Tony looked at Thor. Once joyful and regal, and now… Now. He couldn’t blame him. Neither of them had really moved on, they’d just… taken different paths.
“I need him back”, Tony whispered, his voice broken, the same way he’d once said “I lost the kid”.
“I know”, Thor replied, his eyes bloodshot. “But it won’t be easy. The Norns gave me instructions for you, and you must follow them to the letter.”
He was ready. He was more than ready. He needed the boy back, he needed… Why not me?
“I would have come with you”, Thor added. “For my brother.”
“Why won’t you?”
His eyes filled with tears.
“Because it was his time. That is the first condition, to make sure it wasn’t their time to die.” He took a breath. “Peter can be retrieved, but the journey will be a long one and you must be prepared.”
And so, Tony listened.
It was the end of spring, as Thor as instructed, and it was colder still than it should have been. Tony had put on comfortable clothes and good hiking boots. He also had a backpack with all the items he would need, and it was heavy. He had trained to walk for a long time while carrying it, but it was still heavy. Two coats were folded at the bottom, along with a blanket, and he had food and water – enough to last two weeks. He also had, in a pouch, a quarter, a white rose, and a flashlight with extra batteries. He would have taken a dynamo if Thor hadn’t insisted on the batteries. Carefully folded in their case were Peter’s original web shooters, with their sloppy red and blue design. He would have asked May if he was choosing the right object, the one that held a strong significance to Peter, if she hadn’t… Well. Peter wasn’t the only one they lost that day.
He’d driven to the edge of the forest, up north. It was dense and dark, even in the morning sun. The light couldn’t filter through the dark green leaves. He took a breath and entered, his boots crushing the lush vegetation under his feet. Barely five minutes later, he couldn’t tell where the edge was. Without a map, without a compass, without a damn wrist-band clock or a GPS, he had no idea where he was, or how to get out. It didn’t matter, he didn’t need to get out. Not yet.
So he walked. The forest was far from silent, but it seemed to hush as he came by. The wind seemed to whisper between the leaves and the branches, telling him to turn back and go home. He clasped his fingers tighter over the straps of his bag and kept on walking. He walked, until the sun went down, and it got too dark to see. That was the moment he had been waiting for.
He looked to his left and, in the distance, he could see a white glow. Like a miniature sun shining through the forest. Stumbling over his own feet, he went towards it. The light told him the way. He scraped the top of his shoes over a big root, fell against a tree. Stumbled over bushes that seemed to run under his feet. He didn’t stop, only breathed and kept on walking. The glow seemed to grow closer and closer.
Tony was exhausted already, but he managed to rasp a “Peter” that made his throat hurt. He felt silly talking out loud alone, so he whispered at first.
“I miss you, Peter. Spider-kid. I miss you so much, you have no idea. I need you back, the world needs you back. You were so brave and so selfless and so good, it shouldn’t have been you, it should never have been you. This… This is my last hope to get you back, kid.” His voice grew stronger as his feelings spilled; things he’d never dared to say, had been afraid to think. “I miss you. I miss your dumb fighting strategies and your brilliant mind, I miss your quips and your jokes and your references that make no sense. I need you back, I need you here, and I need you to be better than me. I trust you to be, I always did.”
He was barely standing on sore feet when he finally reached the glow. It disappeared as soon as he did, so he reached for the flashlight and turned it on. The yellowish light pierced through the darkness, hurting his eyes and revealing a scope of trees and bushes, and a bed of moss at the foot of one of the biggest trees. He sat down there and put the flashlight next to himself, looking around even though Thor had explained that once he’d reached that point, he had nothing to fear. The forest was on his side, and it would not let him be harmed.
Tony didn’t remember falling asleep, but when he awoke, the sun was up and barely filtering through the leaves high above. He picked up the flashlight, turned it off and put it back in his backpack. At his feet was a fairy ring that hadn’t been there the previous night, its red toadstools a warning. He shivered and drew his feet back, breathing deeply. He was a man of science, but what he was doing had nothing to do with science. It was his only hope, though. He pulled the food and water out of his back, laying it by his feet, just next to the ring. The energy bars he ate tasted like ash, but he was pretty sure that was just him.
Standing up, he finally stepped into the ring with mounting unease. This was it. Bending down carefully – with his knees, not his back – he set his quarter on the ground, tails up.
“Peter”, he said to the void, hoping the boy would hear him, and yet knowing he wouldn’t. “I’m coming for you.”
The quarter sunk into the ground and he gulped, knowing the Underworld was now open for him. Him who had never believed in such a thing as an Underworld. His fingers trembling, he put on his coat. It was dark brown and made of fine wool, the warmest he owned. Thor had warned him it would be cold, down there.
Closing his eyes, he imagined he was sinking into the ground, just like the quarter had done. The ground turning soft and moist, like mud, slowly covering his feet and his ankles. Reaching up his calves, and then his knees. He kept his eyes close as strong as he could, the earth encasing him now and immobilizing him. It covered his thighs, and then his hips. It was slow, so disturbingly, so frightfully slow. It reached his chest, his shoulders. He took a long breath as it reached up his neck, the tendrils of his goatee, covered his mouth, his nose, his eyes. Tried not to panic.
He smelled the smoke, let out the breath he’d been holding in and opened his eyes. Just like Thor had said, there was a tunnel stretching before him, earth as his back. It glowed faintly, from some sort of mucus he guessed. He didn’t dare to touch it. Instead, he reached for his flashlight and replaced the batteries. Even though he was pretty sure there still was most of it.
Tony shivered, even wrapped in his coat he felt cold. He blew on his fingers to warm them, and started to walk, even though his feet hurt. He didn’t walk for long, however: soon, the little house he had been expecting appeared. It was set in a small cave, the tiles of the roof no longer red but some kind of muddy brown. He couldn’t see much farther, and the windows were opaque. The chimney was billowing out smoke, the very one he’d smelled when he arrived. Gathering his strength, he went to the door and knocked.
Thor had warned him to not stare at the woman’s eyes. That there was something strange with them. She was dark-haired and beautiful, her skin pale and cladded in black clothes. Her eyes… Her eyes were strange, he admitted. But he didn’t stare, and so he didn’t know what it was that was strange. Were they too green, too bright? Or was it the pupils, were they really milky white? Did he see galaxies dying in them, or did he imagine them?
“Hello, Voyager”, she said, her voice surprisingly deep. “Do you have something pretty for me?”
He reached into his backpack, and handed her the rose. She picked it up carefully between her long, graceful fingers, and held it up to her nose. A smile graced her features, her teeth glinting too much, too sharp. Tony remembered himself to not be afraid.
“Come in”, she said. “You must be hungry, I have something you can eat.”
“Thank you”, he replied, stepping in, hoping to shake off the cold but finding no relief. “I do not feel like eating, though, if that’s alright with you.”
She didn’t seem bothered by his polite reply, and he sat down when she pulled out a chair for him. He didn’t dare look at her mug when she filled it with something. To be fair, he didn’t dare to look at anything inside. It was dark and gloomy, and he didn’t want to stay. Yet he couldn’t leave now – Thor had warned him. “Talk to her a bit, she likes the company.”
“It is so rare to have visitors nowadays”, she said. “Before, people knew the old ways. They came and stopped by my house, and I was rarely alone. Now, I barely see anyone.”
“I’m sorry to hear about that”, Tony replied.
He nearly jumped when the cat jumped on the table, and she chuckled. Her fingers rubbed the white bones of its head as the cat meowed, before it turned its empty orbits towards him.
“Go on, pet her. She likes visitors, you know. Your flesh must be warmer than mine, it will warm her bones.”
Tony held out his hand: Thor had said nothing about the cat. Gently, it rubbed against the calluses of his fingers and his palm. The bone was smooth and fresh, and Tony ran his fingers over its head, scratching lightly.
“Hello, love”, he cooed, and the cat meowed. “What’s her name?”
“Eurydice”, the woman replied. “She likes you.”
Tony smiled and Eurydice jumped in his lap, curling on his thighs for a nap. He kept on petting her, her purring filling the void.
“Cats are good company”, he said. “They choose us.”
“I would certainly feel very lonely if not for my dear Eurydice”, the woman said. “She is the best thing that ever happened to me.” She leaned towards him. “I’ll tell you a secret, Voyager. Eurydice is the one who guides souls to the Underworld. She wasn’t always named Eurydice, and she wasn’t always a cat. But one day, she will come for you. You won’t have to be afraid: she knows the way.”
“She’ll tell you a secret. Pretend that it doesn’t bother you.”
Tony felt his heart hammer in his chest. He didn’t want to see this cat again. Ever.
“I’m sure she’s great at her job”, he replied with a smile.
“Here”, she added, “this is for you.”
He held out his hand and she dropped a red collar with a silver, round plate engraved with Eurydice’s name on one side… and his own on the other. Slowly, he curled his fingers around the collar.
“Thank you for being so kind”, he said, quite truthfully.
Eurydice jumped down and he stood up, picking up his backpack and going for the door.
“Goodbye”, he said as he opened the door.
She didn’t answer, and he exited the house, closing the door behind him. The tunnel stretched on before him, and he started to walk again. All his thoughts turned to Peter, wishing to be reunited with him soon. He walked. Hours seemed to pass in silence, but still he walked. And he walked, until his feet were so sore he thought they were bleeding, his eyes drooping with exhaustion. He sat down and fell asleep as soon as he closed his eyes, too tired to be scared. When he woke up, he started to walk again. There was food in his bag – mouth-watering food. He didn’t eat any of it.
He didn’t know how long he walked. A few days, perhaps. It was hard to tell, when you had no way of knowing how time passed. Eventually, though, he arrived to a river. Jarvis reminded him – though it was all in his head – of Greek mythology, of the Styx. The woman he’d met earlier was there, and he remembered Thor telling him not to ask how she got here so fast.
“Hello”, Tony said, holding out the collar she’d given him.
She took it, and gave him his rose back. Carefully, he climbed in the boat. The boat that hadn’t been there before, but he shouldn’t think about it. Things obeyed laws that were different down there, and it was not his realm anymore. It was the Underworld. The boat started to move forward, to the other shore, even though no one rowed and no wind blew in the sails. The fog, around him, was so dense he couldn’t see his fingers if he held his hands out before him. It was scary and suffocating, but Thor had said it was better that way. So far, Thor’s advice had been good, so Tony trusted him.
The boat softly touched the other side and Tony climbed out. The fog was even denser now, and there wasn’t a sound. He shivered, his heart in his throat, when he started to notice the faces in it. The wandering souls, lots and broken. Too miserable to care about me, he reminded himself.
The silence was unbearable. Slowly, he started to hum to himself – not one of the songs he knew by heart, but one Peter always sung under his breath when he worked. From a Spider-Man animated movie – of course, Peter loved it, they had somehow even gotten his name right.
“Callin' it quits now, baby, I'm a wreck…”
He wandered for a long time, peering at the nameless faces that were sad, so sad. The dead who had died out of time, but no one had come for them. His heart missed a beat when he saw a woman, from afar, who looked very much like his mother. Clenching his teeth, he kept on humming and searched for Peter.
He found him standing still in the middle of nowhere. His heart leapt and broke at the same time. He reeled back his desire to run towards him and walked until he was facing him.
“Hello”, he said softly, in the gentlest tone he could. The tone he used for Morgan, when she was scared, which wasn’t often. The tone he always used for his children.
Peter wouldn’t remember him, he knew. Peter didn’t even remember himself. He squeezed his fingers tight so he would not reach out and touch the boy. No matter how much he wanted to squeeze him tight – not yet, not yet.
The boy was looking at something far away, but Tony knew he was listening.
“It is a strange place, here”, Tony said. “I wish I could rationalize it, but I can’t.”
He saw Stephen Strange wandering by, his eyes just as lost as Peter. He looked away.
“It is so easy to forget how good things are. The grass under your feet. The warmth of the sun. Everything is so weird and bleak, here.” He smiled. “Though there is Eurydice. She’s a nice cat, at least no one can be allergic to her. Which is the only reason I pet her, otherwise I would have been sneezing like crazy.”
Peter slowly turned his head, and finally looked at him.
“You are alive”, he said, tilting his head. “How strange. Is the world above as beautiful as they say?”
“It is”, Tony answered, his throat squeezing tight. “It’s a wonderful place to be. Nature and technology and all things great…”
“Is it noisy?”
“It depends where you go”, Tony said. “New York is bright and full of noises, yes. It’s not so bad. You get used to it.”
“I bet you do”, Peter said with a smile. “Everything here is… dead.”
His soul shivered, and Tony knew now was the moment.
“Are you cold?”
“Yes”, Peter answered, even though he didn’t know he was Peter yet.
“Here”, he said, “take my coat. It’ll warm you up.”
As they talked, Peter had become more solid. He took the coat, warm from Tony’s body-heat, and shrugged it on. It was too wide at the shoulders, and a bit too long. A father’s coat on his son’s frame. Tony blinked away a tear, and pulled the second coat from his bag. He quickly put it on to stave off the cold, blowing on his fingers again.
“Do you know me?” Peter asked, his voice a bit stronger now.
“Yes”, Tony breathed. “Yes, I do. You are Peter Parker.”
Peter smiled, happy to have an identity again. To have a name, just like everyone. Tony reached into the bag and handed him his web-shooters. The boy looked at him warily for a second, before he clasped them around his wrists. Now… Now he would trust him.
“My name is Tony Stark. Peter, do you want to leave?”
“Yes”, Peter replied.
Tony reached out and took the boy’s hand in his. It was a bit smaller and not as callused, its fingers rigid and cold. Corpse-like. He only squeezed tighter and started to walk back to the river. He found it without any problems – he wasn’t exactly welcomed here, as a Living. The woman was there again too, and he gave her the rose back. She handed him the collar again.
He climbed in the boat, never letting go of Peter’s hand, and helped him get in. Now that Peter was with him, the other side didn’t seem so far. Once they reached the shore, they got out of the boat and started to walk again. Peter was having trouble keeping up: he was hungry and exhausted. Thor had warned him that the dead couldn’t eat nor sleep, no matter how much they wished to. It was heart-breaking. He tried not to notice how hungry he was himself, tried not to think about the food in his bag.
“The world has changed”, Tony said, keeping his grip tight over Peter’s hand. “It will be a bit strange at first. I’m sure you will love the house I live in. You’re a big brother now, did you know that? She will absolutely love you, Peter. You are a great kid.”
He didn’t know how much time passed, but he kept on talking as they walked. About the Avengers, about Morgan and Pepper, about Happy. About the house he’d built for them. About the things he’d worked on. Peter didn’t say a word, all his focus was on trying to keep up.
Eventually, though, the boy tripped and fell. He was absolutely exhausted. Tears welled up in his eyes and Peter started to cry, wracked with sobs. Gently, Tony brushed his hair.
“You will be able to rest soon”, he whispered. “I promise, you will be able to rest soon.”
Carefully, he picked him up in his arms and started to walk again. Trying not to notice how light the boy was, nor how he wasn’t breathing. How still he kept against him, like a… No, he couldn’t think it.
“There will be a room just for you”, he said, walking briskly. “And you will be able to help me with some projects. See, I’ve been working on this thing and…”
He droned on. Peter was too tired to answer, but he was listening. Tony knew he was listening, his head against his shoulder, wrapped in his coat. His heart jumped when he saw the woman’s house.
“We’re almost there”, he said. “Peter, we’re almost there.”
He kept on walking, even though he felt something, or someone, watching him. He didn’t turn around, remembering Eurydice and Orpheus. He wouldn’t turn around and lose Peter. He could wait just a bit more. He kept on walking, squeezing Peter in his arms.
He noticed suddenly he’d stopped talking, fear gnawing at his heart. Taking a breath, he started to hum again, that same song. A bit farther, he stopped, put Peter down and wrapped the blanket around him. Then, he picked him up again and went on walking. His feet were two big wounds now, but he wouldn’t stop again. He was almost there.
Suddenly, Tony noticed light up ahead – a white glowing similar to the one he’d seen in the forest, all that time ago. Relief flooded through him and he started to run towards it, going through it without slowing down.
He stepped out of the fairy ring and put Peter down, keeping an arm around his shoulders.
“Breathe, kid”, he said. “Deep, one, two. Inhale, exhale. That’s it, you’re doing good.”
He will have forgotten how to, Thor had warned.
Peter took in a breath, then another. Tony smiled and reached for the food he’d left, what seemed like eons ago.
“I want to sleep”, Peter yawned.
“Eat and drink a bit first”, Tony insisted.
Reluctantly, Peter sunk his teeth into the fruits and drank a bottle-full of water.
“I’m cold”, the boy said, and Tony took off his coat to wrap it around him, before he lit a small fire. He laid down beside him, keeping him close to make sure he wouldn’t be cold.
Tears stinging his eyes, he thanked whoever was up there – God, gods, the Norns, who knew – for letting him bring his boy back. Exhaustion settled heavy upon him, and he fell asleep.
He woke up first, hours later, but Peter needed to sleep more. So he waited, taking in how flush his skin was getting, how lively and beautiful. How good it was to have him whole and back and breathing, alive. He remembered way too much how it was to have him fall into dust between his fingers.
When Peter woke up, they moved on to go back home. Tony kept his hand in his, unable to let go. Peter didn’t remember him yet, but it would come with time.
Swearing to spend time with the kid, with both his children and his wife.
Most people don’t get a second chance.