Carol couldn’t have attempted in the slightest to predict the events that have transpired in the last few hours.
While the fact that she’s lingered on Earth for so long makes her a little uneasy, she can’t bring herself to leave the hospital bed in which the kid lies. It seems like he has that effect on people; there’s been a periodical rotation of visitors to his bedside, all having to tear each other from the room to prevent from spending the night there.
Carol’s used to sleeping wherever she can find during missions; the chair in the Medbay suits her just fine.
There had been the awkward and morose hazing process - once Peter had been rushed off to surgery and Tony threaded through with as many needles and tubes as they could get into him – where they’d combed through Fury’s old files on her powers and history and questioned her like a strange form of job interview. She’d familiarised herself with the group that Fury had, rather, amusingly, dubbed The Avengers after her pilot call sign. A little disparate, and stricken by the effects of the Snap, but driven. After Helen Cho had been Snapped, Kaleb Barrie had assumed her position as head of the medical department.
After her rescue of Tony Stark, they'd allowed her to stay at the Compound for however long she needed - except she isn't sure her position in the hospital room is out of any sort of need.
Clad casually in jeans and a black bomber jacket, Natasha Romanov leans on the doorframe contemplatively, holding the door open with a heel.
"Romanov," Carol acknowledges with a hint of a smile but an overarching tone of propriety which seems to jar with her new companion.
"Come on, it's Natasha."
She persists, taking a few steps into the room. "What're you doing still in here? There's a thing called shifts, you know. I'm sure you could've gotten Bruce off his ass and taken a break."
"I'm..." Carol's not used to being short for words. She turns her gaze to the comatose kid swathed in white. He's been hooked up to innumerable machines supplying fluids, oxygen, blood, painkillers, sedatives, but still looks a step away from death, skin faintly blue and hands on the sheets heartbreakingly skeletal. She wonders what he used to look like.
“Oh, he’s got you in your head, hasn’t he?” Natasha nods to the boy, who shivers lightly even in sleep. It’s said teasingly, but the fond, sad smile interrupting her veneer of professional friendliness speaks of depth behind the comment.
Carol narrows her eyes and studies Peter’s slack yet dainty face, trying to read his features.
“He has that effect on people,” continues Natasha, noiselessly taking the chair beside Carol and turning her gaze to the kid. “Tony’s always been protective of him – wouldn’t tell any of us who he was – if you saw him on the Milano, you’d see what they’re like with each other. And he’s a really great kid. You’ll love him when he gets back on his feet.”
“How did you meet him?” Carol prompts, both of them still eyeing the boy himself.
“Helped him out on patrol when I was in town a couple months back. He—”
Dragging a hand through platinum hair, Natasha cuts off briefly with a sigh that is both exasperated and brimming with affection.
“He took three bullets for me. I think he’s – too good – sometimes. He ends up doing dumb, reckless stuff, putting himself in danger. In fact, he almost bled out right then and there trying to get up and brush it off – he didn’t regret it for a moment. Tony was furious when I showed up with him in the Medbay, and this kid, he started to comfort Tony, half-dead on his feet though he was, telling him it was alright and not to blame me.”
At the slight hitch in Natasha’s voice, Carol turns to study her darkly nostalgic irises.
“When Tony saw that… it was like a switch flipping. The anger drained right out of him, just like that, and he swept Peter up like he weighed nothing and didn’t leave his side for a second while he got patched up.”
“That’s cute,” Carol remarks breezily, reluctant to dwell on Peter’s physical condition. If I'd found him a few days earlier, he might not have been so close to death.
Natasha cocks her head, observing something in Carol’s clipped response that she herself must not have noticed. “I know, it’s hard seeing him like this. That’s why I thought maybe you should step out for a minute.”
“No, I’m alright.” Carol remembers the way Peter had been curled up in Tony’s arms as if the company was all he needed, and a deep-rooted sense of duty commands that she fills that Tony-shaped hole, however inadequately, for the kid while his mentor recovers. “I think he’d want someone by his side, even if Tony can’t be there. But thanks. And thanks for the clothes, too.”
She’s wearing cuffed jeans and a loose khaki-green t-shirt that Natasha had lent her just a few hours ago while they’d waited for Peter to arrive back from surgery.
“They suit you better,” Natasha calls as the door shuts behind her.
The clicking noise as it fits back into the frame must startle Peter, because he twitches in bed, a lock of hair falling into his eyes as his shivering increases. His fever has yet to break; this is evident in the burning heat of his forehead, barely mitigated by an ice-cold cloth. Carol reaches out tentatively to brush the hair away from his face. Her eyes widen when she notices Peter’s fluttering dizzily open.
That’s not supposed to happen, right?
The minute he regains consciousness, the kid’s hands clench painfully into fists by his side, eyebrows drawing together similarly.
“Hey,” says Carol quietly, letting her hand drop to the front of Peter’s shoulder: as strange and even invasive as it seems to touch him while he’s in this state, it seems to calm him in the same way it had on the Milano when he’d drifted off in Stark’s arms.
As if in response, Peter begins to mutter under his breath. “Where is she? May. Where… dead. Dead, I win – I win. Aunt May? Iron M-man… he’s… take it, Mister Stark. Take it. Please – t-take it, I can – take it. Fine. Mister Stark? He…”
For a morbidly fascinating moment, Carol remains motionless and watches as Peter writhes weakly, eyes open but not quite seeing, before coming to her senses.
“Okay, Peter, it’s okay,” she soothes over his ramblings, standing to press the large blue button by the bed that she’d been told would call Doctor Barrie if help was needed. Other than a momentary glow emanating from the button, there’s no indication that help is coming, so Carol continues to pass her thumb back and forth over Peter’s sparrow-boned shoulder, replying to his disjointed speech with acknowledgements: “Uh huh. Everything’s fine. Take it slow. I know. You’ll be asleep again in just a minute, alright?”
It’s a mere thirty seconds before Doctor Barrie enters the room, immediately recognizing the problem.
He begins to deftly adjust the mass of tubes winding into monitors which the kid is hooked up to. “Okay, I think we’d better up your dosage, Peter,” he speaks softly as he works, “You’re not really supposed to be up right now.”
“He burnt through it already?” asks Carol, curious for answers. It’s near-impossible to reconcile the impressive superpowers the Avengers had listed through to her with the small and helpless boy before her.
Barrie hums in acknowledgement, talking over Peter’s rasps of “Dead. Mister… dead – stars - dead.” “I trialled the dosage that keeps Steve under, but clearly Peter’s metabolism is too rapid to keep it in his system for more than a couple hours.”
“This kid is stronger than Steve?” A teenager trumps Captain America. Wow.
“In terms of drug resistance and healing factor… yes.” Doctor Barrie acknowledges the ridiculous nature of the words with an amused shake of his head. A twist of a knob and Peter begins to relax into sleep almost immediately, hands uncurling.
“There you go,” Doctor Barrie smiles. “This should keep him asleep and painless for another few days. Until then, he should really have someone watching him around the clock.”
“I’ll stick around, don’t worry.” Carol eases back into her already-accustomed chair and folds her arms.
“Alright. But remember, your health is important too. Drink water, get some sleep – all of that. Okay? Doctor’s orders.” The phrasing is friendly, but the doctor seeks eye contact with her.
It’s almost amusing, given the deathly state of the kid they’re both watching over.
“Yeah, of course,” she acknowledges.
A day later, Peter’s fever breaks.
Natasha’s lured her away from the kid’s cloying hospital room to a proper bed for the night; when she visits to begin another shift watching over him, the sweat coating him has cleared and he’s no longer hot to the touch.
Carol smiles as she lays a hand across the newly cool skin of his forehead.
The only way is up.
It’s the third day when Peter wakes.
A tablet rests in her lap as she scrolls through (read: tries to scroll through – the new Earth technology remains baffling) reams of SHIELD files, bringing herself up to speed on the activity of Fury, the Avengers, Peter.
The kid’s been through some shit.
Carol looks up as Peter inhales sharply to see his eyes cracking open. He hums sleepily, dragging an IV-punctured hand across his face as if trying to rouse himself. It takes him a fair few seconds to register Carol’s presence as she sits silently by his side. He turns his head abruptly to take her in, mouth working for a moment before words arrive.
When Peter does speak, his voice is strained and defensively high-pitched, yet still polite to a tee. “Hey, I’m… Peter Parker.”
Carol tells herself the fond grin that lights up her face at the greeting is entirely involuntary. "Hey, Peter Parker," she returns, humouring him.
"Carol. You might not remember me. I found you drifting in space."
"The light?" Peter ventures somewhat groggily.
"Yeah. How are you feeling?"
As if finally coming to his senses, Peter starts. "Mister Stark," he says, eyes roving the room. "Where's Mister Stark? Is he... he..."
Hoping her touch is gentle, Carol lays a hand across Peter's upper chest where he's attempted to sit up in bed and pushes him back down. "He's here, just a couple doors down. He's okay. He's fine."
"Really?" The kid's voice is that of a lost young boy; he stares into Carol's eyes with startling intensity.
Despite his earlier panic, Peter seems to trust Carol, relaxing almost instantly against her hold. "Okay."
Carol reiterates her question a little more purposefully. "How are you feeling?"
"Uh... weird," admits Peter with a humourless laugh. He flexes trembling hands before him, taking in the flimsiness of his digits with dismay. "How long were we on there for?"
Carol graces him with the truth. "Twenty-four days."
"Do I look bad?" Peter's voice is small.
To say he looks bad is an understatement. He looks a few steps from death, which may be an improvement from his appearance when Carol had first found him in space but is a pretty damn low bar to set for the kid’s health. Comparing his year-old SHIELD file photo to the hollow and ashen-skinned one before her is disturbing. No kid should look like this.
“You’ll get better,” she replies, eyebrows raising in sincerity. This answer, however, is not enough for Peter, who sinks back on his pillows with a rasping exhale and shuts his eyes briefly.
Just to put a smile on his face, Carol tucks a strand of his hair out of his eyes and adds: “I’m kidding. You look great.”
It does the trick: Peter giggles softly, mouth pressing into a bashful line which Carol mirrors without thought. The laugh is followed closely by a yawn from Peter, who’s already fighting to keep his eyes open after just two minutes awake. It’s the perfect signal for Carol, who leans forward conspiratorially in her chair. “Is it time for a story?”
“No, no, I’m awake—” Peter protests weakly.
“I think you’ll like it. It’s about what I was up to before I found you in space.”
Just as she’d expected, Peter gives in and smiles faintly. “Alright.”
Before she’s finished a single sentence, the kid has drifted off, one exposed cheekbone smashed into the pillow where he’d positioned his head to watch her.
Carol pulls the covers up under his chin and rises slowly to leave the room, safe in the knowledge that he’ll stay under for a few hours now.
As soon as Peter’s metabolism catches wind of the fluids supplying it, his bodily functions reboot with vigour: the haunting stab wound she catches periodical glimpses of when Barrie arrives in the mornings and evenings to change his dressings begins to shrink in size, the angry and infected area around a line of neat stitches rapidly diminishing; colour starts to work its way into his face and limbs. Doctor Barrie assures both him and Carol that more substantial weight gain and an increase in energy will arrive soon after the wound stabilises and the nutrients in his fluids no longer funnel straight into his healing capacity.
The kid’s on an upward climb.
Physically, at least. Mentally? He seems cheerful enough for a survivor of the biggest world extinction event of all time on his good days, but Carol notices shadows marauding behind his eyes on the bad days.
Despite this, it takes until Day 6 for Carol to even glimpse the lasting damage Peter’s experiences have caused.
Carol’s curled up sideways in her customary chair by Peter’s bed, legs slung over the arm and coffee in hand, when she first notices him moving. Short twitches and jerks at first, but as she processes what’s occurring before her they intensify, a panicked whimper escaping the kid, whose eyes are now screwed shut.
Nightmare. Oh, kid.
Setting aside the coffee, Carol dives for Peter’s flying wrists before they can do any harm and calls to him. “Peter. Wake up, kid. It’s alright – you’re safe – wake up.”
With a start, Peter’s eyes fly open, pupils blown wide in bewilderment.
“Mister Stark,” is the first word he pushes out through a throat burdened by heavy breaths.
“He’s okay,” Carol rushes to reassure him, working her hands from his wrists to his palms to squeeze them reassuringly. This version of Peter unsettles her, the shaking, heavily-breathing, near-animalistic side of a boy who’s been all blushing and gentle smiles until this moment. What, did you expect him to walk away from this without a scratch?
Peter grits his teeth against uncooperative airways, the shadows of his nightmare still mocking him from the corners of his vision. “No – let me see him. I need… let me- let me see him.”
“Let me see him, Rhodey.”
“Tones, my ears will fall off if you don’t give it a rest.”
“Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes, I’m… ordering you to—”
“Oh, shut up.”
Tony woke up just a few hours ago. Well, he’d actually first woken as the sun rose on Day 2, and, in infamous Tony Stark style, had ripped out his tubes and attempted to walk out of his room, resulting in a colourful myriad of bruising across his left side onto which he’d collapsed. After that incident, Barrie had suggested keeping him under with sedatives for a few days, to which Rhodey had wholeheartedly agreed.
Him and Pepper share shifts watching the reckless bastard as he stubbornly refuses to regain the weight he’d lost. Everything’s a fight for Tony. Rhodey wishes he could stand down for a minute and let himself heal.
There’s something deeply wrong about a man so ghost-like in the way his skin hangs from his bones arguing so passionately with Rhodey. He’s defiant, even in the state he’s in, muscle and fat all wasted away to expose a husk of his friend. Rhodey tries not to get all morbid about it, but just looking at Tony is hard.
Tony’s voice cracks just a little. “Please.”
Turning his eyes to his friend, Rhodey sees concern brewing in his demeanour despite every assurance from him, Pepper, Barrie, that Peter was alive and recovering with Carol. He’s aware Tony will only continue to ask permission for an hour or two more before he’s on his feet and fighting his way out of the room.
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Rhodey concedes in exasperation. “Okay, okay, I’ll take you to see him. You gotta promise to use the wheelchair, though.”
“Fine.” Tony scoffs like a petulant child, already rising with effort to sit.
“And stay in it.”
Carol’s at a loss for what to do to assuage the kid’s continuous fretting. Doctor Barrie had instructed her to keep him from moving too much, so she’s reluctant to take him out of his bed, but her soothing words and touch are no longer enough to quiet him, spooked as he is. She grips Peter’s hand as he continues to mumble, fuelled by post-nightmare adrenaline and a drug haze. “I need… need him. Please, Carol. He’s – I want to—"
The door swings open, revealing Rhodey guiding Tony into the room in a wheelchair.
Peter clocks his mentor’s presence immediately and exhales in a rush of air as if he might cry. Tony, as soon as he lays eyes on the kid, places his hands on the wheels and beelines for him. Carol steps away, noting the inarguable determination in his eyes.
“Underoos,” Tony croaks fondly as he reaches Peter’s bedside.
The single word prompts Peter to sit up, pulling at the mass of tubing he’s connected to, and crawl shakily but desperately into Tony’s arms.
Carol begins to warn the kid but trails off: “Peter, don’t—okay.”
She couldn’t break up the touching image before her if she tried.
Peter melds instantly into Tony’s chest, tucking his head into the older man’s neck when Tony’s hand rises to cradle it protectively. Tony gently encircles the frail kid with his free arm, letting his cheek drop onto the crown of Peter’s head and closing his eyes as if in relief.
Carol thinks she makes out a half-whispered, half-sobbed “Mister Stark,” muffled by the material of Tony’s t-shirt. In response, Tony plants a fierce kiss on the kid’s curls.
Rhodey joins Carol in leaning against the far wall, watching the two of them, who seem oblivious to anyone else in the room. She turns to him briefly and finds written on his face the saddest smile she’s seen in a long time.
An abrupt flurry of movement draws Carol’s eye once more: Tony’s pulled away from Peter and methodically yet frantically checks his forehead, chest, wrist, lifts up his shirt briefly to find a clean patch of gauze. Peter doesn’t flinch, displaying no sign of confusion, only trust. When Tony finds what he needs, he lets the kid slump back into him, muttering “You’re okay, you’re okay. You’re okay.” The words seem as much a comfort to him as to Peter, who nods into his chest in agreement.
They remain locked in an embrace, starved limbs against starved limbs, for a moment that stretches into eternity.
Carol will not let tears gather at the corner of her eyes. It’s nothing. And yet, it’s everything, contained in a single embrace.
This is why she does her job.
Rhodey catches her eye with a look that says, this is what it’s gonna be like around here. She nods to say, I’m ready for it.
A bit-back cry of pain startles her from her daze. Peter’s hands fly to his abdomen and he buries his face deeper into Tony’s shoulder.
“What is it?” asks Tony softly, immediately alert.
“I’m sorry, it’s- the… the…” Peter gestures to the wound site.
Easing him upright to look him in the eye, Tony reassures him: “It’s alright, you can go back.”
But Peter slumps, exhausted, in Tony’s hold. His breaths are closer to pants now. Not healthy. He burns with shame as he whispers, “I… I can’t.”
Carol, spurred by the break in the kid’s voice, takes initiative and reaches for him where he’s twined around Tony, easily lifting him up in a bridal carry. Peter’s loose in her arms, but he still has the impeccable manners to rasp out a “thank you.” Tony follows his progress silently but closely, moving to the bedside once Carol’s deposited him back in bed and tugged up his covers.
“Go on, get some sleep,” Tony urges him in a whisper, threading his fingers through Peter’s. “I’m… right here.”
There the two remain, Tony leaning into the side of Peter’s bed to grasp his hand and gazing at him as he drops off to sleep like the kid’s the most precious thing he’s ever laid eyes on.
Carol shakes her head in bemused fondness. These two are gonna be the death of us all, aren’t they?
After a quarter hour, Rhodey finally plucks up the courage to break the pair apart. “C’mon, Tones, you need to rest too.”
Tony surprisingly, allows himself to be wheeled from the room, briefly turning back to meet Carol’s eye and raising his eyebrows as if in thanks.
Peter had insisted, from the very moment he’d discovered the wealth of movies available on the tablet Carol had been using to access SHIELD files, in inaugurating Carol into the world of Star Wars. Carol herself finds it more amusing to watch the kid react with delight to moments he’s clearly watched before hundreds of time by the way he mouths along to the lines.
Currently, they’re ploughing through Return of the Jedi, tablet on a small stand balanced on Peter’s lap which Carol leans towards him to see.
“You’re thinking again, aren’t you?” she remarks without taking her eyes off the screen. The kid’s ridiculously easy to read, and for the last two minutes he’s been staring at a point just above the tablet with a crease in his brow. It's only been a handful of days since she met him, but after staying by Peter's side near-constantly she's already adept at picking out the dark moments.
Peter sighs and pauses the film.
When the kid gets like this, the best thing to do is sit back and let him exorcise his own demons with muttered rambling before trying to contradict him.
The days since he first crawled into Tony's arms have brought with them rapid recovery; he's finally starting to gain weight, a joyous sight, and Carol suspects it has to do with the voice-activated phone line between Peter and Tony's rooms. As cute as their relationship is, Carol wishes she could possess the magic touch Stark seems to abound with and which so effectively keeps Peter smiling.
Now, at least, she's armed with a viable reason to stick around at the Compound for another few days, although it's not one she's eager to tell Peter about right now.
"Do you think," Peter begins haltingly, "Do you think the files will say anything about what happened to my aunt?"
Carol bites her lip. "They... do."
Carol has known the fate of the kid's only living relative since the day he was brought in. Some irrational part of her protested for too long that he'd forget, but there's no hiding now.
She sees resignation stirring in the kid's eyes and resolves to give him the truth.
"I'm so sorry, Peter. She was Snapped."
Peter squeezes his eyes shut, turning away from Carol for a moment in an attempt to contain his reaction that is soon abandoned when Carol says: "You don't have to do that. Let it out."
When he re-opens his eyes, the devastation brewing there is startling.
He’s just lost his only family - just like that. Carol can’t imagine how that must feel at fifteen.
“Do you know what happened on Titan?” Peter asks, surprising her.
He gets his tale off his back with an increasingly choked voice.
“We were… me, Tony, the Guardians, Doctor Strange, we all waited for him. Th-Thanos. We had the plan, I was up on a ridge. And, I mean, when I have a plan in my head of how I’m gonna take the- the bad guy down, it never goes to plan, not really, so I don’t know what I was expecting with this. I guess – maybe I thought it’d be different because everyone was there. They knew what they were doing, you know? And then Thanos comes - and…”
Inhaling sharply, Peter turns to look at his hands, which fiddle tightly with his sheets.
“And I knew we would lose.”
Carol plants her elbow on the edge of the mattress and cups her chin in a hand to listen more closely.
“But I wasn’t thinking about– about – M-May just then – I wasn’t thinking about much at all, it was more of just… fear. And you know what happened?”
Here, Peter locks eye contact with Carol with a trembling lower lip.
“We got so close. Tony and I held the gauntlet and- and tried to pull it off, and for just a second… I thought that we might actually do it. It- it was right there. And then it wasn’t. I keep replaying that bit over and over again, just to - I wanna… get it right. Maybe if I’d pulled a little harder, or- or – I don’t know. But now…”
He hides his face in his hands.
As much as it feels like she’s giving up on him, Carol can’t help but feel like getting the kid to talk to Tony would help him more.
“You can’t blame yourself, Peter. I promise you – it’s not your fault, it’s his.”
Peter nods in acknowledgement, tears stopping his throat. He scrubs at his eyes before they can fall.
Carol makes up her mind. “Do you want to talk to Tony?”
Ever-perceptive, the kid picks up on her train of thought; his eyes widen. “Oh, no, it’s alright – you’re d-doing good.”
“It’s okay. I understand.” Carol injects as much sincerity into the words as she can muster to reassure the fretting boy; Peter’s face crumples as he allows her to make the command.
“FRIDAY, call Tony.”
Within a second, Tony’s voice is emanating from the AI’s inbuilt speakers. "Hiya, kid – what’s going on?”
All it takes is Peter’s quiet sob of “Mister Stark?” for Tony to go from casual to what can only be described as Dad Mode.
“Carol, are you with him?” he asks, voice low but not to be questioned.
“Great. Stick by him. Kid - spill."
And Peter recounts his torturous tale, retreating further into himself rather than breaking down this time until he's half-catatonic.
"Peter," Tony says.
The kid's trailed off mid-sentence and lies silently, breaths almost robotically even.
"Peter?" Carol prompts, tapping his shoulder tentatively.
He flinches at her touch with suddenly widened eyes, gasping out a "Sorry."
Tony resumes like his next words are the Gospel. "Peter, I promise you we'll get her back. We'll get them all back. I can fix it."
"How?" Peter interjects.
The silence over the call that follows seems shaken. Peter’s never questioned his mentor so blatantly before; the blind trust of a few days ago has melted away.
“Thanos still has the stones, right? We can reverse it if we get them.”
“Right.” Peter’s reply is nowhere near convincing.
“Hey, kid. Would You Rather… never watch a Star Wars movie again or never watch a Battlestar Galactica episode again?”
Peter is taken by surprise by Tony’s question, huffing out the smallest of laughs. “You always make them so hard.”
“Come on, I wanna hear it.”
“Uh… I’ve gotta keep Star Wars.”
“I thought you might say that.” Tony’s reply is teasing but fond.
Shrugging minutely, Peter deadpans: “Yeah, you know me so well.”
“Are you okay?” Tony asks, voice low.
“We’ll get her back,” Tony continues. “We will. I will.”
“Get some sleep, squirt.”
Tony disconnects the call, face impossibly dark.
He’s surprised no-one has seen the betrayal seething like magma just beneath his skin, heard the mouth full of daggers stopping his throat.
He stumbles into the waiting wheelchair by his bed, dragging his drip feed along with him, and pushes off with effort to confront the rest of the Avengers.
"Zero. Zip. Nada. No trust. Liar."
When Peter is shaken awake, there’s a half-second of stasis in which he could be anywhere before the synthetic lights of his hospital room and Carol’s warm hand at his shoulder seep into his bleary consciousness.
He blinks. Carol’s standing by his side in the same bold red, blue and gold flight suit he’d first seen her wearing. She’s dressed for battle.
“Hear me out,” she says, squeezing his shoulder gently as she continues with more than a little regret written across her face. “I have to go for a few hours. I’ll be back before you know it, okay?”
“Where are you going?” Peter blurts, bolting up in bed and instantly regretting the movement when a wave of dizziness sends his eyes fluttering dangerously. He scrabbles for purchase on Carol’s arm, both out of a need to steady himself and an all-consuming terror.
Carol prises him away and continues haltingly as if she knows her next words will hurt.
“We’re going to kill Thanos.”
Peter’s breath hitches.
In a flash, he’s clinging on to Carol as if his life depends on it, gripping her in an embrace akin to a hug but harsh in his desperation. Carol’s arms fly up in her surprise at his sudden strength.
“No,” Peter protests, words muffled by Carol’s suit as he presses his face into her collarbone. The angle of his jaw jars with her collarbone briefly. “Don’t go, don’t go – Carol, please don’t go. He’s gonna hurt you. He’s gonna kill you, he’ll kill you all.”
“I have to.”
“No – no. You can’t go. Please, please, don’t.”
As much as it tears at her heart to extricate herself from the half-hysterical kid and leave him in this state, Carol has no other option. This is an opportunity to regain half of the entire universe - Peter’s aunt, too, if all goes to plan – and she can’t pass that up, even for the kid’s peace of mind.
“Come on, let me go.”
“No.” Peter sucks in a breath through his teeth. He retains his death grip on Carol but trembles all over.
Carol closes her eyes briefly in grim resignation before allowing a little of her super strength to flow through her hands as she levers Peter more forcefully away from her and down onto the mattress. Hating the cold sound she makes when she turns on her heel, she heads hastily for the door, not daring to look back in case Peter’s face, which she imagines is a picture of panic and betrayal right now, tempts her to stay.
“Carol, no! Don’t… don’t… I don’t wanna lose you too, he’s too powerful, he’ll hurt you – please…”
It’s chillingly easy to block out his cries.
“FRIDAY?” Carol says once she’s locked the door behind her. “Call Pepper, tell her that Peter’s freaking out. He needs someone while I’m gone.”
She leaves the Compound with a stony face.
Peter has stumbled out of his bed, hitting the floor on hands and knees, and torn out offending tubes and needles from his skin to allow him to reach the door: he knows it’s been locked but hammers at it, hollering, all the same.
Frenzied adrenaline only keeps him on his feet for thirty seconds before he sways and passes out.
He dreams of blood, blood, blood.
When Peter next wakes, it’s to a deep-rooted sense of wrong that he can’t identify from where it’s buried under a soothing layer of drowsiness. It’s… nice? His arm stings a little, but it’s okay.
Pepper reads intently to his right. Pepper?
“Oh. Hi, M'ss Potts.” Something in the slur of Peter’s voice is unusual, but he can’t quite think why. He gives up trying: thinking too much is tiring.
Pepper snaps her book shut in surprise. “Hi, Peter.”
“What’re you doin' here?” he asks blearily.
“Keeping watch over you for a little while.”
Something about her answer doesn’t seem right, but Peter contents himself with it anyway, humming in acknowledgement.
“Mister St'rk… How is he?”
“He’s getting by,” sighs Pepper. “He misses you.” She shakes her head fondly.
“Gett'n' better?” Peter asks, words partially lost through the unmistakeable slur of the sedatives Barrie had pumped him through with to keep him docile until the Avengers returned.
“Oh yeah, every day. In fact, as soon as he’s up, he’ll probably come banging down your door again, causing trouble. You two are gonna be the death of me.”
Pepper pauses, the recent memory of running towards a sprawled body returning all too vividly to the forefront of her mind. Tony had worked himself up, just as Peter had mere hours later: torn out his IV and all. What else could she expect from him?
“Great.” With a sigh of relief, Peter relaxes into his pillows and promptly drifts back off.
Pepper resumes her reading, pressing her lips in a firm line.
The Avengers are due back in four hours. Until then, there’s no use in putting her mind to anything but the two troublemakers in their hospital room and her book on alternative skincare products.
“FRIDAY, is Carol—”
The woman herself holds the door open with a tightened fist as she enters Peter’s room. She looks lost.
Peter props himself up on his elbows, rushing to bombard her with questions: “Did you do it? Are you okay? What happened – is everyone alright?”
He’s met with silence as Carol slowly, despondently crosses the distance to the bed and perches on the edge, never once meeting his eye. A pit of lead opens in his stomach.
Dread sends him pulling her into a hesitant embrace, waiting for Carol’s arms to encircle his back before asking more quietly: “What is it?”
“I’m sorry, kid. We got him, but he’d already destroyed the stones.”
Peter ripples with tension under her hold for a moment, but it’s gone as soon as it was there.
“Oh.” His voice cracks.
Carol hugs him tighter. She’s let him down, let the whole world down, and they’re gone.
“I want to get up.”
It’s spoken out of the blue; for a moment, Carol is jerked out of her numbness and raises her eyebrows at his sudden change in tack. “Where do you wanna go?”
Maybe it’s her stricken and disordered thoughts that drive her next response. “Alright. I’ll get out the wheelchair—”
“No - could you… help me instead?”
Now that she’s drawn back from him, Carol sees only stormy stubbornness in the set of Peter’s brow.
“You’re gonna have to take it slow,” Carol cautions.
“I just wanna move.” Peter’s already struggling to get up on his feet.
The kid’s relentless determination draws an unlikely comment from her: “Okay - let me help you, then, Rocketman.”
Though there’s a distraught boy beneath the veneer he’s plastered on, Peter smiles softly at this, allowing Carol to wrap an arm around his shoulders and secure her free hand at his elbow to support him. Peter’s bare feet are unsteady but resilient on the floor as Carol angles them both towards the workshop. What the kid thinks he’ll find there is beyond her.
“You must’ve read my mind, Pete,” he hears as he rounds the corner to the coldly-lit workshop.
Tony sits hunched in a desk chair; he catches his overwrought expression moments before the man schools it into a smile. He’s paused at a hologram of the six Infinity stones. Scanning him up and down, Peter is assured that he is recovering, his still-shaking hands reminding Peter chillingly of his downward spiral on the Milano but the bones in his face less painfully prominent.
Carol eases Peter down into a neighbouring chair. Instantly, Tony’s got an arm around Peter’s torso and pulls him into his side; Peter drops his head into the warm space between Tony’s shoulder and neck without a sound, returning the embrace with hands clasped around the left of Tony’s ribs. They breathe in sync for a minute, and the rest of the world seems to wait for them to finish.
By the time Tony’s pulled away, tears are glistening on Peter’s cheeks, though he chews at his bottom lip as if to berate them for falling.
“We’ll fix it,” Tony rushes to reassure him. “We’ll bring them back.”
Peter won’t quite meet his eye. “Yeah.”
Something deep and guttural in Peter tells him that he’s being fed bittersweet lies, lies that Tony only tells him to spare him pain, but lies all the same - but maybe he likes the lies. They paper over, however feebly, the gaping black hole in his chest where once lived May, the Guardians, his friends, the universe.
They work and work until Pepper and Carol drag them back to bed and find nothing.