For the last hour, Tony had done nothing much but ponder sulkily about how heavy Dum-E was.
Seriously, he weighed a ton.
Which wasn’t great when he was tipped precariously over on his side, exhausted of power and trapping Tony on the floor of the lab.
Clearly, Tony’s ability to go days without sleep had left a lasting impression on a bull-headed and endearingly useless Dum-E, something which JARVIS took the pleasure of reminding him as he moaned in pain.
Tony had never missed the ability to flip someone off more than he did in that moment.
He’d been working quietly, minding his own business, when JARVIS had informed him of the activity of a certain bot.
''Sir, Dum-E is showing rapidly dwindling levels of power. I’ve requested that he power down but he seems rather intent on making you a smoothie.''
A snarky trill from behind him had Tony sighing loudly as he shut down the wall of holograms surrounding him with a wave of his hand. Moving across the lab had put him in the path of Dum-E, who had been cruising somewhat sluggishly towards the blender in the small kitchenette area.
''Hey,'' Tony had barked as he tapped the bot on the arm. ''Have you been avoiding your charging station again?''
Dum-E, stubborn and not one to take a scolding willingly, had made a break for it, careening wildly on two of his wheels which had Tony automatically reaching out to steady him.
''Ohhh no, don’t even think about it, buddy. You’re not getting – ''
Tony’s words had turned into a garbled yell as Dum-E’s final dregs of power drained away, immediately ceasing the traction of his wheels and sending him lurching heavily forward into Tony, knocking them both to the ground.
The wind had left Tony’s lungs in a stunned gasp, leaving him choking for air as the impact sent a flare of pain down his back.
''God, you really are a dummy,'' Tony wheezed when the air had finally filtered back into his lungs. The sparking sensation in his back had lessened somewhat but the attempt to get up was still completely unsuccessful, leaving him swearing loudly in frustration.
Though heavy, Tony could usually manhandle Dum-E with relative ease when necessary. However, as he was still recovering from a recent Avengers-related tangle with some unsavoury and irritatingly powerful adversaries that had taken place two days prior, Tony had found he lacked the strength or ability to move the bot away. Not only that, he was pinned in such a way that his arms couldn’t quite bend to push against the floor, and his legs couldn’t gain enough of a grip to do any good either.
In short, Tony was stuck. Stucker than stuck; stuck without a hope of being unstuck anytime soon.
He’d begrudgingly asked JARVIS to call for help, only to be informed that the entire team was absent from the building.
''What? Why? Where are they?''
''I believe they are having pizza at Don Louis.''
Great. The entire team were having dinner without him. At his favourite restaurant, no less.
The knowledge stung, much more than he had expected it to.
''You were invited, Sir,'' JARVIS told him, apparently having somehow sensed Tony’s feelings of rejection.
''You were. You told Captain Rogers to go on ahead and that you would join them shortly.''
''…How long ago was that?''
''Approximately seventy-three minutes ago, Sir.''
''I can contact one of them directly – ''
''No no,'' Tony had said hurriedly, wriggling his shoulders with a wince. ''I’ll be fine, just – just, you know, get someone down here when they get back, alright?''
''Sir – ''
And so Tony lay there, staring up the ceiling, one finger from his pinned arm tracing along the underside of Dum-E’s strut, even though the offline bot couldn’t feel a thing. He lost track of the minutes he was counting in his head a little while later when there was a distinct rumbling sound from somewhere in the tower.
Seemingly moments later, the elevator opened and a familiar figure stepped out.
''Friend Stark! Dear JARVIS has summoned me to rescue you.''
Thor looked around, smile slipping and brow furrowing as he scanned the room.
''Down here, Point Break.''
Thor’s beaming smile immediately returned to his face as his eyes swivelled to Tony.
''Ah! There you are. Is this some Midgardian custom I’m not familiar with?''
Tony rolled his eyes as Thor approached him. ''At this point, the only thing you’re not familiar with is what normal people do on Earth. We as a group are not a good example, buddy.''
Thor shrugged. ''You are more than adequate enough in my opinion.''
''Oh, well that’s nice,'' Tony quipped before giving him an empty glare. ''You wanna give me a hand?''
Thor’s grin grew even wider, giving him that excited puppy look that Tony secretly found rather adorable. With an unnecessary but undoubtedly endearing reassurance, Thor bent down and plucked Dum-E up with one arm, pulling a spluttering Tony to his feet with his other hand.
The hand gripped Tony’s fingers tightly as he swayed on the spot and winced.
''Do you need me to carry you?''
''God, no,'' Tony laughed weakly, palming his face with his free hand. ''Just – let’s go find the others. There’s a Fettucine alfredo out there with my name on it.''
Tony was treated to another blinding smile before he squawked in protest as Thor began to stride across the lab, pulling Tony along behind him. After bidding a gentle goodnight to Dum-E as he set him on charging dock, Thor turned and marched towards the elevator, still holding Tony by the hand.
He didn’t let go until he had firmly deposited Tony in his designated chair at the head of the table in the restaurant. Truth be told, Tony found it rather embarrassing to walk into a crowded place with a demigod holding his hand like a wayward child, but when Thor shifted that hand on his shoulder and squeezed it fondly, somehow it didn’t seem so bad.
Tony was trapped.
Pinned with no means of escape.
It was his own fault really. He should have got out when he had the chance.
And now, it was too late.
Tony peered down at the unruly mess of curls beneath his nose and sighed softly.
What had started off as a head falling to lean on his shoulder had turned into a full body sprawl. Peter’s head was now resting just beneath Tony’s chin, rising and falling with each careful breath that Tony took. His torso was turned slightly into Tony so that they were almost chest to chest; his left arm was curled loosely around Tony’s waist and the other was tucked into the narrow groove of space between them. His legs were curled up and burrowed into Tony’s side, making it so that the man had to lift his arm and rest it on the kid’s bony knees. Tony’s other arm was somewhat braced around Peter’s shoulders, a palm pressing into the space just below the nape of his neck.
Tony wasn’t quite sure when that had happened but, clearly, it had occurred at some point.
Honestly, he was kind of glad. The kid had been burning the candle at both ends recently, with both schoolwork and his patrols dealing a heavy blow to the amount of sleep he had been getting. Not only that, the kid had arrived at the tower that morning sporting a low-grade fever and a croaky voice that had Tony squinting threateningly at him until the kid finally caved and admitted he wasn’t feeling a hundred percent.
Tony was by no means an expert in dealing with sick, grumpy teenagers but even he knew that an afternoon on the couch with movies would be enough to tempt Peter into relaxing a little. He’d even managed to get a bowl of soup and a couple of Steve’s super strength pain pills down the kid too.
And judging by the rapid rate in which Peter had dozed off, they seemed to have done the trick.
Tony sighed again, eyes lazily drifting back to the television where the finale of Return of the Jedi was coming to a close. He had to begrudgingly admit that having Peter snuggled up to him like an overgrown teddy bear wasn’t the worse thing in the world. It was comforting, grounding, if not a little bewildering.
Still, the twinge in Tony’s back told him that he wouldn’t be able to sit here for much longer, but the idea of waking the kid up didn’t sit right with him at all. He shifted slowly, holding his breath as he straightened up, only to wince with a sharp hiss as his nerves pinched together painfully. Peter snorted and moved his head to the side before turning into Tony’s collarbone with a gentle hum.
Something warm and tender flickered in Tony’s chest. He patted his fingers softly against Peter’s back as he looked down at the kid's slumbering face.
Tony had never considered having children; he’d known from an early age that it just wasn’t for him.
But this…Well, this he could get used to.
Though his back definitely couldn’t.
A throat clearing had Tony turning his head awkwardly to peer over his shoulder. Rhodey stood a short distance behind him, arms folded and a questioning smirk on his face.
Tony stared at him for a moment. ''Let’s face it,'' he huffed, turning back around, ''this isn’t the weirdest thing you’ve seen me do.''
''Oh, I don’t know,'' Rhodey drawled as he moved to stand in front of him. ''This is a pretty high contender.''
Tony rolled his eyes before giving him a pained look, one that he had regularly employed over the years to get whatever he needed out of Rhodey. The older man, long since immune to his antics, simply gave him a quirk of an eyebrow in return.
''I don’t want to wake him, that’s all,'' Tony explained in a whisper. ''Kid’s barely had any sleep lately as it is and now he’s got a cold or something and I really hate the way you’re looking at me now,'' he gave Rhodey a glare as the man’s smirk grew in size. ''Stop it. Now.''
Rhodey snorted and shook his head, only to freeze as Peter stirred. Tony’s eyes grew wide in panic and he awkwardly held his arms out to the side as the kid grumbled something against the collar of Tony’s shirt before nuzzling into him again. Tony’s arms drooped, instinctively curling around the kid as Peter let out a soft, congested snore. Tony watched him for a moment before sending Rhodey a pleading glance.
''My back can’t take sleeping on the couch, Rhodes.''
His friend sighed but the smirk on his face was quickly replaced by a warm smile. ''Need a hand, Papa Bear?'' he teased.
''Just shut up and help me, platypus, or I’ll make sure to steal his snotty tissues and rub them on your face while you sleep,'' Tony threatened. ''You know I’ll do it.''
Rhodey rolled his eyes. Leaning down, he pressed a hand against Tony’s waist and grabbed the hand that Tony managed to hold out to him after lowering Peter’s weight onto his forearms.
With a shared nod, they moved simultaneously. Tony dug his heels into the ground just as Rhodey heaved, fingers curling around Tony’s with the strength of the pull. Rhodey steadied him as he drew upright with a low groan. Tony shuffled the kid around so his face was pressed into the crook of Tony’s neck again. Peter snuffled loudly before curling in closer, an arm reaching up to snag hold of Tony’s shirt in a sleepy grip.
Rhodey gave Tony’s hand a pat before letting go, smiling affectionately at the sight of Tony cradling Peter like a small child.
''Not a word, sour patch,'' Tony warned and stumbled off towards the door. He only made it halfway before pausing.
With a snort, Rhodey moved to join him, hands pressing up against Tony’s lower back to ease the pressure and tilt him upright. With another demand for quiet from Tony, the two friends set off at an awkward pace, whisper-arguing all the way as an oblivious Peter dozed on in Tony’s arms.
The pounding behind Tony’s eyes was relentless. A sharp pick axe of a digging sensation somewhere in the back, piercing and somehow dull at the same time.
Tony groaned as his stomach churned with nausea, filling his mouth with bitter saliva.
''What?'' Tony bit out harshly, fingers pressing into the hollow of his eye sockets as he leaned back against the workbench.
''Peter Parker is about to enter the lab.''
Tony fought the urge to roll his eyes at the haughty tone, knowing that such a move would only result in more discomfort. He’d forgotten all about the kid’s visit, leaving him unable to cancel when the first tell-tale signs of a migraine had made themselves known earlier that morning. The lights seeming too bright; the intermittent pins and needles in his hands that had him clenching his fingers into fists so tight that his nails dug into his palms; the dizziness that had him stumbling more and more as the hours had passed.
Now, he was a sweaty, nauseous mess and was certain that if he opened his eyes, his head might explode.
A hand tentatively touched his shoulder.
''Are…are you okay?''
Tony gritted his teeth as Peter’s voice stabbed into him, dragging across his nerves like a jagged blade.
Tony spun abruptly, frustration and a need for Peter to stop talking smothering everything else, his fondness for the kid blinded by the agony chiselling at the insides of his skull. However, the poisonous scolding dashing across his tongue was quickly engulfed by another gush of sickly spittle and he found himself pitching to the side with a pathetic groan.
An arm braced itself around his back whilst a hand seized one of his own, encasing his fingers in a protective grip that somehow seemed to steady him and keep him upright. Tony tilted into Peter’s small but solid frame, unable to do anything else.
He wasn’t sure how long they stood there, him breathing raggedly and Peter patiently silent by his side. A patchy tapping of a finger against his back eventually caught Tony’s attention. At first, his splintering thoughts identified it as Morse code, but the dragging of his shirt revealed that it was in fact words that Peter was pressing into him.
It took a few goes but eventually he worked it out.
Nod yes shake no
Tony gave the minutest of nods before whispering a curse as he felt Peter shift beside him. With a cautious touch, Peter eased Tony’s left arm over his own shoulders so that he could support Tony’s lagging form. With painstaking gentleness. Peter walked them across the lab, never uttering a word, using the hand on Tony’s lower back to guide him past any obstacle.
Somewhere in the back of his splintering thoughts, Tony wanted to feel embarrassed, weak, angry. But, as Peter eased him down into the soft cushions of the couch, he found that he was only grateful.
The lights dimmed to a barely there glow, two pills were pushed softly against his dry lips until they parted and accepted the trickle of cool water that came with the medicine, and then there was silence. A blissful silence that soothed the frayed edges of his mind and allowed for the pressure in his head to spread out more evenly, reducing the bulging push behind his eyes.
Tony wondered if Peter was still there. He’d come to work on his suit and maybe watch a movie over several slices of pizza, not to take care of a tired shadow of a man with a migraine to end all migraines.
After another minute or two, or even an hour for all he could tell, of silence, Tony lifted a hand searchingly. He sighed with immediate relief as it met with the fingers of another, tangling together loosely but with just enough firmness to reassure him that Peter wasn’t going anywhere.
Peter was there.
Tony pushed the last flicker of his energy into giving Peter’s hand the softest of squeezes, hoping it conveyed all that he felt.
Peter squeezed back just as gently.
Tony was used to the paparazzi.
Really, who else wouldn’t be after being hounded by them for most of their life? As a result, Tony’s immunity levels to the popping flashes of cameras, demanding yells for his attention and probing questions were as robust as iron with seldom anything ever getting through.
So when he felt the first juddering skip of his heart in his chest as he stepped out of the car, he was immediately confused.
Tony had become something of a recluse in the eighteen months since the Snap. After he had recovered from his hellish journey through the fathomless stretches of spare, Tony had made quick work of purchasing somewhere quiet and hidden away for him and a pregnant Pepper to retire to. Since then, he had worked hard at keeping himself firmly out of the spotlight, only making journeys into the devastated city when it was absolutely necessary.
And apparently, an emergency board meeting required one of those absolutely necessary trips. Stocks had understandably plummeted with the loss of half the population (and half of the investors of Stark Industries) and though the company was holding steady enough, her remaining stakeholders were beginning to panic.
Tony, unwilling to let a thoroughly exhausted Pepper face a room full of arrogant, boorish men with too much money and time on their hands, had driven himself into city with a weary sense of frustration. Given the choice between sitting through what was bound to be an agonisingly boring encounter or trying to soothe his grouchy baby daughter as she cut another tooth, he knew which he would prefer.
He hadn’t considered the fact that the paparazzi, unchanged and all the more bloodthirsty since the world of celebrities had shrunk by a considerable amount, might get wind of his appearance somehow. They always did, one way or another, but it was a detail that had slipped his fuzzy, sleep-deprived mind.
Still, unwilling to be intimidated, Tony allowed a moment to curse himself for not bringing Happy along and walked into the fray with all the boldness that he had possessed for what felt like a lifetime.
''Mister Stark, what do you have to say about your failure to stop Thanos?''
The name crashed through Tony like broken ice, turning everything dark and cold inside.
''Do you have anything to say to the families that are still struggling with the loss of their loved ones?''
Something wrenched in his chest, stealing the air from his lungs and pulling the muscles tight.
''Mister Stark, you and the rest of the Avengers have the blood of millions of people on your hands, why have you done nothing to atone for this?''
The accusations grew wilder as Tony tried to move forward, all of his muscles clenching as multiple bodies pressed into his space, encroaching on the very air he was struggling to breathe in.
The flashes of the cameras became brighter, the voices turning into shouts and the gasping sensation at the back of his throat grew stronger and stronger with each poisonous word. His vision blinkered like a faulty streetlight, spotty and unreadable, and he felt the first sting of helpless mortification overcome him as his knees started to buckle.
A hand, soft with a strong grip, closed around his sweaty palm and tugged, pulling until his legs straightened and moved forward automatically. Tony lifted his gaze to stare at the back of a long blonde bob streaked with red.
''Nat?'' Tony’s voice came out in a strangled wheeze and he received only a squeeze of his fingers in answer as she ploughed forward, parting the crowd like the sea.
She didn’t stop until they reached the entrance, manoeuvring herself so that she was behind Tony and pushing him into the building, standing as a buffer between him and the more rabid press members who tried to follow them inside.
She still didn’t let go of his hand.
Even as Tony tipped forward and slid into a crouch by the nearest wall, she didn’t relinquish her grip. Sinking down with him, Nat dropped a hand onto his back and rubbed slowly as he attempted to steady his breathing.
He knew she was talking, her voice a soothing trill through the buzzing white noise in his head, but he couldn’t quite make out the words.
But it was enough.
Slowly, steadily, his vision cleared and a rush of air whooshed through his lungs, puffing his chest out in a sweet, satisfying breath. He drank in a few more, scrubbing a hand over his goatee to steady his trembling jaw.
He glanced at Nat. Her face was unreadable but there was a soft light to her eyes.
''Yeah,'' he mumbled, giving her a nod as she eased him back up onto his feet. ''Thanks.''
''How…'' Tony squinted at her as they finally separated their hands, ''how did you know I’d be here?''
Nat said nothing. Instead, her lips quirked into a familiar, knowing smirk that he felt a funny rush of affection for. With a tilt of her head, she turned on her heel and headed back outside. Tony watched her go, dumbfounded, grateful and oddly sad all at the same time.
He hadn’t seen her for so long.
And it would be a long time before he saw her again.
A spray of blood flew through the air as Tony spat in the face of the goon who had just socked him in the jaw. The man, bald with eerily white teeth, sneered at Tony in disgust before throwing his fist at him again, splitting Tony’s cheek and snapping his head back.
Tony groaned, slouching forward in his chair as the goon shook out his fist with a muttered curse. He didn’t know how long they’d been holding him in the dank, dripping basement with the metal door that just screamed no escape, but it was long enough for him to be incredibly fed up.
Oh, and injured, don’t forget that.
They’d run him off the road just on the outskirts of the city, buffeting his car from either side until his head had smacked into the wheel, knocking him unconscious. He awoke a few hours later with the realisation that not only was his left wrist broken, but he had also been kidnapped.
Perhaps it was a sign of just how much life had screwed with him over the years that he wasn’t immediately frightened. Angry? Yes. Concerned? Sure.
He knew fear and it wasn’t two leather jacket-clad men with a misplaced grudge and heavy chips on their shoulders.
It was the chasm of space, a planet of red dust and the despairing cries of a child that he could do nothing to save.
So no, he wasn’t frightened.
A hand seized him by the lapel of his blood-stained jacket and shook him roughly.
''We lost our families because of you, asshole,'' the goon with hair snarled.
Tony fought the urge to roll his eyes. Three years later and the blame still hadn’t let up, had still been continuously misplaced by those who had lost loved ones, just like he had. Yet the darker side of the news never focused on that; only focused on what he and the other heroes of the world hadn’t done, and when word got out that Tony had had a daughter in the aftermath of such horror, well, some people just couldn’t stand the unfairness of the situation. How dare he gain something which they had lost? How dare he find even a shred of happiness amid the grief of the world?
For the most part, Tony and Pepper had managed to live in peace, sheltering themselves and Morgan as best they could.
But a grieving world was a dangerous one.
Tony had faced bigger, uglier and much stronger adversaries in his time. However, the table covered with a selection of knives and other unpleasant objects signified that the two unhinged individuals staring hungrily at him weren’t to be underestimated.
So, as unafraid and pissed off as he was, Tony was rather desperate to get out of the situation before it got worse.
His brain scrambled for an idea, eyes scanning his surroundings keenly for inspiration. If he could just get a hand on one of the blades that the bald goon had picked up with a disturbingly excited grin –
A loud bang paused the air around them.
The two goons looked at one another in confusion before another bang, much louder this time, came from directly outside the door.
There was an ominous rumbling sound, a split-second of charged silence, and then a deafening boom that rocked Tony backwards on his chair and sent him tumbling onto his side. The now decimated door creaked pitifully before toppling forward with a clang and there, looking ethereal and glorious in her fury, stood Nebula. Amidst the clouds of dust from the broken wall and the dim lighting of the room, she was nothing short of a vision, as wonderful as an oasis in a desert.
Nebula’s dark eyes pierced the air, locking onto Tony for a brief moment before she raised her gun and blasted his kidnappers as they staggered to their feet, only managing to splutter a few words of outrage before dropping down to the floor again.
Unconscious or dead, Tony didn’t know. Nor did he care.
Tony blinked wet eyes up at the ceiling, coughing as the lingering dust latched onto his throat. ''Boy, are you a sight for sore eyes,'' he croaked as Nebula came towards him. ''And I mean that literally because my eyes are killing me.''
He jerked his head awkwardly at the prone man behind him. ''Mister Friendly there packed a hell of a punch.''
Nebula didn’t say anything as she yanked his chair upright and began to fiddle with the ropes binding him to it. Tony winced and stuttered out a warning as she knocked his injured wrist and she immediately gentled her movements.
''How did you know I was here?''
Assuming that was all the explanation he was going to get, and really, it was enough, because Rhodey always managed to find him one way or another, Tony simply nodded. The ropes slipped away and he groaned, carefully looping his arms back round to cradle his wrist, wincing as his fingers brushed against the tender skin.
Blue fingers appeared in front of him invitingly. The smallest one twinkled in the light, a strange sort of reminder of all the power that Nebula possessed, and yet it was with supreme delicacy that she took his hand and pulled him to his feet.
Just as it had been when Rhodey had supported him off the plane all those years ago, and just as it had been when Nebula had assisted him down the steps of the lifeless Benatar ten years later, Tony found a hand gripping his in a firm, unrelenting hold that he knew would not slacken until he was home and safe.
''Thanks, Nebs,'' he murmured as she led him out of the door and towards freedom.
The smile she gave him in return was beautiful.
Tony was going to die.
He knew it without a doubt. As his fingers curled around the gauntlet and he glared up into the wretched face of Thanos, he knew that what he was about to do would be the end of him.
As Thanos brutally beat him to the floor, Tony found himself grinning into the bloody dust.
Really, could it have gone any other way?
With a muted groan, he pushed himself to his knees first, then to his feet. He watched with a bitter sense of triumph as Thanos raised the gauntlet with a proud snarl of ‘’I am inevitable.’’
The snap of his fingers was soundless and weak, earning nothing at all. The tyrant's face twisted with terror as he realised what had happened and he turned to look at Tony with a shuddering gasp.
Tony heard the clink of the last stone as it slid into place and then his entire body was ablaze. His head fell back as the blistering and terrible force of the stones snaked its way up his arm, into his skin, marking him with the very essence of the universe. With his waning strength, Tony forced his head forward, blinking rapidly.
This was it.
''And I…’’ he breathed once, sharply, ''am…'' he levelled his stare at Thanos, looking the tyrant in the eye as his body trembled under the power of the stones, ''Iron Man.''
Tony snapped his fingers.
A moment of blinding agony tore through him, splitting him apart by the seams and stretching him far, too far; white hot fury surged into every piece of his fracturing soul and it was as though he could see every inch of the cosmos in all its terrifying glory –
Then a hand, a familiar hand encased in metal, grabbed hold of his and held tight.
Then fingers wrapped around the wrist of the arm wielding the gauntlet, strong and unafraid.
A body crashed into him from behind. A forehead pressed into the space between his shoulders and arms circled around his middle so that two palms were splayed flat against his chest.
Over the roar of the universe in his eyes, Tony heard voices. Shouts of ''Take my hand!'' (Steve) and ''Here, grab hold!'' (Clint) and ''Hurry!'' (Bruce) filled the ashen air and somehow, somehow, the power of the stones let up just enough for Tony to be able to open his eyes.
Thanos stared back at him, a look of immeasurable fear on his face. Tony didn’t need to look anywhere else to know what was happening. He could feel it; could feel the ebbing power of the stones as it was scattered through those who were now standing with him, beside him, assembled with their hands linked together in an unbreakable chain that began and ended with him.
The world turned a pulsating blue and became heavy, pressing in on them with a cracking weight that had everybody groaning, yelling, screaming –
Pepper’s fingers constricted brutally and Rhodey’s grip on his wrist tightened and Peter pushed further into him as the universe imploded for one final time –
And then a new dawn broke out over the land, vanquishing the pain in one fell swoop and stealing it away for good.
Tony’s legs gave out and he sank to his knees with a thud, chest rising and falling rapidly under Peter’s slackening grip. Amidst the sounds of people falling to the ground and muffled groaning and hushed searches for reassurance, there was a recognisable whistling noise on the breeze, accompanied by the odd grumble of thunder. Tony lifted his gaze just in time to see Thanos cast one more defeated glance around him, before he was blown away, nothing more but a cloud of ash and dust.
With a sigh, Tony’s head fell forward, eyes closing again. His body was calling for some sort of relief, every cell riddled with a vibrant ache that seemed to reverberate with his pounding heart.
They’d made it.
He was alive.
''Tones – ''
Pepper was still holding his hand and Rhodey had shifted his to rest against Tony’s neck. A squeeze from both had him opening his eyes again.
Peter had somehow managed to crawl round from behind Tony and was now in front of him, hands hovering uncertainly with the desire to touch. Tony gazed at him wordlessly, mesmerised by the kid’s face, dusty and bloody as it was. Peter stared back at him, eyes wide and chin trembling as tears began to slip through the grime on his cheeks.
His aching arms curled around Peter’s trembling form, hooking in Pepper and Rhodey too, holding them as close as possible against the scorched remains of his suit. He pressed a kiss to each of their heads, earning a tired rumble of laughter from Rhodey, before he rested his chin on Peter’s hair.
They settled into a funny sort of rocking rhythm, a soothing motion that seemed to ease the ache in Tony’s bones. The atmosphere around them was quiet, reverent, almost as though everyone was too afraid to do more than whisper.
Then Thor’s booming laugh rang out, followed by the rapidly growing buzz of exclamations of ecstatic disbelief and raucous cheering. Quill, who had somehow ended up sprawled a mere few feet away from them, lifted his head and gave a weak wave. ''Nailed it,'' he croaked, before groaning as Drax descended on him, cheerfully yelling about dance offs and saving the universe.
Everybody began to steadily converge on Tony, pulled together by all the camaraderie and friendship and love that existed between them all in some way, yearning to bask in their victory together. Tony shared a look with a tiredly grinning Steve and a proudly smiling Bruce, smiled at a bloody but very much alive Nat, before tipping into Rhodey wearily, muttering a thanks as his friend immediately shifted to accommodate his weight. Pepper kissed him sweetly on the corner of his mouth, a gentle laugh whispering against his skin as he managed to catch the tip of her nose with one of his own.
There would be time to celebrate later. Thanks to the strength of his friends, of his family, who never thought twice about offering a helping hand and holding on tight with it, they had all the time in the world.
''You did it, Mister Stark,'' Peter mumbled into Tony’s neck, tucking himself further into their embrace.
''No, Underoos,'' Tony replied, pressing another kiss into Peter's hair just before he drifted off, lulled away on the delicate scent of Pepper’s perfume and peaceful thoughts of all the days ahead. ''We did it.''