Actions

Work Header

5 times the multiverse sucked (and 1 time it made perfect sense)

Chapter Text

 

1.

Well, the world has officially gone insane, Peter thinks.

Aliens? Sure, why not, been there, done that, boring. Getting a T-shirt was almost passé since they're being mass-produced in China by now.

Interdimensional portals that bring you from one end of the universe to the next in a blink of an eye? Sure, okay. Cool trick, can you teach me?

The multiverse theory being confirmed as reality? Now that's something. They've speculated about it with To-

They've speculated about it. How could they not, when the shit going down was getting crazier every year? Of course it was a possibility, Strange's reticence when asked about it was more than telling.

Hugging Steve and suddenly realizing there's about a foot and 150 pounds too much of him? Seeing Tony, a little worse for wear but alive? Possibly the craziest moment of his entire life, and as a lab experiment turned unofficial baby Avenger he's seen some Real. Weird. Stuff.

... And then he puts in a comm link that Tony helpfully throws his way with a, "Somebody's calling for you, kid," and there's Steve. His Steve. He suddenly feels like he can breathe, and Bucky seems to know exactly how he feels, judging by his relieved smile when their Steve starts coordinating battle plans with Tony and Strange.

Wait, is there another version of him running around here somewhere? He sees a glimpse of a black-clad, long-haired Bucky laying cover fire for the big Steve - and of course, there would be a version of Bucky here, too. It's nice to see them working together just as well here as they do back home; some things don't change and this is obviously one of them. Then Peter’s Bucky trots over to that one and together with Steve they form a triangular kill zone - two Captains with their shields and one sniping Winter Soldier - that all the others seem to gravitate towards, recognizing it as the safest place to regroup and push back.

Yeah, they're gonna be okay.

But he's watching the most high-stakes relay race in history take place right before his eyes, and realises that it's his turn, he's the only one close enough. If he ever thought he was ready for superheroing - he was so, so wrong. He ignores Steve's frantic questioning, grabs the gauntlet from T'Challa and barely avoids the big purple guy, leaving him in the glowing hands of Wanda - wait, is she even called Wanda here, too? Alterna-Wanda? - and runs like there's aliens chasing him. Because, of course there are. He's literally fighting for every breath he takes-

-and then the ship that's so far been spewing only Chitauri starts raining fire down on them. Great. He's so screwed. There's yellow sparkly energy fields blooming all over the battlefield and none of them are close enough to him to make any difference, the gorilla-shaped aliens are literally piling on top of him, and he needs help. Why the hell did he think this was a good idea?

So he yells, and the big Steve - Alterna-Steve? - throws Mjolnir his way - wait, Mjolnir? Does that make this Steve the local God of Thunder? What even is this reality? - and then Pepper (who he obviously knows, the CEO of SI that she is, but this is a nice new addition to their relationship) is airlifting him (dropping him like some kind of hot potato, actually) to-

-an honest to god pegasus. The lady riding it is even wearing shiny silver armor and wielding a huge sword to match - and all the while there's some sort of high-tech fire raining down on them from a spaceship. He's riding a pegasus while avoiding fire from a spaceship.

Yeah, sure, why not.

Only then they're hit with an energy beam and the pegasus cries in pain and he's falling and he's rolling and he's getting hit, they're all getting hit, they're all gonna die, he didn't even get a chance to talk to Steve or Bucky and he's gonna die here-

The fire stops. Is he dead? Are they dead? He peeks from behind the gauntlet to see the ship fall to useless pieces as a vaguely human shape plows straight through it. Whoever this badass new person is, why couldn't they've started with that?

And then the person lands in front of him and she's glowing.

"Hi, I'm Peter..."

"Hey Peter, you've got something for me?"

"I don't know how you're gonna get through all of that-"

"Don't worry. She's got help."

And suddenly he's surrounded by the baddest of badasses, judging by how they tear through the charging aliens like hot knife through butter while the glowing lady puts on the gauntlet and snaps.

 

Chapter Text

2.

When Peter and his Steve and Bucky arrive at the Tower's penthouse, the others are already there - Tony (and his head keeps going Tony's here, Tony's alive, HOW?! on repeat), Bruce and Strange, Alterna-Steve and Alterna-Bucky- no, nope, scratch that, he's going to call them Rogers and Barnes, this is way too confusing even for him; Clint and...

Wait, where's Natasha?

"So we've got a few things to discuss, here." Tony gets out from behind the bar, where he's playing with a tumbler of whiskey. "FRIDAY's scanned you guys on entry and confirmed that you're some versions of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, but you, kid? You're not Peter Parker."

"Well, you've got the Peter part right," Steve answers. "But the surname is Rogers, since I've legally adopted him, eleven- wait, six? Do we count the years since the Snap? No, never mind that- in 2012, sometime after the Chitauri invasion. Did that happen here too?"

Steve immediately takes control of the situation, channeling the anxiety Peter can see bubbling just beneath the surface into his firmest Commander voice. Peter figures it was best to keep quiet and let them have it out - one Steve and Tony in a conversation were usually an explosive mix; two Steves? No, better to keep out of it for now. He finds himself an armchair and immediately perches on the backrest, then catches Clint's amused glance from where he's doing the exact same thing on an opposing sofa.

Tony sputters, "Ado- no, wait, let's start from the beginning. FRI, start a side-by-side comparison. You two guys, you're WWII relics, fought Hydra?" Steve and Bucky nod. "Capsicle- no, wait, you're not Cap anymore, right?- kamikazed the plane into the Arctic?" Steve nods again. "How the hell did you survive that without the serum?"

"It would appear there are still traces of the serum in this alternative version of Captain Rogers, Boss. He's two inches taller than our world’s pre-war records imply, and-"

"Thank you... FRIDAY, is it? But I've got it," Steve interrupts. "The serum is how I survived, but it was never supposed to last almost a century - when they woke me up, I was already half-way back to my old self. The health problems have been coming back steadily over the last decade, too. They estimate I've got, maybe, what, twenty years? Before I start aging like a regular human again. I assume your version of the serum was different?" he directs the question at Rogers. "More like what Zola gave our Bucky and our Bucky gave to Peter?"

"Well, yes. It doesn't seem to have an expiration date, at least not that we've seen so far. Neither does Bucky's," Rogers answers from where he's standing by the windows with Barnes, clearly ill-at-ease with the situation. "Wait, 'Bucky gave to Peter?' What do you mean, 'gave?'"

"Oh. Bucky's Peter's biological father," Steve says like it's the most obvious thing in the world, then notices the shocked silence. "So... Hydra didn't create Peter here, I assume?"

For a few seconds nobody knows how to react, then Tony says, "Fuck this, I'm too sober for this conversation. Drinks, anybody? Barnes - I mean, local-Barnes - you look like you've seen a ghost." Barnes is indeed looking kind of grey. Peter notices Rogers' hand goes to his waist to support him - yeah, their Bucky's reaction wasn't that enthusiastic either. He and Bucky have warmed up to each other, but as far as Peter's concerned, Steve is his Dad and that position is not up for grabs. Bucky's always seemed content being more of a cool uncle.

"I mean, I knew Hydra experimented with my DNA at some point," Barnes gets a sharp glance from Rogers at that, "but I've always assumed that never amounted to anything? I mean, we've never found any indication that they've succeeded in any of the files we've found…?"

"FRI, start combing through the data again," Tony barks, coming up to Barnes and giving him his glass while Rogers sits both of them down on the loveseat near Clint. Barnes immediately drains the glass and holds it out for more, and Peter can feel his eyes on him like they're trying to read into his genetic make-up without the aid of a scanner.

Tony apparently feels the need to fill the silence. "Well, you are taller than our Peter, and your eyes are kind of similar to Barnes', but... Wow. How the fuck is this even possible?"

"The multiverse is infinite," Strange speaks up. He's been quiet so far, but seems to sense some explanation is needed. "There's probably a reality out there where you have a son, Tony, a biological son I mean, and that boy is Spider-Man. All the things that can happen, do happen somewhere out there. Suspend your disbelief, it'll just hinder you."

"So you're... Hydra made you? What does that even mean?" Tony addresses Peter and it's like all the others suddenly realize he's actually in the room.

Peter squirms. "Well, I grew up in this, you could call it a lab? Kind of like the Compound you, uh, used to have here, a facility with living spaces and labs and training rooms. There were lots of agents there, and some of them were responsible for me. I mean, they called themselves SHIELD at the time, but..."

Peter's never felt comfortable talking about his past, so he's relieved when Steve picks it up. "But the project was approved by Pierce and completely off the books. I assume you have Hydra here too, since your Bucky's here?" Rogers and Barnes nod. "Hydra got you when you fell off the train, turned you into the Winter Soldier?" Another nod, and Rogers looks like he wants to punch something. "Tried to launch project Insight? And Tony stopped them?"

That gets him a reaction. "Wait, what? Me? I had nothing to do with that clusterfuck! That was all Capsicle and his merry band! Not that they even let me know they needed help," Tony grumbles.

Steve looks at him, surprised. "Well, we'd been living in the Tower at the time, it was maybe eighteen months since I got Peter out of that hole they'd had him in. The Winter Soldier tried to kill Fury, Fury alerted Natasha, she came to Tony for help with tracking the assassin, they hacked SHIELD's servers, discovered Zola's algorithm and broke it to pieces-" Steve stops at the choked off sound from Rogers. "What the hell did you guys do?"

"Well, we went to Sam for help - Sam Wilson, you know the guy?" Steve shakes his head. "The Falcon, with the wings? Never mind. So, the Winter Soldier attacked us, we got captured, broke out, then Pierce launched the helicarriers" - this time it's Steve's turn to look furious - "but we managed to stop them in time. Bucky broke his programming, saved my life, then I spent two years chasing him around the world before Zemo happened."

Bucky, who's been eyeing Tony the whole time - not that Peter blames him - snorts, looking judgmentally at Barnes. "Idiot. What were you running for? Should've come in; Tony had the tech to help us get our memories back in a manner of weeks." Barnes looks kind of sheepish at that. "I assume you did it the hard way? Yeah, bad idea. But, how the fuck is Tony alive?" He turns to Tony, wonder clear on his face. "Don't get me wrong, doll, I'm so happy to see you, but how did you outrun Zemo's Winter Soldiers?"

Tony looks down, then goes back to the bar and gets himself a glass that he downs in one gulp. It's Barnes who answers quietly, voice emotionless like he's giving a mission report. "Zemo lured us to Siberia using them as bait, but it turned out to be just a way to sic Tony and Steve at each other. The Soldiers were already dead, but Tony saw the video of me killing his parents and reacted... well, understandably."

Steve startles. "Wait, why did you react to the video?" Tony just looks at him weird. "You mean you didn't know about it before? What about the Hydra files?"

"That was my fault. I should've told him as soon as Natasha came to me with this information, but I didn't." Rogers cringes. "All that mess was my fault. Bucky losing his arm, Tony's reactor-"

Tony barrels right over him, "What he means is I tried to kill Barnes, Rogers tried to protect him, I blew Barnes' arm off-" Steve makes a shocked grunt, "-and Cap stopped me with a shield to the chest."

"You teamed up on him?! Are you insane?!" Bucky rounds up on Rogers and Barnes, who practically cower in their loveseat.

"Well, that was kind of my fault, I gave them no choice-" Tony tries.

"And they, what? Literally broke the thing that keeps your heart beating?! How's that a good solution?" Bucky comes closer to Tony, slowly, like he's afraid to spook him. "Doll, why are you defending them?"

"The whys don't matter now, let's get back on track, shall we?" Strange interrupts. "You mentioned the Winter Soldiers?"

"They attacked the Tower. Tony died," Bucky replies, his voice gone so quiet they have to strain to hear him, "protecting Steve. I tried to get to them in time, we both did, with Peter, but there were too many of them and there was nothing we could've done. We were too late."

Everybody goes quiet at that, processing. Rogers finally asks, "And Sokovia? The Accords?"

"Ultron tried to make Sokovia fly, but Bucky and Tony made quick work of him before it even got that far off the ground; we took in the Maximoffs - we saw Wanda on the battlefield, where the hell is Pietro?" Steve looks around like he expects the guy to pop up somewhere.

"He died. Saving my life when I was too slow," Clint rasps out. "We were too slow to save so many people, it sounds like if only Bucky'd come in sooner..." He drifts off, his hands curling into fists.

"No, I don't think it works that way," Bruce interrupts, finally joining the conversation. "There are too many variables. You're saying your Sokovia incident didn't kill hundreds of people?" Steve nods. "Where did Zemo come from, then? He was trying to get revenge for his family killed by Ultron, here?"

"Same. There were a few casualties and his family were among them," Steve explains. "The Accords were negotiated and implemented, Prince T'Challa actually turned out to be our most vocal ally and helped to smooth things over a lot. We saw him running around here, too?"

"Yeah, about him... He's King T'Challa, now. His father died when-" Rogers starts, but Strange interrupts him again.

"Details that can be explained later. What about Thanos? Did the Snap happen?"

Steve picks up the thread, "Five years ago. We've tracked Thanos down, killed him on his idyllic little planet, but the Stones were gone. Spent five years trying to figure out how to fix it, until Natasha located Lang's van and we got him out of the quantum realm by accident when Bruce turned on the machine. They figured out the time travel thing - which I assume you did too?" Bruce nods. "Got the Stones, then Bruce did the Snap and suddenly my comms start picking up completely different people and I realize something went wrong. Well, not entirely wrong, since the people who were gone seem to be back, like Peter and Bucky... But we're very far from home, aren't we? How the hell did we get here?!" Steve gets more agitated as he goes on, running his hand through his hair. Peter notices he's listing a bit to the side, putting a lot of his weight on the back of the armchair, and his lips look a bit grey. He reaches out to grab Steve's hand and Steve smiles at him gratefully.

"That's the million dollar question. Bruce, what exactly did you wish for when you Snapped?" Strange asks and Bruce seems to shrink in on himself.

"It's hard to explain, exactly. There was so much pain, then this sense of presence in my head and it was as if I was being asked a question... I tried to picture what I wanted to do, but this thing just kept giving me different visions, ideas, you know? This is what happens if Thanos doesn't take Gamora to Vormir. This if Wanda destroys Vision's Stone. This if Thor goes for the head. In the end I just settled for wishing for everything to be the way it should've been if Thanos lost, but something went wrong, didn't it? I messed up." He looks so miserable Peter wants to go and give him a hug, but then perks up, suddenly nine feet of full-on Science mode. "Do we even know if you three and our version of Peter Parker are the only ones that've been displaced? Maybe there's some sort of pattern we can extrapolate?"

Tony seems like he wants to jump in, but Steve is first. "Vormir? Where's that?"

"You know, the place where the Soul Stone was? Where Thanos killed Gamora, and I-" Clint stops himself, biting his lip.

"What did you do, Clint? Where's Natasha?" Bucky asks quietly, like he already knows the answer.

"She was the price," Clint blurts out. "I wanted it to be me, I told her it should be me, but she didn't listen, and-"

"She's dead," Bucky whispers and sort of collapses on the sofa.

Clint looks at Bucky, then at Steve, question clear in his wide eyes, and Steve takes pity on him. "We took the Soul Stone from Thanos. Natasha and Rocket did, actually, sneaked right into his ship and swiped it when he was off conquering some hapless world. Maybe that's what's different? Can this be why we're here and not home? Where did you get the other Stones from?"

"New York, Camp Lehigh, Asgard and Morag," Bruce supplies quickly.

"Yeah, no changes there. So the Soul Stone seems to be the only real difference. Could it have something to do with this?" Steve visibly perks up at the idea of finding a solution, but Strange just looks at him sadly.

"No, Captain-"

"It's Commander, actually," Steve smiles bitterly.

"Wait, what?" Tony's eyes bug out and Peter kind of wants to laugh. With all the revelations the past hour has brought, this is what he finds hard to believe? "Right, 'cause Barnes is Cap. How exactly did that happen? I mean, I understand you're in no condition to do your Captainly duties, but Barnes?"

"He was the obvious choice?" Steve's brow furrows, and he looks worriedly down at Bucky, who doesn't even seem to be following the conversation, staring out the window. "He was already familiar with the shield, is enhanced enough to make the best use of it, and- no, wait, why am I explaining myself to you? What, you think because of his time as the Winter Soldier he's somehow unworthy?" Steve looks like he'll rip Tony to shreds if the genius so much as breathes wrong. Yup, right on cue, that's what usually happens when the two of them are in the same room long enough.

"Leave it, Stevie, you know that's not what he meant," Bucky murmurs, grabbing Steve's right hand since Peter's still holding the left one.

"That one might be my fault," Barnes adds. "I've done all I can to get out of the fight, even if the fight keeps coming right back to my doorstep. No way would I take up the shield and all that responsibility - so, he's kinda going off what he knows." Rogers has his arm around Barnes' shoulders and squeezes him closer in support, touching his forehead to Barnes' temple. Peter looks at them and suddenly something clicks.

"Holy shit you two are together, aren't you? Like together together?" he blurts out, then looks around the room petrified. "I mean it's cool, that's awesome, it's just, you guys are practically my Dad and my biological dad and you're an item and this is so weird, like where does the multiverse even get these ideas-" He looks at Steve, who's looking at Rogers and Barnes with his jaw dropped. "Oh my god, I'm shutting up now."

"Well, yeah? We've been together since the 30's? I mean, you guys-" Rogers gestures at Steve's hand that Bucky's still holding "-aren't?"

Bucky just blinks at him, slowly letting go of Steve's hand, then throws a glance at - Tony? - who's very obviously watching the situation unfold like it's some sort of high-stakes tennis match. Steve just blushes furiously.

Seriously, it's like watching an episode of a teen drama. If he wasn't bone-tired - the last time he's slept properly was literally over five years ago - he probably would've tried to figure out what's going on, maybe even draw some sort of color-coded chart to keep track of all this mess. As it is, he just gets up and stretches in an exaggerated manner, which prompts Steve to say quickly, "I think this is a topic for another day. Tony, can you look into maybe identifying other people who ended up in wrong realities?" Tony nods, though he's visibly disappointed by the change of topic. "Bruce, can you and Strange work on what exactly might have gone wrong when you made your wish?" Bruce looks like a guilty puppy again, but nods, too. "In the meantime, I think we should all get some sleep."

He looks down at Bucky, who takes stock of the way Steve's listing heavily and clutching Peter's hand, gets up briskly and goes to Steve's side to steady him. They head back towards the elevator and Bucky keeps throwing speculative glances Tony's way, but Peter has no energy left to wonder what exactly that is about.

 

Chapter Text

3.

He's moping like a stereotypical angsty teenager, he's well aware of that.

Screw that. He is a teenager, he is angsty, and the world makes even less sense than usual.

He came up here to the roof of the Tower to get away from the strained atmosphere inside - two sets of Steves and Buckys wasn't nearly as much fun as it sounded at first. His Steve is going out of his mind with worry about their reality and chewing everybody's heads off, and Bucky is quietly trying to come to grips with the fact that Natasha is dead. Sure, it wasn't their Natasha, but that doesn't really change the fact that a version of his assassin-bestie is gone and no amount of Steve convincing him that they didn't need to go to Vormir in their reality, that nobody needed to be sacrificed, is good enough. He probably won't really calm down until he's seen their Nat with his own two eyes.

Rogers looks at Steve like he's seen a ghost (when he's at the Tower at all and not out in the world, helping smooth over the aftermath of the Snap being reversed). Peter can actually get where it's coming from, if the guy's story is to be believed - he'd woken up from the ice still all beefy and perfect and spent the next eleven years superheroing away, not having to deal with any of the problems that Steve's body throws his way all the time. Of course, modern - especially Wakandan - medicine works miracles, but some things can't be fixed. Like how Steve actually got some serious arrythmia yesterday from freaking out too much and how that immediately triggered an asthma attack, or how his hearing aids needed replacement batteries that he just didn't bring with him on the multiverse-hopping trip – the last one, at least, had been easily remedied. Barnes seems more at ease with the situation, maybe because he spent his formative years wrangling a tiny Steve Rogers; for him it's probably a trip down memory lane to the time that he remembers fondly.

Peter hugs his knees closer to his chest and rubs his forehead on them, trying to put pressure on the headache throbbing somewhere behind his left eye. This isn't his Tower. This isn't his New York. This isn't his home. It may look similar, it may actually be identical in most respects, but it isn't his. He feels it like the tingle that always alerts him to danger - he's constantly on edge. He can't sleep more than a few hours, he can't make himself eat enough... and he can't even go to any of his usual hidey holes - the locations themselves might still exist, but they aren't decked out in blankets and comic books and boxes of trail mix. Sure, he could find some comfort items, drag them up there and nest comfortably, but that'd be admitting defeat, like he's already given up on going home and just substituting their reality with this new one.

Nope.

It took him years to actually accept that the Tower was his home, that Steve was his Dad, that it wasn't another elaborate Hydra training scenario, that it could be trusted. Like hell was he going to just give up and move on without a fight.

The needle gouging his eye out throbs in time with his heart, like somebody's driving it deeper and deeper with each beat. He feels dizzy and miserable, his body protesting the change in medication that the fucking multiverse-hopping caused. Sure, he has emergency meds stashed in his suit in case of sudden alien invasion cutting him off, but those have run out days ago. Even with Tony's facilities and funds, even with Bruce's brilliance, re-creating the chemical compound that works on his freakish metabolism without a blueprint isn't a one day thing, so he has to make do with taking exorbitant doses of regular antidepressants and suffering the side effects. Like this bloody migraine. Still, it's better than getting an episode when he's away from home. He's so heartsick he wants to cry.

Okay, so maybe the meds are making him more emotional than normal. Sue him.

He feels more than hears the door open, the vibration travelling through the concrete and grating on his already oversensitive skin. He can immediately smell engine oil and hot metal, and recognized Alte- wait, no, he couldn't really be Alterna- Tony, if there was no Tony in Peter's reality to be an alternative to, could he? He even smells differently, a strange undercurrent of... something green, he can't identify the specific vegetable right now. Right, this Tony still drinks those revolting green smoothies that their Tony swore off as soon as he got rid of the reactor inside his chest. Peter honestly doesn't see the appeal, but maybe it has something to do with the fact that Dum-E just keeps making them and Tony doesn't really seem to have any other friends than his bots, here.

Yet another way this reality sucks.

Tony hesitates, then slowly comes up to where Peter's perching and carefully sits down next to him, handing him an ice pack. "Steve - your Steve - said you might like this when I mentioned you've been rubbing your eye a lot," he says slowly.

"Thanks, Dad," Peter mutters and puts the ice pack between his knee and forehead, sighing in relief. He hears a shocked inhale and belatedly realizes how it must've sounded. "Sorry, I'm really not trying to be rude, it's just this... argh. This fucking headache. Sorry."

"Anything I can do to help?"

He shrugs. "Not really. The ice pack is good though, thanks. Just gotta wait it out until they synthesize my meds. Tomorrow, right?"

"Yup. Listen, I'm sorry we didn't get it done sooner-"

"No. No, look, I know you're trying your best. You trusted us, you brought us back here, you've tried to make us as comfortable as possible in this insane situation. You couldn't've done more."

"I could've found a way to find you," Tony whispers, almost as if to… himself? Yeah, no, enhanced hearing, Tony knows exactly what he's doing. It's actually very considerate. "I miss you- him- fuck, I miss my kid. You're so similar, you know? It's hard to believe you're genetically Barnes'. My Peter isn't even remotely related to him and yet somehow you two still look like brothers."

"I know, FRIDAY's shown me the videos. Why does the multiverse keeps pushing spiders on me, though? The radioactive spider schtick, seriously? I know we're superheroes, but this is some comic-book science, right there," Peter complains, stretching his legs and shuffling a bit so there's more space for Tony on the ledge.

"Well, how did you become Spider-Man?" Tony starts playing with a metal cube that he's produced from somewhere. The cube keeps making beeping noises when he taps it in different patterns, then unfolds itself to become a prism.

"You're gonna laugh," Peter hedges.

"Try me. I could use a pick-me-up, anyway." The cube folds back in on itself and Tony starts tapping again, this time on a different face of it. It's easier to talk when he's not the center of attention, and that's probably precisely why Tony's doing it. He really doesn't get enough credit for his people skills.

"When I came to the Tower, Natasha was assigned by SHIELD to keep an eye on me, something about 'placing a ten year old boy in a sky-high bachelor pad', like they had a leg to stand on when it came to taking care of me, you know?" Tony makes a derisive sound. "And she came, like, once a week at first, then she'd pop by more often when we got Bucky back, they've hit it off like you wouldn't believe. Anyway, I kinda believed she had superpowers, at first? You know, Black Widow, that had to come from somewhere? She laughed so hard, then she started training me - Steve was not happy - and Tony started calling me 'little spiderling' and then he got me this terrarium with the awesomest tropical spiders you could get, and it kind of... stuck? I know, it's a silly origin story," he finishes self-consciously.

Tony's stopped playing with the cube and is watching him with a smile. "Hey, it's better than me helping Peter get into the AP biotech program he desperately wanted to join and accidentally turning him into a superhero when he was a completely normal kid. Okay, no, a kid raised by the coolest aunt you could imagine and unofficially interning for a genius millionaire superhero, cause he's got IQ that's even higher than mine. I think only Shuri'd be able to keep up with him, but I haven't been able to arrange for them to meet, yet; Aunt May keeps insisting Peter's gotta have a normal childhood-" this time it's Peter who snorts "-yeah, like that's gonna happen, right? - not rubbing shoulders with royalty. Point is, I got him the gig, it's my fault he's superpowered, it's my fault he was on that bloody ship, and it's my fault he's out there, somewhere, alone, and I have no idea how to get him back!" Tony punches the concrete they're sitting on with the hand not holding the cube, then hisses in pain.

"I think that would've happened anyway, you know. Statistics chose who got Snapped, right? It wasn't your fault. And we still don't know what the hell made us end up here in the first place. It might be pure chance," Peter's really trying to calm Tony down, but it doesn't seem to be doing the trick. Well, his brain's not working very well right now, and he's never been that good at reading cues anyway. Something about a childhood as a lab rat fucking with his social skills.

"You don't believe that, do you? If it was just statistics, your happy little supersoldier family unit wouldn't've gotten pulled here from three completely different locations in an alternate reality. There's a pattern here. I just don't know what it is, and Strange can't seem to crack it, either."

The cube beeps, somehow mournfully, and Peter wonders if it's another intelligent bot. There's something bothering him about Tony's statement though, so he focuses on that and humms thoughtfully. "We're not that happy, you know. Steve's got more health problems crop up every year and he's chomping at the bit to help out more; his kid is a superhero, for fuck's sake, and he can only sit in the control room and give me pointers over a comm link. Bucky misses Tony- you?- like crazy, they've been joined at the hip tinkering in the workshop, I think he enjoyed spending time with somebody who didn't constantly try to find the traces of old Bucky... And now our Tony's gone and he's floundering. I've got this depression thing going that's never going away because Hydra thought it'd be awesome to experiment with neurotransmitters in a child's brain." Tony fists his hands again, and wait, no, this wasn't what he was going for. The cube beeps in alarm. "What I mean is, don't look at us like we're some sort of poster family for well-adjusted superheroes. We're a mess. So are you. Maybe it's the universe's way of telling us something," he tries for brevity, but then Tony looks at him sharply.

"Universe's way... Kid, you might be a genius even though you're a Rogers. What if there is a pattern here, and it's not statistics, it's not science, it's emotions? There was a Soul Stone among those bloody pieces of superpowered crystal. Maybe it's some sort of kumbaya My Little Pony style thing?" Tony's going a mile a minute and Peter just blinks at him. What the fuck? "Never mind, stay here with your icepack, you're no use. I've got a sorcerer to track down. And, wait, who does the emotion thing? Therapists? Well, I'm sure I've got at least one of those stashed somewhere." Tony's already getting up and going towards the door back to the penthouse, but then turns around and puts the cube in Peter's hand, saying, "Here, keep each other company. Don't break her, she's a baby yet, she gets overwhelmed easily." Then he's gone.

Peter feels like something important's just happened, but for the life of him he can't figure it out. He settles for placing his head back on his knee and looking out over the city, petting the cube softly. It- she?- makes a beeping noise and there's a small claw-like thing that catches his pinky finger and holds onto it. She doesn't unfold like she did for Tony, but maybe they just need to get to know each other better first.

This isn't the first theory Tony's had in the last few days; it isn't even the tenth. There's no use getting his hopes up.

 

Chapter Text

4.

It turns out to be some sort of kumbaya My Little Pony style thing.

Peter's never been religious - none of them are, really - but you can't argue with the facts. The Stones did help create Vision, and the man was definitely more than just a computer program. They did require a human sacrifice - a soul sacrifice? - and that's not really a rational or fair thing to do. Soul, spirit, humanity, whatever you wanted to call it, it must've come from somewhere, probably?

None of this sits well with him - or with Tony and Bucky, judging by their indignant sputtering when Strange comes back from a week-long library binge with a tentative confirmation. Steve just takes it for what it is and runs with it, while Bruce and Clint share a sort of hopeful look that probably has something with Natasha. Maybe they're hoping this means they can get her back, but Peter really doesn't think it works that way. If the pattern for a human soul comes from the Infinity Stones somehow, it stands to reason they can be just as - or maybe even more so - fickle and petty as people are. They're not gonna give Nat back.

The good news is, now that Strange knows what he's working with, he holes up with Tony and Bruce in the labs and starts working on a solution to the problem. There are thousands of displaced people worldwide - some that disappeared without a trace, some that just didn't come back from the Snap, some that suddenly materialized, always near their loved ones and always with some sort of sad story of losing them in their original reality. Not all of them come from the same place Steve, Bucky and Peter do, but it's like some of the alternate realities were more likely to exchange inhabitants than others. Strange speculates it's the places where Bruce did the second Snap, seeing as he could've made the same mistake across the board.

It's a good thing Thor came by with a few casks of ale, because Bruce sorely needed an evening off after that revelation.

The thing is, people who were displaced aren't... unhappy. Confused, yes. Anxious about their homes and those they left behind. But there seems to be a pattern of somebody being lonely and untethered before, both in people who came here, and people who went elsewhere. Some of them were transported alone - like Parker was - but some came in pairs or small groups, kind of like Steve, Bucky and Peter. It's as if the universe doesn't want to separate family units - and doesn't that sound cheesy.

Kumbaya My Little Pony style thing indeed.

 

It takes them over a month, but they finally have a breakthrough, a possible solution: some sort of high-tech modification to the sling ring that Strange uses to create portals. They think they can create one - only one, the risk of working with all six Stones way too high to go for more than that - so even if they succeed, the process of returning everybody home is going to take weeks. If everybody decides to come back, that is - a lot of the displaced people actually seem to be settling in okay and don't look like they want to go anywhere.

Bucky is one of them.

Peter can't remember ever seeing him this happy - he flits around the Tower like a kid who had too much cake at a birthday party. He observes the Science team - or, as Peter started suspecting that first day, Tony - in the labs; he trains with Barnes and Rogers, who welcome him (and occasionally Peter, too) with open arms; then spends whatever time is left with Steve and Peter. It's like the days are too short for him - at the beginning he actually doesn't sleep for more than two or three hours a day, until they almost literally sit on him and make him rest. He's better at managing his time after that, but he's still absent more often than not.

Steve misses him. He tries not to let it show, but Peter can see the little moments when he starts saying something and realizes that Bucky isn't there to listen. He sits on the balcony in the evenings, alone, when usually that was the time the two of them spent together - even when their Tony was alive. Bucky always said it would've been a shame to break a century old tradition, no matter what else was going on.

(This world doesn't seem to need Steve - Rogers is here to command the Avengers and be their public face, so Steve's left on his own, not even able to help out the Science team in finding the solution to their problem.)

Peter actually goes to confront Bucky about it - who the fuck does he think he is, hurting his Dad like that - and gets front row seats to more than he's bargained for.

He's directed to the labs by a reluctant FRIDAY - it's still weird, not hearing JOCASTA's Kiwi drawl, and he has a vague feeling that the local AI doesn't like him very much. On his way there he pops by one of his hideouts, grabbing Hexie (Tony's cube needed a name, okay?) and a fresh comic book that he intends to use as an excuse for luring Bucky out. And yes, he's recreated his hidey holes with Clint's help. He tells himself it's just temporary measures and Clint promises they'll be well taken care of after he goes home. He's doing Clint a favor, really.

He's just hopping down into the corridor, when he hears movement and freezes. Tony and Bucky are standing just outside the lab, leaning with their shoulders against the wall, and Bucky's laughing quietly at something Tony says. Tony's eyes are sparkling the way they usually do when he's talking about his bots, a wide smile splitting his face. He looks down, scuffing his toe on the carpet, and-

-blushes like a smitten teenager. Tony Stark, playboy extraordinaire, behaving for all the world like a schoolboy with a crush?

Peter can't see Bucky's face, but he does see his metal hand coming to Tony's face and softly brushing along the flushed cheekbone, then going into Tony's hair. Tony looks up, still smiling, looking so hopeful and young and happy and leans in-

-and Peter can't watch. He drags himself back up and fights his own blush. This feels like snooping, it's a private moment that wasn't meant to be witnessed - but if they wanted it to be private, they shouldn't've had it in a very public hallway right next to the labs, should they?

Maybe that's why FRIDAY didn't seem very forthcoming about Bucky's location. Damn it, she should have just warned him!

He waits a few moments, playing with Hexie who flashes lights at him instead of her usual beeps and chirps, considerate AI that she is. When he finally hears Bucky murmur something and Tony laughing, he pops back down with a pronounced thump. Tony looks at him with wide eyes, stammers, turns on his heel in mid-sentence and goes right back to the lab, face almost as red as one of his suits. Bucky looks Peter up and down, looking like the cat that got all the cream - and Peter can't help but notice that he's flushed too, his lips kissed red-

-and no, nope, this wasn't what he's signed up for, this wasn't what he came here to see, or do, or... Nope. This is so not the time to have a conversation about feelings with his biological dad. He waves the comic book in his hand instead. "You wanted me to let you know when that new issue of Hellboy came, right?"

Bucky blinks, then smiles even wider. "Hell yeah! This world's storyline is so much better than ours. Wanna go read it on the roof? It's gorgeous outside." He grabs the comic from Peter's hand and starts paging through it.

Peter runs his hand through his hair, nonplussed. If that's how Bucky wants to play it, pretending nothing out of the ordinary happened, he can go with it. It does explain why Bucky's been so radiantly happy lately, and Peter can't bring himself to say anything to bring him down just now.

He does think of Steve with a pang, though. What will they do if Bucky decides to stay here?

 

Chapter Text

5.

When they finally manage to combine technology, magic and the raw power of the Stones, the resulting gizmo is actually kind of... underwhelming. Similar to Strange's regular sling ring, it's big enough to cover 4 fingers and looks like an unnecessarily complex set of brass knuckles. Peter doesn't know if the ornamentation is actually functional, but knowing both Tony's and Strange's flair, it might be there solely to look nice.

It is pretty. It also doesn't look even remotely as intimidating as the gauntlet does. Strange's sentient cape seems to be fascinated by the thing, twirling this way and that around the hand wielding it, and Bruce's sensors are spewing myriad results into his tablet. Peter can feel the tension in the air and isn't sure if it's his senses picking up some of the power that's gone into creating the artifact, or just that everybody's nervous about trying it out for the first time.

Because of course Tony insisted they test it out on themselves, to troubleshoot any technical problems, as well as making sure they can contain the situation if it goes sideways. Naked anticipation on Tony's face, however, gives Peter the idea that maybe it's just that he can't wait to reunite with Parker.

He tries to imagine spending the last two hectic months without Steve and shudders. Yeah, he gets where the genius is coming from.

They're in the Hulk containment room - why is such a thing even still necessary with Bruce being so in touch with his green and ragey side? - standing in a loose circle around Tony and Strange, everybody wearing battle gear. It's actually insanely cool to see two Captain Americas in the same room, Bucky's lighter armor with white highlights in stark contrast with Rogers' navy blue version, especially once they start comparing the gauntlets containing their shields. (The disk-shaped original went to Wakanda with Shuri, who promised to bring it back with a mischievous twinkle in her eye promising some serious updates.) Strange is wearing his usual frock and cape and Tony's in the Iron Man suit; Bruce and Clint are wearing all black tactical uniforms, though their postures are vastly different - Bruce is hanging back, all tense, eyes glued to the tablet, while Clint's casually assembling his bow and blowing cheerful bubbles with his orange-flavored chewing gum. Peter eagerly accepted when Clint offered it around, knowing that the man's taste in sweets is impeccable; the tang gives him something to focus on other than his low-key freakout going something like I'm about to meet an alternate version of myself that actually isn't a complete fuckup.

He smiles, seeing Steve and Barnes standing side by side, engrossed in a quiet conversation that has Steve laughing softly. The two of them have actually been spending a lot of time together in the past few weeks (Rogers being absent most of the time on media cleanup duty, and Bucky glued to Tony's side) talking about... their shared history, Peter assumes? Comparing differences between their realities?

More than once he's caught Steve eyeing Barnes and Rogers together with a wistful smile - those two don't really do much PDA, but the way they move like they have the same center of gravity is obvious once you know to look for it. Peter can't imagine what that must feel like for Steve, seeing a version of yourself so obviously in love with your best friend - especially when your version of said best friend hasn't been doing much to hide his budding relationship with Tony. Who is dead in your reality.

Peter gets kinda dizzy just thinking about it.

He takes out Hexie to have something to do with his hands. She's been really good about interacting with him; so good, in fact, that Tony looked at them together, waved his hand mumbling something like I've got my hands full with the three idiots already installed downstairs and just told Peter to hold onto her for the time being. She's unfolded now, into a sort of latticed sphere in the middle of his right hand, projecting something that looks suspiciously like the modified sling ring into the empty space inside herself. Peter smiles and runs his fingers over her, and she chirps softly. Looks like she's every bit as Science-obsessed as her creator.

Tony and Strange finally come to some sort of decision and Strange says, "If I can get your attention please, I'd like to get started?"

"The sensors are all in the green, the room is secure, you have a go," Bruce confirms, and everybody in the room tenses up, the playful mood gone in an instant. After a terse look from Bucky, Steve sidles up to Peter where he's standing a bit behind the other fighters.

They don't expect anything violent to happen, but. This is the Stones they're working with, and the thing about the Stones is that if you play with them, they play right back.

"Remember to focus on Peter, on how you miss him," Strange says to Tony, and Tony gives him a stink eye that very clearly shows how uncomfortable he is. Then he sighs and closes his eyes, putting his hand on the gizmo enveloping Strange's knuckles. "The ring needs something to guide it. Focus on the emotions," the wizard coaxes.

"What, are we trying to fight off dementors?" Tony snaps. His face looks pained, and Peter can't help but wonder what the man is seeing. Strange gives Tony an annoyed look and starts moving his other hand in a slow circle; a burst of multicolored sparkles appears in the air in front of them, then immediately dies out.

"There's definitely something happening, keep trying, guys," Bruce encourages.

"It's okay. That was a good start. Give me some more," Strange says quietly, and Tony looks downright heartbroken, his lower lip starting to quiver. The sparks appear again and start forming a sort of a circle, disappear, then sizzle into life again, the circle getting bigger. Tony has tears running down his face now, but he looks determined to see it through.

"Okay, the sensors are going crazy, it's similar to the energy we got from the gauntlet when Carol had it on! This looks promising, everything's in the green, keep going!" Bruce declares excitedly, not even noticing his own pun.

There is a definite circle in front of them now, looking like a portal to somewhere. At first it's too small to see through, then it gets bigger, and they can see-

-a bedroom decorated in music band posters?

There's two people in the middle of it, looking for all intents and purposes ready for a fight, next to a desk with laptop still playing some sort of video, and an upturned chair lying on the floor. One of them is a slender blonde girl with an undercut. The other-

-the other one is him , but not. He's shorter, more wiry where Peter has muscle mass given to him by the serum in his blood; his eyes are brown and confused, until they see Tony, and then he lights up like a Christmas tree, exclaiming, "Oh my god, Mister Stark, I knew you were gonna figure this out!" Both he and the girl relax slightly and then proceed to have an entire conversation with just a few facial expressions. The girl steps somewhere out of view, while Peter starts towards the portal, then stops. "Wait, you're here to get me, right? I can go through?" He makes to touch the sparks framing the portal, then tssks and snaps his hand away. "Ouch!"

Tony's laughing, even though his cheeks are still wet. "Obviously you can come through, that's what we've slaved over this thing for! You can't imagine the indignities I've gone through to get this thing to work-" He stops himself, then looks at Strange. "How long can you keep this thing open?"

"I'd make my goodbyes quick, if I were the young man," Strange answers, visibly shaken, even though he's smiling. "A couple of minutes, maybe? I wouldn't want to find out what happens if this thing runs out of juice," he says, a bit of hysteria in his voice.

Right, breaking down the barriers between alternate realities must be a new one even for him.

Parker pales, then jumps into action, going somewhere in the room the portal doesn't show. There's some muted conversation, sounds of rushed packing, then he's back, with a duffel on his shoulder. He looks around once more, then visibly steels himself. "Right, I kind of expected it to be an abrupt thing, so we were prepared. Gimme a second?" He reaches his arm out to the girl, then envelops her in a hug, both smiling widely. He murmurs something about maybe visiting if it's safe and thank you so much, then they part and he takes a deep breath. "Coming through?" he makes sure. "Do I need to, like, hold my breath or anything?"

"Just go," Strange says, sweat beading his temples, but he's grinning triumphantly.

"Thank you," Parker whispers to the girl again, squeezes her hand, then steps through. The portal collapses the moment he does, and Strange staggers a bit, only to be steadied by a beaming Bruce. Tony literally lunges out of his armor and throws himself at Parker, enveloping him in a hug that punches all the air out of the boy. They're both laughing. Everybody relaxes visibly, Clint letting go of the string of his bow, Rogers and Bucky retracting their shields.

Peter doesn't know what to do with himself. What's the protocol for meeting your alternate self?

The decision is taken out of his hands, however, once Parker looks around, notices familiar-yet-not faces surrounding him, and zeroes in on him immediately. The newcomer smiles, extends his hand, and says, "Hi, I'm Peter Parker," with the most sincere smile Peter's ever seen.

He can't not grin back. "Yeah, I know."

 

Chapter Text

+1

The portal doesn't want to open for them.

Sure, it sizzles and sputters, but the window to the other side just doesn't appear. They try to give it a few days - maybe the reality has some sort of limit on how much it can be bent. They try to 'charge' the artifact again, for lack of a better word. They try switching who's holding Strange's hand, thinking maybe it's a personal thing.

They assumed Bucky thinking of Natasha would work, but... it just doesn't. Neither Steve nor Peter have anybody left on the other side with even remotely the same connection as the two spyssassins share, and if that's not enough, well...

The third time it doesn't work, Tony suggests trying the thing on some of the other displaced people who want to go back. They successfully transport over a dozen groups - with only one or two failures - before Tony decides it's time to go back to the lab and try to 'boost the signal', whatever that means.

For better or worse, they're stuck here for the time being.

Bucky's definitely feeling guilty over his inability to bring them home. He gradually starts spending less time in the lab, shutting Tony out like he thinks their relationship is to blame. There's some serious bad vibes going around the Tower for a while, until Steve snaps at Bucky to get his head out of his ass and stop making everybody miserable. The situation evens out for a bit after that, with one notable difference: Bucky makes an effort to integrate Tony, Steve and Peter more, almost like he's trying to bring the genius into the happy little supersoldier family unit, to cite their earlier conversation.

It's actually kind of working. It takes Tony a while to warm up to Steve, but then the genius starts catching them all up on pop culture they've all somehow missed and it becomes a regular thing, long evenings with pyjamas, Netflix and lots of popcorn.

Peter discovers that while he does have some things in common with his alternate self - they're both teenaged superheroes only just coming back from the Snap, after all - he finds Parker... almost unbearably innocent? It's not a bad thing. It's just a natural result of not being subject to the very worst humanity has to offer from the moment you were born. Parker's trusting. Open. Wears his heart on his sleeve.

Peter... doesn't. He hangs out in the hidey holes with Clint a lot, both of them enjoying quiet time reading comic books, their sense of humour growing progressively more salty as time wears on. They're both feeling the losses they've sustained much more acutely than any of the others.

It's nice, in a vaguely unhealthy kind of way.

Even though Rogers continues keeping his distance, Barnes becomes more and more friendly with first Steve, then Bucky, having long conversations that go well into the night. Peter has a sudden moment of perfect clarity when he sees Barnes discreetly nudging Steve towards Bucky and Tony, who are sitting together in a deck chair, enjoying the first rays of spring sun.

This... actually makes perfect sense. Steve and Bucky have always been close, obviously. Steve and Tony? There's always been bickering, but lately it's been... warmer. Like they're enjoying each other's company but feel this ridiculous need to keep up an appearance of being frenemies.

... Tony did say the universe brought them here for a reason.

He's watching Steve bite his lip nervously and start walking towards the two, when a portal opens right next to Bucky and Natasha - their Natasha, of course she was gonna be the one to figure it out - steps through like she's strutting down the runway, not breaking the laws of the universe.

 

"You've used vibranium to boost the sling ring," Tony repeats for the third time.

"Yes, Tony, we've used vibranium to boost the sling ring. Took Shuri the better part of three months to develop an alloy that will work with Strange's..." she looks at the wizard.

"Resonance. My unique frequency, if you will," Strange supplies. He, Tony and Bruce keep looking at each other like they can't believe this hasn't occurred to them.

They're in the penthouse, strewn all over the sofas; Nat's holding Bucky's hand, the others gathered around them. "Yes, that," Natasha continues. "The fun part is, now that she's got it, she's making personalized rings a few other guys you - the other you-" she nods at Strange "-vouched for. She's kind of got a whole system worked out, says it's gonna be like the Grand Central, only with more fireworks-"

This is the point where Clint comes running full-speed into the room, looks around wildly, and snags her into a frantic embrace with a strangled sob. She looks vaguely surprised for a split second, then recognition dawns in her eyes and she hugs him just as tightly, murmuring something in a Slavic-sounding language; Peter catches the word Budapest somewhere in there, whatever that means. Bucky grins and gets up, making more space for Clint to sprawl all over her, and goes to sit between Tony and Steve, absentmindedly grabbing both their hands.

Peter eyes the trio carefully. They don't seem to notice what Bucky's just done, engrossed as they are in the teary reunion happening in front of them. Barnes catches Peter's eye over their heads and winks.

"So, wait, you're saying you've perfected the technology?" Strange picks up the conversation.

"Yes, I'm saying we can go back right now, if you want," she says, petting Clint's hair when he whines in protest. "Well, no, not right now, at 1500 hours when you reopen the portal for me to come back."

"So you can open it at will? Without the emotional anchor?" Strange makes sure.

"Pretty much, yeah. It uses - how did Shuri put it? - something like a set of interdimensional coordinates." She grins like a satisfied predator. "So, how do you feel like meeting your other selves?"

"You're saying... we can visit?" Bucky speaks up, still holding Steve's and Tony's hands. Steve seems to have cottoned on to what's going on, and is blushing furiously. He's also holding Bucky's hand with both of his, like he's afraid the man will let go.

As if, Peter snorts to himself.

Tony's been bouncing up and down in excitement, and now his patience visibly snaps and he jumps up, grabs a tablet from the coffee table and plops himself next to Bruce. They start chattering instantly, then throw a holographic projection on the wall; Tony's hands are almost a blur, he's inputting the information into the simulation so quickly. Both Steve and Bucky are watching him with an obvious fondness. Bucky glances at their joined hands, flashes a surprised smile at Steve, then looks back at Natasha when she clears her throat.

"I'm saying you can go back and forth as often as you can convince one of the wizards to open the portal for you," she smirks knowingly. "Considering Shuri and Strange were going a mile a minute about some sort of energy readings they were getting, and how they wanted to study it-"

"You're saying I can go see Gwen," Parker jumps in, then blushes.

Man, there's a lot of blushing going on today.

Nat looks at him quizzically. "I think so? Whoever she is?"

"There was this big guy, Fisk, and he wanted to - do the same thing you did with the sling rings, I guess, only he was using a particle accelerator?" Parker is picking up speed, and Peter smiles, seeing how alike Tony and him are. "And there were seven of us at some point, Spider-People I mean, only some weren't people, and - well, long story short, she kinda took me in when I had nowhere to go, and I'd like to-" He stops himself suddenly and turns an even deeper shade of red.

Tony looks up at Parker with a fatherly sort of understanding, then his eyes land on where Bucky and Steve are still holding onto each other. His face lights up and he looks like he just got the best surprise present ever.

Peter looks around the room. Clint's still doing an octopus impression, tangled all over Natasha. Barnes has orbited to Rogers, who came into the room somewhere during the conversation and is gaping at Nat. Strange and Bruce are manipulating the holographic readouts, Bruce seemingly at ease for the very first time in months. Parker's bouncing on the balls of his feet, grinning.

Tony, Steve and Bucky are staring like it's the first time they're seeing each other clearly. There's a sort of bubble around them, as if a nuke could go off and they wouldn't even notice.

Peter grins down at Hexie.

Yeah, maybe the multiverse actually makes perfect sense.