has his boots kicked up, and Tony’s heart squeezes (even, after all this time, it still hurts) when he realizes the man is sprawled the same way Peter usually sits, ankles crossed, stretching out his back.

(In another world, May sits cross-legged in the chair, knees tucked under the arms, and that hurts just as much.)

“Do what?” Ben asks patiently, and Rhodey watches from the window, arms crossed. He wonders if Rhodey is ever as puzzled by Ben as Tony is – or maybe not, because they both seem like the kind of stock Tony wishes he could be.

(He has always said if he could grow up to be half the man Rhodey is, he’d be in pretty good shape.

He hopes they get along. He hopes Rhodey sees Ben is family.)

“Stop him. He can – he can come in.”

Ben considers it, and Rhodey’s gaze flickers between them. But neither of them say anything, and Tony props himself up a little more on his pillows – he’s a little stronger these days.

“I’m not going to fight with him. I shouldn’t have in the first place.” Steve shouldn’t have done any of it in the first place either, shouldn’t have torn the Avengers in two, but it doesn’t really matter anyway.

There’s a smile tugging at the edge of Ben’s lips, though, as he folds his hands together, over his stomach.

“Why not?”

Tony looks down at his hands. They’re not as weak as they were – not fully back up to strength, yet, but they’re not as weak as they were and if his blood sugar levels are where they need to be at the end of the week, he’ll be moving out of the medbay and back into his room, with Pepper.

(Where is Ben staying? Is it the room for Peter, the one the kid never got to see?)

He looks up at Ben, and Rhodey, and he realizes that this must be what Peter feels like when he realizes his answer is, because I need to be kind.

He doesn’t say it, but Ben pushes up out of his chair and goes to get Steve anyway.

 

***

 

They don’t make the same mistake twice.

Thanos is dead. His corpse is ignored in favor of the horrible, horrible gauntlet, which Tony picks up, in the aftermath, and carries to their bleeding, but alive group.

“Who will wear it?” Thor asks, his booming voice subdued, and Tony looks up at Steve, whose mouth is a hard line. He’s bleeding, his cowl gone somewhere in the dirt, but they’re on the same wavelength now.

“We’ll do it together.” Steve says.

“Together,” Tony agrees.

And they do.

I don’t want your power. Tony tells the universe, one hand clasped tightly in Steve’s the other in Bruce’s. The stones’ power rips through him, and it feels like it’s tearing his atoms in two, but he couldn’t let go even if he wanted to. I just want them back.

He thinks of Ben. He knows that this is his best, that he tried, which is all Ben ever asked of him, and he wonders if it will be enough.

(There is no world where trying your best is not enough. You may not succeed, but it will always be enough.)

 

***

 

Peter looks exactly the same as he did when he was dusted, right down to the already-healing cut on his temple. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful thing Tony’s ever seen.

The kid moves fast, flitting over to Tony, already crying, “Mr. Stark!”, but Tony’s faster. He pulls the kid in for a bone-crushing hug, one hand cradling the back of Peter’s head, burying his fingers in brown, red-tinged locks (the sun is shining on the Compound lawn). The portal hasn’t even closed yet, and Tony can see Rocket reuniting with his teammates in the background, Dr. Strange’s cloak fluttering in nonexistent wind.

“Ben!” Peter cries over Tony’s shoulder, but before Tony can move to let go, to let the man access to his son, Ben has already dogpiled on the hug, surrounding Peter from the other side. But his arms are around Tony, too; strong and warm, as he weeps into his son’s hair.

And then Pepper is there, and Tony wraps an arm around her waist, pulls her into his family clump, and doesn’t let go. Ben is the one to pull Rhodey in, because Tony has his arms full. Ben has always known what other people need.

This is his family, and it’s not perfect. But it’s here, and it’s his, and Tony’s never letting go.

 

***

 

There’s no fitting this many people at one dinner table, so they scatter throughout the Compound, piles and piles of food ordered from wherever-the-fuck, Tony doesn’t know or care, so long as there’s food for the kid to tear his way through, feeding his metabolism.

It must be good, because Peter hasn’t stopped stuffing his face since it all arrived, with pizza and orange chicken, and the salad that Ben had pushed on him with vague amusement.

There is chatter and laughter everywhere you turn, and Tony doesn’t think the Compound has ever felt this alive. His hands are curled with Pepper’s, Rhodey’s shoulder a warm pressure point against his other side, and Tony sits content, watching Peter be enthralled with Scott Lang’s rendition of the Battle.

“So then I got really, really tiny – I’m talking really tiny, you know –”

“Nothing to be ashamed of, Scott,” Natasha interrupts with bemusement, raising an eyebrow at him, piece of pizza dangling from her hand. “Everyone gets performance anxiety once in a while.”

Scott splutters as others pile on with good-natured ribbing – it’s low-hanging fruit, nothing very creative about it – but it makes Peter snort his soda, so Tony smiles anyway.

“Hey, Scott, it’s okay,” Peter finally recovers, after a good thump on the back from Ben, and Tony blinks at the smile on Peter’s face. It’s got May in it, that mischievous edge, and Ben, with the private amusement – and maybe a little of Tony, too, which is the most surprising.

“It’s like my uncle always says: A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

“You –”

Scott moves to swat at Peter, but the little shit is too fast, and Ben practically falls over laughing.

 

(Maybe there is no world where May, Ben, and Peter are all together, but there are many worlds in which they’re happy, where they spread their kindness and responsibility in equal measure.

And that’s enough.)