In retrospect, the flash of fear he feels upon seeing Peter lying motionless and maskless on the concrete floor is not nearly strong enough. It should have taken him out at the knees, his entire world should have fallen away from him, crumbling and cracking under his feet ready to swallow him whole.
As it is, all Tony does is hurry over to Peter and shake his shoulder.
“Come on, kid, nap time’s over,” he bites out, glancing behind him where Steve and Nat are waiting at the door. Karen hasn’t alerted him to any problems, so he doesn’t even think to worry.
He shakes Peter again.
The others are looking over at him. Steve walks forward, his brows drawn low over his eyes as he kneels across from Tony. He glances up at Tony for the briefest second before hovering a hand over Peter’s mouth. Then he presses his fingers to Peter’s neck.
As Steve looks up and solemnly shakes his head, Tony, for the first time in his life, wishes he could say that he doesn’t understand. Wishes he could ask why Peter isn’t moving, why Steve is looking away from him with guilt and pain written all over his face. He wants to be one of those people that screams and fights and demands an explanation, demands that Steve check again. He wants to deny it so insistently, so stubbornly, so certainly that the universe has no choice but to listen.
But he knows. He knows.
He can feel it.
Tony falls heavily backward, sitting down hard.
Natasha is suddenly next to him, her hand on his arm.
In his nightmares, Tony has always found that the world ends when Peter dies. Tony watches him fall, blood and Tony’s name on his lips, and then the world stops spinning.
Tony sits and waits for everything to fall to ash around him.
And then he remembers that life is worse than his nightmares. Because Nat and Steve are still looking at him as he sits frozen, staring at Peter’s slack face. They’re expecting him to react, to do something, and eventually he’ll be expected to carry Peter’s body to the quinjet and take it to his aunt and bury him and keep living without Peter there knowing that it’s all his fault.
Please, he thinks. Please give me this one thing. I don’t want to do this anymore.
It’s his fault. There are certain undeniable, universal truths, and Tony has known from the moment he met Peter Parker that if anything happens to him, it would be Tony’s fault.
“Tony?” Nat murmurs and Tony sucks in a breath. He doesn’t look at her.
He knows Peter is beyond hearing him now, but, “Peter,” he whispers. “Peter. Kid.”
Tony reaches forward, his hand trembling slightly as his fingertips brush Peter’s hair.
Steve gently catches Tony’s wrist, but Tony jerks back, yanking his hand away. Steve’s face crumples in pain.
“Just...,” he trails off, not even sure what he’s going to say. When he speaks again, he hears his voice beak. “Just let me hold him. Please, I want to hold him.”
“Tony.” Natasha’s voice is steady, but her eyes are squeezed closed like she can’t watch.
He knows he shouldn't. He shouldn't have his last memory with Peter be cooling skin and stuff limbs, but that's his kid. His child laying limp and motionless on the floor and Tony feels some primal need, more instinctual than fear, more necessary than breathing, to cradle his son one last time.
Finally, Steve relents. “Ok. Ok. Just for a minute.”
Tony scoots forward. He suddenly isn’t quite sure how to touch Peter, where to put his hands. Normally he'd just hold out his arm and Peter would tuck himself into his side, curl into his space with zero regard to Tony's prickly façade and halfhearted protests. After a moment of ghosting his trembling fingers across Peter’s chest, he slides his arms under Peter’s shoulders and knees, carefully lifting him and settling him in the space between Tony’s crossed legs.
It is the semblance of tenderness—a perfect vignette of a father holding his child—until Peter’s head lolls off Tony’s shoulder at a sickening angle, his muscles unresisting and loose.
Steve looks away. Natasha covers her mouth with her hand like she is trying to hold in a scream.
Tony’s vision blurs as he looks down at Peter. He can't stop the flood of concern, of attentive worry. He makes a small shushing sound as he adjusts Peter so his head is nestled in the crook of his neck; like a parent calming an infant.
“Peter,” Tony whispers. He brushes Peter’s hair out of his eyes.
What else can he say? What would ever make up for the life that Tony has stolen from Peter, all of his potential, all the memories he will never make? How can Tony tell Peter that the rest of his life will be spent in a grief-laden haze of regret and longing?
A tear falls, landing on Peter’s chest.
The boy is horribly still against him. Tony pulls him closer as if trying to keep him warm.
“I-I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Tears are running steadily down Tony’s face, dripping unheeded off his chin. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t think he’ll ever care about anything ever again.
He finds Peter’s limp hand and delicately tucks it against his chest, covering it with his larger palm. “I’m sorry, Pete.”
It’s the nickname that does it. This is Peter. Tony’s Peter. Peter Parker, genius, superhero, who likes pickles on his sandwiches and snores in his sleep and hums the Star Wars theme under his breath without realizing it. Peter, who, until this moment, was going to be the Avengers’ future, SI’s future, Tony’s future.
In the next moment, Tony’s face screws up and he takes a ragged, gasping breath.
“I’m sorry,” he coughs out, burying his hand more firmly in Peter’s hair, tightening his hold. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I love you, I love you, I love you.
Tony’s shoulders are shaking, sobs tearing through his chest. He bows his head over Peter’s like he’s praying, like he’s begging.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
Please, please, please.
Each breath aches, each repetition of his apology closer to a whimper.
He clutches Peter tight against his chest, presses his lips to Peter’s hairline.
“I’m sorry,” he sobs against Peter’s skin like a brand, a confession.
Finally, Steve can’t take it any longer. He puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder. It does nothing to ground him, nothing to tear his attention away from the child in his arms.
“Tony,” Steve says. His voice is even, but he’s crying too.
“No.” He doesn’t want to let Peter go. He doesn’t care that he’s going to grow cold, he doesn’t care that he’s just clutching a body right now, that everything that made Peter Peter is gone. He wants to stay here, where he can hold Peter just a little longer.
“Tony, we need to go. Come on, give him to me.” Steve’s voice is gentle. Another tear drops from Tony’s chin and lands on Peter’s suit, darkening the material where it fell.
Tony looks down at Peter. That one stubborn curl is sweeping across his forehead. Tony winds it loosely around his finger, like he used to when Peter was just waking up in the morning, when he would squint one eye open and see Tony next to him and instantly relax.
“I’ll carry him,” Tony whispers, tucking the curl back. He kisses Peter’s forehead. “That’s my job, huh, kiddo. I always carry you when you can’t walk.”
“Ok,” Steve says. “Ok.” He helps Tony stand, Peter still in his arms, and then adjusts his arm so it isn’t hanging limply behind him.
When Tony’s knees almost buckle, Steve holds him up.
He has held up buildings and nuclear bombs and whole entire countries on his back. Peter’s body is the heaviest thing he’s ever held.
Natasha goes in front, Steve behind. And Tony, in the middle, carries Peter to the quinjet.
When Clint sees their procession, he punches the wall and storms off to the pilot chair. Sam sags where he stands, his eyes instantly closing as if in pain. Tony ignores all of them.
As the ramp closes, a presence, invisible and inaudible, confused and concerned, slips on board.
Peter Parker watches as Tony carefully arranges his limbs on a cot.
“Mr. Stark,” he tries for the dozenth time. No one hears him.
Peter leans against the curved wall of the quinjet and watches.
Steve is sitting on the other side of the plane, staring blankly at the floor with red eyes. Sam is next to him, trying to subtly wipe away his tears as they fall. Clint is still in the cockpit, talking rapidly with Natasha, his voice hard and hurting.
And then there’s Tony. Tony, who had carefully settled Peter’s head on a pillow, made sure each limb was straightened and comfortable. Now he’s sitting on the edge of Peter’s cot, his head in his hands. Peter knows that he won’t leave his side until he is physically forced to.
It’s an hour and a half flight back to the compound. Peter sighs, then walks over and sits next to Tony on the bed. He leans over just far enough that his shoulder is pressed against Tony’s. Not that it matters. Tony can’t feel it, Peter already knows.
When Steve, Nat, and Tony had found Peter’s body, Peter had tried to get their attention. He’d talked to them, yelled even, tried to touch each of them. He found that he could feel them, solid and warm like they should be, but not one of them reacted to his presence.
So he’d watched as Steve reported that he was dead, as Tony absorbed the information. And then, as Tony had held his body and wept, Peter had knelt behind him and wrapped him in his arms, his forehead pressed between Tony’s shoulder blades, feeling every hitched breath, every apology echoing under his ear.
“It’s not your fault,” Peter had whispered in vain, his voice thick with tears he couldn’t shed in this state. “Please, Tony, stop. It’s not your fault.”
It didn’t matter what Peter said. Tony still cried, still pressed a gentle kiss to Peter’s forehead that he could almost feel.
“When I figure this out and get back in my body,” Peter says, laying his head on Tony’s shoulder. “We’re going to have some stuff to talk about. Your guilt complex for one.”
Peter honestly doesn’t know if he’s dead. He doesn’t... feel dead. Granted, he doesn’t know what being dead feels like. He’s clearly missing his body. But sometimes when he holds still he thinks he can feel his heartbeat, hear his breath whooshing in and out of his lungs.
He doesn’t know what’s happening to him, and if he thinks about it too much, he’ll freak out. It’s easier to concentrate on Tony right now, on his steady if shallow breathing and the way he’s trembling.
He tries not to look at his body.
For a long time he sits, absently humming the Imperial March under his breath and rubbing Tony’s back. By this point, Tony has pulled one hand away from his face and taken Peter’s limp fingers in his. Sometimes he’ll look over at Peter, pale and still and shake his head as if trying to dislodge a bizarre thought. Then he’ll go back to being slumped over with his elbow on his knee.
“That can’t be good for your back,” Peter muses aloud. “You really should sit in a chair.”
Peter, at least, is getting tired of sitting in the same spot. He stands, stretching. He has no muscles, so he’s not sure why. Habit, probably. He wanders around a bit, never getting too far away from Tony and the cot.
“Do you think I’m a ghost?” he asks the space around him. “That would suck if I was a ghost. Especially cause I don’t believe in ghosts.”
He checks on Clint and Nat, who are now sitting in silence, staring out the windows. Their eyes are red and Natasha has a hand resting on Clint’s. Steve is sketching absently in his workbook, and when Peter peers at the page he finds a drawing of his own face, bright and smiling and alive.
Swallowing hard, he goes back to Tony and sits on the floor, leaning against Tony’s legs. His voice is a little quieter when he talks again.
“If I am a ghost, I’m gonna be the nicest ghost ever,” he tells Tony. “I’ll wash your favorite mug for you. And put a blanket over you when you fall asleep in the lab. And I’ll turn the oven off before May burns the food.”
He’s been trying not to think about May. About how she’ll cry when Tony tells her, how she’ll scream. About what dress she’ll wear to his funeral.
Pressing his forehead against Tony’s knee, he takes a shuttering breath, forcing himself to keep rambling.
“You better get Buzzfeed Unsolved to come investigate me. I’ll hide all your screwdrivers if you don’t.”
He misses Tony’s deadpan responses, his half-hidden smirks.
He peers up at Tony. He’s crying again, tears dripping between his fingers.
“Mr. Stark,” Peter whispers. “Please don’t be sad.”
He wants Tony to put a hand on his head, to reassure him.
He closes his eyes and pretends.
He can’t sleep, but he must have zoned out for a while, because he jumps when someone moves on the other side of the plane.
It’s Steve, walking toward Tony with a torn expression on his face.
Peter quickly tucks his limbs in so Steve doesn’t step on his hand or something.
“Tony,” Steve murmurs, sitting next to him. He glances down at Peter’s body, then looks away quickly. “Do you want the doctors to come and get him when we land? Or do you want to carry him out?”
Tony looks up for the first time. He looks lost. Like he can barely understand what Steve is saying to him, like he doesn’t remember how to speak. Peter feels like he’s going to throw up.
He opens his mouth and flounders for a second. “I don’t... know,” he whispers. Then, in a rush, “We can’t put a sheet over his head, Steve, he’s claustrophobic.”
Peter closes his eyes and hangs his head. Of course Tony remembers. Of course. Tears burn in his eyes, but again, none fall.
“It’s ok, Tony,” Steve soothes. “He isn’t afraid anymore.”
“He,” Tony stammers, his voice breaking. “He doesn’t even feel cold.”
“That’s because you’ve been holding his hand this whole time,” Steve says gently. He reaches around Tony to touch Peter, as if to prove to Tony that he really was gone. And then he freezes, his face going blank in surprise.
“Steve?” Tony asks in a rush.
“He doesn’t feel cold.”
The entire atmosphere in the plane immediately shifts. Peter leaps to his feet as Tony and Steve do the same, crowding around the cot.
“What do you mean?” Peter demands, watching as Tony bends low over Peter, his hands cupping Peter’s face.
“Temperature, FRIDAY,” he orders quietly.
“96.9 degrees Fahrenheit,” she rattles off.
Tony and Steve share a significant glance. Peter swallows. It’s been almost two hours since he died and his body is barely below his average temperature? There’s no way.
Tony’s hands tremble as he swipes his thumbs across Peter’s cheekbones.
“None detected, Boss.”
Tony swears. “That’s not possible, FRIDAY,” he snaps.
Steve has Peter’s wrist in his hand, checking again for a pulse. He shakes his head, his mouth set in a determined line.
Tony kneels on the cot and presses his ear to Peter’s chest.
After a moment where everyone holds their breaths, he sits up.
“I don’t understand,” he finally whispers, clearly finding nothing.
Icy desolation is beginning to spread over Tony’s eyes again as that tiny spark of hope is doused.
“I’m right here,” Peter says. He steps up to the cot, right next to Mr. Stark, and touches his shoulder. “I’m right here, Tony. Don’t give up. Please don’t give up on me, I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m not dead. I know I’m not dead.”
The excitement in the air drains, until there’s nothing but disappointment and grief weighing heavily on all of them again.
“We’ll have Cho do some tests,” Nat offers. “Just to... just to check.”
Tony is staring down at Peter’s face, his hand pressed over Peter’s heart. He nods jerkily. The plane begins to descend.
They take Peter’s body to the medbay. As Tony had instructed, they don’t pull the sheet over Peter’s face.
Peter walks next to Tony as they trail behind it. He’s a little afraid of wandering too far from his body and not being able to find his way back. Plus, even though he knows Tony has no idea he’s there, he doesn’t want to leave his mentor.
So when they stop Tony at the doors to the MRI room and refuse to let him in, Peter is torn. Tony seems torn, too, because he hesitates for a long time. Finally, Pepper comes up behind him and takes his hand.
Swallowing, Tony finally gives in, but not before going to Peter’s side and pressing another long kiss to his forehead, whispering “I’ll be right back, Pete. I promise.”
Tony walks down the hallway. Peter stays with his body, watching Tony leave with Pepper’s arm around his waist.
Waiting for them to finish up all the tests on his body is boring. He sees Dr. Cho and a team of nurses pushing him into several different rooms, their expressions more and more puzzled the more tests they try. Eventually, they wheel him into a room that looks like any other hospital room and leave him there.
Peter tests his spider powers while he waits for someone to show up again.
Turns out he can’t walk on walls when he’s a ghost. Lame.
Finally, Tony comes in again.
“Mr. Stark,” Peter chirps, happy to see him. Tony still looks bad, his hair mussed up and the t-shirt he’d changed into rumpled, but he seems a little less confused, less like one strong breeze would knock him over. He promptly pulls a chair up to Peter’s bedside.
He fidgets for a moment, like he can’t decide how he wants to sit. Finally, he grabs Peter’s hand and calms down.
Peter makes himself at home sitting cross-legged on the end of the bed and watches Tony.
“So, uh, kid,” Tony says after several long minutes of silence, making Peter jump. “Helen talked to me about what they found. It’s... really weird, bud. You can never be boring, can you?”
“Nope,” Peter answers, smiling.
Tony, of course, doesn’t hear him. “Looks like... well, your heart still isn’t beating, which is... gosh, kid, I hate this.” He runs a hand over his face, sighing tiredly. “But your temperature is still at 96.7 degrees, and your brain activity is as if you’re awake. Not even comatose, just... completely alert, no brain damage... We have no idea what’s going on.”
Peter tugs at the blanket underneath him. “That is really weird,” he agrees. “I’m sorry I’m putting you through this.”
Tony shifts in his chair, leaning forward a little so he can peer at Peter’s face.
“Cho said that since your temp is dropping she thinks maybe you’re just... slipping away really slowly and that I should maybe, um, say my goodbyes.” Tony’s voice wavers. “Which is bullcrap, cause you’re gonna be fine. I’ll figure out whatever this—” he waves at Peter’s body “—is and fix you up.”
“I know you will,” Peter whispers. He suddenly wants to be hugged. He’s tired of no one knowing he’s there.
“What would I even say, anyway?” Tony asks what he thinks is thin air. “’Hey, Petey, I’m sorry I screwed up your life and got you killed.’”
“No,” Peter says, scowling. “But you could call me Petey again. You’ve never done that before.”
“’I’m sorry I never spent enough time with you,’” Tony keeps musing. His mouth tugs down at the corners, the wrinkles on his face deepening. “’You deserved so much better than me.’”
“No one is better than you,” Peter protests, scooting toward to edge of the bed and swinging his legs over. He puts his hand over Tony’s.
Tony’s eyes fill with tears and he has to stop and take a deep, shuddering breath.
“Stop, Tony. It’s ok,” Peter mutters.
“I would tell you I love you,” Tony breathes, a tear dripping down his cheek as he looks at Peter’s face, “but it isn’t big enough.”
Peter sucks in a breath. He feels phantom tears prick his eyes, a sob catching in his throat. It isn’t fair that he can hear all of these things, things he wasn’t supposed to hear in the first place, and can’t say anything, can’t let Tony know that that is all he’s ever wanted from Tony.
“Tell me again,” he begs. “When I can actually respond.”
Tony sniffs and wipes his face. He leans back and closes his eyes, his thumb idly rubbing over Peter’s knuckles.
They sit together, lost in their own thoughts and grief, for a long time before other people arrive. The other Avengers and Dr. Cho and finally, once they’re all gathered, Dr. Strange.
“Dr. Strange,” Peter breathes. “Of course.”
Tony stands, his hand falling away from Peter.
“Do you know what’s wrong with him?” Tony asks without preamble. Strange steps forward, looks intently at Peter for a moment. He leans forward and Peter quickly scrambles to the end of the bed again. Strange checks his pulse, his breathing, places both hands on Peter’s temples and closes his eyes.
“I need a chair,” Stephen says. Sam quickly pushes one up to the other side of the bed.
“This is going to seem very odd,” Strange says, opening his eyes again. “But it will only take a moment.”
Peter watches as Dr. Strange sits in the chair, and then his entire body goes limp. Everyone in the room save Tony makes a sound of alarm, Dr. Cho hurrying forward and checking his pulse. But Peter isn’t looking at them anymore. Because Dr. Strange is also standing by his chair, looking at Peter.
“Dr. Strange,” he gasps.
“Peter,” Stephen says with a smile.
“You can-you can see me?”
“Of course. We’re in the same dimension now.”
“What’s happening to me?” Peter asks, glancing over his shoulder at Tony, who’s hovering protectively next to Peter’s bed.
“You’re astral projecting. Your body is in stasis, but fading. Your enhancements are allowing your body to last without its spirit for longer than most could. Can you tell me what happened?”
Peter splutters for a second before saying, “I was fighting this lady. And all of a sudden she hit me in the chest and... and then I wasn’t in my body. And no one could hear or see me.”
“As I suspected,” Stephen says, a small cocky smile curling up one side of his mouth.
“Can you put me back?” Peter’s voice is quiet. He looks over at Tony again.
Stephen’s demeanor softens. “Of course. It will be very sudden for you, and you might feel dizzy for a little while.”
“Alright.” He’s suddenly nervous.
“Relax,” Stephen says with a smile. Then he puts a hand to Peter’s chest and gives him a gentle push.
And then Peter’s lying in the bed, gasping. His heart is pounding in his chest and his head is swimming. He hears everyone in the room exclaim in shock.
“Peter!” Tony’s next to him, his panicked voice loud in Peter’s ear. Limbs feeling heavy and uncoordinated, Peter gropes a shaking hand toward him, still panting. Warm fingers grasp his.
“Breathe, Peter,” comes Dr. Strange’s calm instruction. “Or I’ll have to put you on oxygen.”
“I’m fine,” Peter rasps. “I’m fine, don’t—”
He manages to sate his need for air enough that he can finally force his eyes open. He blinks rapidly at the light, looking to his left where he knows Tony is.
“Mr. Stark,” he pants.
Tony sits down heavily, still holding Peter’s hand. He covers his eyes with one hand, his shoulders trembling.
Peter sits up, his head spinning, and carefully shifts to the edge of bed, a mimicry of how he’d sat only a few minutes ago in his astral state.
“Mr. Stark,” he says again, clutching Tony’s hand tight to keep himself grounded.
Everyone in the room is quiet, watching. Peter can hear Tony’s shuddering breaths.
“Tony,” Peter whispers.
Finally, Tony raises his head and meets Peter’s gaze. His eyes are red rimmed, brimming with tears. The amount of pain and joy and love in them makes Peter’s heart skip. There’s a single beat, where they just look at each other.
And then Tony shoots to his feet, wrapping Peter in his arms and fully lifting him from the bed. Peter instinctively winds his legs around Tony’s waist and hooks his ankles together. It makes him feel like a little kid clinging to his dad, and he finds that he doesn’t mind at all.
Tony is gripping him so tightly Peter can barely breathe, burying his face against Peter’s neck to hide the tears that Peter can feel dripping down the collar of his shirt. Tony has one hand buried in Peter’s hair, holding him as close as possible, their chests pressed together.
“Peter,” Tony breathes. “Oh my gosh, Peter.”
Peter grabs fistfuls of Tony’s t-shirt and relishes the feeling of being touched again, of being alive and solid and warm. He can feel his heart beating in time with Tony’s, can feel the blood pulsing through his veins. Nearly laughing with relief, Peter rests his cheek against Tony’s head and squeezes his eyes closed, remembering how it had felt when Tony said that he loves him.
He’s distantly aware of people watching them and thinks he should be embarrassed, but he’s so dizzy with giddy relief and possibly oxygen deprivation based on how tight Tony is still holding him that he doesn’t have the energy.
After a few long moments, muscles shaking slightly from the strain of holding up a sixteen-year-old, Tony very gently lowers Peter back onto the bed. Peter unwinds himself from around Tony, pouting a little at the loss of contact. Before he can even think to complain, though, Tony is sitting down next to him, already pulling Peter back into his arms.
Dr. Cho and her staff are approaching, probably wanting to check Peter over, and the other Avengers are all still there along with Dr. Strange, but Peter let’s himself ignore them for another minute as Tony takes Peter’s face in his hands.
Looking very serious, with tears still clinging to his eyelashes, Tony murmurs, “You are never ever allowed to die, Peter Parker.”
Peter smiles. He can still hear Tony’s heartbroken sobs and desperate apologies in his head.
“Sounds like a plan.”
I fixed it!