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The End of Infinity

Chapter Text

 

Earth-200004: October 2016

 

When Bartholomew Mccarthy came to work that day, he expected the usual chaos of the Washington Monument. Maybe a couple of screaming toddlers in his elevator as he tried to give the tour or an excited tourist who actually listened to him for once. Maybe there be another lady with hunched shoulders and shifty eyes like there’d been the day before. And if he was lucky, he expected he might even meet someone who’d smile at him.

Instead, he got this. 

When the explosion wracked the Monument, he ducked beneath his desk as his war time instincts re-appeared suddenly. Equally as quickly, he resurfaced, diving for his megaphone. 

The people waiting outside for tickets were yelling, pointing upward toward the tip of the spire. Barley raised the megaphone, wincing at the high-pitched whine that assaulted his somewhat sensitive ears, and spoke.

That wonder of technology threw his voice out to the panicking civilians. “Everyone back away in an orderly fashion, if you would!” he called. “We are handling the—” he pulled the first description he could from his knowledge of the English language— “accident safely and efficiently. Your cooperation would be appreciated.”

Then Bartholomew dropped the megaphone like a hot potato and sprinted back into the Monument. 

He made his way through the throngs of rangers and guides all diving to try and figure out what they were supposed to do in the scenario of a threat like this—it sure wasn’t handled in orientation—and headed for the elevator on the side of the spire where the explosion had come from. What he’d do when he got there, Barley had no idea, but he figured it was the most logical course of action.

But someone was already kneeling in the doorway, pressing the doors of the station open with one foot and leaning into the shaft. It was a girl—probably still in high school, wearing a somewhat ugly yellow jacket and covering something in the elevator passage.

“Miss!” Barley called, skidding to a halt next to her. “What are you—oh.” 

His voice choked off as he reached her shoulder and beheld what was sprawled across the bottom of the shaft. 

There was a boy.

Wearing the same yellow jacket as the teenager beside Barley, a kid was crumpled around the winch and wire of the elevator. There was blood smeared across his face, trickling from his mouth, and his jacket was darkening against his left hip and sticking to his jeans. But what made Bartholomew’s stomach churn was the gruesome, blistering burns along his palms and fingers, stretching up his wrists in some places. 

Oh, God.

“What are you just standing there for?” the girl demanded, and Barley’s gaze snapped down to her. Her curls frizzed around her face, looking just as angry as she did. “Call an ambulance, get the fuck on it!”

“Er, yes,” Barley managed, fumbling for his walkie-talkie and then for his cell. 

When the medics—EMTs, he reminded himself, had been notified and the rest of the rangers were aware of their situation, Barley finally got his explanation. Apparently, there’d been an explosion in one of the elevators (Barley was pretty sure he knew which one), the inhabitants unharmed because of the actions of the one he was now looking at. The rangers had managed to free the rest of the students, as the damage had been directed to a specific point on the elevator, so less structural damage had been sustained.

Instead, there’d been human damage. 

God, he was just a child…

“Help’s on the way,” he said, kneeling next to the girl.

“Good.”

“What’s your name?” Bartholomew asked. He wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed, but a name couldn’t hurt. 

“Michelle.” The girl’s voice was hard and almost cold. “I’m with Midtown Science and Tech… are they alright?”

“The rest of the students are fine, I’m happy to say. They say…” Barley’s gaze drifted back to the unconscious boy before him. “Well, they say he kept the explosion contained so your classmates could make it to safety.”

“Of course he did.” Michelle snorted. “Of course you fucking did, Peter.”

Barley looked back at the boy, fighting the urge to reach out and move him so the curl of his body wasn’t so awkward, so the angle of his shoulder wasn’t so wrong, so the blood didn’t stick his clothes to his form so uncomfortably. Those burns… had he held the bomb?

Barley started listening for sirens. 

It didn’t take long, thank God, but there was still blood beading on the beams of the shaft when the men in their ivory jackets took the boy away. Michelle stood to follow, and Barley inched forward slightly, trying to see the body on the stretcher within the throng of people. An EMT stopped the girl, but Barley slipped out the doors and towards the sound of sirens. 

He trailed the group, trying to look ready to help with anything that needed doing—or look like he belonged there. Barley was able to keep a few curious civilians from crowding too close, which he figured justified his continued advance after the injured boy. 

So he was the unlucky human almost crushed by a rapidly descending projectile as it slammed into the concrete plateau at forces that crackled through the area. 

Bartholomew would later deny that he screamed. Nobody heard, anyway, as the echo of the connection rang into silence. The EMTs froze, the civilians paused; the whole world seemed to stop in fearful surprise.

And then the projectile straightened up.

Barley’s mouth fell open. 

Was that—it was. Iron Man, goddamn Iron Man, stood a foot in front of him, suit shining in all its silver, gold, and ruby glory. 

Barley made a sound that sounded a bit like a dying parrot. The suit turned its narrowed eyes to him, and Barley stared in turn, resisting the urge to back away or (equally strong) drop into a bow. 

As though deeming him nonthreatening, the suit suddenly cracked open, peeling away from the man inside it with smooth, concise movements. Bartholomew thought it looked like the time-lapse of a flower opening he’d watched once, except this flower was made of metal and opened to reveal a distinctly determined Tony Stark.

Barley had seen that expression before, on men in doorways of med tents. And so he raised a hand and simply pointed. “There,” he said.

Stark spun, and Barley peered after him, trying to identify what seemed so… off about the man. Well, besides the fact that he was striding in flesh and blood through the air right in front of Barley.

“Move!” 

Stark’s curt voice cut through the haze of shock, and it all shattered at once. People’s voices clamored back up, the screeching of walkie-talkies made Barley grit his teeth, and the sirens seemed even louder. One of the EMTs opened her mouth as the billionaire approached.

“Sir, what are you—”

Stark didn’t stop walking, and the EMTs were forced to step aside or be trampled by his unstoppable gait. The yawning back of the ambulance wobbled slightly as he stepped inside it, and Barley scuttled forward a bit to try and see what was going on.

The man was leaning over the stretcher, shoulders taunt, eyes flickering across the body of the boy curled atop it. His face was so still it could have been carved from stone, but his hands were trembling, just slightly, as they brushed the edge of the stretcher. 

That’s it , Barley thought. Stark was tense, and Barley didn’t think he’d ever seen that before; this was different from the Iron Man one saw on the media. 

“What happened,” Stark said, and it was more order than question.

No one answered, the EMTs sharing glances. They hadn’t had time to ask questions about that, yet, and the woman from before spoke up again. “He’s stable, but we don’t know—”

To his complete shock, Bartholomew found himself opening his mouth. “He fell down an elevator shaft,” he said.

Stark’s gaze snapped to him, intense and vigilant. “What?”

“There was an explosion. He—” Barley indicated the unconscious boy— “contained it, somehow, kept the rest of the elevator safe.”

Stark looked back down, raising a thumb to wipe away a spear of blood on the boy’s lip.

“How the hell’s he stable?” wondered one of the EMTs.

“None of your concern,” was Tony Stark’s curt reply, though they hadn’t been speaking to him. “He’s coming with me.”

“Absolutely not,” said the woman from before, and Barley felt a sudden surge of respect for her. He would have cowered into nothingness from the force of Tony Stark’s glare, but she stood her ground, keeping a hand on the stretcher. “Without connection to this boy—”

“His name is Peter Parker,” Stark stated, and if Barley didn’t know better he would have called his tone a hiss. “And I’m going to get on the phone with his aunt just as soon as you chart course for New York City.”

“The nearest hospital—”

“He’s a resident of Queens. He’s also in stable conditions, and will be cared for in my facility upon arrival in the state.”

“You don’t have the authority to—”

Another shrill voice cut through the air, and the civilians, EMTs, Barley, and Tony Stark all swung their attention to the door of the Washington Monument as another boy—again, clad in a yellow jacket—came waddling across the plateau at full speed. He was pursued by about six rangers, who’d long since given up on ordering him to stop, and though his chest was heaving his voice was strong and loud. 

“Peter!”

Stark turned, surveying the running kid as he gained ground toward the ambulance, but his hand never left the edge of the stretcher.

“Peter,” the kid cried again, clutching his stomach with one hand when he stopped before the ring of EMTs. His eyes found Stark, then drifted down to the boy—Peter—on the stretcher and went wide.

A flicker of recognition passed through Stark’s eyes, and he exited the ambulance in one swift motion, shoving through the poor paramedics again. They spread out around the ambulance, two slipping toward the cab and the others climbing in around the injured child.   

“Hey,” Stark said, his voice surprisingly soft as he approached the new arrival. Barley edged a bit closer to the ambulance, not exactly sure how to proceed. 

“Mr…. Mr. Stark,” the boy coughed out, still breathing hard. “Is Peter—He looked scared and then he told us to get back and then there was an explosion and he fell and is he okay, please he has to be okay—”

“He’s okay.” Stark held up a hand to silence the boy’s ramble. “You are…?”

“Ned,” the boy said. “Ned Leeds, I’m… Peter’s best friend.” After a moment, Ned added. “I know.”

Then he folded his fingers into something that looked a bit like the ASL symbol for “I love you” and Barley’s confusion amped up three notches.

Something that could have been surprise etched itself across Stark’s face, and then disappeared as soon as it had come. “Right,” he said, stepping back a bit. “Well, Mr. Leeds, these  wonderfully cooperative individuals have assured me that Mr. Parker is perfectly stable. He’ll be recovering in my own facility, and should be back with you before you know it.” A little more softly, Stark added, “he’s a fast healer.”

“Right. Can I… can I see him?” Ned craned up on the balls of his feet, trying to see the stretcher through Stark and the EMTs.

“I think you’re needed inside,” was Stark’s reply. 

Ned shook his head frantically. “But he’s— I need— he can’t— I need to see him, you don’t understand, he was screaming and it sounded like… I don’t know, it must have hurt so badly and I couldn’t do anything—”

“He’s unconscious now.” Stark cut the boy off. “Healing. I don’t think even he could manage to hurt himself in his sleep.”

“But what if he—”

“Mr. Leeds.”

The boy quieted, wiping a stray tear from his cheek as he looked up at Stark.

“I’ll take care of him, alright? I promise.”

Slowly, Ned nodded. 

Barley could safely say he had no fucking clue what was going on anymore. And that only increased when Stark sighed, reaching into his pocket and coming back with a crumpled receipt and a pen.

“Here,” the billionaire began, scribbling something and handing it to the boy. “If anything like this happens again, you let me know.”

Ned stared at the fluttering bit of paper, at Stark, and then back at the piece of paper. “Um, yeah,” he finally breathed. “Yes, sir. I will.”

“Good. Don’t make me regret that, Mr. Leeds.” 

And with that, Tony Stark spun on his heel and stalked back into the trailer of the ambulance. The doors slammed on his voice as he went back to arguing with the lead EMT, and Barley took a shocked step back.

“Holy hell,” he said eloquently. 

That had been… rather different than what he expected from the workday.