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Doom and Gloom

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“Don’t. Touch. Him.”

 

With a Braveheart-worthy battle cry, Peter leaps into action with way more confidence than he should have, given his opponent.

 

Tony lets out a jolting call of “Peter—" as he watches the kid pack all his superhuman might into a punch, running on pure adrenaline and protective rage. The first hit strikes true, causing Thanos to stumble back slightly with the force, and Tony, now terrifyingly helpless in tatters of a nanobot suit, is struck with a strange sense of awe at the power of this kid.

 

With a lightning-fast flick of his wrists, Peter swipes a band of webbing around the Mad Titan’s head, blinding him, and flips in a spectacular arc over him, using the momentum to land hard on his back. In these few, precious seconds, as Tony crouches, worn out and stunned, on the floor, he entertains the thrilling thought that Peter could actually disable this guy, we could get another try-

 

Feet planted firmly apart, Spider-Man shoots out dual strings of webbing to attach to Thanos’ forearms. But by now, Thanos has regained his wits and pulls his arms free, the webbing that had so impressed Tony with its tensile strength making almost no resistance before it snaps.

 

He tears off the web over his eyes with one hand; the other closes around Peter’s neck and drags him over Thanos’ shoulder so he holds the choking Peter at arm’s length.

 

The brute strength of a single hand is enough to cut Peter’s air off entirely.

 

In his shock, Peter disables his mask, gloved hands scrabbling at the gauntlet which traps him, and reveals a face flushed with an adrenaline overload and veins bulging at the temples. He splutters and wheezes at the sudden constriction. He’s so young.

 

Thanos sweeps his gaze over the kid and smiles, as if in pity; Tony brims over with rage.

 

His voice is unconcerned, lazy. “All this time… you were just a distraction. A stupid kid.”

 

Tony knows that to try and attack him again would do nothing for him or Peter. Instead, he growls: “Let him the hell go, you bastard.”

 

Thanos spares a quick glance towards Tony, then nods as if in compliance. “Alright.”

 

And, for a split second, Tony is dumb enough to think he really means it.

 

The grip on Peter’s neck is released as Thanos tosses him a few feet away where his back hits a chunk of rubble. As he flies through the air, Tony catches the desperate, congested sound he makes as he drags in a breath. There’s only a moment of reprieve before Thanos steps back into the kid; Peter’s Iron Spider mask flies back up just in time as, in the same way he’d done with Tony, Thanos brings his fists down again and again on Peter’s face. Peter cries out with every blow and curls his legs inwards in an attempt to shield himself.

 

Despite all logic, Tony begins hauling himself and his dead suit towards the purple bastard in a suicide mission to distract him from Peter who’d so gallantly and stupidly tried to save his mentor. But before he can reach the kid and his tormentor, Thanos turns and spots his approach, and flashes him that bone-chilling smirk as he reaches down to grab something from the floor.

 

It’s then when the pieces fly together in Tony’s mind.

 

A concerted attack. Thanos wanted him to see this. How unlikely was it that everything could have fallen in place so devastatingly in the enemy’s favour?

 

Thanos moves to strangle Peter with one hand, lifting him upwards so his toes are inches from the floor, and at the same time closes his hand around the object he’d been planning to use since his fight with Tony.

 

The spear-shaped extension is hot-rod red and gold; it has Stark Tech written all over it.

 

Thanos would have used it on Tony, but the too-bright gleam in his eyes tells Tony just how much more he’s going to enjoy this new plan.

 

There’s nothing Tony can do as Thanos grips the tech – his tech - and thrusts it into Peter’s stomach.

 

His voice is hoarse and desperate as he yells: “Peter!

 

The point stabs right through to emerge out of Peter’s back.

 

Peter’s pupils pinpoint and his face contorts in silent agony.

 

There’s a kind of perverse beauty in the way a single bead of blood runs down to the tip of the blade and quivers, catching the dim sunlight of Titan, before making its small mark on the ground.

 

With a grimace of something akin to disgust, Thanos brutally yanks the extension from the site and drops Peter like trash to the floor. Where the tech had buried into Peter, a fountain of fast-pumping blood emerges seconds after, a matching trickle trailing from the corner of his mouth.

 

Tony throws himself with a belated protective instinct that presents like rage over the broken body, putting himself between the Mad Titan and the kid. With one hand propping him up from the floor, Tony curls his other around Peter’s slack shoulders.

 

Peter gasps for breath, coughing on blood. “M’st’r St’rk…” he mumbles.

 

Tony presses a shaking hand to the gushing wound, knowing it’s not enough to stem it, and turns back to Thanos while maintaining his position as a human shield.

 

The Mad Titan has the dreaded gauntlet raised, pointed at them both. “Don’t worry about him,” he says, nodding briefly at Peter, whose face has drained of colour. “In a moment, neither of you will be around to remember this. But you have my respect, Stark. When I’m done, half of humanity will still be alive. It’s a pity he won’t get the chance to be part of that half. I hope they remember you both.”

 

The Infinity Stones produce a piercing glow as Thanos prepares to wipe Peter and Tony out for good. With a sob of anguish unlike any sound he’s ever made before, Tony presses his forehead to Peter’s, aware of the sheen of cold sweat coating the kid, and holds him close in their final moment.

 

What will it feel like?

 

Like losing?

 

 Tony squeezes his eyes shut. He hopes Peter doesn’t keep his open, hopes the last thing he sees isn’t the leering face of his murderer.

 

Stop.”

 

Tony flinches. After a long moment’s deliberation, he raises himself onto his knees, still bracing a hand against the whimpering Peter’s shoulder. It’s torture to leave the kid bleeding out there, but in the danger of the moment, it’s his only option.

 

Doctor Strange has regained consciousness and speaks with surprising confidence to Thanos. “Spare their lives… and I will give you the Stone.”

 

No. No way.

 

Tony recalls the moment, just a few hours ago, when Strange had most clearly stated: “If it comes to saving you or the kid, or the Time Stone, I will not hesitate to let both of you die.”

 

Tony blinks. He can’t think, can’t wrap his mind around all that’s conspired in the last ten seconds, let alone hours, can’t strategize over the broken gasps Peter makes beside him.

 

Thanos considers. “No tricks.” It’s a question, but he speaks it as a statement.

 

Doctor Strange nods, slow and final.

 

Tony’s gaze flicks down to Peter, eyes unfocused and breath painfully ragged, stomach and chest pooling with red.

 

In any other circumstance – if Peter hadn’t tried to save his ass and it had been only him in the equation – he would act differently, would be begging Strange to let him die.

 

Tony Stark or half of the universe? Nobody should even have to consider.

 

And yet, and yet, this damned kid had caught on to Tony’s martyr complex and gotten himself mixed up in that equation. Tony meets those soulful brown eyes, now glazed over with pain and shedding tears, and knows that he would make the same choice as Doctor Strange had he been in the situation.

 

He’s selfish.

 

But, as he casts his gaze to Strange, who narrows his eyes purposefully at him, the gears start to turn in his mind.

 

He’s seen every reality. He knows.

 

Strange is pretty far down the list of people he’s willing to trust right now, but it’s all he’s got.

 

The Sorcerer Supreme raises his hand, fingers splayed apart; from the distant glint of a star he draws out a brighter green effervescence. It’s the Time Stone, the Stone they’d taken such pains to protect.

 

And they’re giving it up willingly.

 

Doctor Strange seems lost in time as he stares at the Stone. Tony hangs his head.

 

All that for nothing.

 

Thanos, gauntlet arm extended in a loose but threatening gesture, stretches his other hand out to take the Stone, and in a moment that will imprint itself on Tony’s mind just as permanently as every other moment of this utter nightmare, Doctor Strange sends it floating through the air to land in the waiting hand.

 

Before he adds the Stone to his gauntlet, Thanos seems to briefly consider his fate. The Stone finds its home and a surge of energy runs through the Mad Titan, curling his hands into fists.

 

Tony looks on in horror.

 

Thanos flexes and unflexes the newly adorned gauntlet. “One to go.”

 

Out of the apparent blue bursts Peter Quill, guns blazing very literally with a shotgun barrel of fury that’s wasted as Thanos steps backwards into a cloudy portal and disappears from the planet.

 

Too late.

 

As devastated as Tony is by the loss, there’s another, hopefully more preventable loss that could occur if he doesn’t turn his attention to him.

 

Instantly, Tony lurches into action, yelling for Doctor Strange: “Strange? Help me out here,” and hovering over the ashen-faced Peter.

 

The kid looks awful. A steady trail of tears runs from his eyes, the eyelids of which are peeled back in shock; he writhes weakly on the ground in agony, blood still flowing freely from the area where he’d been stabbed by Tony’s creation. His whimpers of pain catch in his throat as saliva-mingled blood continues to trickle from the corner of his mouth.

 

Tony taps the hidden button at the kid’s waist he designed to manually de-activate the Iron Spider suit; the form-fitting nanotech shrinks into a small band on Peter’s wrist. Underneath, blood has already stained the spandex of the original red-and-blue suit.

 

Pressing a palm to the side of Peter’s clammy face as his eyes rove wildly, Tony speaks in what he can only pray is a comforting tone. “Hey, Pete. Stay with me, okay? You gotta stay with me.”

 

Peter hums vaguely in response, breaths rattling rapidly through his throat. Tony can’t quite tell if it was a noise of acknowledgement or pain. He’s not even sure if Peter registers his presence anymore.

 

Strange has made his way to their side. “Shit,” he mutters.

 

Tony balks. They have nothing. No antibiotics, no sedatives, no dressings, nothing but the clothes off their own backs to even stem the wound, and even he can tell that Peter is fading fast.

 

He never thought he’d have to face the possibility of-

 

Nope. Not going to happen. You will deliver this kid back home at all costs.

 

“Can you get this suit off?” Doctor Strange’s voice breaks through Tony’s thoughts.

 

A tap to Peter’s chest and the suit loosens enough for Strange to gently tug it down and expose the wound. Tony sucks in a breath at the sight of the mangled, still-weeping flesh, streaks of red stark against Peter’s pale abdomen. The kid’s wearing old-fashioned gingham boxers; Tony wants to cry.

 

“I’m assuming it’s alright to rip the suit?” Strange holds up the garment, which now looks like a costume straight from a really strange production of Macbeth.

 

Tony only nods, dragging a shaking hand through the kid’s hair. Peter makes an aborted attempt at speech; “Shh,” replies Tony. “Don’t talk. It’s alright. I got you.”

 

Piercing through the haze of pain in the kid’s eyes is a clear note of fear. Tony hopes the kid doesn’t see the same thing reflected in his eyes as they lock eye contact.

 

“M’ster… St’r…”

 

“I’m going to press down on the wound,” murmurs Strange; Tony’s hand tightens involuntarily in the kid’s hair just before he screams with a fresh wave of pain. Doctor Strange grits his teeth through the blood-curdling cry of a young boy who shouldn’t be in this situation, beginning to wind a strip of the Spider-Man suit around Peter’s upper stomach to secure the makeshift dressing.

 

The aftershock of the pain hits the kid hard; as his breaths speed up even further, he seeks Tony’s hand blindly, eyes rolling up in his head.

 

The moment when their hands meet triggers a surge of some instinct Tony can’t quite name, but it’s about time; he begins to speak soothingly to the teenager. “Okay. Let’s try and breathe, Peter. Come on, bud, breathe with me.”

 

There’s blood on his hands and all over Peter.

 

He can’t lose the kid.

 

And yet, Peter’s face is growing scarily cold under his touch and his eyelids flutter dangerously.

 

“Blood flow’s stemmed for now,” Strange says, schooling his tone into calmness. “How’s he looking?”

 

“Hey, Peter – don’t tap out just yet, champ – we’re losing him, Strange.” Shifting back just a little from the kid, Tony exposes his predicament to Doctor Strange, whose jaw tightens.

 

“Keep him awake.” It’s a command Tony isn’t sure he can follow as Peter’s groans of pain get fainter and fainter.

 

Except, in the next few seconds, he finds there are even bigger problems on his mind.

 

They all feel it; a thrum of energy, jolting the universe, a gut feeling that something irreversible and really bad had just happened.

 

Mantis calls softly but urgently from a few feet away, where she is flanked by Drax and Quill. “What’s happening?”

 

What indeed?

 

It takes too damn long for Tony’s shock-fuddled brain to make sense of what he sees: Mantis, who before was so solid, has drifted into wind-stirred dust beside Quill.

 

The Snap. He did it.

 

Quill stands, lost, boring a hole into the ground which bears a small pile of dust – the only remains of Mantis.

 

There’s a devastating moment as the group tenses, waiting for what will happen next, begging silently that nobody else will go, not quite comprehending that Mantis has simply ceased to exist. An air of defeat crosses Doctor Strange, who sits back on his haunches and raises his head to the heavens.

 

Drax is the next to go. “Quill?” he breathes, face contorting as he, too, joins the current of the wind, reduced to ash in moments.

 

As if propelled by the motion of the universe, Tony’s eyes snap to Peter Quill, already looking down at himself with horror as he dissolves.

 

“Steady, Quill.” They’re useless words, and Tony’s voice shakes.

 

“Oh, man…” responds Quill softly, and his eyes which had latched on Tony’s become a flurry of dust flecks and nothing more.

 

Tony hauls the kid upwards so he’s cradling him, bare flesh sweat-soaked but solid beneath his hands, gripping Peter as if a tight hold would be enough to keep him from dissolving into dust and joining the Guardians.

 

Or, worse – if Tony goes, leaves Peter billions of miles from home and bleeding out alone –

 

He’d never even got round to learning the name of the blue alien woman, but somehow it hurts more when she blows away. She’s silent, head bowed as if in acceptance of her fate, until she is no longer.

 

Now, it’s just him, Strange and the kid. Running a hand up and down Peter’s limp back, he again reassures himself that neither of them are gone. Yet.

 

He releases the breath he’d been holding. “Oh my God. Strange, we have to go, we—"

 

“Tony.”

 

Tony whips his head upwards and finds a sight he hadn’t even considered, one that drops the bottom of his stomach to the floor.

 

Strange is slowly fading to dust.

 

He seems almost at peace with his own fate, although the glance he flicks down at the pair of them is stricken. Of course. If he saw everything, he must have seen his own fate.

 

Has he seen past that?

 

“There was no other way.”

 

Something in the tone of the Doctor’s voice speaks of suffering to come, and Tony wants to shake him, stop the progress of dust up his torso and chest, make him change the future.

 

He remains silent and frozen as a pile of dust replaces the Sorcerer Supreme.

 

They’re alone now on Titan: a near-lifeless superpowered boy in his blood-stained boxers, clutched by a battered billionaire with blood on his hands, alive against all the odds – for now, at least.

 

A choked sob claws its way out of his chest. He muffles it in Peter’s matted hair, closing his eyes briefly against the horror of blood seeping unbidden through a makeshift bandage and the suffocating darkness of this alien planet, the sheer emptiness.

 

As Peter keens in agony beneath his frantic embrace, Tony cries out softly in anguish.

 

Tony is helpless. He’s never been more lost.

 

“It’s okay, buddy… you’re gonna be just fine – stay awake for me, Pete – please…”