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Doom and Gloom

Chapter Text

 

Peter’s eyes widen.

 

He’d never dreamed his world would expand so much in one day. The trip to MoMA itself was enough excitement after a certain Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man came to the rescue of a few visiting kids who thought it would be smart to get their first taste of parkour on the museum roof.

 

Who would be dumb enough to even do that?

 

During the trip home, he’d kept his head down and his nose in a book – namely, Doctor Banner’s newest thesis on quantum physics – in an attempt to keep the danger-attracting capacity of his Parker luck from doing any more damage than it needed.

 

Then, with the least comedic comedic timing ever, he’d felt the hairs on his arms prick up, taken one glimpse at the colossal flying doughnut descending on the city, and cursed internally.

 

And yet, the notion of pulling down the window of the school bus and soaring into the (hopefully very metaphorical) jaws of death – and the pride he hoped would paint across Mister Stark’s face after they’d cleaned everything up – was too enticing to resist. So out of the claustrophobic yellow piece of junk he’d dived, taking only a moment to pull his mask and backpack on before he was free-swinging under the bridge and towards the danger.

 

From that moment on, the stakes had only escalated (figuratively and literally). He’d fought a bunch of creepy-looking aliens and ended up in outer space; he’d crash-landed aforementioned colossal doughnut ship with Mister Stark and Doctor Strange; he’d almost been killed by the Guardians of the Galaxy, who turned out to be good guys after all; he’d been introduced to the mind-bending world of Infinity Stones and Mad Titans, piecing together evidence from the exposition Mister Stark threw about.

 

And now Thanos himself is there, the figure that had so distressed Mister Stark while he argued with Strange, and something of the dull gleam in his eyes unsettles Peter to the core - except he’s a little preoccupied right now.

 

It’s not every day that he gets a moon thrown at him.

 

The already-barren landscape of Titan is transformed; it’s a minefield, a hauntingly, terrifyingly beautiful myriad of flames and flying dust.

 

The lack of gravity in Titan’s atmosphere, miraculously, works in his favour; he launches himself through the air, increasing velocity with an airborne double backflip, and shoots a web to attach to a relatively stable-looking structure to his right in order to steer himself that way.

 

Under different circumstances, Peter would be reeling with how insanely cool the meteoric projectiles currently launching in their hundreds at the surface of the planet were, but a twang at the back of his neck alerts him to the unconscious Mantis hurtling past floating debris and he is jarringly reminded of the severity of the situation.

 

Shit, shit, shit - there’s more of them-

 

But, for all his acrobatics and cries of effort as he twists and leaps through the suspended wreckage, Peter can only save one person at once. Once he has Mantis safely webbed away from the meteorites, he allows the extendable arms of his suit to keep him secured and aims his webshooters frantically at the guy Mister Stark had called Mr. Clean – again, comedy at the worst time – and Mister… that guy who’d threatened him.

 

As he collects the unresponsive Guardians together with multiple strands of webbing, he rambles: “I’ve got you! – I’ve got you!... Sorry, I can’t remember anybody’s names.”

 

He’d chosen to briefly screen out the noises of conflict below, clearly audible to his enhanced ears, but now the Guardians are out of imminent danger, his thoughts fly irrepressibly to Mister Stark.

 

Peter can’t make out any figures through the haze of smoke and fire; he forces down a shudder of terror at how vulnerable he is right now without vision. “Karen? What’s going on down on the surface?”

 

“I’m detecting three heat signatures at ground level: two seventy-nine feet to your ten o’clock, and one just under the surface, which matches up to the signal of the Iron Man suit. Two hundred and fourteen feet, six o’clock.”

 

Two hundred and fourteen feet, six o’clock.

 

Peter’s extendable suit arms retract, and he dives for the ground.

 

It grates at his nerves to call out loud for his mentor while Thanos is so close at hand, but a primal instinct has pumped him full of too much adrenaline to make a smarter choice.

 

“Mister Stark? Mister – Karen, is he getting out? Is he – is the suit reporting injuries?”

 

“Just bruises. He’s alright.”

 

A terse nod, and Peter skids to a halt as the display lights up to inform him that Mister Stark is… somewhere?

 

Where?

 

He yelps as a shower of earth erupts from beside his ankle, very nearly webbing Iron Man’s fist into a ball and inconveniencing them both.

 

Oh.”

 

Juddering into action, Peter near claws at the ground, tossing aside metal debris and chunks of earth, until Mister Stark’s head and shoulders are exposed. From there, he doesn’t hesitate before kneeling before his mentor and hooking his arms under the armpits of the Iron Man suit to pull him swiftly free.

 

A grunt of surprise emanates from the Iron Man suit; only after he’s set Tony back down on the ground does Peter consider how strange it is that he, a twink of a fifteen-year-old, just lifted a fully grown man – plus heavy metal armour – out of a hole.

 

Right now, that’s the least of his worries.

 

“Mister Stark!”

 

The Iron Man mask briefly retracts; Peter misses the defeat stirring in his eyes, and that’s exactly what Tony intends. Hide it. Keep morale up. Don’t depress the kid. We might have lost, but I’m winning as long as he’s smiling. “Kid. You alright?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I’m good.” In response, Peter’s own mask melts away.

 

“Listen –“ a slight vibration in the ground stops Tony in his tracks for a second; he continues more urgently. “I’m going for Thanos again. I want you to stand down. None of this self-sacrificial bullshit, okay?”

 

“But I’m fine, I can help—"

 

No.” The fury in Tony’s voice is a quality Peter has never felt the direct force of before. And yet, when he haltingly meets the man’s eyes, he sees not anger but fear. “Promise me you won’t try and help. It’s… I’m not losing you, okay?”

 

Peter falters. The wound-up energy bundled up inside him is not helping him think straight.

 

Mister Stark claps a hand onto Peter’s shoulder, prompting him for a quick answer.

 

“Okay, okay. What do I do if… if you—"

 

“That won’t happen.” The sincerity in Tony’s raised eyebrows is enough to convince Peter, just for a second, until he is blasting away, a projectile gauntlet bursting from the suit and travelling in front toward Thanos, who has just tossed Doctor Strange aside where his face thuds against a rock shelf.

 

If the Sorcerer Supreme is that banged up, this is not going to go well.

 

Some childish yet firm-held belief persists that this is Iron Man, he’s the coolest superhero there is, no way will he lose a fight--

 

And yet the rapidly developing voice of caution (about time) at the helm of his mind mutters darkly that Thanos is on a whole different level. Maybe there’s a reason why he made you stay away. What if he gets hurt? Will you have to watch?

 

Peter hunkers down behind a crashed asteroid to torturously spectate.

 

The jet-powered gauntlet encloses around the Infinity Gauntlet. Landing in a stance of defiance directly in front of Thanos, Iron Man deadpans: “You throw another moon at me, and I’m gonna lose it.”

 

“Stark,” rumbles Thanos threateningly.

 

“You know me?”

 

“I do. You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge.”

 

“My only curse is you.”

 

As if waiting to make the perfect dramatic entrance, a host of small rockets eject from the upper back of the suit and whir in their collision course towards Thanos, who simply grits his teeth and holds the gauntlet in front of him.

 

A powerful yet contained explosion; the smoke takes too long to settle, and Peter is on the verge of returning to the childhood habit of nail-biting. Before even Peter can make out Thanos’ form clearly, Iron Man is jumping into battle, small wing extensions morphing out of the nanotech to allow him more momentum to kick Thanos back.

 

At the pure coolness of these ever-shifting nanobots, Peter can’t help but grin, no matter how out-of-place it feels on a battleground.

 

The cautionary fingers hovering over his webshooter relax slightly.

 

And, for these triumphant few moments, Tony is winning. Thanos is knocked back, and knocked back, and even when he lunges forward to tear the mask off, a new one bubbles upward to replace it before Peter can so much as blink.

 

Locking the Mad Titan’s hand to the floor, Iron Man aims a bludgeoned hit - and draws a drop of blood from his enemy’s cheekbone.

 

Peter allows himself, if not to believe, then to hope, that his mentor will make it out of this relatively unharmed.

 

All the same, he pulls up the display of Tony’s vitals to rest in the corner of his vision and turns the alerts on to monitor them better. Just in case. Just in case. Just in-

 

“All that for a drop of blood?” And Thanos smiles.

 

This is the moment when, like the force of a shard of glass piercing him, Peter knows that Iron Man alone can’t beat this monster. The childhood belief shatters before his eyes as he watches his hero tumble to the ground, Thanos’ fist following close behind.

 

Tony blocks the first hit with arms drawn up in front of him, lurching upwards on his elbows to get back to his feet, but Thanos is faster.

 

Down comes the muscled fist on Tony’s face. Peter counts six punches, each rocking Iron Man back with the brute force of the hit. Peter doesn’t pay any heed to the leaking of tears from his screwed-up eyes in the anguish that envelops him. Try as he might, he can’t turn away. His hand, still poised over the webshooter, edges inexorably nearer, although he’d never dream of disobeying Mister Stark.

 

Now, Thanos tires of the attack, and blasts Tony full in the stomach with a sudden flash of the purple stone on his fist. Tony lands crumpled as if irrevocably damaged.

 

Get up, Mister Stark. Please get up.

 

Behind his makeshift cover, Peter’s tempted to web himself down to stop himself from jumping in. His hands tear chunks of rock from the crashed asteroid; he is oblivious to the nervous habit, eyes bolted to the nightmarish snarl that crosses Thanos’ face as he steps back in to confront Iron Man.

 

Somehow, against the odds, Tony is back on his feet before his opponent can reach him, shooting out a hand in the iconic Iron Man pose to direct a defensive repulsor beam which blazes hot white. Thanos, however, barely thinks twice about blocking the blast with his gauntlet and slowly advancing on Tony.

 

With a writhing shift of nanotech from his leg which is now bereft of its armour, Tony raises his left hand and another beam joins the first. The thrown-out rays of light partially obscure the two figures locked in combat. And still, Thanos approaches, closer and closer to Tony and not deterred by his defence.

 

The rose-tinted picture in Peter’s mind of Iron Man, of an unconquerable hero, has been felled, and he swallows down the fact that his mentor is fallible.

 

And not just fallible but losing.

 

With a brutal strike, Thanos shatters the mask from Tony’s face, and the cuts and bruises and desperation staining his face are exposed.

 

“I want you to stand down.”

 

“What do I do if… if you…”

 

If you die?

 

But Peter won’t let that happen. Mister Stark dying is not an option.

 

Spider-Man stands.

 

A split second before Thanos can aim another hit to Tony’s now-bare face, he raises both arms in a criss-cross and blocks, but not without a grunt of effort as he strains against Thanos’ brute force. He’s run out of steam. He’s only human.

 

But Peter isn’t.

 

Spider-Man steps out of hiding.

 

Iron Man raises another fist in an attempt to fight back that he knows is futile. Peter can see it spelled across his eyes: he’s doomed, and he knows.

 

But Peter can change that.

 

Spider-Man runs to save his hero.

 

Tony calls the very last of his available nanotech. A sleek, sword-like extension morphs over his free hand; with a sudden reignition of strength, he drives it towards Thanos but misses.

 

It is at this very moment when Peter realises that the action he takes will determine Mister Stark’s future. Maybe whether he lives or dies – because, taking advantage of Tony’s hand which he has trapped in a much larger fist, Thanos breaks off the spear and reels his arm back.

 

Peter sees the planned trajectory of that shard, straight through Tony’s abdomen.

 

Peter couldn’t live with himself if he let that happen. 

 

Spider-Man sticks his hand out and presses down on his webshooter.

 

Thanos starts as he finds the nanotech weapon wrenched from his hand and discarded a few feet away. Another set of webs quickly replaces it, imprisoning both of his fists and pulling him away from Tony.

 

“Don’t. Touch. Him.”

 

Thanos turns his head to meet his challenger and finds a kid at the end of the webbing.

 

A kid burning with protective fury.

 

A kid who won’t give up on saving people.

 

A kid who is about to suffer for the choice he’s just made.

 

Spider-Man and Thanos fly into action.

 

Chapter Text

 

“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…”

 

Chapter Text

 

There’s a blue-toned gleam somewhere at the edge of Peter’s vision, but he can’t quite find it. Are his eyes open?

 

The world’s submerged in web fluid, stagnant and off-white. He’s wading through. A blanket of pain. But there’s some relief in the cotton-wool peace of this world.

 

There are memories, however, buried beneath the ground, which he can’t run from fast enough. Hazy. Mister Stark leaning over him, always protecting—

 

And yet, here his hero holds a glowing section of the Iron Man armour in shaking hands, whispering “I’m so sorry, bud,” before descending on his abdomen in a photon blast of fiery agony which snaps to black.

 

There’s pain like minefields hidden everywhere he steps. Jolts, like lightning bolts, as he’s shifted in weary arms, the seams of dull red punctuating Titan’s sky replaced by cool blue overhead lights. Waves of cobalt light and choking aches as the black of the inside of his eyelids lightens and seals itself again before he can fully open them.

 

He frowns. That pain isn’t just a memory under the ground, it’s following him. The ghost of a wave that’s an accumulation of every memory and the amorphous now, a new wave that’s insurmountable and crashing nearer…

 

Peter wakes with a strangled cry.

 

The minute the lights touch his retina, they burn with cool, disinterested fire. He arches his back, trying to shake the agony from his torso, but it only intensifies with the movement.

 

Tony jerks upwards.

 

He’d been sat bowed over the worktable of the Milano, head in hands, forcing himself not to check again for blood under his fingernails. He’d washed them raw to rid himself of Peter’s blood, but it had done nothing to assuage the guilt.

 

If he hadn’t cauterized the stab wound, the kid would’ve bled out then and there. And yet, that fact cannot drown out the muffled, delirious scream still echoing through his mind as he’d tied Peter’s hands behind his back, used the last ounce of power in a remaining Iron Man gauntlet to turn a shard of tech red-hot, and pressed it across the kid’s stomach.

 

He’d found himself begging for Peter to pass out, for his pain to shorten and the awful scream to cut off.

 

As soon as he’d done what he needed, he’d torn off the awful restraints and pulled the unconscious kid shakily into him. “God.”

 

It’s a few seconds before Tony separates this new sound from the scream that haunts him. He’s up in an instant, jogging across the room and towards the bunk where he’d carried the kid after the Snap.

 

He’d searched the Milano for painkillers, sedatives, something, but none of the supplies onboard were recognizable. With Peter’s enhancements, he couldn’t bear to risk giving him something that would worsen his condition.

 

Peter’s choking on his own saliva now, short-circuiting in shock. Tony drops to his knees by the bunk, easing the kid onto his side to help him breathe. He’d slipped a large hoodie and a pair of socks over him to keep him warm while he slept, leaving the stained boxers alone for now.

 

Peter, ever the motormouth, is clearly past speech right now, so Tony talks for him with carefully level intonation. “Hey, kiddo. You’re up early, huh?”

 

Peter hacks a wad of spit onto the mattress, pressing his face into the fabric as if to shield the sight from Tony. He flops back onto his back, keening. Tony doesn’t think he’s aware he’s not alone until Tony weaves a hand through sweat-slicked curls and draws his attention.

 

There are tears streaming from the corners of Peter’s screwed-up eyes, and yet he locks them on Tony’s in desperation.

 

“Alright, it’s alright. Don’t think about it. You gotta go back to sleep.” It’s torturous, the way Peter gazes up at Tony as if the man is his salvation, because they’re both helpless. Sleep is Peter’s only respite from pain, from the angry red and blackened wound that lies only under the bandages that are exposed as Peter tears at the hoodie.

 

A grating breath pushes out of Peter’s throat from between clenched teeth; his eyebrows pull inwards as he attempts to collect himself.

 

Tony’s at a loss for comforting words, untethered. They’re so alone.

 

It’s a surprise to them both when he blurts: “It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me, up there, two thousand feet above a New York street.”

 

Peter’s cries of pain quiet for a moment.

 

“We’re safe and free, a little while, to live and love, imagining what might have been – the phone call from the blazing tower. A last farewell on the machine while someone sleeps another hour.”

 

Tony continues to work his hand slowly through the knots in the kid’s hair as he continues above sobs of pain, recalling the poetry from dark recesses of memory.

 

“Or worse, perhaps, to say goodbye and listen to each other’s pain, send helpless love across the sky, knowing we’ll never meet again.”

 

Peter’s grimy hand seeks Tony’s.



“Or jump together, hand in hand, to certain death. Spared all of this for now, how well I understand that love is all, is all there is.”

 

The heaving in Peter’s chest has lessened; he closes his eyes against the bittersweet sensation of comforting hands in his hair battling with the shredding agony in his torso.

 

Fuelled by the positive reaction, Tony unearths passages of long-forgotten poetry in his quest to get Peter back to sleep.

 

“If we were never going to die, I might not hug you quite as often or as tight or say goodbye to you as carefully - if I were certain you’d come back to me.”

 

Screams turn to raw, spent groans, and Tony bows his head, jaw tight.

 

“A noiseless patient spider—“

 

Peter huffs out the smallest, shakiest of laughs.

 

“I marked where on a little promontory it launched forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.”

 

An exhale through his nose, and Peter’s eyes flutter shut.

 

“And you, O my soul, where you stand, surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them…”

 

Finally, finally, Peter relaxes in the arms of sleep.

 

“Till the bridge you will need be formed, till the ductile anchor hold, till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

 

Passing his thumb gently across the back of Peter’s hand, Tony rises slowly and leaves.

 

It’s Day 2 after the Snap (he’s started marking the date by the event, seeing as it so occupies his thoughts: who lived and died? Is Pepper alright? What’s happened to the Avengers?) and they’re making progress through space, stars flying by past the windows and void bathing the ship with blue light.

 

He’s held back from assessing the amount of fuel and supplies on the ship because he’s scared. Cruel fate has brought a life other than his own into his hands, and he’s powerless to save it past the capacity of the Milano.

 

When Peter gets up, he says to himself. When Peter’s better.

 

When?

 

Day 4 is dashed with the tiniest glimmer of hope.

 

He doesn’t notice Peter’s weak frame leant against the entryway until the kid speaks in a strained voice. “He did it, didn’t he? It… it happened.”

 

Tony jolts out of his seat to stand. “Hi, kid. Wasn’t expecting you up so fast.”

 

For half a moment, they both hesitate, the colour slowly draining from Peter’s face until he lists forward dizzily. Tony meets him before he can fall, supporting him as he guides the kid over to the workbench to sit. “Sorry,” whispers Peter, jaw tight with suppressed pain.

 

They sit together, Peter hunched over and wincing, Tony morose and watchful. Peter meets his eyes; Tony hasn’t answered his question.

 

“Yeah. It happened.”

 

It’s hard to fathom, even after watching the Guardians and Doctor Strange dissolve into ash, that half of the universe’s population is gone. Just like that. Tony can only imagine how much more difficult it is for Peter, who was barely conscious when it all happened, who’s left in the dark as much as Tony as to the state of the people he loves, who, if Tony knows him at all, will agonize over every stranger lost, who could have just lost his Aunt May and his only remaining guardian in the disaster.

 

Because that's what it is: a disaster.

 

Peter presses his lips together in a line to keep from crying.

 

Sucking in a steeling breath, Tony breaks their situation to the kid. What else can he do? “This is the Guardians’ ship. It’s… just us. There are supplies and fuel, but I don’t know how long they’ll last us. Titan – it’s pretty far from home base. But I reckon we can do a little engineering, fix up the fuel cells… for now, you’ve gotta rest up and stay alive until I figure out a way to get us out of here.”

 

At his last words, Peter lifts his head. His eyes are deep brown pools with darkness at their depths; when he speaks, his voice wavers. “How can we get out of here, Mister Stark?”

 

Tony flounders for an instant. Don’t let the kid lose hope, he reminds himself. “When have I ever met a problem I can’t solve, huh?” Gently tilting Peter’s chin upwards so he meets the kid’s eyes, Tony persists, weaving sweet lies. “We can fix the fuel, get it to take us home. Then all we need to do is stick around until we get there. We can make it. We’re going home, Pete.”

 

What does home look like now?

 

A small voice at the back of his mind points out that he’s giving the kid false hope, but the half-smile that’s worked its way across Peter’s face is intoxicating: all he wants is to make it stay.

 

“Do the—” Peter cuts himself off with a humourless laugh, “Did the Guardians have any painkillers?”

 

Tony bites on the inside of his cheek. He shakes his head. “I’m sorry. The medicine is all from space, I can’t tell it apart.”

 

In response, Peter makes to stand - “I’ll go and see, maybe I can tell or- or something…” but he barely makes it a step towards the doorway before his knees buckle, a strangled sound of sudden pain escaping him.

 

“Kid, take it easy,” Tony scolds gently as he dashes to catch Peter once again. The kid blushes; “Sorry, sorry,” he repeats like a mantra of self-destruction.

 

Instead of helping him over to the medicine cabinet, Tony steers the limping teenager back towards the bunk, ignoring his weak protests. Peter seems to give in and allows Tony to support the brunt of his weight, lowering him down to the mattress with as much control as he can muster. Tony sees the rippling tension in his fists and jaw and knows he’s suppressing more outward signs of pain.

 

“You’re a brave kid, Underoos,” he says quietly, squeezing Peter’s shoulder in reassurance before he rises and backs out of the room. Peter, for all his claims of being wide awake, is halfway to dreamland by the time Tony crosses the threshold, gazing at Tony’s retreating figure with half-lidded eyes.

 

“Mister Stark?” he calls abruptly, stopping Tony in his tracks.

 

“What is it, squirt?”

 

The nickname comes as a surprise to them both: Tony briefly worries Peter will think it’s too childish, but the kid relaxes into a small smile.

 

“Uh - thanks for saving me.”

 

Tony can only smile sadly. “Thanks for saving me.”

 

Before he leaves Peter in peace, Tony can’t resist poking his head around the doorway and adding: “Go to sleep or I’ll buy you a gold-plated Bentley.”

 

The sound of Peter’s giggle warms him to the core.

 

Back at the workbench, Tony makes a plan.

 

Peter is already becoming more and more coherent; he’ll be up and running in the next few days, no matter how much Tony pleads for him to rest. When that time comes, Tony needs to have a plan – and not just a plan but a Plan. The Game Plan, he dubs it. The night is spent measuring food and water supplies and fuel levels, scrawling calculations on scrap paper, chewing on a pencil in indecision.

 

The morning of Day 5, he sits Peter down and briefs him on The Game Plan.

 

“Here’s how it’s going to go: 300 millilitres of water a day, and one of those silver packets. Hope you like space blueberries, kid, because there’s a lot of ‘em.”

 

Peter eyes the stockpiled rations nervously. It doesn’t look like there’s a lot of anything. Of course, he’s used to eating less than he probably should with his enhanced metabolism: until a couple of months ago when May discovered his identity, it would have looked suspicious either to pile up at the cafeteria or to ask for multiple portions at home. Couple that with the added cost and the sheer embarrassment it thrust upon him, and he was better off dealing with a gnawing stomach. Over time, background hunger pains have become like an old friend.

 

He’d broached the subject to May just days after she’d first discovered him in the Spider-Man suit; she’d sat him down right then and there and ordered Thai for them both, staring him down until he’d chosen at least four dishes, then given him a long hug.

 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she’d said.

 

And yet, Peter watches himself make the same mistake as before, opting to swallow heavily rather than speaking up, and doesn’t regret it. If he could deal with near-constant hunger before, he can take it a little worse now if it keeps Tony around with him.

 

Tony, to his credit, twists his hands apologetically. “I didn’t want it to be like this. It’s… this is our best shot at sticking around until we get back.”

 

Evidently, he’s picked up on something in Peter’s reaction, so Peter schools his face into nonchalance: “Oh, it’s fine – don’t worry, I get it.”

 

“Okay. We’re set on the Super Diet.”

 

The involuntary laugh he draws from Peter is more than worth it.

 

“What else?” the kid enquires helpfully.

 

“The fuel cells got cracked in the battle. Once you’re up and running properly, we can work on them together, see if we can get any more flight time out of them. And then… keep from going out of our minds with boredom.”

 

It’s meant jokingly, but Peter’s brows furrow in concern.

 

Tony attempts to salvage the lighter tone: “What is it you youngsters do nowadays… Kiss, Marry, Kill?”

 

Peter snorts, briefly covering his face with a hand. “I am not playing Kiss, Marry, Kill with you, Mister Stark.”

 

“With me? So you have played it?”

 

In a bid to distract Tony from his teasing, Peter cuts in: “Would you rather… have infinite wealth or infinite intelligence?”

 

Tony hums in thought. “Well, infinite intelligence could easily bag me the infinite wealth too… definitely intelligence. What about you?”

 

“Intelligence,” assents Peter, smiling through a wince of pain as he shifts on his seat.

 

“Would you rather…”

 


 

 

“…have to say everything on your mind or never speak again?” Peter says out of the blue as he squints at the small triangle of silver paper he’s currently balancing under a finger.

 

It’s Day 8. Tony had been astounded that the kid had never learnt to play paper football; with the reams of free time they found had been thrust upon them while they remained cooped up in outer space, they’d had no shortage of practice. Peter’s increasing stamina meant they could play for hours at a time now.

 

“Are you ever gonna take your shot, kid?” Tony’s been holding his goal for so long, index fingers horizontal and joined, he’s pretty sure something’s gonna fall asleep soon.

 

Finally, Peter makes his move, the paper unsurprisingly flying directly into the centre of Tony’s makeshift goal. Damn perfectionist. “You didn’t answer the question,” he prompts, eyeing Tony.

 

Tony retrieves the triangle, preparing for his next shot. “I know which one you’d pick.”

 

“What do you mean?” a bemused smile creeps across Peter’s face, hidden behind strands of hair that have fallen into his eyes and which Tony’s been holding back from tucking away for a grand total of twelve minutes.

 

“Say everything on your mind. That’s already your default. If you couldn’t talk, you might just explode.”

 

Peter splutters. “I don’t - I don’t say everything on my mind!”

 

Tony humours him. “Sure you don’t. Let’s hear it. What aren’t you saying right now?”

 

“If I tell you, I’ll have said everything on my mind. I’m not gonna prove you right that easily.”

 

“You can’t prove me wrong either unless you talk. Come on, I’m intrigued.”

 

All at once, the smile drops from Peter’s face. He sighs.

 

“I’m not… I didn’t talk… about Aunt May.”

 

Oh.

 

Tony moves to perch on the edge of the table, hands braced on the ledge, and tilts his head towards Peter, who fiddles erratically with a seam on his hoodie. “What about her?”

 

Peter casts about. Tony sees a child much younger than him in his eyes, a child who’s lost more than he could ever deserve, a child who’s scared of being lonely. “That she- she – I don’t know. Because I don’t know what’s happening back at home, and I don’t know what’s happened to her, and I don’t know if she’s…”

 

Dead.

 

There are the right words hidden inside Tony, he knows, but they won’t surface when he needs them most. Instead, he says: “Yeah.”

 

Peter crumples by the second, running his words together. “I know – I know - there’s nothing you can do, which is why I didn’t talk about it – I’m sorry—”

 

In response, Tony crosses the distance between them, dodging the table, and finally gives in to the urge to comb Peter’s hair back with rough fingers. “Hey, quit saying sorry. It’s okay.”

 

Tony briefly cups the side of Peter’s face with a hand, their faces inches apart, and shoots him a sympathetic smile.

 

“Okay,” Peter responds quietly. He sniffs, head ducked, then looks upwards to meet Tony’s eyes with a watery smile.

 

“How about you get your goal back up? I’m thirsting for a victory right now. You are not ready.”

 

Despite it all, this draws a hesitant laugh from the kid, who puts up a goal with his arms in a loose circle. “Try me.”

 

He smiles knowingly, almost pityingly.

 

Damn it. Tony couldn’t jump in and score a victory against the kid now if he tried, and Peter knows it too.

 

Tony misses.

 

“Would you rather always lose or never play?” Peter smirks as he scores his winning shot, the folded paper which serves as their ‘ball’ flopping into Tony’s goal area without so much as bouncing.

 

“Never play,” Tony mock-grumbles.

 


 

 

“Do we have to do them? I’m sure it’ll still heal up alright if we change them every other day instead.”

 

Peter edges away from Tony as he approaches with clean bandages in hand, scooting to press against the wall. There’s a hint of a smile on his face, mostly overridden by wariness, but Tony is reassured that he’s not trapping the kid into doing something that really hurts him. Changing the dressings daily is the only power Tony has over the wound and how well it heals; he feels just slightly more level-headed after it’s over, as much as the sight of Peter’s face contorting in pain makes his heart ache.

 

He persists, a teasing grin ghosting his face. “Yes, we do have to do them. If there’s one thing we’re not short on, it’s dressings. May as well do you up like King Tut while we’re at it.”

 

“Seriously – it’ll probably be fine if we do this less often,” Peter hurries, even as Tony begins to cut away the old and concerningly soiled dressing.

 

“Yeah, well, there’s the clincher – “Probably”. Why go for “probably” when we can have “probably definitely?”

 

Peter scoffs. Tony wonders if the newly acquired sass is a product of the extended time he’s spent with only Tony Smartass Stark as company. “That’s a pretty small improvement for the- for the amount of – shit!”

 

Peter instinctively grips Tony’s hand with a sharp grimace as the final layer of bandaging, which has stuck to the raw outer layer of Peter’s skin, tears away, revealing a still-open wound rimmed with black scabbing.

 

“Oi, I said motormouth, not potty mouth,” rebukes Tony gently, giving Peter’s tight-fisted hand a reassuring squeeze before easing away from the kid’s hold to press the new bandage on his abdomen. “Sorry,” he adds, wincing a little in sympathy.

 

“Oh man,” breathes Peter. He appears resigned to the pain he knows the application of the new dressing will cause him.

 

Struck with inspiration, Tony asks him: “Would you rather be able to read everyone’s mind all the time or always know their future?”

 

“Um…” Peter furrows his brow in indecision, briefly shutting his eyes against the throb of Tony tightening the cloth around his stomach. “I don’t want either of them. People deserve to have their own thoughts without me intruding on them. And it’d be awful to know how everyone died and the bad stuff that happens to them. You?”

 

“Know their future,” Tony says softly, “So I can make sure the bad stuff never happens.”

 

Peter turns to look at him with a disconcerting depth Tony can't quite interpret.

 

He snaps out of his contemplative daze and sits back on his haunches. "Alright hot stuff, we're all wrapped up here. Literally."

 

"Really?"

 

Tony nods. The new spotlessly white bandage certainly makes Peter’s condition seem much more manageable.

 

“Thank you.”

 

The gratitude on Peter’s face blindsides him.

 

Smirking lopsidedly, Tony begins to run his fingers through the hair above Peter’s ear, marvelling at how the action purges the tension from the kid. “You’re welcome, squirt. You wanna sleep a little?"

 

Peter chuckles. "Mister Stark, I just got up."

 

"Thought I'd try anyway."

 

"Can we just... stay here for a while?" The sensation of Tony’s fingers weaving through his hair has relaxed Peter into a state of slack peacefulness Tony hasn’t witnessed in the teenager enough since they boarded the ship. Maybe I should do this more often.

 

Tony cocks his head, bemused. 

 

He humours the blissed-out kid. "Alright."

 


 

 

Day 11 is the start of a downhill plummet.

 

Tony stands before a holographic display through which a blinking red line plots their course to Earth. Running alongside it is a wider green line: the distance their fuel will take them.

 

It tails off roughly a thousand lightyears from home. They’ll never make it.

 

Scrubbing a hand across his goatee, Tony closes his eyes against the horror of it.

 

His nightmares were right all along.

 

“Did it work?” calls Peter from the engine room where they’d been reversing the ion charge imposed on the fuel cells during battle when they’d been cracked to maximise their available fuel and try to make it back to the Milky Way. His voice is cautious and yet brimming with hope, unbearable hope.

 

In response, Tony forms the only word he can currently force through his throat. “Peter.”

 

The sound of his full name spoken with such a broken cadence brings Peter running. He pauses in the doorway when he sees Tony utterly motionless, an ancient instinct warning him he might not like what he’s about to hear.

 

Tony takes in Peter’s grubby hands which he wipes with a cloth, the ill-fitting clothes he wears, the smear of black on the tip of his nose he hasn’t noticed yet, the slight limp he tries to hide in Tony’s presence, the glint of white in his irises that always materializes while he’s solving a problem, the quickly disappearing smile on his face. He drinks in the Peter-ness of him which will surely fade and die as they drift endlessly through the void.

 

“Mister Stark?” Peter prompts.

 

Wordlessly, Tony steps aside so Peter can join him in watching the display. Two blinking lines which spell their doom. As soon as he registers the cause of Tony’s stalling, Peter flinches back a little. “Oh.”

 

The deadening abyss of outer space all around them is the only surrounding they will know until their final days; there is no hope of survival.

 

Tony can tell by the muted, periodical sniffs behind him that Peter is crying, but unlike the frequent previous occasions when he’d run off before Tony could see him break down, he stays by Tony’s side as if out of a need to comfort or be comforted.

 

Tony makes the decision for him, wrapping protective hands around the small of his back and the back of his head. Peter burrows into Tony, lightly trembling, and there they fit.

 

“I’m sorry,” he mutters into Tony’s shirt, “I should’ve stayed on the bus, I should never have hung onto the flying doughnut thingy, I should’ve fought harder and won so none of this would have happened.”

 

Tony frowns. “Hey. Not your fault. You did great, okay?”

 

At this, Peter slowly pulls away to start a staring contest with oblivion.

 

He speaks into the silence: “Would you rather die instantly, or slowly?”

 

There is no reply from the similarly inconsolable Tony.

 


 

 

That evening, when Peter finds Tony trying unsuccessfully to sleep in the bunk, he climbs in beside him.

 

“Is it alright if I…”

 

“Yeah, sure. C’mere, kid.”

 

At first, the kid is hesitant to invade Tony’s space, clumsily folding his limbs out of the way, but Tony, with his newfound clinginess around the teenager, pulls him in so his head rests on the hinge between Tony’s shoulder and upper arm. Instinctively, Peter slips his arms around Tony’s middle.

 

They share in their existential terror.

 

“You’ll fix this, right?” whispers Peter into the night. “You always fix things. You can get us out of here.”

 

Tony meets Peter’s eyes and sees knowledge that contradicts his words. Peter knows that Tony is faced with the unfixable problem of all unfixable problems, and yet he’s not quite ready to accept it yet.  Like a child asking for a bedtime story, he needs a blinding fairy tale to distract him from the horror at hand.

 

“That’s right, Pete. Just like I said - never met a problem I can’t solve.”

 

Peter fools himself into relaxing just a little in Tony’s arms, the gentle cadence of his voice lulling him into an entirely false sense of security.

 

Tony takes the hint and continues to ramble. The fantasy story is for his own benefit as much as Peter’s.

 

“I’ll get us out of here. And when we arrive back on Earth, they’ll throw a huge party for us both. Welcome Home, Tony and Peter. Pepper and your Aunt May will be furious at us, but then they’ll give us no end of bear hugs.

 

“And, after that, I’ll buy a little place, maybe by a lake, and you and May and whoever else you wanna invite, you can all stay over with me and Pep there. You can take a day off for once. I think at this point May might want to straitjacket you just to get you to stay put for a couple of hours. But it’ll be good. Warm lake water, sunshine…”

 

Within the next few minutes, Peter has drifted off – Tony hopes he dreams of the imaginary lake house and not the terror or their reality – and left Tony awake and alone despite the warm body next to him.

 


 

 

On Day 15, Tony’s soldering iron clatters to the floor.

 

After too many hours of watching Peter bounce off the walls, Tony had started going out of his mind worrying about every calorie the already-much-smaller kid was losing with his pacing and fiddling. As depressing as it sounds, he’s started to mark the passage of time by the growing prominence of Peter’s collarbone and elbows beneath the too-big borrowed t-shirt he’s hung onto since Day 1. Eventually, he’d herded the restless teenager to a workbench and laden him with spare parts to play with, and they’d worked for a good hour or two in companionable silence, tinkering aimlessly.

 

Tony’s second and more visceral time marker is the increasing shaking in his hands. He figures it’s a by-product of the reduced diet, but it doesn’t bother him much. He’s dealt with shaking before, has filed away too many memories of glasses filled with alcohol and surrounded by his own trembling fingers. Shaking, he can deal with – as long as he’s on his feet and present to look out for Peter.

 

It comes as a surprise to them both when the soldering iron he’s leaning to set aside slips out of his grip.

 

Tony leans to scoop up the instrument with a twitch of annoyance crossing his face. Pull it together. He doesn’t even glance in Peter’s direction before resuming his work.

 

Peter, however, watches the event with widened eyes. He’s seen Tony at work before in the few workshop sessions he’d managed to squeeze in around his busy schedule, and the way the man could breeze around the room entirely on instinct, weaving and swiping and enquiring and handling equipment like creation was a dance that he’d been practicing for since the day he was born, had never failed to astound him.

 

He’s a rock, steady and tethering and unfaltering. He’s always around with an easy smile and a one-liner to make him smile. Peter, at first, can’t connect this firmly-held ideal with the Tony in front of him now whose hands rattle against the floor as he retrieves the soldering iron.

 

“Mis—" he starts to say, but cuts himself off before Tony hears him. This is not the kind of problem he can talk out. It’s a side-effect of starvation – and just one of many that Peter’s been acutely aware of in the last few days.

 

It’s happening: Tony is dying. Peter’s re-occurring nightmares feature him cradling a lifeless and emaciated Tony, kept alive by his enhancements and utterly alone. He’s not sure if he works that way in real life, if his mutations would really keep him from starving longer, but he’s more than willing to trust that he can handle it.

 

Peter doesn’t stop to rationalize for a moment that he is dying too. Instead, he plots to make sure his actions on Titan that kept Tony safe aren’t in vain.

 


 

 

Later that day, when he goes to fetch the day’s rations, he swallows hard and faces Mister Stark.

 

Tony’s face falls instantly when Peter wordlessly offers him both the portions.

 

“Thanks, bud,” he says anyway, trying not to read too much into the gesture just yet, and separates his packet from the other, leaving Peter’s portion still in his hand. Rather more forcefully, Peter pushes it into his hands, catching eye contact with Tony with all the wrong kinds of determination written in the thin line of his lips. He still won’t say a word.

 

Tony’s not having this. There’s no way in hell he’s going to let Peter do this. He’s just as malnourished as Tony is, and injured, and young.

 

“Hey. That’s yours.” Tony sets aside his own small silver packet and tries to steer Peter’s hand away from him – only, he finds Peter will not budge. Damn it, super strength. He lifts his eyes to Peter, eyebrows raised, and sees the resolve in his eyes.

 

The kid finally responds, in a quiet and dangerous voice Tony’s never heard from him before. “Take it, sir.”

 

Sir?

 

Tony shakes his head, jaw set. “Nope. We’re not discussing this. You take your food, I take mine. That’s final.”

 

“Just - please.”

 

And damn if Tony can’t painstakingly pick out the voice of a little boy in that single syllable.

 

“Don’t be like this, bud,” says Tony, quieter yet still standing his ground.

 

And then, in a move that shakes Tony to the core, Peter gets to his knees on the floor and begs. “Please, Mister Stark, please, please – I- I want you to have it. Just… take it.”

 

Tony is stunned, heartbroken. “Peter.”

 

The kid remains bowed in front of Tony as if he were a slave, staring at the floor. It’s clear he isn’t going to move until Tony accepts the portion – damn stubborn kid – and the way he’s thrown himself at Tony’s feet has so unsettled him that, just to pacify him, Tony grabs both the packets.

 

As soon as he hears the sound of Tony taking the food, Peter’s eyes dart upward. Slowly, awkwardly, he picks himself up and edges away to the corner of the room where he watches expectantly. The grim satisfaction on his face is awful to witness.

 

Tony feels like a monster as he downs both the portions in front of the clearly starving kid in the corner.

 

Discarding the packets in a trash can, Tony rises and beelines for Peter. “C’mere, kiddo,” he breathes, voice cracking more than he would like, and holds out his arms for Peter, who seems to have shrunk to half his size, for another of the many comforting embraces they’d shared in the last two weeks—

 

But Peter ducks away and dashes out of the room without looking back once.

 

Neither of them get any sleep that night, Tony from insurmountable shame, and Peter from the agonising, knife-sharp hunger pains he’s been plagued with since Day 8 but has kept silent about.

 


 

 

The next morning, Peter tries again. He knows his routine; knows what makes Tony give in.

 

But Tony is ready for him.

 

“Peter, don’t you dare.”

 

“But Mister St—”

 

“I don’t care. I don’t care.” He’s brimming over with barely-contained anger now: not at Peter but at the sort of circumstance that has reduced the kid to this. His next words are a leap over his usual barrier of emotional constipation, a searing shard of truth. “You’re gonna kill yourself, Peter.”

 

Use his full name, he’d thought the night before. Appeal to his humanity.

 

The hand Peter extends to Tony which holds his portion starts to quiver.

 

Fixing his eyes on the kid, Tony levels with him. “Don’t do this to me. To yourself.”

 

“But I- I’m enhanced, I can take it…” Peter’s voice is small, young. He deflates before Tony’s eyes.

 

He exhales. “I don’t want you to die first.”

 

Before Tony can reply or even react, Peter sits heavily and drops his head into his hands, taking a shuddering breath in.

 

“Hey,” murmurs Tony, massaging a hand across Peter’s shoulders which are coiled with tension and shaking. Peter doesn’t cry, instead sucking in choked breaths muffled by the hands he’s splayed across his face. “It’s alright, bud. Let it out.”

 

Tony feels so insufficient. Why would fate place Peter with him and not somebody else who would know the right words to say, the right things to do, to give the kid some relief?

 

Under his hands are impossibly sharp shoulder blades. Tony’s terrified. The kid might have worried Tony would die first, but since Day 1 Tony’s harboured a deep-seated fear that it would be the other way round, and now it seems like it might really happen.

 

And you let it happen.

 

“It’s okay. Just let it out. It’s okay.”

 

It’s not. It’s so far from that.

 


 

 

“Alright, Spider Diapers, you know the drill. Put ‘em up, time to change your dressings.”

 

Day 20. Today, they're scheduled to use the last of the Milano's supplies of food and water. Neither he nor Peter have broached the subject with one another of their current predicament, but last night he caught the kid curled up in the now-useless pilot’s chair, staring into the unforgiving and unmoving abyss with tears burning in his eyes. Tony doesn’t know how he still has it in him to cry, whether from the dwindling water supply or the deadening blanket of hopelessness that’s settled across them both.

 

But as long as he’s in Peter’s sight, Tony ignores their impending doom. He stretches his face taut and hopes it looks like a smile. He carries on changing the bandages across Peter’s abdomen daily, pushing aside the thought that it should have healed up by now.

 

Usually, he’ll coax the kid into compliance with a goofy nickname or a ruffle of his hair – anything to make him smile – but today, Peter, who woke up just a few minutes ago, pulls his blanket further around him and shrinks back minutely. “Can I do them today?”

 

There’s clearly something wrong, and part of Tony wants to let it go. What does it matter anyway? And yet, the concerned, sappy, parental part of him cannot and will not let it go. “I’ll teach you today, you can do them tomorrow.”

 

He reaches slowly to prise the covers off the kid. Every dressing change, he learns to hate the process more. The lean muscle he’d become accustomed to seeing on Peter after a dizzying number of trips to the Med-bay has started to waste away over the days, and it’s becoming harder and harder to watch the slow decline of his health.

 

Peter persists, eyes wide and scrabbling at the blanket. “I know how to do it, I don’t – I don’t—”

 

“It’s easier if I do it for you—”

 

Peter cuts through in a broken half-whisper, backed up against the wall: “Mister Stark. Please don’t.”

 

Something is definitely up. Easing a hand around the back of Peter’s neck to catch his attention, Tony changes tack. “It’s okay, Pete. Let’s have a look.”

 

Rather than complying on the basis of trust, Peter seems to simply give up as he tucks his hands away and allows Tony to remove the cover.

 

It’s worse. It’s worse. It’s so much worse than yesterday. He can count Peter’s ribs. The remaining fibres of muscle on his lower torso and biceps have all but disappeared, leaving him spindly and small, so small.

 

“There’s something… I never told you,” begins Peter quietly.

 

Tony watches his razor-sharp ribs rise and fall with each syllable.

 

“About the spider bite.”

 

His eye sockets are hollow, a ghost of what they once were, and Tony knows now what Peter’s been keeping from him, has known all along but didn’t want to acknowledge it.

 

“It… my…”

 

He cuts in. “Enhanced metabolism.”

 

It makes a dreadful kind of sense. Recalling Peter’s veiled panic at the rationing Tony had imposed, the rapid wasting away of his muscle, the wound at his side that had barely closed up in almost a month, Tony wishes he’d connected the dots earlier.

 

Peter won’t look him in the eye. “Yeah. So – not eating – it’s hard.”

 

All of a sudden, Tony really, really wants to cry. I have failed this poor kid.

 

Grabbing Tony’s still-shaking hand in his uncomfortably bony one, Peter pleads with him: “Please don’t feel bad. Don’t feel bad. I’m okay.”

 

But whether he knows it or not at the time, this is a lie.

 


 

 

“…Mister Stark?”

 

Day 22. Tony’s started having trouble walking. When Peter notices him struggling, he leaps up and helps him despite Tony’s protests. The kid’s metabolism keeps him disconcertingly energetic.

 

The call echoes through the Milano, slightly warping the tone of Peter’s voice, but Tony can still identify a slur of panic. Something about that call sparks an unexplainable urgency in Tony’s step as he hauls himself upright and rounds the corner to enter the bunk room.

 

There stands Peter, all colour drained from his face, in front of the mirror.

 

Tony balks.

 

Evidently, he’d been changing his dressings, because he’s wearing only the filthy boxers he’s had since the fight in New York and has discarded his bandages, exposing the subject of his trance-like stare.

 

To say the stab wound is infected feels like an understatement. The affected area is huge, redness spanning almost from Peter’s ribs to his hipbone with a ghastly yellow-and-black mass of flesh and pus in the centre. The entire site is shiny and frighteningly swollen.

 

“Kid…” ventures Tony, taking a step towards Peter, whose eyes are glazed and vacant.

 

Breathing heavily, Peter repeats: “Mister Stark?”

 

Tony is terrified.

 

“I… I d-don’t feel so good.”

 

Peter collapses to his knees and throws up.

 

“Fuck.” Tony lunges towards the kid and starts when he places his hands on the clammy heat of his bare shoulders. High fever. Peter’s shivering, retching, tears streaming.

 

Here is the final, devastating piece of the puzzle: the reason why the wound never fully healed is that Peter’s metabolism has already been working overtime to fight off the infection and keep him alive on the dwindling diet he's been on. Without the nutrients he needs in food and water, it’s a wonder that he managed to fend it off for this long.

 

Tony hooks his hands under Peter’s armpits and attempts to lever the feverish teenager onto the bunk, but between his own growing frailty and Peter’s deadweight, it proves difficult. “Come on, Pete, help me out,” Tony coaxes, not bothering to hide the alarm on his face as he heaves him on to the mattress on his back. Peter groans and gags; Tony’s heart jackhammers out of his chest.

 

Struck with hopeless inspiration, Tony clutches the kid tighter to get his attention. “I’m gonna try and find something to help you. Hang on in there.”

 

“Hn,” says Peter.

 

Haphazard and shaky, Tony dashes out of the room and towards the medicine cabinet he’d already searched through the very day he’d carried a still-bleeding Peter onto the ship. It’s full of meds from the far-flung corners of the galaxy, nothing Tony has ever seen anything like, none labelled, and – he realised on that day as he contemplated taking a risk and giving Peter something – he doesn’t know enough about Peter’s enhancements to make any guarantee of how he might react to medicine of any sort.

 

Retching noises follow Tony to the cabinet. He swipes through the containers, placing irrational faith in the possibility that there’s a stray dose of Earth antibiotics which might work on an enhanced human.

 

Possibly the most torturous thing about it all is that Peter’s salvation might be within reach of his fingertips - if only he could identify it. Damn you, Guardians.

 

Nothing. Tony presses his forehead against the wall in anguish, slamming a fist against cool metal.

 

The noises from the bunk room intensify; he rushes to return to Peter. He rounds the corner to see Peter emptying the meagre contents of his stomach, hands braced weakly against the bunk’s metal frame. In his desperation, Tony resorts to begging, propping Peter upright to minimise his choking. “Please stop, Pete. C’mon, bud, don’t do that. Please.” Shame coalesces in the crease of Peter’s brows, and yet, as hard as he tries to clamp his mouth shut and force the precious nutrients to stay in his system, he can’t stop retching until there’s nothing left.

 

Peter flops breathlessly onto the mattress.  He catches Tony’s eye with a look of pure terror. Trying to quell the shaking in his hands, Tony weaves fingers through Peter’s sweat-streaked hair in a futile attempt to calm him and is met with the searing heat of his forehead.

 

Already slipping into a state of delirium which renders coherent speech difficult but determined to communicate anyway, Peter begins to speak: “M’ster… Stark… Would you – w’d you… rather…”

 

He trails off as Tony buries his face in the kid’s painfully prominent collarbone, wrapping possessive hands around his feeble frame. God only knows how much longer he’ll be able to do that for. But his new mission is clearly formed in his mind: keep Peter alive for as long as possible. Make his last days worthwhile. Love him.

 

As Tony clutches tight to his fading kid, stranded, starving and helpless in the void of space, he’s never felt smaller.

 

Chapter Text

 

Tony, for all his slow and silent spiralling into despondency, had not thought circumstance would lead to this.

 

“Hey, Miss Potts.”

 

He sits with his back against the wall of the Milano, gazing vacantly at a point somewhere between the mangled Iron Man helmet set in front of him, projecting a synthetic aqua-toned light as it records, and the radiant darkness of space visible through the windshield.

 

He’s clearly in the dire grip of starvation: his cheekbones threaten to slice through paper-thin skin, matching the aggressive jut of his shoulder blades and knuckles. The wiry strength that once was present in his arms has dwindled to sparrow-boned frailty; a light breeze would surely fell him. The rattling echo in his breath sounds inhuman.

 

But if Tony appears to have one foot in his grave, the child he cradles tightly in his arms looks terrifyingly close to putting in both.

 

Peter is violently ashen-faced, sweating and shivering simultaneously in Tony’s grip with glazed and rolled-back eyes. He wheezes rather than breathes, head lolling back to rest on Tony’s shoulder. His weight loss gives him the appearance of someone much younger, while the way his skin sags on his face suggests great age. The limbs tucked clumsily onto Tony’s lap are bone-thin.

 

Tony seems to pay no heed to how filthy the kid is with sweat and dirt, combing his cracked hands through slick hair as if in a trance.

 

“If you find this recording… don’t post it on social media,” breathes Tony, shifting the emaciated kid in his arms, “It’s gonna be a real tearjerker.”

 

He glances sluggishly down at the broken child he holds, then tilts his gaze to the helmet to continue.

 

“I don’t know if you’re ever gonna see these. I don’t even know if you’re still…” here, he cuts off, choked by emotion, and swallows. “Oh, God – I hope so.”

 

As if the motion gives him strength, he hangs his head and breathes into Peter’s matted hair, eyelids lowered.

 

“Today’s… Day 23? No – uh, 24.”

 

Peter emits a soft, delirious groan, convulsing weakly against Tony’s hold.

 

“The kid likes to look out at the stars, I think,” Tony ponders to the helmet. “It’s the only thing that calms him down anymore.”

 

Calm isn’t a word one might use to describe the fever-fuelled shudders that run through Peter’s body.

 

“I tried to… uh – you know – keep him healthy, but I guess I didn’t try hard enough. Last time I checked, his fever was… 107, I think? So – not good.

 

“He chucked up everything I gave him at first, but afterwards he took to my rations pretty well, so hopefully that means he’s alright.” Tony seems to soothe himself with this bittersweet lie; a haunting smile fleets across his face.

 

Rational thought is effortful for Tony; he pauses for several moments.

 

“Peter’s… he’s been great. Never once complained. I just wonder…” Tony allows himself to think the unthinkable – the horrifying prospect he’d shied away from for much of their time on the Milano – maybe it would have been better if Peter had been Snapped.

 

“Would you rather die instantly, or slowly?”

 

Tony chuckles weakly, without humour. “If I had a little more water in me, I might be crying right now, but… the kid needs it far more than me.

 

“Pep, I know that – if you were here – you’d sit me down and tell me it- it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t… fail him.” Tony rubs a comforting hand down Peter’s arm to indicate the boy. “But you’re not, so… yay me, time to wallow in guilt. Until—"

 

He cuts off with a sharp intake of breath.

 

“Oxygen will run out tomorrow morning… that’ll be it.”

 

Peter sinks further into his protector’s chest, muttering something with slurred syllables. Although he can’t make out what it means, hasn’t been able to understand the kid’s ramblings for the last day, he nods: “That’s right, kiddo.”

 

A small shard of his conscience screams at him. There’s gotta be a way to get out of this. You told the kid yourself, you’ve never met a problem you can’t solve. You have to make that come true. You can’t let him die. You can’t. And yet, his shaking, starved, broken body is powerless to change the inevitable.

 

“I think I might be the first one to go. His enhancements mean… he’ll survive just a bit longer without the… the, uh, the air. I wish it didn’t have to be that way, but…

 

“Pep, I know I said no more surprises—"

 

Tony surveys the endless void before him, the dying kid in his arms, the dead-in-the-water spaceship that doesn’t belong to him.

 

“But, I gotta say, I was really hoping to pull off one last one.”

 

Hope is not enough. Hope won’t break Peter’s fever or replenish the oxygen or fix the fuel or feed them another day. Hope hasn’t brought them home.

 

“Don’t feel bad about this,” he feels inclined to add. “Tell that to May as well. Tell her I’m sorry.”

 

The cold light emanating from the helmet eyes is suddenly too much for Tony; he tears a hand from where it had been curled around Peter to pass over his face, exhaling as if it’s all he is capable of doing. As he does so, Peter, who had previously been writhing feebly but periodically in Tony’s grasp, sags into eerie stillness. Tony’s hand flies from his face in alarm; he seeks the left of Peter’s chest with his hand to feel for his pulse, which is so faint as to be barely discernible at his wrist anymore, and returns to his original position cradling the kid when he finds a heart still beating against the odds.

 

“I’m fine. He’s fine. We’re… totally fine.”

 

As if in response, Peter mumbles another incoherent sentence, skeletal hand raising jerkily to wave vaguely about. Tony circles the kid’s wrist with his hand and slowly eases the arm back down. “I know, squirt, I know.”

 

He shutters his eyes for a second before addressing the helmet for the final time.

 

“When I drift off, I will dream about you. It’s always you.”

 

He wants to smile, to prove his point to Pepper if she ever finds the message - We’re totally fine – and yet something in the pulling upwards of his facial muscles is prohibited by the sheer horror of it all.

 

His final moments are approaching him faster than he can bear. How can that be, when he’s already spent 24 days on this goddamn ship?

 

Gazing down at the kid, who’s a mere shell of himself nowadays, he feels the way he’s felt too often recently – like his tear ducts are yearning for the water to dispel his emotions in. He’s everything and nothing.

 

“You’re a man who has everything and nothing.”

 

As selfish as it is, Tony’s eternally grateful that he has this, at least: his kid in his arms, his still-soft hair beneath his fingers, a warm barrier between him and the existential terror of staring into the void of space.

 

Tony presses a kiss to the crown of Peter’s head. There is something devastatingly final in the gesture. Then, he stiffly tips his head back to rest against the wall. Get some rest.

 

Even as his stone-heavy eyelids flutter shut, he fools himself. You’re back at home on the couch. You just finished a movie. Peter fell asleep on you like he always seems to do recently. Your biggest worry is that he’s not getting enough sleep. You’re warm and safe and Pep will probably sneak in while you’re both asleep and take a revenge photo that you’ll frame and put in the workshop anyway. It’s okay.

 

Tony Stark drifts off.

 

Still enclosed in his arms, Peter has stilled once more. One of Tony’s hands still cups the back of his head protectively.

 

The faint azure light of space plays across their deadened faces.

 

They’re ghosts.

 

Until they’re not anymore.

 

The subtlest tinge of warmth bleeds into the cold glare.

 

Neither Tony nor Peter stir at this change. Will they ever?

 

Slowly, as if it's wary of startling the pair, the light blooms and grows across the windshield, warmer and more urgent by the second. It's heaven's rays; it's their salvation, 24 days too late to salvage their souls in one piece.

 

Just as it seems the light will become too bright to bear, blazing white splitting the ship apart, the glow resolves to reveal a woman's face ensconced in luminosity. 

 

Carol's brow creases in concern. 

 

Peering past her own light into the gloom, she glimpses a tangle of limbs on the floor of the ship, one larger body curled about a smaller one.

 

Ghost ships drifting through space are a semi-regular occurrence since the Snap, but she hasn't discovered any with occupants so far. The prospect chills her, but this is clearly a situation that could do with her help.

 

The two figures on the ground remain frozen. Carol pleads silently that she's not arrived too late for them.

 

Delving into her light source, she pushes more intensity into the glow and reaches out to tap the window, hesitant in expectancy. In response, an arm slowly rises from the entwined pair, fingers splayed to shield from her light.

 

Movement is an improvement. At least one of them is still kicking.

 

As a truce-serving gesture, Carol waves to the man, who looks devoid of life other than the quivering hand he holds up and a slight crease in his brow. When he haltingly returns the action, she smiles. The kid twined about him still worries her, however; despite nudges from the older man, he does not stir, locked in a stupor.

 

Carol approaches the darkened ship with a trepidation overridden by urgency. If the boy is still alive now, hesitation could cost that precious life.

 

The airlock opens, closes. Hisses. Opens. She’s in.

 

Walking the dimly-lit passages, Carol gets the impression that the two figures she’d glimpsed through the screen are the only passengers. She passes the medicine cabinet which has clearly been searched through in desperation and is surrounded by smashed glass, and a bunk room littered with vomit.

 

The specifics of what has happened onboard this vessel aren’t important right now; what’s evident is that a tragedy has taken place here.

 

"Hey, stranger," greets the man with a surprising hint of a smirk when she's entered the pilot’s room and stands before him. The smile looks altogether out of place on his starved face. "What's with the crazy light coming out of you?"

 

Huffing out a bemused laugh, Carol rests a hand on her hip and studies the man. "Hi, guy whose ass I'm about to save - maybe that's a story for another time."

 

The man inhales; it sounds painful. "I haven't... seen you around. Are you from Earth?"

 

"I was. Long story."

 

"Sounds like you're... full of those." His words are flat, exhausted.

 

Carol frowns, trying to discern the lines of the man’s face. "Do I know you?"

 

"Most people do. Tony Stark."

 

"Howard's son?"

 

This gives Tony a dark sort of amusement; he nods loosely. "In the flesh."

 

"And he's..." Carol nods towards the kid Tony holds.

 

At the mention, all of Tony’s attention turns to his charge; the way he cards his fingers through the curls at the nape of his neck is almost ferally possessive. "Peter."

 

Carol smiles sadly. On a typical day, she’s learnt to brush aside the terrible pressure of having other lives thrust into her hands, but there must be something in the way Tony’s fingers curl into Peter’s t-shirt and the habitual burrowing of the kid into the concave of Tony’s chest which opens a floodgate of irrational emotion. A hard swallow, and it’s back at bay. Compassion is good, but worry is disabling. 

 

"Let's get you both home."

 

"The - uh, the Avengers Compound in... New York,” recalls Tony haltingly. He nods towards Peter: “Be quick. He... He hasn't got long."

 

Neither have you, Tony Stark.

 

"Oh, I think I can be pretty quick. Hang on in there."

 

Open, close, hiss, open. The vacuum of space is a relief after the cloying despair in the spaceship. A searing image of Peter’s limp body, barely contained by the weakened Tony, imprints on the backs of Carol’s retinas.

 

Okay. Time to find out the real meaning of Higher, Further, Faster.

 

Go.

 

Fingers curled around the underside of the ship, she flies, acceleration mounting, and aims for Earth.

 

In the continued absence of movement from Peter, Tony slips his palm back under Peter’s arm and over his upper ribcage to calm himself with the heartbeat still present there. It’s irregular but thrumming all the same:

 

Beat, beat. Beat, beat. Beat-beat, beat.

 

The thrill that runs through Tony as the stars which he’d come to recognize after standing stationary in space begin to blur and move away is unmistakeable; it brings with it a wave of nausea, and he breathes into Peter’s hair to negate the sensation.

 

Beat-beat, beat. Beat, beat. Beat, Beat.

 

Within minutes, the prospect of survival has gone from an impossible feat to something tangible, at their fingertips, if only Peter could hang on for a while longer.

 

“Kid,” he rasps, shaking his shoulder gently. The doll-like looseness of his limbs is a bad sign. “Come on, you gotta w-wake up. You missed the… the glowing lady – she’s taking us back home. You remember that? We’re going home, Pete, just like I said. Don’t… tap out now. Please wake up.”

 

Beat, beat. Beat, beat. Beat-beat-beat. . . Beat, beat.

 

As the lights of space race by ever faster, Peter’s heartbeat begins to slow, as if they’re leaving it behind at the spot the ship had idled in for so long. Tony is unsure if he’s able to stand, let alone attempt a shoddy form of CPR if the situation calls for it.

 

Beat. . . Beat, beat. Beat-beat, beat. . .

 

“Don’t you dare,” Tony warns him waveringly, desperately. “You… can’t leave now. Kid, please.”

 

Peter's heart does not listen. 

 

Tony bars any semblance of thought in his mind relating to the unshakeable and ever-more-possible image of Peter prised from his arms, dead seconds before he could be saved.

 

. . . Beat-beat, beat. Beat, beat. . .

 

But the kid is a fighter. It's centred first and foremost in Tony's memory of him. He always, always, always gets back up, the stubborn punk. He'll do it again. He's got to.

 

Beat, beat. . . Beat, beat. . . Beat. . .

 

Toy resorts to begging, cupping the side of Peter's fiery hot face with a palm of ice: "Peter. Peter. Come back, bud."

 

He wishes he could do something.

 

Beat, beat . . . Beat. . .

 

A sudden, sharp rattle of the ship, and Tony cranes his neck to glimpse –

 

Earth. They’ve entered the atmosphere.

 

He can feel the little strength he has leeching out of him, leaving him distant from tangible reality, as if he’s floating. The hazy lights bursting behind his eyes can’t be a good sign. Suck it up, Stark. Just a minute more. All you need to do is get him back.

 

Beat. . . Beat. . .

 

The Compound's multitude of lights is a sight Tony had given up hope he'd witness again; it's blinding, edging nearer, nearer...

 

As they round the corner to land on the wide field behind the building, he catches sight of a group of people venturing out to meet the ship; Pepper's strawberry-blonde hair stands out in the floodlit night. God, he aches for her.

 

Beat. . . Beat. . .

 

Part of him wants to protest that this can't be real, not after the sheer hopelessness he'd bludgeoned away his wistful thoughts with, but the rapidly slowing heartbeat under his hand is an all-too-visceral reminder that this is all happening.

 

Finally, their ship slows and lowers towards the ground: home soil at last, but Tony can't bring himself to care about anything now beyond:

 

Beat. . .    . . .    . . .

 

Tony shifts his hand over Peter's chest frantically.

 

"Peter."

 

. . .    . . .

 

No heartbeat. No. He's not - that's...

 

With a thud, they land.

 

Peter's a deadweight in Tony's arms, pulseless, lifeless.

 

Struck through with roiling spears of adrenaline, Tony gulps in a breath and yells. "Help!"

 

His next words are a paper-thin whisper to Peter: "We're home, kid. We're home."

 

. . .    . . .    . . .

 

A hiss accompanies the opening of the main door. Sliding steadily skywards, it reveals the worry-stricken faces of none other than Bruce, Natasha, Rhodey, Steve and Pepper.

 

Tony doesn’t have the energy to rejoice.

 

The group parts to reveal a face Tony doesn’t recognise – Asian and sweepingly handsome, framed by hologram glasses perched high on his broad nose and a short side-shaved wave of black hair. The way he handles the medical bag over his shoulder is professional but the softening of his face as he enters the pilot’s room is solemnly sympathetic. 

 

“Heart,” mutters Tony shakily, tapping his hand on Peter’s silent chest. But as much as his rational thought insists that a medic his friends trust is one he can trust too, the recollection of cruel hands at Peter’s throat and stomach keeps him clutching the kid away from the stranger.

 

Sensing his apprehension, Pepper stoops urgently to assure him. “This is Doctor Barrie. It’s okay. You have to let him go so he can help.”

 

Tony suspects it’s the sight of Pepper’s face in front of him that loosens his protective grip and allows Doctor Barrie, who has set down his hefty medical bag, to ease him onto the icy floor.

 

“He’s… no – heart…” Tony wheezes faintly, grasping without thought for Pepper, for someone new to hold in Peter’s absence. She kneels on the floor in response and encloses him in a hug so hesitant and tender he gasps.

 

“Tony,” she breathes tearfully.

 

“Pep.”

 

Over her shoulder, Tony watches Doctor Barrie hurriedly yet methodically retrieving a portable defibrillator. Steve, Bruce and Natasha stand clear of the shock zone, faces stunned and stormy; Rhodey crosses the distance to squeeze Tony’s hand from where it had been around Pepper’s back, shooting him a look that’s bursting full of such an array of emotion that Tony might just pass out trying to decipher it.

 

In fact, the cotton-wool sensation of floating might just be leading him in that direction.

 

Barrie has stripped Peter of his T-shirt, leaving him horribly exposed, too pale and soaked in sweat, each rib bone a blade against his skin and the infected wound staining straight through his dressings. “Clear!” he shouts in a tone that is not to be questioned; the metal pads are lowered to a skeletal chest and Peter convulses once.

 

Tony drops his face onto Pepper’s shoulder. He can’t bear to look.

 

Sound is growing vaguer by the second, as if headphones are being lowered slowly but inexorably onto him, but he can still pick out the quiet counting of chest compressions, the whining sound which accompanies a second defibrillator shock, and Doctor Barrie’s call of, “He’s back.”

 

Whipping his head back upwards, Tony watches Peter’s eyes slowly crack open like casements to the sky.

 

It’s all he needs.

 

These are the last things Tony remembers: the glint of blue overhead lights on Pepper’s hair which partially obscures his view of Peter being carried out of the godforsaken ship on a stretcher; the sound of relieved, reverent silence; the firm grip Rhodey has on his hand and Pepper’s feather-light hands encircling him; the mingling odours of Pepper’s floral laundry detergent and the brisk, fresh outdoor air.

 

The knowledge that they’re safe and home.

 

He lets himself go, gives in at last to the clutches of haziness in confidence that he’s done what he needed to do.

 

Tony collapses silently into Pepper, drifting into unconsciousness.

 

Chapter Text

 

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.

 

"Carol."

 

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."

 

Carol smirks.

 

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.

 

Sure.

 


 

 

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.

 

"And you're..."

 

"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.

 

"I promise."

 

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.

 

No wonder.

 

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?"

 

Oh no.

 

Carol bites her lip. "They... do."

 

“Oh.”

 

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.

 

“Not yet.”

 

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.

 

“Uh huh.”

 

“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.

 

Peter swallows.

 

“We’ll get her back,” Tony continues. “We will. I will.”

 

“Alright.”

 

“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.

 

“Peter.”

 

“What?”

 

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.”

 

“Of course.”

 

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.”

 

“He’s sleep'ng?”

 

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?

 

“Yeah.”

 

“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?”

 

“The workshop.”

 

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.

 

Nothing.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Months

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hey, kiddo, it’s alright, I got you. Breathe.”

 

Peter gulps for air as he surfaces from under the choking blanket of blood-stained destruction he’s inhabited for an unimaginable period of time and finds Tony leaning over him, concern blinding in the lines on his face. Tony grips his arms, shaking him gently awake, and the illusion of Titan begins to fade.

 

He shudders. “Thanos—”

 

“He’s gone. He can’t hurt you.” Tony combs a sweat-drenched swathe of Peter’s hair away from his eyes, sincerity glistening in his eyes. “Just another nightmare.”

 

“Oh, man.”

 

Sucking in a laboured breath, Peter tries to relax in Tony’s hold.

 

“Take it easy.”

 


 

 

Standing in front of the full-length mirror in his room, Peter shucks off his pyjama shirt and surveys his appearance.

 

He’s regained all the weight he’d lost, muscle rapidly regenerating after his metabolism had restarted. If it weren’t for the puckered, pale line surrounded by still-tender flesh over his stomach which he’d been told quietly would never fully heal, he would bear no physical sign of his ordeal on Titan and the Milano.

 

Peter has watched his recovery with apathy. His mind is still trapped on the Milano, in the hospital bed.

 

Thumbing through his closet (Tony’s, not his, but he’s stayed at the Compound this whole time – where else can he go?), he pulls out jeans and a shirt, buttons the blue chequered material right up to his neck in the way he does nowadays, closes the closet door, crosses the distance to his door, opens the door, leaves the room, closes the door behind him, pulls at it to check it’s shut and won’t creak on its hinges and disturb him from the floor below.

 

In the kitchen, a group hologram call is open, blue-tinged projections of Rhodey, Rocket, Carol and Okoye facing the gaggle of Compound residents. Thor leans back in his chair in the corner of the room, inhaling bread as is customary for him, although Peter had coaxed him into trying peanut butter with it a few weeks ago to liven up his meals just a little bit. Natasha and Steve stand before the holograms, the former taking rapid notes, the latter nodding morosely as Okoye speaks.

 

Tony rises as soon as he’s through the door and ushers him towards the circular table him and Pepper had been huddled around, setting him down firmly in front of a laden plate. “Full English. I know you like it.”

 

Peter looks up at Tony, who remains decidedly poker-faced, and twists his lips upwards in a smile. “Thanks,” he says, steeling himself to eat.

 

Tony makes him breakfast every morning in a similar fashion, and Peter eats as much as he can bear just for his mentor’s sake. The worry behind Tony’s eyes is still discernible when he thinks Peter’s not looking, and Peter can tell Tony’s still terrified he might have to watch him starve again.

 

So, he piles his fork and Tony’s hands on his shoulders drop away.

 

The hologram calls are commonplace; Peter’s learned to tune them out and wait. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpses the new haircut Carol had mentioned she might get the week before, cropped strands of hair gracing her cheekbone. It suits her.

 

One by one, Rocket, Okoye and Rhodey drop out of the meeting, leaving Carol standing and catching Peter’s eye pointedly from across the room. “Can I have a chat with the kid?” she asks.

 

Peter’s immediate reaction is to jump guiltily as he’s singled out.

 

Am I giving myself away? With the way the other occupants of the room are looking at him, it’s a possibility.

 

“Yeah, of course,” Tony replies, rising in a manner that is clearly a deliberate attempt at nonchalance. The other Avengers follow suit, all exchanging a smile or word of parting with Peter as if they’re consoling him at a funeral. He accepts the interactions with a downturned head and awkward thanks.

 

Before he ducks out of the room with his coffee, Tony ruffles Peter’s hair affectionately. “Have fun, bud.”

 

The room falls silent; Peter drops his cutlery and tucks his legs in front of his chest. Carol scrutinizes him for too long.

 

Breaking the silence, he ventures: “Do I look bad again?”

 

Carol sighs. “You don’t have to look good all the time, you know.”

 

“But if it- it makes everyone else stop feeling so bad…”

 

“Kid, you’re totally transparent with this sort of stuff. Trying to look good won’t fool them.”

 

Feeling a sudden, pounding rush in his temples, Peter drops his head onto his knees until it passes. From this position, he changes the subject. “How are you doing?”

 

“Alright,” she shrugs. “Aid is taking a long time… most people are scared out of their minds, won’t co-operate. But it’s good to see them smile when I help them out.”

 

The clouding behind Peter’s retinas is gone as soon as it had come; he grins faintly up at her. “That’s good.”

 

“You had another nightmare, didn’t you?”

 

She can read him eerily well.

 

“One this morning. And the one before. They’re kind of on and off.” On and off meaning less than every night. It’s an improvement.

 

“The same as the ones before that?”

 

“Well... not, like, exactly the same – but it’s still you. He always goes for you too when you’re away on missions.”

 

Over the days, weeks, months, his mind has delighted to torment him with colourful visions of Thanos advancing on him, then tossing him aside like trash to watch helplessly as he turned on Carol, Tony, May, Ben, his parents, Pepper, Ned, MJ, Rhodey, Natasha, Thor, Peter Quill, Mantis, Doctor Strange…

 

“I’m sorry.” Carol seeks his eyes with sincerity. “C-91 is taking a long time to get back on its feet. A really high percentage of the population were Snapped.”

 

“I know, I’m sorry. I just… I miss you. But it’s fine.” Papering a smile across his face, Peter exhales. The last thing he wants to do is pull her away from helping out other planets.

 

Carol smiles encouragingly, turning away briefly as if something has called her attention. She scrunches up her nose fondly. “I’ll be back before you know it. Go get ‘em, Rocketman.”

 

Peter huffs out a reluctant laugh. “Keep saving the world, Glowing Lady.”

 

The last thing he sees before Carol disconnects the call is her small wave.

 

The minute he’s alone in the room, Peter’s on his feet, propelled by an unbidden instinct. Oh crap, here we go again.

 

It’s a growing habit, not one that he’s ever admitted to anyone. In fact, maybe it’s not important at all, because he barely remembers what he’s done afterwards.

 

Peter swipes the leftovers on his plate, tips them into a Zip-Loc bag and dashes for the door, intending to stash them with the growing pile under his bed, when he senses someone coming down the corridor and ducks back into the room.

 

Just put it in the fridge, you can move it after.

 

But what if someone takes it? What if there’s nothing left?

 

A brief flash of a blade through his stomach stops him in his tracks with a gasp. Hunger pains or stab wound? He drags a hand under his shirt and probes the area. Stitched up. Fine. Not hunger pains, either, because he's so full he's a little nauseous.

 

It's nothing. It's nothing.

 

Fridge. He slides the food in behind a stack of vegetables and breathes.

 

Restlessness. It’s followed Peter for too long, giving him a sense of being a caged animal in the Compound, trapped with the stabbing aches in his temples and stomach and the growing, rankling stash in his closet. Even Tony’s comforting words and touch can’t quite assuage the need to… do something.

 

Once, about two weeks ago, he’d given in to the instinct without thinking straight, had tapped on the band ringing his wrist, engaged his Iron Spider suit, and leapt out of the window, but he’d barely made it a mile from the Compound’s expansive grounds before Tony had patched a call through to Karen. The way his mentor’s voice had shaken had so unsettled Peter that he’d turned around and headed right back to find Tony waiting for him, hands clenched into fists of panic. Tony had collided with him in a crushing hug, muttering, “Jesus Christ, kid, oh my God – don’t do that again. You could’ve- you could’ve—"

 

Glimpses on news stations are all he’s seen of the chaotic Post-Snap world. Peter gets the feeling Tony’s trying to keep him from burdening himself with the state of the universe, but it’s not like the destruction at their doorstep is easy to ignore.

 

Maybe Tony would let him go out if Peter asked – they could take a car together and… do what people do now the shops, restaurants, parks, streets, towns, countries, are lost in clouds of doom. Leaving and staying are equally daunting. Restless. Trapped.

 

Just a few days after Tony had so fretted at his three-minute disappearance, Peter had haltingly asked him. “When will it… is it- is it okay if I go out? Like, patrolling – as Spider-Man?”

 

“Why would you wanna do that?” Tony had replied a little bluntly.

 

“I don’t- I guess… to help the little guy out, just- yeah, I wanna help people out like old times.”

 

As if it pained him to turn Peter down, Tony had swallowed before speaking. “Pete… I’m gonna be honest to you, there’s not much Spider-Man can do right now. And it’s not just them – it’s you, too. Stark Industries is doing enough to co-ordinate rehabilitation without you risking yourself, okay? You need to keep resting your heart.”

 

When he’d gone into cardiac arrest in Tony’s arms on the Milano, he’d been left with occasional but lasting arrythmia, his heart never quite returning to its healthy rhythm.

 

He’s sick of the laundry list of ailments tailing behind him. He’s sick of the power the events of five months ago still have over him. He’s sick of this being it.

 

Maybe it’s these thoughts which drive him to begin hastily shedding his clothes; maybe it’s pure insanity. In under ten seconds, he’s shivering in his boxers, tapping the band on his wrist to activate the bubbling form of the suit around him.

 

Out. Out. Out.

 

The main kitchen window slides smoothly open at the press of a button to its right. Activating his mask, Peter lifts a leg to crouch on the sill, gathering himself for a second and pushing aside the memory of Tony in a fit of panic, preparing to leap from the ledge and—

 

“Hi – uh, is anyone home?”

 

From the glassy central table erupts a wide hologram screen, making Peter start. The image is of the main gate: a rust-coloured and worn-down van is parked outside, driver’s side door open. Standing at the closed gate and hollering into the security camera he must have spotted already is a man.

 

His voice… do I know him?

 

“This is Scott Lang,” the mystery man shouts, waving wildly at the camera. Peter slips back inside the window frame, brow drawn, and stoops without looking to retrieve his crumpled shirt and jeans.

 

“We met a few years ago - at the airport in Germany? I got really big.”

 

This, Peter knows. A thought dawns on him—

 

“Ant-Man? I know- I know you know that.”

 

Peter’s jaw drops. “Oh my God. I do.”

 

This is hope in the form of freezing, drenching water; in the sparks of brain synapses connecting and mysteries solving, although to what avail he can’t quite place yet; in a sudden influx after months of a vacuum in its absence - and for a moment Peter flounders, hands bracing the sides of his head. “Oh my God, Oh my God.”

 

FRIDAY chips in. “Peter, your heart rate is elevated. Would you like me to call in Tony?”

 

“Wait - you know what? Call them all in. Everyone in the Compound. Get them all down here, tell them it’s really important.”

 

He wants to laugh as FRIDAY responds almost immediately: “Tony seems distressed. He wonders why you’re calling everyone.”

 

Biting his lower lip against a mouth curling upwards, Peter stutters: “Ju-just – tell him it’s okay. It’s… good, actually. Really good, I think.”

 

He surges with the liquid hope. It’s something after nothing, nothing, nothing.

 

Noticing Scott still gesticulating on the hologram, Peter activates the two-way speakers and calls hesitantly to Scott: “Ant-Man – I mean, Scott? Hi, it’s- it’s Spider-Man. P-Peter Parker. From Germany. What are you… what are you doing here?”

 

“I think I know how to bring everyone back.”

 

Hope, like liquid gold, fills Peter’s every orifice, even spilling from the eternal scar at his torso that before had been a symbol of so much suffering. It’s bright and relieving and carries with it the heaviness of distrust, but it’s painted over with light.

 

Hope.

 

Chapter Text

 

Silence permeates the air.

 

Peter’s frozen in shock. Before him lies Bruce, arm charred and withered, the gauntlet they’d engineered to reverse the Snap a few feet away from where he’d worn it just seconds before. Steve, Thor and Clint all cluster around his bulky frame; Tony has retracted his holographic shield he’d used to cover both him and Peter, allowing the nanobots forming his suit to shrink back into the arc reactor on his chest just as Peter disengages his own suit into his bracelet, and sets a grounding hand on Peter’s shoulder.

 

“Did it work?” Bruce croaks.

 

Thor’s hands hover uselessly over the woozy Banner. “We’re not sure – it’s okay.”

 

Slowly, as if held back by their own hesitant expectation, the heavy metal guards rise from where they’d enclosed the room, revealing a sky scudded with pink clouds that is surely brighter than the last time they’d lain eyes on it.

 

Peter hears the birds begin to sing, exulting.

 

The Compound itself holds its breath, spellbound and waiting for a sign, for something

 

Peter’s phone buzzes.

 

As they’d hurriedly assembled the gauntlet, there hadn’t been space to really consider the weight of what would happen if it worked. After six months of coming to accept the hole in his chest, the sudden change - the victory - feels to Peter like surfacing in cold water.

 

The Avengers watch on as he dives to take the call.

 

Fumbling for the device which has been strewn on a couch behind him, Peter accepts the call and presses the phone desperately to his ear.

 

“Peter?”

 

Here is a voice he’d long abandoned hope would ever reach his ears again. He’s floored, speechless.

 

Covering his trembling lower lip with a hand, Peter turns tearfully to Tony, who witnesses his face splitting open with light and crumpling with relief.

 

“Peter, baby, are you there? I don’t know what went on, but I’m here now. Can you hear me?”

 

“May?” Peter whispers.

 

“Yeah, honey, it’s me. Where are you?”

 

In response, Peter bursts into tears, leaning into Tony.

 

Bruce tremulously lifts his head to see the kid sink to the floor, eyes flooding with joyous tears and swiftly followed by Tony who crouches and places his hands on Peter’s pulled-up knees, rare tears to match Peter’s in the corner of his eyes, and knows that his Snap was successful. He’s just saved the world – the universe.

 

“Peter? Why are you crying? Are you alright?”

 

Where before, gentle sunshine had thrown rays across Bruce’s face, an abrupt shadow takes its place, and the glare clears to reveal a colossal ship, guns blazing. He frowns.

 

“He’s fine, May,” Tony calls into the speaker, speaking in place of Peter, who is past words. “We’re all—”

 

Bang.

 

The missiles slice through the suddenly fallible structure of the Compound with malicious efficiency. Peter, Tony, Bruce, the Avengers, are all lost beneath the debris.

 

For Peter, it’s like this: a sweeping darkening of the sky, followed by blinding white, deafening noises of impact and the eruption of the once-solid floor and walls around him, morphing into a twisted, earthen, fiery wasteland framed dangerously by the remains of the Compound.

 

There’s dust in his mouth and coating him, and hot blood running from somewhere, and a support beam trapping him in a cruel reincarnation of Homecoming night under the warehouse.

 

No, no, no, not again—

 

The phone’s been ripped out of his hand, likely crushed beneath the rubble. The bracelet to activate his Iron Spider suit is trapped with his hand under the beam, leaving him exposed in his civilian clothes. The suddenly cloying air drags through his nostrils, needles at his eyes.

 

Panic.

 

Come on. If you could do it last time you can do it again. You have to.

 

Forcing measured breaths through his throat, Peter shakes debris from his hair and face and steels himself to lift. Slowly, agonizingly, under the pressure of the fire of hope at his fingertips, the beam rises. Rises.

 

It’s unbearably shadowy down here. But Peter thinks of May, back at last, and Tony, close at hand. He can’t let them down.

 

As he frees his hands, he shifts them under the cracked concrete for leverage. I got this. I got this.

 

Through gritted teeth grates a strangled sound of effort. Peter’s crouching now, concrete bearing across his shoulders and hands, t-shirt torn and face bloodied but set. Dust and debris rains into the little pocket of air he’s enclosed in, threatening to bury him, but he’s stronger.

 

It’s off.

 

Gulping for breath, Peter stumbles to the ground as it vibrates with the impact of the beam thudding back down. One tap at his wrist sends the Iron Spider suit bubbling around him.

 

“Karen,” he bursts, hauling himself back to his feet. “What happened to- to everyone? Are they alright?”

 

“The debris is hindering my sensors, but I can detect a single heat signature not far away to your 8 o’clock. It’s moving towards you.”

 

“Is it a bad guy?”

 

“I cannot tell.”

 

“Hey, before this all goes down, can I… send a message to May? Just, like, a voicemail? She’ll freak out if I call her.”

 

“Of course. Speak now.”

 

Sucking in a deep breath, Peter bites his lip and speaks. “Hi, May – I’m really, really sorry, but I gotta go. A lot’s gone on while you’ve been away, but it’s gonna be okay. I gotta- I’m gonna be fine, I promise. Just stay at home – please don’t try and get me yet, I’ll come back. I love you. St-stay safe.”

 

“Your message has been sent to May Parker.”

 

“Thanks, Karen.”

 

Peter swears he detects the kindness in Karen's tone when she replies: “Any time, Peter. Good luck.”

 

Now to follow the heat signature. Whether it’s a friend or a bad guy, they’re bound to lead him out of here. As he moves, Peter pushes aside any rumination on the state of his teammates and beelines for the pulsing heat signature, briefly retracting his mask to choke out a dust-polluted wad of spit.

 

He can’t sense anything right now; the small lights embedded in his suit only illuminate the area a foot or two before him. Distant crashes and shouts are audible all around, distracting him from his course.

 

“How close are they? Can you tell?”

 

“The signature is three feet from—”

 

Peter crashes into Tony with a yelp.

 

The noise of surprise is muffled against Tony’s suit as Peter’s face hits Tony’s shoulder; it’s the high pitch that identifies the stranger barrelling into his chest as Peter for Tony, who instinctively wraps his arms around the kid. Their masks bubble away in tandem.

 

“Kid,” he breathes just as Peter begins to run his mouth: “Mister Stark – thank God – I didn’t know where you went, and I got trapped under a- a thing - but I’m out now so it’s okay, and I went- I saw the heat signature and- but- but Karen wouldn’t tell me who you—”

 

“Kid. Peter. It’s alright.”

 

Peter exhales in a rush, melding into Tony. “Sorry.”

 

“You’re not hurt, are you?” Tony scans Peter with light hands.

 

“No, no, I’m fine. Are you?”

 

The grin Tony flashes the kid doesn’t reach his eyes, but he pats Peter firmly on the shoulder all the same. “Raring to go, bud.”

 

“Okay, let’s get out of here.”

 

Part of Tony laments that he’ll have to rain on the kid’s parade when he’s practically bouncing on his toes to run right into the fight, but another, vastly overriding part would prefer him alive and sans his pride.

 

“Hold on."  He traps Peter's shoulders beneath firm hands and locks eye contact; Peter needs to know he's being serious. "Before we go, you have to promise me something.”

 

“What?”

 

“Once we’re above ground, you turn and run. I want your word. We’re not getting a repeat of Titan.”

 

True to his mulish martyr complex, Peter furrows his brow. “Mister Stark – come on! This is the fight of our lives, just like Steve said, and they need everyone they can get. I can handle it. I stood up to Thanos back on Titan—”

 

“And look what happened next.”

 

Peter's face falls instantly. A moment of silence ensues as Peter steps backward, shaken, and Tony bites his tongue. Why would you say that?

 

And then a change falls across Peter's countenance: like a soldier stepping into battle, he straightens, just out his jaw, and levels with Tony. “I know you wanna keep me safe, Mister Stark, but if we don’t win this one, nobody’s gonna be safe. This is- this is it. I’ll try to stay away from Thanos if it makes you happy, but... nothing you can do is gonna protect me from this in the end.”

 

Damn this stubborn, amazing kid.

 

It’s in this moment, as Peter stands before him with eyes flashing, that he finally witnesses the extent of the kid’s drive to save others. The set of Peter’s shoulders makes clear that nothing Tony can do will quench that holy fire.

 

He’s a hero.

 

Tony can’t help glowing with pride. And yet, something viciously protective in him cries out in fear of losing him.

 

He shakes his head. “Okay, let’s try a compromise. You go out there and fight the good fight, but you don’t let Thanos get near you. Even if he goes for me, even if you think he might win – you stay back and stay alive. And I’m gonna need your word on that.”

 

Peter holds his breath for a moment, aware that he’s about to make a promise he may well not be able to uphold.

 

“I promise, Mister Stark.”

 

With noises of conflict growing above ground, there’s no time to rain check the kid’s sincerity. Tony takes a step back as he charges his thrusters, suddenly wary of making a big deal out of what might just be their final parting and bursting the dam to his emotion.

 

Just as he’s beginning to lift off the ground, Peter lurches towards him— “Wait!” – and traps him, suit and all, in a hug. Tony drops back to the ground and folds his arms around the kid before he can even process what he’s doing.

 

“Just in case,” Peter whispers as if raising his voice might make his fears incarnate.

 

“That won’t happen, kid.”

 

The words are empty, and Peter knows.

 

“That’s what you said on Titan.”

 

At his words, the bottom of Tony’s stomach drops out. He remembers now.

 

“I’m sorry.” There’s so much more to say, but not enough time. Smoothing back Peter’s unruly curls – one last time? – he sighs. “Go out and make me proud, Underoos.”

 

As he watches Tony jet off and out of the rubble, Peter’s suit reassembles around him with resolve. For better or worse, he’s prepared to break the promise he’d made Tony. Maybe it’s selfish, but the heart still beating in his chest will not stand by and watch Tony die.

 

Whatever it takes.

 


 

 

Peter cradles the oversized gauntlet which has somehow ended up in his hands and groans.

 

He’s exhausted. Thanos really hadn’t held back on military power, and it’s him that’s paying the price in every hit and drop of blood.

 

But at the same time… it’s awesome. Even the airport fight in Germany can in no way compare to the trip he’s just taken with the gauntlet, launched through the air by Thor’s hammer and Pepper in the ridiculously cool new armour and a badass lady on a pegasus

 

Of course, the sudden battalion of missiles had chosen that moment to steal his thunder and send him tumbling to the floor in a haze of fire and dust which dissipates as soon as it had erupted.

 

He barely registers the deep sound of impact as the monstrous mothership that had lingered over them is destroyed in one fell swoop. In fact, he remains groggily detached from reality until Carol dives to land in front of him.

 

“Hey, Peter Parker,” she smirks indulgently, recalling the first time they met. She stoops to guide the battered teenager to his feet.

 

“Carol.”

 

Peter grunts in pain as she lifts him upwards; he hands her the gauntlet wordlessly, face shining with trust.

 

“Alright?” she asks him as the tucks the vessel under one arm. Although the kid looks a few steps further from fine than she’d like, he’s standing, and on the battlefield that’ll have to do.

 

Peter nods with a smile that looks almost shy. “Nice hair.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“I missed you.”

 

“Missed you too, Rocketman.” As much as his sweet declarations make her smile, there’s a time and a place; she changes tack. “Should we save the mushy reunion for later?”

 

Peter, mercifully, picks up on the change of tone and smirks while he laughs a little ruefully. “Alright. Maybe after I take a nap, too.”

 

“Perfect.” Carol briefly squeezes the kid’s metal-clad shoulder. “Now get out there.”

 

At this, she’s off in a blaze of light as if she’d never been there.

 

Peter blinks. Straightens. Swipes at a little of the blood under his nose.

 

And fights.

 

Until he loses count of the number of times he’s knocked to the ground; until blood dripping into his eyes clouds his vision, mingling with salty sweat to create an adrenaline-fuelled cocktail; until he’s unsure if he’ll ever get up again; until the sledgehammer heart in his chest gains a dangerous lilt in its beat, beat. Beat-beat, beat.

 

Still, he gets up. He will. He—

 

“I am inevitable.”

 

It must be fate that he picks up those particular words over the din of battle. When the zeroing in of Peter’s senses is joined by a zing like alarm bells down his spine, he knows something is up – something big. Heaving himself tremulously to his feet, he twists his head in the direction of the sensation and balks.

 

He’s just a second too late to watch Tony wrench the stones from Thanos’ gauntlet hand or see the Mad Titan’s ineffectual snap. All he notices is Tony slowly raising his arm, adorned with all six of the intensely glowing stones.

 

Peter’s world implodes.

 

There’s only him, Tony, and void, blacker even than the barren space outside the Milano. If Tony snaps his fingers and is consumed by their power, Peter will be the only one left in a universe of overruling black. Like a dot-to-dot of blinding light amid darkness, they’re connected at the heartstrings. Peter can’t bear to see them break, feel the wrench in his gut. Not again.

 

He’s always being told that he follows his heart too much – even Ben, the man Peter had always looked up to for his selfless courage, once told him, “You wear that heart of gold on your sleeve all the time and it’s gonna tarnish, Pete,” – but in this fraction of a second, it’s all he knows. Loving. Saving. Living.

 

He’s not losing Tony.

 

“No. No, no, no.

 

Shot through with frantic adrenaline, Peter bends low to the ground and runs.

 

He’s never covered ground this fast before. Gritting his teeth against the screaming protest in his legs and lungs and the acridity of his tongue in his mouth, he spurs himself on with desperate rambling. “No, no, no, no, I’m – I’m not letting this h-happen – not you – not again – not - I'm not losing you."

 

The power of the stones might kill him if he comes into contact with them – to be perfectly honest, he has no idea – but they’ll kill Tony too if he doesn’t do something. Peter is ready. No regrets. Except—

 

Go. Go. Go.

 

As if being suspended in time is weighing him down, Tony hefts his gauntlet arm into the air and breathes heavily. The set of his face, as if he’s playing the last, triumphant turn of a life-long game cut too short, only further increases Peter’s breakneck pace past heroes and bad guys alike.

 

Peter Quill turns to witness the Spider-kid making a frenzied dash for Stark through the carnage. Squinting, he catches sight of the stones glowing in Tony’s gauntlet.

 

He’s got an idea, but he’ll have to work fast.

 

Tony genuinely, naively, hadn’t considered that it would all come to this: the agonising power coursing through him, the face of Thanos before him frightening in its rare expression of defeat, the 3D-viewing experience of sounds of bloodshed about them both, the bitter taste of victory in his throat.

 

He’d promised the kid this wouldn’t happen and now he’s going to disappoint him yet again. He feels like he specialises in that.

 

And yet, he’s strangely happy. Seeing Peter, Pepper and Rhodey in battle has brought him to a realization: even if he couldn’t put a suit of armour around the world like he’d failed to do with the creation of Ultron, he’s put one around his world. He’s at peace in one thing: that the people he loves will be safe when he’s done.

 

I just wish I could see the kid grow up. Clap like a lunatic when Rhodey gets his next medal of valour. Marry the hell out of Pepper. I wanna stick around with them all. I don’t want it to be over yet.

 

Tony Stark isn’t known for placing duty first, but now it really matters, and he must – and will – embrace it. Whatever it takes.

 

“I… am…”

 

He cuts off, fingers still poised mid-air, as a bundle of red and blue slams into him.

 

Thanos’ brow raises but he makes no move to reclaim the stones.

 

“Peter?”

 

Although the suit, the stature, the melted-away mask revealing sweat-and-blood-matted curls, all reconcile the appearance of the kid in rational thought, something in his brain has evidently shut down, leaving him dumb to logic.

 

No. Not him. Not now.

 

Peter clings to Tony, huddled on his knees at his mentor’s side, and squeezes his eyes shut wordlessly. Just seconds ago, Tony had been the picture of righteous defiance; now, the kid’s presence draws out hot tears which have been trapped under his skin for months. Because, feeling the warmth at his side, it dawns on him that he doesn’t want to go yet. Not in the slightest. He’s not ready.

 

For a split second, Tony simply holds his kid tight, neither of them in possession of the crucial knowledge of the working of the Infinity stones which could save or kill them both.

 

No words will satisfy the inconsolable sadness that envelops them both. Tony speaks anyway.

 

“I’m sorry, kiddo.”

 

Pressing a kiss to the side of Peter’s cheekbone, Tony meets a trail of tears.

 

He doesn’t grace Thanos with eye contact. Instead, he fixes his eyes firmly downwards on Peter. Focuses his mind on wiping Thanos and his army out of existence.

 

And snaps his fingers.

 

The last sensation Peter remembers before the burst of light consumes him is a hand gripping his. Tony’s?

 

An overwhelming surge of energy rushes through him, lighting up every cell of his being like a Christmas tree, searing, burning—

 

It passes through Peter, flowing into the hand twined in his and leaving him floored by a giddy ache.

 

The harsh yet heavenly light remains branded on his retinas for so long he’s afraid he’ll never see again. Slowly, too slowly, his senses return, as if he’s stepped out of a dark room into blinding sunshine, and he registers Tony’s suit against his hold.

 

Tony.

 

“Tony?” he croaks without thinking, squinting against the fading glare and yet dreading what he might see once it drops away.

 

Peter counts four seconds before there’s any reply. It’s long enough for him to abandon hope.

 

Down the void he dives. But he hasn’t truly seen yet.

 

The glare clears.

 

“Underoos?”

 

The very first sight that greets Peter is the resilient glow of the arc reactor.

 

The second is the hand locked in his squeezing gently. Twisting his head, Peter sees Carol with her hand in his, hair barely ruffled by the ordeal and matching his wonder-struck smile.

 

Gathered around them, hand in hand, is an army of their own. Carol, Pepper, Rhodey, Steve, Bucky, Sam, Peter Quill, Mantis, Drax, Rocket, Gamora, Nebula, Groot, Clint, Scott, Hope, Bruce, Thor, Valkyrie, Doctor Strange, Wong, T’Challa, Okoye, Shuri and Scarlet Witch form a circle, all reeling from the aftershock of the power of the Infinity stones flowing through them but alive and okay.

 

Peter Quill smiles in the knowledge that his plan was successful. Distributing the energy had worked after the dance-off, so it had worked again.

 

In the distance, small flurries of dust replace the enemy.

 

They’ve won.

 

“Oh my God. Kid, you’re the worst.”

 

The familiar voice pulls Peter back to the man he’s still clinging to.

 

“Mister Stark?”

 

Tony gazes down at him with an adoration that utterly blindsides Peter. He’s alive. He’s there and alive and smiling. There’s a cut running across the left of his face, and one just above his left eyebrow, and another splitting his lip open, and there’s a patch of bruising around his right cheekbone—

 

And my brain should probably shut up now—

 

Point is… we all made it.

 

“Are you okay?” Peter blurts.

 

In response, Tony sits back on his haunches and pulls Peter into a crushing hug, voice a little muffled from where he buries his face in the crown of Peter’s hair. “A little sore, but I have a feeling that’s more to do with my getting old and creaky than anything else. Otherwise? I’m right as rain.”

 

The easy quip drives a wet giggle from Peter.

 

As if snapping back to the present, Tony worms a hand in between their tight embrace and feels for Peter’s pulse at his neck. “What about you? Does your heart feel funny or anything?”

 

“Oh my God. I can’t believe you’re getting worked up about my heart right now.” Peter can’t help the exasperated, shaken sass that leaks into his tone at Tony’s utterly selfless fretting.

 

Tony hasn’t got the energy or the will to spar with the kid. Instead, he laughs bemusedly, locates the kid’s pulse point and listens for the beat, beat. Beat, beat. It comes a little irregular – beat-beat, beat – but it’s enough for now.

 

“We’re okay,” he breathes, relaxing back into a hug.

 

“Yes, we are.”

 

Pepper, radiant in her purple-toned Rescue armour, leans over Peter with a steadying arm on his shoulder to press her lips to Tony’s. The contact draws out tears of relief from the corners of her eyes; Tony motions for her to join the rapidly growing group hug.

 

“You stupid, reckless… wonderful man,” Pepper laughs tearfully.

 

“We won,” Peter breathes. “You did it, Mister Stark.”

 

“Ah-ah-ah. I heard you just a couple seconds ago. You explicitly proved, although I suspected it for a while, that the word ‘Tony’ is in your vocabulary. How about you put it to good use?”

 

Peter laughs; it’s an almost giddy sound. “If you want me to call you Tony, you can just say.”

 

Tony humours the kid, partly because the sound of his first name out of the kid’s mouth had been music to his ears. “Okay. Call me Tony.”

 

Peter bites back a delightfully childish giggle. “Okay, Mister Stark.”

 

“Jesus Christ,” Tony murmurs without bite, only exasperation.

 

There they remain for so long that the heroes around them are probably tapping their collective feet waiting for permission to scarper from the dust-scattered battleground. Tony couldn’t care less, not with Peter and Pepper safe and tucked close to his chest.

 

From where he’s wedged between the two adults on either side, Peter chips in hesitantly: “Hey, Mister – T-Tony – you don’t… really think I’m the worst, do you?”

 

“Of course not. If you were, you’d be tossed out some airlock by now.”

 

“Is that a threat?”

 

“Yes, if it keeps your ass out of the jaws of death for longer than a minute. But I’d bet the Compound –“ Casting a glance to the ruined building around them, Tony huffs out a laugh -  “that you are, without a doubt, the best kid I ever met and ever will. You got that?”

 

Peter shines.

 

But Pepper interjects, nodding surreptitiously downwards. “Don’t banish their hope before they even get a chance.”

 

Peter cocks his head. “What?”

 

Oh, shit.

 

“The baby,” Pepper supplies helpfully, lips pursed in faint confusion.

 

Peter’s jaw hits the floor. “The – the what?

 

“Did you not tell him, Tony?” Pepper rounds on him.

 

Two gazes meet Tony’s, one accusing, one shocked.

 

He casts about for an excuse. “In my defence, it wasn’t really a good time. Post-apocalyptic world and all that…”

 

Any semblance of betrayal has melted like sheet metal from Peter’s countenance, replaced with joy.

 

He stutters to life, eyes shining as his gaze darts from Pepper to Tony. “Oh my God – Mister Stark, Miss Potts – I can’t believe this, I- I mean, congratulations! When did you- when did you, like, make – actually, n-never mind… uh – when’s it due? Have you thought of a name or anything? Can I – help? – like, you know, come - come over and help you guys with feeding and changing and stuff and – holy cow, I can’t believe you’re having a baby and – can – could I be like a – a – um, a…”

 

“Big brother? Yes.”

 

Okay, maybe Tony’s remark is a little abrupt.

 

Peter appears to short-circuit, blinking fiercely and dragging an absent hand through his hair. “Wow. Okay – th-thank you.”

 

“You don’t have to thank me, squirt,” Tony cuts in, biting back a grin that might be perceived as patronising.

 

Pepper cuts in. “We want you to be around with Morgan. We think you’d do great as her sort of honorary big brother.”

 

“Morgan. Okay.” Peter looks so bewildered, lost in the shock of the happy news, that Tony pulls him right back in and clasps his wrist in his free hand behind his back.

 

When Peter drops his head to Tony’s shoulder, he feels the kid’s mouth pull into a grin.

 

We did win, Tony muses as he gently combs the dust and debris from Peter’s hair, meets Pepper’s watery eyes from over the kid’s head, spots Rhodey shaking his head in fond exasperation at the three of them.

 

Peter cracks one eye open and catches sight of Carol at Rhodey’s side, sharing in consolidatory post-battle silence. As always, she seems to sense his reaction before it happens, nodding as if to say it’s alright, enjoy yourself before he can make a gesture of apology. Peter lets his face melt into a grateful smile, burrowing into the warmth of Pepper and Tony securely sandwiching him.

 

The three (four?) of them make a picture to bring tears to the eyes.

 

Tony, as he sits in the rubble, battered and bruised, is exactly where he wants to be. It’s been a long and winding road to victory, but the journey has been more than worth this outcome. This, right here, is the reality he’s been fighting for ever since he finally woke up and saw the light 15 years ago. Ho Yinsen had told him then – although it feels like a lifetime ago now – that he was a man who had everything and nothing. In this moment, however, he’s proud to prove the man wrong.

 

He has got something. He’s got family.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Tony, are you gonna help me or not? I’ve got my hands full with Morgan, and Peter and May are on the doorstep.”

 

Tony follows the sound of Pepper’s raised voice, grasping blearily at the handle of their bedroom door. “Okay, I’ll get the door, honey.”

 

“I still have potatoes to peel for the picnic. Can you handle them too?” He notes the hint of playful sarcasm in her reply.

 

“You do remember Peter can’t stand them, right?”

 

Pepper curses under her breath; Tony catches a faint sound of utensils being hastily discarded. “Right. Okay, no more potato salad. But get your ass to the porch.”

 

As Tony crosses the hallway, passing the kitchen in which he presumes Pepper is preparing food, he runs his fingers through his hair in a futile attempt not to appear as if he’s just napped for two hours. He might be retired, but he still has pride.

 

There is certainly not a spring in his step or a rapidly coalescing grin on his face as he strides to meet the Parkers. Nothing of the sort.

 

Okay, he’s missed the kid. It’s been 19 days since he last saw Peter in person, and he suspects the abrupt thought of 19 days too many that invades his mind is a product of parental mushiness. The arrival of a red-faced Morgan into the world just 3 months previously has shaken up not only the external routine between him and Pepper but also some chemical balance inside him; in short, she’s lodged a firecracker into the hard-to-reach parts of his heart. Cue mushiness, which, lucky for the kid, happens to extend to him.

 

In the 10 months since the dual Snaps that won them back the world, Tony has helped Peter and his aunt resituate in a marginally nicer place in Queens. May had been too proud to allow him to aid them on many fronts but had relented on the subject of Peter’s therapy. And – Tony ventured to say – the investment seemed to be working.

 

But Queens was just too far away for the boy he’d spent 24 days in close quarters with. So ensued regular video calling and visits when the Parkers had the time.

 

The heavy wooden door swings open to reveal the kid and his aunt wearing matching smiles and laden with Tupperware tubs. Knowing May, there will be an array of concoctions ranging in quality from gruesome to ungodly in those innocent-looking containers. Tony smiles anyway, planning to usher the pair in to drop off the food and hopefully forget about it after.

 

“Tony!” Peter blurts.

 

“Surprised?”

 

“No, just… happy.” A touch of Peter’s trademark bashfulness worms its way into the accustomed, sass-tinged tone he normally gets out of the kid. It’s cute.

 

“I’m impressed you two made it through the wilderness in one piece,” Tony remarks, turning to the pair.

 

Peter shrugs, a smile tugging at his mouth. “Well, I did all the navigation, so we didn’t get lost.”

 

May frowns in mock-offence. “Hey! I’m not that bad, am I?”

 

Peter throws her a look that Tony’s going to have to patent soon for its impressive shade-throwing ability.

 

Tony smirks knowingly at him. “Come on in.”

 

The very second Peter’s set down the food, Tony wraps him in a tight but tender hug which Peter gently reciprocates.

 

“It’s good to have you back, Pete,” Tony murmurs into the kid’s hair where Peter has burrowed into Tony’s neck. He’s grown, even since the last time Tony laid eyes on him, and no longer fits against Tony’s collarbone, a change which both unsettles and thrills him. The pitch of his voice, however, remains around the level of a chihuahua high on helium, much to the amusement of his peers.

 

“Good to be back,” Peter replies.

 

Pepper swiftly breaks up the scene by entering with a snuffling Morgan in her arms. Breaking away from the embrace, Peter makes a beeline for the baby. “Pepper, it’s great to see you!” he grins. “And how’s the little troublemaker?”

 

Morgan registers Peter’s appearance instantly and flexes her starfish hands with a beam, grabbing at Peter’s hair in the way she reserves only for the kid. She has her priorities straight, Tony thinks as Peter stoops awkwardly to allow her to fist tiny hands in the curls spilling over his forehead. Another gloriously endearing discovery that has emerged since the birth of Morgan and Tony and Pepper’s subsequent settling down at the lake house he’d dreamed up while lulling Peter to sleep on the Milano all those months ago is Peter’s natural affinity with babies – or, more specifically, a certain Morgan Stark, who Tony suspects adores Peter more than her own parents. Plus the hair-playing thing, which she totally gets from her dad.

 

“Mind taking her for a minute while we take everything down to the lake?” Pepper asks him.

 

“Yeah, of c— ow! Morgan, I’m flattered, but my hair isn’t a climbing rope, okay?”

 


 

 

“How he actually enjoys swimming in 80-degree water is beyond me,” Tony says as he watches Peter cutting frothing lines through the lake water about 20 feet away from where he, Pepper and May sit at the shoreline on deck chairs.

 

“It’s refreshing!” Peter yells, briefly righting himself to tread water. Tony twitches before recalling the kid’s superhearing.

 

“I’ll take your word for it, kid,” he hollers back.

 

Flicking his dripping hair back from his face, Peter smiles devilishly and dives away, heading towards the centre of the lake.

 

May laughs lightly from his left where she dandles Morgan on a knee. “He’s a water baby. Even before he got bit, he couldn’t get enough of it. It was one of the few things that didn’t make his asthma worse.”

 

An endearing image of a pre-pubescent Peter, goggles secured over a mop of hair and preparing to dive into a pool teeming with other kids, floats into Tony’s mind. He smiles.

 

“He always looked at home in there,” May continues. “I could just… watch him for hours.”

 

“Yeah, that happens,” Pepper coos in Morgan’s direction, allowing the baby to wrap a tiny hand around her index finger.

 

May shifts Morgan in her lap. “She’s getting so big!”

 

This is something Tony is acutely aware of: how his kids are growing and flourishing and he’s on the other end of the spectrum, shrinking and disappearing. It’s a bittersweet change.

 

“Don’t you ever wanna know what they’ll be like when they get even bigger?” he speculates aloud, occupying his ever-restless hands with the virgin mojito Pepper had expertly mixed for him. “Maybe she’ll surpass me in intelligence. Maybe she’ll go through a goth phase that never wears off and dress up like a vampire for her wedding. Maybe she’s gonna start up a career in bioengineering, decide it’s totally wrong for her, then run off to join a travelling circus. And all that is gonna come from that one little baby.”

 

One corner of May’s mouth quirks upwards in a sympathetic smirk. “It does feel like that sometimes. You look behind you and suddenly all those years are there, and you remember the day they came into the world, and it’s pretty damn scary. But amazing, too. Who would’ve guessed a kid like Peter would come out of that five-pound miracle on August 10th, 2001?”

 

“I would’ve,” Tony blurts. “If I’d been there. I can sense greatness.”

 

“Sure, you can.” Pepper shoves him lightly with her fingertips extended. “Thanks for ruining the mood.”

 

“Okay, first off, you know how heart-to-hearts make me sweat. And secondly, I totally predicted that Morgan would be a genius, and the stats seem to agree. Smiling at five weeks, grabbing at 11? I have a sense. Like Peter’s… tingle.”

 

The lack of a whining retort from Peter, now a small spot in the distance, confirms that he’s out of earshot. May, however, titters lazily. “’Tony tingle’ actually sounds even better.”

 

“I’m sure the kid will be thrilled you two get matching tingles,” Pepper adds.

 

Tony’s eyes widen. “Now that’s starting to sound weird.”

 

For a handful of seconds, the three of them sit back in their loungers, content to fuss quietly over Morgan and watch Peter’s rapid circular progress through the lake.

 

“He’s amazing, isn’t he?” May comments mildly. “I know you’re not supposed to say that about your kids, but he is.”

 

Tony considers the rippling of water around the kid as he pulls his legs up briefly with a motion reminiscent of a mermaid to produce a glittering spray, the broad sweep his hands make as he clears his face of water, the twitching flick of his head that dispels drips from the ends of his hair, the playfulness of the twist he makes as he dives back under as if it’s the most enjoyable thing he’s ever done.

 

Yeah, pretty damn amazing. But it’s not as if I didn’t already know that.

 

He recalls the play of synthetic blue light over Peter’s wan face as he clenched his teeth against yet another futile dressing change, the shuffle of bare feet as he limped determinedly around the Milano’s many halls, the precious smiles he handed freely to Tony despite the horror of their situation, the wiry hands seeking an anchor in his shirt or shoulders juxtaposed by the bright eyes of a fighter.

 

Tony would like to think that his sense for greatness – his Tony Tingle, whatever – is the reason why he came banging down the kid’s door in the first place. In reality, however, he’s pretty sure he just lucked out with Peter.

 

“Amazing doesn’t even cut it,” Tony replies around a mouthful of emotional constipation. Come on, brain, let me dote.

 

May and Pepper simply nod at this, as if acknowledging that there’s a part of Peter that will remain between him and Tony.

 

“How’d you do it, May?” he continues, turning to the aunt-and-baby duo. “Raise such a brilliant kid?”

 

She smiles in a clash of amusement and wistfulness. “Trust me, he did it himself. I think if he didn’t have such strong morals, my style of parenting would’ve let him fall into bad places. I feel like most of the time I just stood by and watched him run circles around me.”

 

“Well, looks like that worked,” Pepper huffs lightly. “Let’s hope he spends enough time around Morgan that it rubs off.”

 

May laughs. “Oh, he’d love to. He’s smitten with her – honestly, I’m surprised he hasn’t come out of the water yet to hold her again.”

 

“He loves everything,” Tony cuts in. “It’s like the world is made of cotton candy for him.”

 

“That’s part of what’s so great about him. Somehow, even after everything… he’s still like that.” May gestures to where Peter’s surfaced with a joyous shout in an explosion of foaming droplets.

 

Depositing Morgan back in Pepper’s waiting arms, May changes track with a sigh. “The worst thing is seeing him come to terms with the fact that it isn’t always like that. It really works him up sometimes. But he’s a mirror with that sort of stuff. I suppose I’ve got that to thank, because he tries to be so close to the vest with it. You can tell when he’s really happy.”

 

Right on cue, the kid himself emerges like a dart from the water, still in his t-shirt and shorts which he’d divebombed into the lake wearing, flexing his hands against the cold and trailing water which he flicks in Tony’s direction.

 

The spray is surprisingly refreshing, but he humours Peter all the same, flapping his hands in front of his face. “No – c’mon, Pete!”

 

The kid’s face lights up in a laugh. It’s glorious to be the cause of that splitting open of light.

 

Before he can do any more damage, May swamps him from behind with a towel, sweeping it across his sopping clothes and hair while he squirms, chuckling. The scuffle lasts no longer than a few seconds before May wraps him in a hug, arms crossed across Peter’s chest and securing the towel in place, and Peter lets his head flop sideways to rest against May’s with a lazy grin painting his face.

 

Looks pretty happy to me. The kid’s grin is annoyingly infectious; even by scrubbing at his mouth with his hand, Tony can’t remove it.

 

Damn kid’s gonna ruin my reputation.

 

Kinda already has.

 

Tony’s waiting for him with sandwiches in hand the minute he joins them on the loungers. Peter catches his eye for half a second as he extends the meticulously made thing to him, but Peter's not the only one that’s braved a little therapy time. Instead of creating an obligation for him to eat, Tony sets the plate on the table nearest the kid and croons, “Thought you might like them more with the crusts cut off, Petey.”

 

Peter drops his head into his hands, the tension immediately forgotten and replaced with a smile of mingling embarrassment and amusement. “Oh my God, I’m seventeen.”

 

“I see, we’re flashing it around now, aren’t we?” Tony leans back on his lounger with raised eyebrows. “Only been seventeen for 23 days.”

 

A pair of eyes peeks from behind the kid’s splayed fingers. “How do you even remember that?”

 

“Because I’m your biggest fan,” Tony insists, clasping his hands together in petulance which prompts an eye roll from Peter.

 

“That can’t be true if you don’t know that I’m not a little kid anymore!”

 

Prising apart the kid’s fingers and planting a sandwich inside, May taps him on the nose fondly. “Oh, but we all want you to stay one.”

 

“There’s not a lot I can do about it.” Taking a bite out of the sandwich without checking to ascertain what May had given him was actually food, Peter throws his spare hand in the air.

 

“I mean, I could always dig the time machine back out, try the trick we did on Scott…”

 

“I will strangle you,” May cuts in murderously.

 

“Okay, okay, I won’t! Don’t you trust me with keeping him safe after I managed it for six months?”

 

Flipping instantly to a smile, May replies with a hint of something more meaningful behind her words. “Yeah, I do trust you.”

 

“Are you not gonna swim at all, Tony?” Peter interjects, sandwich halfway to his mouth.

 

“Are you kidding? It’s freezing in there. Nuh uh.”

 

“I heard that cold water is good for the heart… seems like we both need a little of that.”

 

“Parker, don’t you dare—”

 

“It’s refreshing!”

 

He’ll later regret the overly dramatic way he yells, “Peter! Put me down!” as the kid slings him effortlessly over one shoulder and sprints for the water.  Within seconds, the mock-fury has dissolved into hapless laughter between them both. There’s a fractal of time wherein he witnesses Peter suspended between the platform and the lake before—

 

“Fu- dgesicles, it is freezing in here!”

 

Peter simply throws his head back and giggles, looking all too pleased with himself, and Tony can’t help but mirror the glee written across his dripping face.

 


 

 

As he’s making the rounds that evening, Tony can’t resist stopping by Peter’s door and mentally ticking off the parental milestone.

 

He cracks a lopsided smile, leaning against the doorframe as he addresses the kid, who’s currently reading a frighteningly thick hardback and ensconced in goose feather pillow. “Hiya, kid. Just dropping in on you and Morgan before I head to sleep.”

 

Tucking in a bookmark without taking his eyes off Tony, Peter huffs out a laugh, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “Aw, you’re a real dad now, aren’t you?”

 

There’s something about the shine of his eyes, caught in the gentle glow of the orb-shaped lamp on his bedside table, that suggests to Tony that the kid’s happy he’s there.

 

Raising his hands sarcastically, he quirks an eyebrow. “I know, you’re seventeen. But I think even seventeen-year-olds just wanna be tucked into bed sometimes.”

 

Peter responds only with a bashful chuckle that instantly confirms Tony’s words.

 

“How are you holding up?” Tony ventures once he’s perched against Peter’s side on the mattress. He’s been asking the kid this since the very first time they met after the dual Snaps and is used to a faintly encouraging answer of not terrible or alright or even pretty good, I think. Of course, there are the visits or the calls when it’s bad instead, the nights when he wakes Peter from nightmares in this very bed or sits with him while he runs his mouth or holds him to keep him from falling apart – or, even more torturous, the sobs and gasps over the phone that he can’t hug away.

 

But today, Peter briefly shuts his eyes and replies: “Actually? Really… really great.”

 

“Great,” Tony repeats a little dumbly.

 

“Yeah. I mean, after the… the cardioversion? On my heart, it’s not fluttering weirdly anymore, so breathing is way less stressful.” He cuts off with a short laugh, aware of how his words might sound. Tony prompts him to continue by brushing strands of hair from the kid’s forehead. “I haven’t started hiding food again – not yet, anyway.” He swallows briefly but pushes on hesitantly. “And it’s nice, not worrying about people finding the stash all the time. Feels… free.”

 

“Is the scar going anywhere?” Tony asks softly.

 

In response, Peter pushes aside his comforter and lifts his pyjama shirt to let Tony see. Any semblance of awkwardness around exposing the bare flesh there disappeared during their time on the Milano. It sends his heart plunging to the floor when he catches sight of the still-present scar across his lean lower abdomen, ragged and angry, and he bows his head to hide the tension in his jaw, but Peter studies the puckered area with a strange expression of content.

 

“Not really,” he says. “But it’s okay.”

 

“How is it okay?” Tony replies with unintended bite. He can’t quite help his anger, split open by the mark that will never leave his kid’s skin, the mark that Thanos branded him with, that was meant for him.

 

“Because – this is kinda hard to explain – it’s… proof.”

 

“Proof?”

 

“Proof that it all happened. I mean, it’s maybe not the best thing to be reminded of… everything that happened… but it’s there because we won. We both made it out alive and it’s over now. Sometimes, I think if I didn’t have the scar, it would kind of slip through my fingers. And it sort of… justifies not being okay sometimes. Because I know that something did happen - he did do – stuff – to me – and—"

 

Peter breaks off with a click of his jaw which has tightened like a vice, like his hands fisted in the comforter. When he inhales, it’s with practiced control: in through the nose, out through the mouth.

 

“Sorry,” he breathes. “Sometimes I don’t realise what I’m saying, and then I remember, and it’s… hard.”

 

Tony can only imagine what’s flashing through Peter’s mind right now.

 

A cruel, choking metal hand at his throat. A rain of blows assaulting, trapping him. The wicked gleam of a shard of Stark tech as it struck through his stomach. Ghostly silence as, one by one, every single one of their friends drifted away into dust. The cries of anguish while Tony crouched uselessly by his bedside, armed with poetry instead of pain relief. Day in, day out, the burning agony at the stab site which he fought past. The confinement on the Milano, slowly slipping into hopelessness and starvation. Discovering that his hero couldn’t save him this time; that his fight had been in vain. Knife-sharp ribs emerging from under skin as death approached around the corner. The shivering, sweating heat of fever. Emptiness as his heart failed in his chest. The weeks of hazy panic in hospital. Six months of tragedy as he tried to adjust to the loss of half the universe.

 

Tony’s a furnace of rage and it’s all directed at a dead man. But he knows rage is not what Peter needs right now. Instead, he takes a deep breath himself and scoops the kid up into an embrace, hooking his chin over a warm shoulder. “I know,” he whispers, hand rubbing soothingly up and down the kid’s back. “But it’s okay now. I got you, yeah?”

 

 Peter melts into him. “Yeah.” The sigh he emits is high-pitched, as if Tony’s touch has released it from the prison of his ribcage.

 

“But you’re feeling great?” As much as he wants to believe the kid’s words, Tony can’t reconcile them with the Peter in his arms who is making a visible effort to contain himself.

 

A self-deprecating laugh escapes Peter, whose head is bowed as he presses his face to the spot on Tony’s collarbone he occupied when he was younger. “I mean – I know, I’m kind of having a- a moment right now. But I’m good. I promise.”

 

“Don’t tell me the guilt complex is making a strange re-appearance,” Tony says, feigning lightness but unable to hide the concerned crease in his browline.

 

“My nightmares are better,” Peter blurts.

 

Tony pauses, shifting back a little to study Peter’s earnest countenance. “Better as in a little better or better better?”

 

“I haven’t had one since the last time I saw you.”

 

Tony fights against a grin, gripping the kid’s elbows to look him dead in the eye. He’s not quite ready to believe it.

 

“No. You’re kidding. This is some kind of awful joke.”

 

“Not kidding.” The smile that emerges on Peter’s face is almost shy.

 

“Kid, you amaze me,” Tony murmurs as he draws him into his chest, intending to squeeze the life out of him but getting a taste of his own medicine as Peter squeezes back with superhuman force and forces an inelegant grunt from Tony.

 

“Oh, sorry,” Peter winces with a touch of a laugh, loosening his grip incrementally.

 

Tony doesn’t care. “That is great.”

 

“It’s not huge.”

 

“No, it is.”

 

“And I’m a lot less… scared all the time. No more... trouble breathing... since last month.” Peter tacks on the statement casually, avoiding the words which Tony knows only freak him out. Anxiety. Panic attacks.

 

“Jesus, kid,” Tony replies, rocking Peter back and forth slightly and turning towards his ear to continue. “You’re gonna give me the best heart attack ever while I try to process all this good stuff you’re throwing at me.”

 

Peter shakes lightly in his grip in a hushed giggle.

 

“You’re doing so good, Underoos,” continues Tony, shaking his head a little in elated disbelief.

 

The way Peter whispers “Thanks, Tony,” contains a sort of reverence that the man surely doesn’t deserve. “You helped me out a lot.”

 

“It’s nothing. I’ll do it all over again if you need.”

 

“I don’t think I will. I think—” Peter raises his head to look at Tony, eyes shining with the brilliance of stars. “I think I’m getting better. And… you are too, right?”

 

The realisation of what his honest answer will be is like a thunderbolt from the heavens, igniting Tony’s heart.

 

He smiles. “Yeah. I really am. We’re okay.”

 

Yes, there will still be the nights when Peter wakes in the throes of horror and patches a call through to Tony with shaking fingers. Yes, there will be the impromptu texts and even visits on bad days when the memory of Peter a step from death gnaws at his mind until the only thing that will negate the dread is spending the day with the kid. Yes, there have been losses: Natasha, Steve, the brave army members who sacrificed their lives for the universe, for the return of that brilliant gleam in Peter’s eye. But they won.

 

I won, Tony realises as he runs a hand through Peter’s curls and casts his thoughts to Pepper and Morgan, safe and asleep the floor above.

 

We won.

 


 


A noiseless patient spider, 

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 

 

And you, O my soul, where you stand, 

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.