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Never odd or even

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We’re gonna be okay. You can rest now.

He knew this was his end. The blissful peace embraced him as he began to fall into everlasting darkness. In his blurry vision, he remembered how relieved he was to see all three of them safe and sound, in a world his daughter could thrive in. 

We won. You did it, sir. You did it. I’m sorry.

Those words spoken moments prior were undeniable proof that he did the right thing. While he wished he had more time with them, he didn’t regret doing what he did. The kid was worth it all.

And then the red engulfed his world.

Please, I don’t wanna go. I don’t wanna go… I’m sorry.

The train fully loaded with memories and emotions rammed right into him at fatal velocity the instant his gaze made contact with the boy’s wide eyes. Which, what?

Tony Stark thought he knew crazy. Heck, half the universe turned into dust and he invented time travel to bring them back. Despite all that, he still couldn’t believe what he was seeing at this particular moment in time.

“What…” The boy fidgeted to take out his earphones and continued to stare at Tony as if he was seeing something inconceivable. The feeling was very much mutual. “What - um what are you - what are you doing here?”

It was unmistakably Peter Parker in the flesh. At the freaking age of 14. Tony instantly recognized where he was. Queens. 2016. This was unreal. He definitely died. There was no doubt about that because the Gauntlet’s lethal energy that coursed through his body left some crazy phantom pain he could still feel. And somehow he was back here, in the living room of Peter’s apartment that had long become someone else’s by the time he died. 

“Mr. Stark?” 

Was Peter’s unusually attractive aunt’s walnut date loaf so bad that it was capable of such an impossible feat? Tony wanted to seriously question the universe but reckoned he needed to stay focused. Although he had long come to regret involving Peter in his conflict with Steve Rogers, he had no idea what kind of situation he was dealing with here. This was distinct from the time travel mechanism he was familiar with and he feared the repercussions of missteps. Temporal paradoxes were not something he wanted to invoke. He needed the wizard. Like now. But as much as he felt an urgency to go to Greenwich Village, he was under a time crunch, if he recalled correctly. He had to act accordingly and figure out the Avengers situation foremost. Which meant to stay on track. 

Or maybe he was just making excuses to himself so he could have Peter in his life again. Yeah probably this. Tony already mourned over the kid for five years and was not going to let Peter go now that he was presented with possibly another chance with Peter.

“It’s about time we met,” Tony finally managed to say, hoping the pause wasn’t too long. “You’ve been getting my emails, right?”

Peter blinked confusedly. “Yeah. Yeah?”

The next part of the conversation went similar to last time though Tony didn’t remember all the details. He couldn’t help but feel his heart melt at Peter and May Parker’s exchange. They both were gone for so long and seeing them again so happy and alive here made Tony emotional. Nevertheless, Tony unfortunately did have to cut this short since he needed to get back to the Avengers Compound and then Germany. 

After getting permission from May to talk to Peter alone, he entered Peter’s bedroom and spit out the walnut loaf, which for all Tony knew could be the very cause of his predicament. Following his past footsteps, Tony approached Peter’s collection of old computers. This kid. Tony couldn’t resist a smile. “Whoa, what do we have here? Retro tech huh? Thrift store? Salvation Army?”

“Uh, the garbage actually.” Peter’s voice was strained, perhaps to hide his nervousness in front of one of his childhood heroes (the favorite one, in fact, if Tony were to confidently guess).

“You’re a dumpster diver.” Tony made a mental note to make sure to send Peter upgrades once he figured out what exactly was going on.

“Yeah, I was…” Peter murmured. “Anyway, look, um…I guess you are here for the Accords?”

Tony was about to make an automatic retort before he registered what Peter actually said. “What did you just say?”

“Sorry I thought that’s why you are here?” When Tony didn’t answer, Peter frowned. “I mean I definitely did not apply for your grant so the only reason you’d come to see me is about Spider-Man right?”

Okay, this was new. Tony needed a timeout. Where was that insufferable wizard when you needed him? This was drastically different from his memory where Peter tried to deny it until Tony exposed his suit’s hiding location. Of course this was all plausible theoretically because people would not necessarily act identically each time even in the same scenario. However, this contrast demonstrated that this was not Tony’s past. This was something else entirely. Parallel timelines? Complete do-overs? Or, maybe Tony was losing his mind, which also wasn’t too far-fetched after his experience with the Infinity Stones. Did he subconsciously wish for something he shouldn’t have?

“Are you OK Mr. Stark?” Peter looked concerned at Tony’s lack of response. 

Not really. But Tony wasn’t going to dump everything on Peter when Germany was already too much. Still, despite this difference, Tony knew the safest way was to remain on track to the extent possible. He didn’t want to be held accountable for derailing the timeline. “What do you know about the Accords?”

“Not much?” Peter shrugged. “Just that you and Captain America are fighting over it.”

It was an oversimplification but not wrong per se. Tony considered briefly, deciding to skip to the point. “Why do you do this Peter? I gotta know. What’s your MO?” 

Peter looked away for a few seconds before looking at Tony again. The fierce strength within the pair of brown eyes shook Tony. He had never seen Peter with this amount of unwavering determination. “When I have the power to do the things and I don’t, then it’s my fault if bad things happen. I have a responsibility to look out for those who need me to save them. To fight for them.”

These words differed from last time and were even more closer to Steve’s position. Tony never bothered to explain the whole situation last time because he was blinded by his anger and guilt. But not this time. He needed to know where the kid actually stood. It pained Tony and it probably was not ideal for the stability of whatever this timeline but he had to ask, “Which side do you see yourself fighting for?”

Peter held his breath at the loaded question. “I think it’s important to be able to fight when we know we are right.”

Tony wasn’t surprised. This was Steve’s line of thinking. Maybe he always knew but didn’t want to acknowledge it. Before Tony could reply, Peter went on.

“But we also can’t just do whatever we want.” Peter lowered his gaze to the floor remorsefully. Tony hated this sad look on the kid. “Because when we are wrong, there will be consequences.”

The words were heavy to Tony. There was a slight disconnect between his past self and his current consciousness but the memories leading up to this point were nonetheless clear. Charles Spencer was his rationale at the time. And now, he didn’t even need someone else’s kid he didn’t know to drive up his guilt. He was looking at the very kid he loved and watched die in his arms on a planet far from home. Bringing Peter back five years later didn’t erase the fact that Tony had failed him.

“And no one is always right,” Peter continued, staring at Tony again. “Not even Captain America.”

Tony would never admit it openly but he really wanted to give Peter a hug right now. It probably would scare the kid too much so he settled for simply extending an invitation for Germany. Also unlike the last time, Peter agreed without any hassle. Tony could tell something was fundamentally different about Peter in this seemingly new timeline. Perhaps that December night played out even worse than what Tony knew of. It saddened him that Peter had to go through so much and Tony swore that he would be there for Peter onward because the kid deserved it. He shelved his thoughts about Pepper and Morgan for later because that would open a whole can of worms.

Although it was emotionally difficult to just leave Queens, at least Tony would see Peter tomorrow in Leipzig. With one task down, Tony headed back to the Compound and dreaded the scene he would stumble upon. Vision and Wanda Maximoff were supposed to be there and only Vision remained by the time Tony made it back last time. Even though Tony was slightly ahead of the schedule this time, he doubted things preceding Germany would change too much considering everything so far, except for Peter, seemed fairly consistent with what he remembered.

He was proven wrong. Once again.

“Clint?” Tony called out in disbelief as he came across Clint Barton in his full gears. “What are you doing?”

“He’s leaving.” Tony snapped to the direction of the voice, finding Wanda standing next to Vision in the common area. She made no move to go with Clint. 

“Um,” Tony glanced at Clint. It was not every day that the great Tony Stark couldn’t find his words but honestly, everything was too bizarre for even his brain to comprehend. “I guess I’ll see you in Germany?”

“You made your position clear and Cap needs my help.” Clint gave a shrug. “Just promise you’ll go easy on me?” 

He gave a nod. While Tony doubted he could make any promises, he would try his best to minimize the damage this time. Rhodey’s fall, for instance. Peter not getting hit by the giant man was another priority. (Also Tony firmly believed that Scott Lang shouldn’t be called Ant-Man when he was that huge for most of the important battles.) Once Clint was out of the building, Tony turned back to Wanda.

“Not that I’m complaining and I am very much happy about your choice actually,” he began, “But I’m a little confused here. Why didn’t you go with him?”

“I was waiting for you.”

Tony furrowed his brows. “Not to finish me off before this all begins I hope?”

“No.” Wanda glanced at Vision, who seemed to know what she was asking, and left the room quietly. “I felt it a few hours ago. I assume you finally met your condition, whoever that was.”

“Pardon me?” She was not making sense.

“You died and now you are back,” Wanda responded as a matter-of-fact. There was no uncertainty in her voice. 

Tony was stunned. He thought he’d have to seek Stephen Strange out and didn’t think Wanda would be the one with answers. “How?”

“Because I sent you back along with me.”

So it was freaking magic and most importantly, “Why?” 

Brevity wasn’t his trait but Tony really had no idea what else to say. Make no mistake, he had so many questions. Like why now, why him, or why sending anyone back in the first place. 

Luckily Wanda seemed to understand his confusion. “I didn’t have many options when I was dying. It was either you or Natasha and -”

“Wait back up,” Tony interrupted weakly. “You were dying?”

“Yes? And died as I’m here now.” 

Wanda’s casual tone terrified Tony. While he never underestimated (and was quite frightened by) her power, she was also too young to speak about her own death. Based on the fact that it was between him or Natasha Romanoff, Tony could make an educated guess. “I assume you can only pick someone who was also dead to tag along?”

“And with consciousness exposed to my magic before your death,” added Wanda. 

It was not something Tony wanted to remember but he could never forget how Wanda gave him his biggest nightmare through her power. Thanos made it a reality and even worse because of whom the snap actually took from Tony. Decimation was his past but this timeline’s future. Regardless of what this was about, Tony would never let Peter die again. Or anyone for that matter.

And because of what Wanda did back then, Tony also couldn’t take her words at face value either. “How do I know all this is real?”

Wanda didn’t look offended and simply rolled up her red hoodie’s sleeves, showing her inner wrists to him. Cautiously approaching her, Tony soon spotted the elegant scripts in a mix of red and purple. On her left wrist: It’s your destiny to destroy the world. On her right wrist: What is grief, if not love persevering?

“What am I looking at here exactly?”

“Words of my worst enemy and greatest ally that defined my previous life,” Wanda spoke in a soft tone. “You have them too.”

Tony didn’t need to be told twice and lifted his sleeves, finding the same colored scripts on both of his wrists. He was pretty sure they weren’t there earlier in the morning. Unless he was too distracted (which he might’ve been with the Accords and Steve and the world going to shit), it would be safe to assume he would’ve noticed something like this when he was getting dressed. The moment he read the quotes, he ascertained that Wanda was telling the truth. 

You could not live with your own failure. Don’t waste your life. The two statements symbolized his ending and his beginning as Iron Man. One of which hadn’t been spoken yet and hopefully would never be spoken in this new timeline. 

“These are our markers of a world we died for,” Wanda explained as she looked out the window. “As a reminder that we can’t repeat the same mistakes again.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Since the day I met Vision.”

Tony widened his eyes. A year had passed since. There was no indication at all. Wanda behaved exactly how Tony remembered, minus any details he wouldn’t have remembered anyway. “You still let Sokovia and Lagos happen?”

“I tried my best to send us to a similar timeframe after I got my powers but I didn’t know your trigger so I had to keep things the same until you meet your condition because that can’t change,” replied Wanda with a somber expression. “I didn’t want to but I couldn’t risk it.”

As much as Tony wanted to object, he learned the lesson long ago. There was always collateral damage. Or consequences, to borrow Peter’s words or his own to Steve from earlier. Some heroes they were. He definitely wasn’t in any position to judge Wanda. Besides, this meant that Wanda had to let her brother die. It was one of the highest prices anyone had to pay for the greater good. 

“Based on what you said, I’m guessing this condition is someone?”

“Yeah. An encounter or reunion with someone who changed your life and -” Wanda hesitated, “Then died in front of you. Only that kind of person will leave you an everlasting impression that transcends across time, space and reality to allow for an intrusion like this.”

It was too much to take in but Tony immediately realized who it was. No wonder the final memory before waking up in that apartment wasn’t Pepper’s farewell but Peter’s demise on Titan. After all, that was what truly broke Tony and defined his decision in the end. He didn’t need further clarification to infer that Wanda’s condition was Vision, who died in front of her in Wakanda on the same day Peter died in front of him on Titan.

“How did you know I had a trigger at all?” Tony tried to suppress the desolate scenery of Titan. The criterion was very narrowly defined and not many would qualify even if they died.

“I didn’t have to know,” responded Wanda with a tired look. “Magic always knows, Stark.”

Of course. Tony had experienced a lot of crazy things but magic continued to be something that remained a mystery. Maybe one day he would comprehend it like he did with the quantum realm. He still had a lot to ask but this was sufficient for the time being. There was only one more critical issue to solve before Germany.

“Now that I’m here, are we allowed to change things?”

“That’s exactly why I chose you.” Wanda met his gaze. “You invented time travel to save the universe. I didn’t like you but there was no one else I can trust more than you when it comes to doing what’s best for the universe.”

Tony was rather astonished by Wanda’s confidence in him. It was high praise from her because he knew how much she hated him given what Stark Industries' weapons had done to her homeland. At the same time, it was equally alarming to learn that this was yet another universe-ending situation. But that could wait. They would have a lot of time to discuss once they ensured that the Avengers remained intact. “Well, let’s go to Germany then.”

Even without knowing why Wanda was back, they had enough foes that needed the full team. Zemo. Ross. And Thanos. One step at a time. Tony let out a snicker. Steve was definitely in for a surprise.

 

***

 

At first Steve wasn’t sure if he was imagining things. His initial encounter with James “Bucky” Barnes in Bucharest that ended terribly only sent him some undecipherable flashes. He easily ignored them and persevered. Against Tony and Natasha, his newly found friends in this modern era. Against the entire society if need be. His determination led him to go after Bucky, causing both of them to almost drown in the river. The world became much clearer when Bucky confirmed who he was before Steve and Sam Wilson in the abandoned warehouse.

Steve?” The image of his best friend stumbling over and collapsing into ashes was forever burned into his soul. And then with the immense orange overwhelming his consciousness for a brief second that surely felt like an eternity, Steve remembered everything. 

It took some convincing but he knew it was the right thing to do. Although Bucky believed there were other Winter Soldiers in Siberia, Steve already learned the truth. He couldn’t take the same path as last time. It would be an uphill battle but he was willing to do what was necessary so Tony and he could work together again. If it meant compromises, he would have to accept because what awaited after was far worse than the government’s desire for control. There wouldn’t even be a world for them to debate on these issues if they didn’t stand together. 

Yet somehow he was nonetheless astounded to find Clint arriving alone and Wanda siding with Tony. This was unprecedented. As far as Steve was aware, Wanda disliked Tony throughout her entire life. Wanda standing next to Natasha in support of Tony in the familiar airport in Leipzig was not something Steve ever expected to witness. Certainly not back then and not now either.

“Wow, it's so weird how you run into people at the airport,” Tony started just like Steve remembered. “Don’t you think that's weird?”

“Definitely weird.”

“Hear me out, Tony. That doctor, the psychiatrist, he’s behind all this.” It was not what Steve wanted to say but he had to protect Bucky first. 

In response, T’Challa in his Black Panther suit leaped over a truck. “Captain.”

“Your highness.” It was uneasy to feel such hostility from T’Challa. The future King of Wakanda became his true ally and Steve appreciated everything the man had done for him and Bucky.

“Anyway, Ross gave me 36 hours to bring you in. That was 24 hours ago.” Tony then strangely glanced at Rhodey before shifting his attention back at Steve. “I’m willing to break that if you can help a brother out.”

“What the hell Tones?” Rhodey obviously wasn’t consulted on this. Neither was Natasha nor anyone for that matter if their incredulous expressions were anything to go by. Except for Wanda for some reason. 

“You’re after the wrong guy,” Steve pressed because Bucky’s safety was still one of his top concerns in the circumstances.

Tony sighed. “I know. Helmut Zemo is behind this.”

Steve was taken aback. “You know?”

“As of last night,” Tony replied. “I contacted Fury so hopefully he’s being apprehended as we speak. There are no more super soldiers though so don’t even think about it.”

Steve could feel Sam and Bucky’s piercing stare on him because that was exactly what he said to the pair last night. “I know.”

“You know?” It was like a déjà vu but reversed. With a pause, Tony frowned in puzzlement. “I think we have some serious miscommunications going on here.”

It was the understatement of the century. 

 

***

 

What the actual fuck. Honestly, Peter was perfectly content with just observing the scene from his hiding spot without ever introducing himself to the group of superheroes. Well, until he was absolutely not fine with the turn of events. Needless to say, he was completely baffled by the rather absurd exchange between Iron Man and Captain America. For this world, the two of them reaching a consensus here without a fight was nothing short of a miracle and should be applauded. For Peter, however, this was bad. Like they were so-screwed-kind of bad. 

And they kept going, oblivious to Peter’s mental breakdown on the sideline.

“Yes and we have bigger threats coming,” said almighty Captain America in his full glory.

“Let me test the water by saying do you happen to mean the purple alien?” 

Peter groaned. The fact Tony indulged wasn’t the issue here. It was the content that was truly problematic because those two words told more than enough. 

“And six colorful stones,” Steve supplied, much to Peter’s further dread.

“How?” Peter definitely shared Wanda’s bewilderment. Maybe even for a similar reason.

“Can someone tell me what’s going on here?” Rhodey asked in frustration to no avail. None of them were paying any attention to War Machine unfortunately. If Peter wasn’t panicking himself, he would’ve felt sorry for Rhodey. But nope. He was having his level 100 freakout. This can’t be happening.

But then, since when Peter could get what he wanted right? Not last time and it appeared unlikely this time either. Classic Parker Luck. Why did he expect anything better? The universe must be laughing at his misery now with how the orange, sparkly circle appeared in the middle of the goddamn airport. Everyone turned to the figure stepping out of the portal. With his signature goatee and cape, Peter identified the man easily. As he suspected, Peter wasn’t the only one with the knowledge.

“Doc! What a pleasant surprise,” Tony greeted with a sarcastic tone. “It only took like, what, a day for you to finally show up?”

Strange sent Tony a stern look for a brief moment before turning to Wanda. “I suppose he’s your doing?”

Wanda narrowed her eyes, not at all impressed by Strange’s sudden appearance. “I didn’t think you’d be someone to attempt this.”

“Neither did I but I was desperate and things were getting out of control,” Strange responded in resignation. His gaze flickered to Steve, who returned a nod of acknowledgment. “There’s much to discuss.”

The verdict was out and Peter was doomed. This was so not according to the plan. Not at all. Sure, he knew playing with the timeline was going to be tricky especially since his partner in crime warned him about how far back this might end up being. Working his way toward the finish line would be extremely challenging but Peter was all up for it considering why he was doing it. 

How naïve he was even after everything he had gone through. He almost cried when he saw both May and Tony sitting on the couch. That moment alone could have caused the floodgate of emotions to break and for them to call his name and recognize him - Peter could barely hold it together. It had been such a long time since someone said his name so meaningfully. Like they really knew him. He supposed there was always the silver lining that both May and Tony at least remembered him until their last breath but to see them again like that, not to mention hearing their stable heartbeats, was too much for him to handle.

Peter had no idea how he managed to hide his distress without Tony discovering but now he understood. The man was experiencing the same revelation at the time so didn't notice Peter’s slightly teary eyes, assuming they operated under the same rules of magic. Peter thought it was weird how Tony treated him so seriously and assumed maybe it was Peter’s words that changed the interaction. As it turned out, it was both of their doings. Their mutual trauma of witnessing each other’s death. 

Although Peter at first had trouble distinguishing whether May or Tony was his trigger, he soon recalled that it had to be powerful enough of an encounter or reunion for it to work. Therefore, May (or Ben for that matter) wouldn’t qualify unless he was thrown back to when he was six, which wasn’t the case here. Their target timeframe was after he gained his powers. 

Granted, Tony could very well have been exposed to an earlier trigger but Peter was pretty sure Tony wouldn’t have come to visit Peter if he had memories in advance. So Peter really should be honored as it was evident how his life and death made an impact significant enough for Tony to be able to be here. However, in the context of why Peter was here, this was terrible news. Because if he comprehended what conspired correctly, they had at least four others also back in this timeline for god knows what purpose.

It didn’t mean Peter could give up. No. He could not fail. The elegant scripts of green and purple inscribed on his wrists were his constant reminder that he had to do what he must. The odds had always been stacked against him. Nothing new here. He just sincerely hoped that he could finally call it even at the end of time.