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unwinding orbits and songs for the moon

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The day before Peter decides he’s died and gone to hell, he rescues the world’s saddest looking puppy from an extremely shady and clearly unsafe back alley, accidentally busts one of New York’s biggest drug cartels, and goes home to find Tony Stark standing in his living room.

“Great,” he says, since he’s probably bleeding into his brain or is already dead, knowing his luck, and leaves to take a shower. 

Because his life has never resembled anything even close to easy, twenty minutes later – and after a quick google search confirms that, no, he likely isn’t bleeding into his brain, so there goes that idea – Tony is still there. He’s leaned up against the desk in Peter’s room, effortless cool in his worn pair of jeans and dark burgundy sweater, thumbing through a rusty box of screwdrivers Peter found on top a dumpster last week.

“Wow,” he mutters, but does so in that unimpressed, did-you-really-put-a-multi-million-dollar-suit-in-the-washing- machine kind of way Peter remembers well. Nice to know some things don’t change, at least. “Not even a hello?” he says. “That’s cold, kid. And after I came all this way to see you.”

It’s all it takes for Peter, concussed and achy and starting to regret the domino effect his life has of knocking every little thing into massive boulders to hit him upside the head with, to decide he’s completely and absolutely done.

“Nope,” he says, “No thanks,” and turns on his heels to go back into the hall.

- - -

Kent Holbrook @KentHolbrookOfficial

“A historic moment,” says Chief of Police after two-year cartel investigation ends in successful raid. Tune in to local channel one at 6pm tonight for more on the story. #ChannelOne

- - - 

Ned: lol when you accidentally bust a huge drug cartel the feds have been working on for 2 years

Ned: can i have your autograph when i get back from my grandma’s? I’m gonna sell it on ebay and get rich

- - -

tracy @tracylinesaway

okay but is no one gonna talk about how spiderman fucking stole my dog??? what the hell? #ihatethiscity

- - - 

Before, when he’d been a starry-eyed, overeager mess of a human being, desperate to prove himself and be proven, Peter had walked into a lab upstate one day to the sight of five interns in tears and another six scrambling desperately between stations filling with smoke. He was the youngest intern then, a fragile fifteen to their twenties, and Tony had said, “Learn to realize which problems aren’t yours,” while something sounding vaguely like explosives went off in the next room and he disappeared upstairs.

This, Peter decides now, as he rummages through the refrigerator, is definitely not his problem.

“You know I’m not going away until we talk,” he hears from behind, and drums his fingertips along the door handle, down the side of the stainless steel.

“I’m not talking to you,” he says.

“Then what do you call that?” Tony asks, all smug and way too satisfied, as if he hasn’t been trailing after Peter for half an hour now, listing state capitals and reading information from the backs of bottles in an annoying attempt to ramble Peter into insanity to break his silence.

“It’s the obligatory explanation of how I’m not talking to you,” Peter says, because he has to give it a go at least. He didn’t win Best Trier in third grade for nothing. “The not talking to you recommences now.”

Tony snorts, sounding amused. “Ah,” he says, slowly, and decides, “It’s cause I’m dead, isn’t it?” 

Peter bites the inside of his cheek. Really, what is he supposed to say to that? It is, one hundred percent, the fact that Tony is dead. It is, one hundred percent, that Tony is standing here looking like every nightmare Peter has had for the last nine months, corporeal and painfully raw, a wound that never had the chance to heal before he’d slammed the door on it, and Peter’s been such a terrible person lately, he knows – beyond accidentally stealing puppies and fighting mobsters.

This, though? This just seems cruel, even for his own mind.

“That’s deadism,” Tony points out, clicking his tongue in a show of mock disappointment. “Harsh. I thought you were better than that.”

Peter rolls his eyes. “That’s not a thing,” he can’t help but say, and thinks, Sorry, Mrs. Wilson from third grade. No awards today

“Discrimination against the dead?” Tony continues, picking through what must be the stack of magazines near the stove if the shiver-inducing noise of pages squeaking together deliberately between his fingers is any indication. Jerk. ”It’s totally a thing and you’re doing it right now.”

“Whatever."

And there’s the sound of the front door opening, of May banging things into the walls in the narrow entryway, her purse, the plastic containers she keeps bringing home from work. A well-timed, much needed distraction as she calls out, “Peter? You home?” 

Peter closes the refrigerator. “In the kitchen,” he calls back, and has one blessed second of relief to see someone actually alive and real before he darts his eyes to Tony, who is smiling now, mischievous and scheming. 

Uh oh.

“I saw on the news you helped the police track down a bunch of mobsters,” May says from the hall, like she's proud. Peter is struck with a sudden, vivid memory of her showing up to his fifth-grade science fair holding a sign with his name drawn on it while the judges scored his entry. That is to say, he’s not surprised at all when she appears in the kitchen balancing a box from Ray’s in her arms like the trophy he didn’t win that day. “I got some pizza to celebrate,” she says. “You know, a little Italian treat for your Italian defeat.”

“Nice,” Peter replies, and glances again at Tony in a silent plea for him to behave. That May isn’t reacting to him at all confirms Peter’s suspicions – that Tony isn’t real, isn’t there, but, worse yet, has too much power in that regard, could make everyone aware he exists enough to Peter to instigate verbal debates.

Peter throws him another desperate look, one that must work by the way Tony snorts, entirely aware of the situation, and holds his palms up in surrender before backing out of the kitchen and out of view completely. 

It’s odd, the jolt of panic Peter feels once he's gone. 

“Uh,” he says, after he’s helped May stack the plastic containers on the counter and is sure Tony isn’t coming back. “I didn’t really help much. With the mobsters. Just kind of ran into one and everything hit the fan.” That’s how the chief of police had said it anyway, even as he shook Spider-Man’s hand and told the rest of his crew, “That’s how we always know where this guy shows up. When shit hits the fan, you can bet Spidey is somewhere.” Peter’s still working out if that was meant to be a compliment or not.

Mournful, May says, “Well it’s too late to take the pizza back now. I suppose I’ll just have to eat it by myself, since you did nothing to help and all.”

“Well, nothing isn’t exactly right,” Peter says, backtracking fast, his stomach grumbling. “I mean, they did say they’ve been trying to track these guys down for two years. And they wouldn’t have caught them without me coming across Luigi.”

“Sure, sure,” May agrees. “But if you say you didn’t help, well ...”

“I totally helped,” Peter says, and dives for the pizza box before she can snatch it away. 

It’s how they find themselves six slices later, camped out on the couch with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off playing on the TV, Peter’s attention divided between implausible mid-afternoon parades and the hallway leading to his room because Tony has been awfully quiet and Peter’s head is aching and nothing in the world has ever been simple enough for Tony to just be gone, so he must be somewhere, waiting.

May is finishing her last bit of pizza crust when she clears her throat to say, “I heard another rumor about you today,” and Peter’s heart drops so fast he goes dizzy with it. May, for her own part, doesn’t seem to notice. “Someone online said you stole their puppy,” she says. “What’s up with that?”

“Oh.” Peter blinks a few times, breathing out a relieved laugh, then frowns. “Okay, wait.”

May just chuckles.

In hindsight, the puppy thing might have been a mistake. 

A really, really big mistake.

- - -

Here’s the actual problem: it’s not as though Peter has a particular hatred for small, cute things or the way they toddle around on adorable little legs. He’s not a monster, after all. It’s just that everything in his life is so stupidly connected, and rescuing said puppy – accidentally stealing and returning, whatever – led him to miss the M train home, which led him straight to Luigi Saracino, Italian Mobster galore and admittedly the coolest person Peter’s ever fought in his entire life if the double-barrel shotgun and old Hollywood-style overcoat were any indications. Anyway, that led to his concussion, because, well, mobsters, which then led him to Tony Stark, dead nine months and currently attempting to name every scientist in the world as Peter tries to sleep.

So, needless to say, his life is going great.

“I think now I’ll start into my spectacular repertoire of ‘80s rock ballads,” Tony decides, while Peter buries his face into his pillow, groaning in misery. The clock on his bedside table reads 1:06am and Tony has been talking almost non-stop for two hours. 

“Oh my god,” Peter moans, because if he’s not in hell already, he’s kind of wishing he was.

Across the room, Tony asks, “Who would you like to hear first? Motley Crue? A little Guns N’ Roses? I could dazzle you with some Cher.” 

“Oh my god,” Peter repeats, and it’s the idea of Tony bursting out into, “Do you believe in life after love?” that has him pushing himself up in bed and swinging his feet to the floor. There are some things he just doesn’t need to hear.

“Fine,” he snaps, turning to face Tony in the dimness around them. His voice comes out harsher than he means, so he lowers it, hoping May won’t hear him through the walls. “Fine,” he whispers. “Okay, let’s pretend you’re real and not a hallucination brought on by some guy named Sebastian hitting me in the face with a cylinder block." That one had hurt too, both his skull and his pride. "What do you want from me?”

Tony hums under his breath, leaning forward in Peter’s computer chair. “Isn’t it obvious?” he asks.

Peter stares at him a long moment. “Uh, obviously not.”

“Jeez, kid. You’re the one who’s seen all the movies,” Tony says, like that explains anything at all, and before Peter can voice the number of the irritated thoughts flashing through his mind, goes on with, “I need your help.”

“And I need an MRI,” Peter grumbles, dragging his hands through his hair, over his face. “My help with what?”

Tony smiles a little, a brief turn of his lips. “A wish.”

“What wish?”

“No idea,” Tony answers, mild, unconcerned, because either he’s the worst ghost-hallucination ever or he’s way too confident Peter will be able to solve whatever this is. Neither option is comforting.

Huffing, Peter says, “If you have no idea what the wish is, how do you know there’s a wish?”

Tony shrugs. “Just do. Just like I know it involves you and the rest of the ragtag team.”

Peter must look confused, or maybe he’s just stopped too long to process what that means – Tony is sighing, like Peter is purposefully being naive. But, seriously, ragtag team? What the hell is that? Peter is too tired for this. 

“Earth’s mightiest heroes?” Tony supplies. Peter can see his own frustration reflected in Tony's expression, in the sharp lift of his eyebrow. “The A-Team? Best break up band of the decade?”

“Oh,” Peter says, and then, softer, in understanding, “Oh.” 

It seems almost cruel to tell Tony the truth here, in the confines of his small bedroom, the streetlights outside liquifying the night into soft, orange glows over the white of his windowsill. For the first time since Tony showed up in his apartment, Peter takes a moment to really look at him, the shadows cutting across his features, the dark of his eyes, and it’s like tipping over the side of a cliff only to realize you’ve already been falling and haven’t stopped. The ground ripped out from under your feet, the rush of noise in your ears. Tony looks exactly the same as he does in all of Peter’s memories except one.

“Um,” Peter says, clearing his throat. Tony might not be real, might be just some figment of stress toying with his emotions, but it hurts all the same to say this out loud. “Mr. Stark, the Avengers … the Avengers aren’t really a thing anymore.”

Tony leans back in his chair. “Yeah, they do that sometimes,” he says, waving away Peter’s confession like it’s a pestful bug. “But they always come back when it matters. It’s part of the spiel.” 

“Okay, but it’s not – um. It’s not ....” It’s not the same this time, Peter thinks, but says nothing out loud, letting the rest of his sentence trail off. He’d been so alone in Europe, fighting to save his friends, fighting to save the world. It’s not the same at all.

“Just say you’ll help me,” Tony says. “Or my ‘80s rock ballads start now. And I can keep going for days. Weeks, probably. You’ll have to ask Rhodey about the Great Redbull Fiasco of sophomore year. Actually, I’ll just tell you now –”

“Okay!” Peter bites out, and collapses back down onto his bed, turning his face into the coolness of his sheets. “Okay. God, fine. I’ll help you. Just let me sleep. Please.”

And Peter decides maybe Tony talking his ears off isn’t the most awful thing he can do, because the way he breathes a quiet laugh and says, familiar, like nothing has changed, “Whatever you want, kid” is so, so much worse.

- - -

It takes all of half a day for Peter to regret ever agreeing to Tony’s plan.

He’s perched on a Brooklyn apartment complex’s fire escape, the sun just brushing its highest point in the sky, and Tony is lingering down below, leaned up against a building across the street and doing his best impression of a casual New Yorker even though Peter is the only one who can see him and Tony Stark could never be casual if his life depended on it.

“This is stupid,” Peter says, the same time a scruffy ball of black fur plops on the step next to him and collapses against his thigh in a warm heap. He’s acting on what Tony has called the  “reconnaissance” stage of his three-part plan, bored out of his mind, and he’d recognize this dyed blue, yellow star covered collar anywhere, so he settles back on the crickety stairs and scratches behind the cat’s ears, murmuring, “Hi, Hamlet. You’re pretty far from home, aren’t you?”

Hamlet nudges against his palm in response, purring softly. When Peter had gone on his first patrol after the snap, it was Hamlet that nearly sent him over the edge with grief. Five months old he’d been the last time Peter saw him, and then was suddenly grown out, the same blue collar and the same yellow eyes, the same old address, and it took all Peter had not to crumple right there on the sidewalk, legs wobbly and the swirl of a storm inside him threatening to explode.

Those were the things he couldn’t get a grip on, the things he couldn’t bridge the gap between in his new life and his old one. How Hamlet had been a kitten just weeks before, how the last time Peter had seen his owner Emma, she was having tea parties with her imaginary friends and now she was hunched over her desk learning fractions.

“You have to be prepared,” Steve Rogers told them after Tony’s funeral, the last time they all were together and Peter had been so overcome and too numb to really understand the depth of his words. “The world looks different than it did for you yesterday.” 

It’s strange, but Peter still finds himself surprised by the things that hurt, by the small, quiet sadnesses he sometimes wakes up to – the rain pelting gently against his window, the soft murmur of voices in the kitchen while he lays in bed and listens, everything awake but not awake, the world the same but not the same. He's sixteen where he should be the twenty-one, and Hamlet is five, and Emma is eleven, and Peter is the only one who doesn’t seem to know how to move on.

Hamlet butts up against him, harder this time, like he can sense his emotions. More than once he’s sat with Peter while Peter cried ugly, loud tears behind his mask, so he can probably read him easily enough.

“Man, Hamlet,” Peter says, tipping his head back to watch the sky. “You’ve got it good. You wanna trade places for a little bit? You go save the day and I’ll take naps on fire escapes? I mean, I do that already, but you know, I won’t have to worry about some bad guy tasering me in my sleep again. No one tasers cats.”

The “no thanks” is obvious by Hamlet’s sheer disinterest in responding at all to Peter, but he doesn’t leave, so they sit quietly on the fire escape in peaceful company until a flash of silver draws Peter’s attention upwards again. 

“Welp,” he says, rising to his feet, “Guess stage one starts now,” and, giving Hamlet one last scratch on the head, adds, “Stay out of the street,” before he connects a webline to the building next door and swings off. 

He can feel Tony watching him from below, feel the way his eyes follow as Peter tracks two figures to another rooftop down the block and lands beside them, quiet and agile, though neither seem fazed to see him.

“Hey, Webs,” greets Bucky, while Sam gives him a nod and goes back to peering through a set of binoculars at the shopping center on the corner, his elbows propped on the roof’s edge,  metallic wings spilled out languid behind him and centered underneath his red and blue shield. 

Peter hadn’t been lying when he told Tony the Avengers weren’t a thing anymore, but he still sees a few of them around sometimes – mostly Sam and Bucky, who never want to team up with Peter but often are passing by when Peter finds himself caught in embarrassing situations he’d rather no one else was around for.

He rubs the back of his neck, eyeing the rifle in Bucky’s hand. They’re on a mission, he knows. Last week Bucky told him they were searching for an MIA criminal, after he’d come across Peter webbing a bike thief to a streetlight and Peter had stuttered and tripped over himself trying to be calm and not scare him away. The first time they officially met, Peter found Bucky so cool that he took one look at his vibranium arm and his long hair and said, “Wow. I don’t know how to talk to you.” 

Now, he swallows a little, the feel of Tony’s gaze still on him – he’s too high up, there’s no way Tony can actually see him from the ground – and says, “Uh, hey. What’s up?”

“Working,” says Sam, not looking at him. “Little busy.”

“Right, yeah,” Peter responds, rocking on his heels, his cheeks red, burning. This is so stupid, he thinks, but he promised Tony, so he takes a breath and bursts out a pathetically rehearsed, “Um, so, I was just wondering, do you guys happen to know if Tony left behind any unfinished business before he died?”

Predictably, this upends any chance of a normal conversation or interaction, and Bucky and Sam both turn to stare at him, fixated, expressions unreadable. Peter wishes he could rip off his face so he’d have an excuse not to be standing here any longer.

“What?” Sam asks, as Bucky says, “Unfinished business?”

Peter laughs a little, shaky and much too high. “Uh, yeah,” he says. “Uh, like projects or things he wanted to do or something?”

Sam’s eyebrows furrow. It's not concern, but it's not something Peter recognizes either. Sam isn’t a complicated person. He’s usually busy, and mostly distracted whenever they’re around each other, but he’s never mean to Peter, he just doesn’t have time for him – or anyone, really, it seems, because he’s Captain America now and that’s a big deal and a big title with a lot of responsibilities.

He stands, reaching back to fix the shield, clear he still hasn’t quite adjusted to the weight of it on his back. There’s something about him that always seems a little off-balance to Peter. Some subtle shift of his body Peter wonders if anyone else ever notices or if they see the shield and his wings and think him invincible the way they thought the old Captain America was too.

“Not sure,” Sam says. “Not really the right person to ask about that kind of stuff. What are –” Only then, a device clipped to his belt starts ringing, high-pitched in warning, and Sam lifts his binoculars again and zeroes in on a new spot, announcing, after a moment, “That’s it. It’s him. Let’s go.”

The wings activate in a click of a second – so, so impressive, Peter wants to ask what kind of system they run on, if they are manually activated or work like nanotech and respond to his thoughts, but resists the urge. Sam pulls the goggles hung around his neck up over his eyes and says, “I’ll see you around, kid. Hope you get your answers,” and he’s in the air and zooming away before Peter can think of a response.

Sighing, Bucky lifts his rifle in a quick wave goodbye, already halfway through the roof’s exit when Peter makes out his tired, “Guess I’ll be taking the stairs,” and, “Thanks a lot, Sam. Could have offered me a lift.”

“Cool,” Peter mutters, because he hates himself a little and hates Tony even more for making him do this. Stupid, stupid, stupid. 

Back on the ground again, he leads Tony into an alley, makes sure no one is close enough to hear, and says, “See? I told you.” Because he did. It’s not his fault Tony didn’t listen.

“A minor setback,” Tony says, and grins, that awful, devious smile. “Actually, I have a new plan.”

- - -

Tony’s new plan is even more stupid than the first.

“I’m not doing it,” Peter says.

“You promised you’d help me,” Tony points out, sitting on the edge of the TV stand in the living room, dangerously close to May’s expensive vases. How her fragile possessions survived two moves and being locked in a storage unit for five years, Peter will never know.

Glaring, he says, “Only because you threatened to talk me to death.”

Tony flicks his fingers. “It happened. Let’s not dwell on it,” he says, lazy, and touches the vase by his thigh, tipping it back and forth. “Besides, I didn’t technically threaten you. It’s not a threat if I’m actually gonna do it.”

“Yeah, no, it is, and you definitely did, so …” Peter watches the vase carefully. Tony is making him nervous with the casual way he’s playing with it, and he must know it too, because he glances up at Peter, blinks once, and steadies the vase, his hand still resting securely on top.

“Just call him,” he says. “Come on, kid. Don’t make me beg. He can help.”

“He can’t help someone who’s not really there,” Peter argues. “And I’m not bringing another person into this. No. No way. Sergeant Barnes and Sam were bad enough.”

Tony pauses, his lips twitching a minuscule, delighted movement. “How about this then? Call him or I break it,” he says, so casual Peter doesn’t process it for a moment.

“Excuse me?”

“The vase,” Tony clarifies. “What is this, a Kosta Boda? Some of them are pretty pricey, aren’t they?” He tips it again, closer to the edge of the stand. “Wood floor, glass vase. You took physics.”

Peter gapes at him. “See? This is what I’m talking about. You’re literally threatening me again.”

“Just exhausting my options,” Tony says, feigned long-suffering, but there’s an edge under his tone, a seriousness Peter doesn’t miss. “Desperate times and all that. You’re the only one who can help me, kid. So help me.”

“I’m not playing games with a hallucination,” Peter says. “You realize how crazy this is gonna make me look, right?”

Tony, for all that he loves poking fun at Peter, and because apparently he’s still a troll even in this state, says, “You swing around the city in a pair of spandex. You’re perfectly capable of doing that yourself.”

Peter levels him with a scowl. “You’ve got jokes, great,” he says. “But I’m not calling him and you can’t make me.” 

Tony gives the vase a light push – Peter just barely manages to catch it before it can shatter against the floor, diving and lunging the second he realizes Tony is actually serious. What the hell? – and there are at least seven other vases around the apartment he starts into next, which is why, one strange phone call and an hour later, Happy Hogan is sitting on the couch, dressed in business attire, keys dangling from his fingers, and Tony is beaming in triumph like a maniac.

“I hate you so much,” Peter told him before Happy arrived, and Tony just smirked.

“I know.”

“Okay,” Happy says now, cautious, careful. “Okay, so what you're telling me is yesterday you got hit in the head fighting those mobsters and now you’re –?”

“Yeah,” Peter says, leaving the “hallucinating Tony” part unfinished, because saying it again is too much and Happy already looks like he wants to take Peter to a hospital and leave him there.

“Okay,” Happy repeats. “And he told you he has some kind of – unfinished business, you said?”

Peter pushes his hands over his eyes. “He said he has a wish,” he mumbles into his palms, which sounds even more ridiculous than the hallucination part and he didn’t even know that was possible. He steadies himself, dropping his arms. He knows exactly how crazy this all looks, but still, he says, weakly, “Listen, I know this is probably just stress messing with me, but I figured – I dunno, I guess I figured if I help him it’ll make him go away or something.”

Happy, who has no doubt seen enough weird things in his life, recovers quickly from Peter’s humiliating admission, and arches an eyebrow, smiling a small, private thing. “You think making Tony go away is gonna be that easy?”

Tony snorts out a laugh. Peter looks at him, sidelong. To Happy, he says, “No. I really, really don’t.”

“He’s gonna think you’re losing it,” Tony comments quietly, and Peter thinks, well, yeah, I obviously am. That doubles tenfold as Tony pushes on, "I’ve got something to convince the both of you I’m real. Tell him about Daytona," and Peter, without thinking, says, "What's Daytona?" and blacks out for a terrifying few seconds when he realizes he’s said this out loud, in front of Happy, and Happy has gone oddly still.

“What did you say?” Happy asks.

“It’s a secret only me and Hap know,” Tony says.

Peter’s already got one foot in, and he would like some solid, indisputable evidence beyond no one else being able to see Tony to prove he’s in his imagination – whatever he can get, the better – so he ventures further, his face hot, mumbling, “Uh, Mr. Stark said it’s a secret between you two. He’s trying to prove he’s real.”

Happy narrows his eyes. He’s on his feet now, shoving his keys into his pocket. The street sweeper is coming in fifteen minutes and Peter is aware Happy doesn’t intend to be here that long. Still, he looks curious. 

“Turn around,” he says. “Close your eyes.”

Peter frowns. “Huh?”

“Just do it,” Happy says, impatient, and motions him to face the other way. “Look, If your brain wants you to prove that Tony is real, maybe proving he isn’t will give you some comfort and make him leave. Then we can get you a CT scan and some long-overdue therapy.”

“Oh, uh, okay?” It sounds reasonable enough to Peter – read: the least crazy thing he’s heard since Tony appeared in his living room yesterday – and he spins around, closing his eyes while Happy says, “I’m gonna hold up a number on both hands. Have your Tony tell me what they are.”

“Okay,” Peter replies, except Tony is breathing out a laugh now, entertained by something Peter can’t see, and isn’t telling him any numbers at all. It's not exactly a good or promising start, Peter thinks, especially since Happy actually seems to be trying to help him.

“It’s because he’s not holding up a number,” Tony explains, rolling his eyes. “He’s signing the name ‘Molly.’ Tell him I said Shannon was better, Molly was a fraud.”

This all means absolutely nothing to Peter, but he repeats it anyway, slowly, to make sure he’s got it right, then turns back again to see Happy looking three shades greener, pale-faced and shell-shocked and unsteady on his feet. 

“Oh,” Happy chokes out, and swallows, nodding a bit. “Okay, I should probably move my car.”

“Told you,” Tony says, parroting Peter’s earlier use of the phrase, and Peter looks at him, at his overtly smug smile, looks at Happy and his wide eyes, and says, “Oh no.”

His hallucination isn’t a hallucination after all.

- - - 

MJ: I got you a souvenir from Disneyland

MJ: It’s a tiny spoon

MJ: Don’t be weird about it

- - -

Kent H @unofficiallykent

Remember that story I did on Tony Stark’s death nine months ago? Our segment was entered to win an emmy & they’re announcing winners soon. My dreams might finally be coming true. #emmyemmyemmy #mywifeleftmebecauseofthis #butinevergaveup

Sarah Longhorn @ambiensleep

@unofficiallykent lol you’ll never get an emmy unless you’re national #localchannelone #nicetry

- - -  

tracy @tracylinesaway

my dog is fine, thanks for not asking. #stillhatethisplace

- - -

The drive upstate is mostly quiet.

It’s Happy’s idea to go back to the cabin, after Peter explains everything he knows, which winds up being a lot of what he doesn’t know, since besides having a wish and it involving the Avengers, Tony has very little information about why here’s here and how to get back to where he came from. 

Happy’s theory is they might find something in his workshop, an unfinished project or idea Tony never got a chance to pan out. He seems okay, as far as anyone can be after their dead best friend comes back as a ghost, and certainly only as far as Peter can tell, but he’s tense, white-knuckled around the steering wheel, glancing in the review like maybe if he tries hard enough he’ll be able to make out Tony sitting in the back seat. Peter hasn’t seen him look this serious since last month when they stood in front of a room full of reporters, Pepper stating into a microphone, “Mr. Parker is one of our youngest interns. We assume Beck was trying to frame him because he was the easiest target” while downtown a stuntman Happy hired donned the Spider-Man suit and fought a criminal in front of a dozen camera phones broadcasting live all over social media.

“Pepper should be at a meeting right now,” Happy says when they pull up to the empty house. “So Morgan will be with the babysitter. We should have an hour or so.” That had been the other thing Happy insisted upon. That Pepper and Morgan weren’t there when they went rummaging through Tony’s things. 

Easier not the explain yet, Peter muses, and kicks open his door, letting Tony slide out behind him. He himself hasn’t been here since the funeral, but something about coming back again and having Tony with him stirs a sensation deep in his stomach, makes his skin itch and crawl. 

“Think we’ll find anything?” he asks, so that he has something else to focus on besides the tightness in his throat, the weird, swelling feeling in his chest, and follows Happy up the front steps.

Happy pats through his pockets, distracted. “Finding something won't be the issue," he says. "Tony was always working on a million projects. It's finding the one he needs that might be a problem.”

“There’s a key under one of these pots,” Tony says, which Peter relays to Happy, who just twists his lips into a tight line, mutters, "He’s not even alive and he can read me,” and goes about lifting pots and checking beneath them.

“I feel weird breaking in,” Peter says, checking a few pots as well to at least give the illusion he's searching.

Tony steps around him, around the wicker chair in the corner, and, as if experimenting with the laws of body, pokes at a plant that doesn't move at his touch. “It’s not breaking in, I live here.”

“Got it,” Happy announces, and lets them through the door.

The house is exactly the same as Peter remembers, a stagnant, frozen picture in time, and for a moment it’s the funeral all over again, because that’s the only reason Peter ever came here in the first place and the reason he’s never been back, understandably, but then Tony is walking past him, arms spread wide and welcoming, and says, “Ah, it’s great to be home. Friday, do me a favor and pull up a backlog of my old projects. Start three years ago and work forward.”

The surprising part isn’t that Tony has forgotten he’s dead and Peter is the only one who can see him, though that does jolt Peter anyway. It’s that Friday, silent until that second, springs to life and says from overhead, “Yes, Boss.”

Peter freezes and looks at Tony, who looks at him then looks at Happy and up to the ceiling.

“Holy shit,” Peter whispers. “She can hear you?”

“You can hear me?” Tony asks, and Friday just says, “Of course,” like it’s obvious and they’re all idiots. 

“Oh my god,” Peter says.

“How did my life become like this?” Happy asks.

Tony chuckles, delighted. “Oh, this is gonna be fun,” he says. “Friday, I think it’s time we talk to Happy about that whole Molly and Shannon thing, don’t you think?”

They comb through Tony’s history bit by bit, a hologram screen projected over the dining room table and the three of them sat around it. The documentation is a mess, split into various folders and subjects with no real organization. Peter comes across an unfinished prototype for one of Tony’s suits, concept art for a tower in Manhatten, plans for the arc reactor sustainability project that he knows Pepper pushed through with because he’s subscribed to the Stark Industries mailing list and gets about emails every week. But none of them spark any kind of reaction in Tony, no matter how far back they look, no matter how many experiments and ideas they manage to find.

“Maybe it’s somewhere else?” Peter suggests, flicking through more files. 

“Friday has almost every project I’ve ever worked on,” Tony dismisses. “I’ve rolled over all the information from as far back as my MIT days. Feel free to try to search through all of that if you want. I don’t think we’re looking in the right place though.”

Peter sighs, pushing stray strands of hair away from his forehead, tired and annoyed with their lack of information and Tony's lack of answers. Happy is checking the time of his watch against the one on their screen. “Then where should we look?” Peter asks.

“Don’t know,” Tony says, ever the most helpful person, and offers nothing else. Thanks a lot.

“We should probably go,” Happy says. “Does Tony think the answer is in here somewhere?”

“No,” Peter says. “But he still doesn’t know where we should look, and he's not exactly offering any other solutions.”

Happy taps his fingers on the table, thinking, eyes roaming past Peter and landing briefly on Tony’s pulled out chair. “All right,” he says finally. “Then I think I have another plan.”

Peter shoots Tony a tired glare when Tony smirks. He’s getting real sick of plans.

- - -

He's getting real sick of his dreams too.

Later, hours after Happy drops him off with the promise of picking him up the next day, he has another one of them. He falls asleep and wakes to the strange feeling of emptiness, his teeth grinding together, his hair slick with sweat, and remembers he’s not alone this time. He can hear Tony at his desk, paging through one of his books. It’s a moment of absolute disorientation, blinding like the blazing heat of the infinity stones acting as one, where Peter thinks of Tony before he was Tony, when he was just Iron Man and so untouchable, and he thinks of Hamlet sitting on a fire escape and the way Happy had buzzed on the ride home from the cabin, all the proof of hope he needed stored in an AI system that teased him in real time from a best friend who died nine months ago or five years ago depending on how they looked at it and who you asked.

He thinks, why did you come back? and, why did you come back to only me? and rolls over in bed, buries his face into his pillow, and breathes until the only thing he can hear is Tony flipping pages and the gentle, calm of his voice in the dark saying, “Go back to sleep, kid” like Peter is some glass vase about to shatter against a hard surface and he knows if he does it will be all his fault for knocking it over in the first place.

- - -

Happy’s plans are marginally better than Tony’s, but in the morning when he drives Peter and Tony to a Stark building in Brooklyn and leads him into a conference room filled with the Avengers, Peter still wants to die.

“Happy,” he whispers. “Happy, what the hell?”

“I told you I had a plan,” Happy says, while he prods Peter to the front of the room, hands on his shoulders to guide him, to keep him from running. Peter half expects some kind of powerpoint presentation to appear behind him, self-titled “Peter Parker and why I’m losing my mind – dead mentor edition.

Around the table, Sam, Bucky, Rhodey, Clint Barton, and Thor – what the actual fuck? Peter thinks, frantically, and wonders if it would be rude to ask for an autograph before possibly hurling himself out the window – all look up at him, their conversations dying, their confusion clear and oh so mortifying. Peter has walked into enough rooms full of abruptly ending conversations to know they’ve been here for a while, and something about that makes this whole thing so much worse.

“Where’s Steve?” Happy asks, once he's done corralling Peter, and glances over everyone instead, taking stock. Tony is lingering at the back of the room, looking way too proud considering Peter's current misery.

“Retired,” Rhodey says, and juts his chin toward where Thor is sat opposite him. “Better question is, what are you doing back on Earth? Finally get tired of that idiot you’ve been traveling the galaxy with?”

Thor grins at him, open-mouthed and joyful. “Some might say that idiot is traveling the galaxy with me,” he corrects. “Unfortunately, Star-Lord isn’t a big fan of your planet, so we’re parting ways for a brief time while I help my people get ready for our festival. You’re all invited, of course. The more the merrier, as you Earthlings say.”

“Great,” Happy interrupts, probably because Peter is emanating a desire to die so strong he can feel it, and adds, “Let’s get back to that in a minute. First, Peter needs to talk to you.”

“What?” Peter asks. Oh god, Happy really brought everyone here so Peter could tell him about Tony’s wish. This is horrible.

“Go on,” Happy insists, and steps back to let Peter take the floor.

In all of his wildest dreams, Peter never imagined himself standing in front of his heroes, face to face, dressed in an old t-shirt with some stupid science pun on it, his hair a mess and his life a mess and his dead mentor nodding him on. Nothing has ever prepared him for this moment, so he opens his mouth and stutters, his tongue like sandpaper.

“Um,” he tries. “Uh,” and remembers the first day of his debate class when his teacher taught everyone that instead of saying “um” during a speech, they should pause and say nothing until their next words come. Peter never got the hang of that one.

“I, uh, I was just wondering if you guys knew about something Mr. Stark might not have been able to finish before he died,” he says, sees the look Clint and Rhodey share, recognizes it from years of talking to Karen inside his mask and people on the street wondering if he'd lost his mind.

“I just, uh,” he continues, wishing he could have at least had a chance to practice this or prepare himself mentally for the worst day imaginable, and heads somewhere just left of the truth where he can still look close to normal. “He came to me in a dream and told me has a wish he needs all of you guys to help with. I don’t know what it is.”

Peter knows Happy only meant well, but for a moment he feels a helpless kind of fury – at Happy for bringing him here, at Tony for choosing him, at himself for ever letting it go this far. The window is sounding more and more like a better escape, and everyone is just looking at him, looking, not saying anything, and the only thing that breaks this god-awful, never-ending and awkward tension Peter is positive he's about to drown in is Sam’s phone ringing.

It shocks something back into motion. Sam says, "Sorry," and silences the sound as he reads his screen. He's got his shield propped up against the wall and pushes his chair back to make a move toward it. “Like I said before, I’m not the best person to ask about this," he says. "But we really gotta go. We’re on the clock here and Bucky over there likes to take his sweet time getting places anyway.”

“Twenty-three stories, Sam,” Bucky says. “You could have dropped me off at the first floor.”

“And you could have taken the elevator,” Sam retorts.

“I was carrying three guns.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“I should go too,” Clint says, and stands, swift, irritation wound tight in his shoulders.

Collectively, as a group, the Avengers have been fading apart since Tony’s funeral. It's not hard for anyone to see. Everywhere on the news was stories about Tony’s death, about Steve Rogers’ retirement, and Peter was one of only a handful who knew all the fine details, the exact truth. That Tony had used the infinity stones to defeat Thanos and that Steve had gone back in time to return those stones where they belonged, came back to the present and handed his shield over to Sam Wilson and disappeared. In and out and over, just like that.

Peter still keeps up with all of their lives whenever he can, so he knows the other truth as well: Clint is leaving too. He’d heard the rumors the same time everyone else did – the legendary Hawkeye was handing over his mantle to some unknown person and stepping down. There’d been an entire day where the Superheroes of New York subreddit was filled with speculating posts, why Hawkeye was leaving, who would take over, what would happen the next time they needed the Avengers but everyone was retiring or quitting or gone? It was the first time Peter realized every illusion he’d had since he was a kid was shattered. He was an Avenger but the Avengers were no more, and when people with cameras pointed his direction asked what he’d do if the world was under attack a second time, he’d felt a wave of hopelessness so strong he worried he might never be able to breathe again.

Becoming a hero had been an exhilarating, rush of an experience. Watching his own heroes become normal people was something else entirely.

“I’m sure you’re a great kid,” Clint says to Peter, “And I know you have good intentions, but I can’t keep reminding myself of everything I lost. It’s time I moved on – time we all moved on.”

“Barton,” Thor says, gentle, getting to his feet, but Clint is already past his outstretched hand, heading for the door, Sam and Bucky still bickering behind him. “Please, everyone," Thor begs. "We’re a team. Tony would want us to be together.”

Clint laughs, a short, pained sound. “We never really were much of a team, were we?” he says, but softens significantly at the wounded look on Thor’s face, at the quiet way he says, "Don't say that," and moves back to pat his arm. “Hey, I’m in town for a couple weeks to meet up with Kate. You let me know if you want to get a beer or something, okay?” And to Happy and Rhodey, says, “You guys too. It was great seeing you again.”

“Yeah,” Happy says, and he sounds weird, put out. “Yeah, you too.”

Peter feels like he’s in some twisted nightmare, folded up to fit where he doesn’t belong. This isn’t how things were supposed to go, but here he is anyway, watching Clint filing out the door after Sam and Bucky as the Avengers break further apart, another piece disconnected, and Tony is staring, quiet, eyebrows raised, and everything about this is wrong.

“Mr. Barton, wait,” Peter calls, running after him, and catches him in the hall, rushes out a weak, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you,” as Clint turns back, not angry but exhausted, worn down, five years older and a lifetime of sorrow under his belt. Peter knows what he lost in words, but not what it means to him in anything that matters.

“It’s not your fault,” Clint says, sincere, a little sad. The legendary Hawkeye stepping down and moving on. It hurts more than Peter cares to admit. "Listen," he adds. “If you're serious about this whole thing, there was a burger place Tony always wanted to try. Saw it in a show once. Has a green door, somewhere in the upper west side, I think.”

Startled, Peter blinks at him. “Oh," he says. "Oh, um, okay, thank you.”

Clint nods. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” and then gives Peter a curt wave and follows Sam and Bucky down the hall.

“Kid,” Tony says, peeking his head out from the room, and Peter jumps and huffs in frustration. “You’ve got more surprises in here. Come on.”

Peter watches after Clint. “More surprises?” he asks bitterly, because that sounds like a terrible, terrible time, and heads back to the room only to stop dead in the doorway when he finds Happy still standing at the conference table, Thor and Rhodey on either side of him. “Um?”  

“I told them,” Happy says, and at Peter’s blank face, amends, “The truth. I told them the truth.”

Peter’s had enough truths today to last the next ten years and it’s not even noon yet. “Why would you –?” he starts, but Rhodey cuts him off.

“You’re actually an incredibly bad liar,” he states, all straight-forward and with none of the heat Peter oddly finds himself expecting. It’s settling, somehow, in a strange way. “You think any of us really believed Happy would call everyone together so you could tell them you had a dream about Tony? We knew something was up.”

“He’s right,” Thor agrees, and claps a massive, insanely buff hand on Peter’s shoulder. Holy shit. “You should have told us from the start,” he says. “My people, we believe in spirits and the universe’s ability to manifest them for forgotten dreams. I will gladly aid you on your quest to help Stark grant his final wish.”

“You – what?” Peter questions, numb, because Thor’s hand is still on him and he’s never actually been this close in person before. He’s having a hard time making his brain process anything beyond that. “You will?”

“Of course,” Thor says kindly.

Peter finally manages to tear his gaze away, forcing his attention on Rhodey. “You too, Colonel Rhodes?” he asks. “You believe me?”

“I fought a purple monster from space for some stones that wiped out half the universe,” Rhodey says, wry. “At this point I’ll believe anything. So, yeah, sure. Count me in.”

Behind them, Tony sits in one of the previously occupied chairs, his elbows resting on the table, and he meets Peter’s eyes and shrugs, one corner of his mouth lifting in a grin. The entire world has moved on without Peter, kept spinning and living and breathing, creating, destroying. He’s sixteen where he should be twenty-one, and Tony is dead, and he’s stood on the other side of a door slammed shut, a vase about to shatter, waiting to see what will break first and what will survive.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay. Then let's grant Tony’s final wish.”

Peter has been piecing himself back together as long as he can remember. He thinks he can do it one more time.