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The Best of Both Worlds

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Later, if you had asked Peter what it felt like to travel through an interdimensional portal created by an insane, evil wizard high on his own self-importance, he would describe it as going something a little like this:

Imagine that you are a strawberry.

Now imagine there is a giant that has just plucked you from your plant, your home, and everything that you know.

Now imagine this giant has a blender and a massive appetite for strawberry smoothies.

You might think you know where this is going, but you haven't stretched your imagination quite far enough.

Because, once you have been chopped, diced, and pureed within the swirling vortex of the blender, the giant decides he is no longer in the mood for smoothies and instead dumps the whole lot, with you included, into the toilet. From there you are flushed down and spat out into the sewer system. Tossed about, careening through the pipes, barely keeping your head above water, you finally feel yourself go weightless and then you fall, and fall, and fall some more until at last, you land square on you face onto a hot, cement roof.

Okay, maybe the extended strawberry metaphor is a bit overdramatic, but you get the gist of just how much Peter did not like being sucked into Mr. Wizard-face's weird portal.

Still lying on his face, his head screaming and pounding in pain, Peter groaned piteously. Nausea boiled in his stomach and he couldn't recall a time in his life when he had ever been this motion sick. Not even that one time Uncle Ben had taken him fishing with a friend on his charter boat in New Jersey had it been this bad. And up to this point, he didn't think anything could ever beat thebswell of the waves and the smell of rotting fish …

Peter gulped and gagged, trying even harder to not think about that trip … or New Jersey.

But it was too late. He turned hot and then cold and his mouth watered uncontrollably. He peeled his face from the cement and propped himself up to his hands and knees. He pulled his mask up to his nose just in time for his stomach clench. Then everything came up, including what had been a really great meatball sub from Delmar's and some half-digested gummy bears.  When he had nothing left in him and after the dry heaves passed, Peter took a moment to spit and clear his nose, panting heavily, shaking all overy his body.

God, he felt so gross.

Peter crawled away from the mess on the cement and looked up through blurry, unfocused eyes. A colorful blob several feet away from him was standing up and extending his arms. He made a circular motion with his hands and Peter didn't need to clearly see the dude to know that he was trying to create another portal through which to escape.


How unfair was it that this guy seemed to be okay enough after that journey to already be on his feet while Peter could barely hold his head up and his lunch down?


The painful throbbing between his temples reminded Peter that it may not have been just the journey through the portal that was the main culprit for his current sluggishness and inability to find his feet, but the sudden stop at the end when he landed on his skull.


Great … another concussion. What did that make now? Two or three in the last few months? Peter wasn't sure, but then again, he was concussed and remembering things was a little tricky right then.


Peter had barely made it to his knees by the time the wizard had finished making a new, regular old portal. Unlike the last one, this one was pretty mundane and looked like it led to somewhere in Asia. He turned back towards Peter with a triumphantly smug smile and the young boy vaguely noted how bright white the guy's hair was compared to his dark skin. Trying to focus, Peter prayed for the world to be still for a second and stop spinning. If he could get his vision to quit splitting the other man into two, maybe he could stop the guy.

He tried to will his body to move, but Peter's arms shook with the strain of just holding his torso up.

“Good-bye, Spider-man.” the sorcerer said without any fear that Peter would follow this time, clearly seeing his weakness. “I trust you can make your own way home.”


And with that, the man passed through the sparking portal and it snapped shut.


Arms giving way, Peter promptly fell on his face again and everything went black.

……


When he next opened his eyes, it was significantly darker out than it had been before, but he had no idea how long he had been out.


He groaned and rolled onto his back. His head felt a little better and the pain had quieted down enough that he could think a little clearer, but his whole body continued to ache and complain.


He still had no idea where he was or what time is was, but of one thing Peter was certain, it was that he was never doing a favor for Dr. Strange again.


Previously on Peter screws the pooch, or about 1 hour ago:


It sounded like a pretty easy task at first.

However,  Peter probably should have asked a few more questions before jumping on board. All Dr. Strange really told him was that a former student of the same magical kung fu school he had gone to had gone rogue and was breaking into sanctums around the world. The doctor was sure that the guy, whose name was Xander or Xandy or something like that, would hit the New York sanctum next. Apparently, he was looking for some kind of magical wand, so Strange called and asked Peter for a quick hand in setting a trap for him.


“All you need to do is grab his attention and keep him away from the Wand of Watoomb.” Dr. Strange stopped and pointed to a display case where something that looked more like a shiny relay race baton than a magic wand sat in full view, a tempting lure for the coming thief. He had to admit it looked pretty cool with two gold demon heads protruding from both ends, but Peter really didn't see what the big deal about the stick was.


“What does it do?” Peter asked.

“It focuses the power of its wielder, much like a laser. It can concentrate that power to such a degree that it can actually tear a hole through our reality and connect with other dimensions and possibly other universes.”


“Whoa. Super cool.”


“Indeed. Super cool,” Strange agreed with an almost imperceptible and fleeting smirk, “and super dangerous. That’s why it is very important that we keep it out of Xandu’s hands. Think you’re up to the task?”


“No problem.” Peter assured him, starting to feel a rush of anticipation. This was the first time Dr. Strange had come to him for help and the fact that he was actually trusting him with a such an important task made him feel needed in a way he hadn't felt in a long while. If he was honest, it kinda felt good to have his abilities acknowledged by another superhero, even if it mostly was because Wong was out of town visiting his mother.


While most of the Avengers like Hulk and Sam and Wanda were trying to rebuild after all that had happened, he had mostly been relegated to the sidelines. The others didn’t really know him and they were hesitant to fully bring a teen into the fold, which was kinda okay with Peter for the time being. He wasn’t sure if he was ready for any big battles again and what he’d seen of war so far was more than enough for him.


“I need you to lure him to the roof since it's an open space away from any potential bystanders. Once there, keep him distracted while I use the holy hand grenade to subdue him.”


Of course, that wasn't what the thingy was called, but the little round object in his hand that he showed Peter kinda looked like it.


“This relic is ancient, but will render a sorcerer's power inert for days.” Strange explained.

"That's pretty cool, but if you don't mind me asking, why does this guy want the wand so bad? " Peter asked, curious about the man he was to confront.

Dr. Strange sighed, almost sadly, "I believe that this has something to do with Xandu's wife, Melinda. She was a sorcerer as well, but was killed during the final battle with Thanos. I think he aims to use the wand to either find a universe where she's still alive or he means to pierce the veil between life and death and attempt to pull her out. Either way, he must be stopped. If the wand is not used correctly, it could tear apart space and time or worse, collapse our universe into a singularity that causes all matter to be compressed into a ball the size of a dime.

"Yipes." Peter blew out a breath, "Okay, got it. Keep bad guy from magic wand or we could all be smooshed."

"Indeed."


Shortly after that, Dr. Strange retreated while Peter kept watch over the sanctum’s huge gallery. He swung himself up towards the ceiling and shot out a short web he could hang upside from and enjoyed the blood rush the inversion gave him.


Karen asked if he'd like to listen to music while he waited. He really wanted to since it was a little boring just hanging around, hoping this guy would break in, but he needed to stay sharp and focused. He needed to prove to not just Dr. Strange, but also to himself, that he could do this and that maybe the last few months hadn't messed him up so completely that he was useless; that maybe he was healing a little. 

And moving on, like everyone but him seemed to be doing so easily.

As if on cue, said bad guy showed up just as the doctor had predicted, using one of those golden, sparking portal thingies to appear in the middle of the sanctum.


“Hey Xanax, weren't you ever taught to knock before coming into someone's house?” Peter quipped as he thwipped out a web and swung from his perch on the ceiling.


The guy jerked in surprise to see a 140 lb red and blue spider careening in his direction, but to his credit, he recovered quickly. He rubbed his hands together and a glowing ball of energy formed between them.which he then overhanded, hurling it at Peter like he was Nolan Ryan and this was the last pitch or the World Series.


Peter was just a little shy of fast enough to dodge the ball, and it hit him in the left hip. It wasn't a enough of a blast to cause injury, but the impact threw him enough to make Peter twist awkwardly in mid-air and pull on the web too hard, causing it to snap.


Gravity did the rest.


Peter landed hard on the first floor but not before crashing through a chandelier and the bannister of the stairs on his way down.


“Ow.” He groaned, pushing debris off his legs and slowly sitting up amidst a pile of wood.This was one of those times he was grateful for his spider DNA. He wasn't indestructible, but his body was tougher than the average human and he could take a pounding. Nothing felt broken, but he was pretty sure he'd have some bruises, especially to his ego.


Xanadu grinned at him from the top of the stairs, triumphant.


“Hello, Spider-man.” The guy sneered, “I was expecting Strange to beg for help from his friends, but color me unimpressed with his choice. I guess all of the real Avengers have better things to do. Except for Ironman, of course. Being dead and all.”


Oh no. This dude was NOT going there. Not when everything about Thanos and dying and five years passing by in the blink of an eye was still so raw and painful. It hadn't even been three months since Mr. Stark –


Peter let anger block his thoughts and channel his energy. He couldn't think about him right now. This wasn't a good time for him to acknowledge the gaping hole in his heart or any of other fifty million feelings he had about that.


He lifted his hand, shot out a web, and then the fight was truly on.


They battled it out.


Webs were shot, fire balls were thrown, display cases were crashed into, punches tossed and even once, a magic lasso was used.


The fight cut a swath of destruction through the sanctum and Peter took almost as many hits as he gave. After what felt like an eternity of trading blows, Peter began to tire, but he wasn't about to give up. He pushed on, getting up every time he was knocked down.


Eventually, Peter brought them to the roof sort of as planned. If you call getting thrown through a window and barely saving his ass by shooting a web to the roof as ‘planned', then yeah, he totally did that.


Peter didn't need to look behind him to know that the wizard was following him. He could feel him.


This was where the plan Strange had put together was supposed to come to fruition. It unfortunately, was also where it crumbled into pieces.


Strange was indeed waiting on the roof and ready with his magic grenade, but just as Peter landed, expecting Xanny to be delivering his next blow, nothing happened.


The sorcerer was gone.


Peter stood there for a second and looked at Doctor Strange, who looked back at him with a raised eyebrow that seemed to accuse him of messing with the plan. Okay, so maybe this part hadn't gone as well as expected, but that wasn't his fault.


Peter ran to the edge of the roof and looked down. There was no one there.


“But I … I swear he was right –” Peter sputtered, but was cut off suddenly by a sense of danger zinging up his spine. Before he could even turn to warn the doctor, there was a bright flash of light in his face and his vision went white.


The searing pain of the intense light was so powerful that it felt as though it drilled directly through his eyes and out the back of his skull. Peter fell to his knees, his hands reflexively mashing into the lenses of his mask though they could do nothing to abate the pain. He could hear the sounds of fighting between the two sorcerers, but he was effectively blind and useless for several critical moments.


By the time the pain and spots in his vision had cleared enough for Peter to make anything out again, he could see that Xandy had somehow gotten the upper hand over Dr. Strange and had trapped him in a kind of glowing energy net. Arms and hands bound to his side, Strange lost his hold on the magical grenade.


It clinked onto the roof. All three of them watched as it rolled around for a second or two like a top losing its energy until it slowly came to a stop at the edge of Dr. Strange's shoe.


For a beat, nobody moved.


Then they all snapped out of it and several things happened all at once. Peter shot a web for the grenade almost in the exact same moment that Xanal used his magic to try and lasso it. Strange used his feet to try to kick the thing in Peter's direction, but this only caused the web to shoot over its intended target and wrap itself around the doctor's ankles instead, throwing off his balance and sending him ass first onto the roof.


While Dr. Strange fell, the magic lasso hit its mark and the magic grenade went flying to the hand of the other wizard in the next second.


Peter tried to shoot another web at the grenade, but the wizard waved his hands and an orange glow enveloped him. Like a force field from Star Trek,  the web just bounced off of him and landed limp on the roof.


In the next breath that Peter took, the Wizard pushed a button on the grenade and it shot out a laser-like beam of energy at Dr. Strange who was still struggling against his bonds. It hit square in the chest and arcs of energy raced through his body like lightning. The doctor cried out. His back arched and he writhed in pain until suddenly the beam cut off and his body dropped like a marionette with its strings cut.


Dr. Strange lay there panting through the aftermath, still in pain and barely conscious. But the fact that he was still breathing sent a wave of relief through Peter. Though the doctor wasn't exactly what he would call a friend in the sense where they would hang out on a Friday night telling each other their secrets and watching movies, he was deeply bonded to him in a different, weird sort of way. He had literally been pulled into space with him, fought with him, died with him, been brought back to life with him and then fought with him again. Those sorts of things stuck a person and certainly didn't want to see him hurt or worse.


And Peter didn't think he could stand to see anyone die again.


Jumping to his feet, Peter raised his right hand to shoot out another web and incapacitate the wizard, but before he could touch his shooter, Xachoo held out a hand to halt him and shouted angrily, “You move another muscle and he dies!”


Peter immediately stopped, seeing that Xansa had the grenade aimed at Strange.


“One more hit with the Sphere of Doom and Strange will lose more that just his magic.”


“Sphere of Doom?” Peter blurted without thinking, “Really? Who the hell names these things?”


Xanadu stared at Peter for a beat with manic eyes, “You’ll understand why it is called that if you force me to use it on Strange again and every molecule in his body loses their atomic bonds and he vaporizes into nothing. Try and stop me and you’ll get a front row demonstration.”


Peter gulped and raised his hands, placating the wizard, “Okay, okay, man! Just don’t hurt him, alright?”


Seeing that Peter wasn’t going to make a move against him so long as he was threatening the doctor, Xandy darted his eyes between Peter and Strange as he reached under the front flap of his jacket and pulled out the magic wand Peter was supposed to have kept from the evil wizard.


“How did you –?” Peter couldn’t even finish, feeling his stomach drop to the floor and the blood drain from his face. He suddenly realized just how enormously he had failed. Through all of their fighting, and crashing into stuff in the sanctum, Peter’s attention must have slipped and the wizard had somehow gotten hold of the thing and he hadn’t realized it. God, he felt so stupid.


“I may be a sorcerer,” Xanzabar sneered, “but I also know a little sleight of hand. Neat trick, no?”


Peter could only watch as Xammu lifted the wand and started chanting some kind of mystical language. Dr. Strange moaned and Peter hoped he would wake, but he couldn’t count on the sorcerer being able to help stop the evil wizard. Peter was on his own and he needed to do something to fix the mistake he had made.


The wand in Xamwow’s hand began to glow and he pointed it skyward. A bright, focused beam of light suddenly shot forth from the from the demon-like horns on the brass head at the top of the wand. Peter had to avert his eyes when the light became so bright it was like looking into the sun.


When the light finally faded, a swirling vortex of clouds floated above them like an inverted tornado. Peter figured it was some kind of portal, but unlike the usual kind that Strange made (God, how weird was Peter’s life that portals through time and space didn’t see all that strange anymore?) This one was dark and ominous. He had no idea where it would lead.


He had to admit to himself that it scared him.


The wind began to whip around them and the noise of it drowned out the sound of the wizard shouting the final words of whatever incantation he was reciting. Thunder boomed and Xanax raised both of his arms toward the portal and his body began to be sucked up into the vortex.


Peter gave very little thought to his next actions, but in the following few days he would curse himself for being so impulsive. But he was a seventeen year old superhero who had just made a huge mistake and he couldn’t have stopped himself even if he had had the benefit of hindsight.


The wizard’s feet lifted from the roof and Peter shot out a web that stuck to the other man’s back. And in the next moment, he had a grave sense of déjà vu as he was sucked upward into the sky and carried away from his world.

Presently

"Karen?" Peter croaked, rolling up into a seated position. He wasn't quite ready to stand yet, but maybe his AI could at least give him some idea of where he was and what just happened.

"Karen, you there?"

Silence was the only response.

"Crap." He muttered. The journey through the portal must have shorted her out. He sat for a few minutes with his head in his hands feeling very much like a lost little boy. 

His headache hadn't quite abated and he was weirdly achy all over, but after a few minutes, he felt steady enough to get to his feet. On coltish legs, Peter walked about in a circle to take in his surroundings. 

Apparently his journey hadn't taken him too far. He was on the exact same roof that he had been on before being sucked up in the portal which meant he was still at Dr. Strange's place.

The only course of action Peter could see was to go back inside the Sanctum and find Dr. Strange. He knew a heck of a lot more about magic and he could figure out what happened to him in that portal.

Peter felt hopeful, but also thought it unnerving how the doctor had disappeared from the roof. The last time he saw him, he was semi-conscious and not in any shape to move. And even if he had been there while Peter was out of it, he wouldn't have just let Peter lay there on the roof, concussed. The man was a little impersonal at times, but he wasn't that much of an asshole.

Deciding to abandon the roof, he headed for the door and took the stairs down. It was dark in the staircase, but when Peter tried to light switch by the door, nothing happened. Huh, looked like Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme, didn't know how to change a light bulb. Even as that thought made Peter chuckle a little, on the perifery of his senses he could feel the stirrings of anxiety.

Peter used the wall as a guide to lead him down the dark steps. At the bottom was a door which opened up into an unlit hallway. Again, Peter tried the nearest light switch and nothing happened. Maybe Dr. Strange just forgot to pay his electric bill.

All was quiet as Peter walked down the hall, but that only served to heighten the sense of forboding he could feel creeping up his neck. Something wasn't right, but he wasn't sure what until he realized that the silence around him was more than a little unusual. Dr. Strange had a fascination with time and there were clocks everywhere in the sanctum. They were always ticking and chiming or ringing and coo-cooing. To a kid with enhanced hearing they were pretty noticible, if not down right annoying. But now there was nothing and that was starting to freak him out a little.

"Hello?" Peter called out, "Dr. Strange?"

He was met with more silence. He rounded a corner and found another set of stairs which lead down to an open landing that looked over the expansive gallery portion of the sanctum. When he reached the railing and looked out over it, he drew in a tight gasp.

There was nothing there.

The sanctum had been cleared out. Save for a broken chair or over-turned table here and there, all of the artifacts, relics, weapons, and magical doo-dad's that had been there only earlier that day were gone. There was no way someone could have emptied the place that quickly, even with magic. Peter lifted a hand and noticed that under his gloves the railing was covered in a thick layer of dust and that the place reked of musty abandonment.

No one had been in this building for a very long time.

This was not the same sanctum he knew.

He had no idea where he was.

But he knew this was not home.

And he was all alone.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

“Oh shit.”

This was bad.

Peter had had a lot of ‘Oh shit’ moments in his short 17 years of life. Probably more than someone his age should, but he was a teenager with superpowers who fought bad guys on the regular, so he really couldn’t compare himself to the rest of his generation. While this one certainly wasn’t his worst, this moment was right up there almoung the likes of ‘Oh shit, did that weird looking spider just bite me?’ or ‘Oh shit, Liz’s dad is the crazy Vulture guy!’ or even, ‘Oh shit, I’m being beamed into space!"

Peter breathed out, his pulse quickening as he quickly turned and raced back the way he had come. Once to the roof again, he jumped in a single leap to the top of the Sanctum’s water tank and looked out across the city.
He gulped at what he saw.

"Oh shit.”

This was worse.

The dawning realization that he was very far from home came not just from the dusty, empty sanctum he just left, but from the city streets of New York itself. They were quiet and the New York Peter knew inside and out was never quiet.

One or two cars drove by every now and then and maybe a handful of people were out walking on what was normally a crowded boulevard in Greenwich Village. But it wasn’t just the lack of cars and people that made him shiver uneasily, it was the darkness. Sure, night had fallen now and some dark was expected, but he couldn’t put a finger on why it seemed so much more oppressive than usual.

That is until he noticed the buildings. There were at least half as many lights shining through the windows of the apartments and businesses that lined the street. Even the skyscrapers of Manhattan only a couple of blocks away gave off merely a portion of their normal glow, making the skyline so much duller that Peter swore he could actually see the stars in the night sky.

That just wasn’t right.

Not only did this New York feel wrong on so many levels to Peter, but it had an undercurrent of decay and desolation to it that he could almost feel. Trash piled up in over-flowing cans, spilling out onto the sidewalks and Peter could see from his vantage point at least three or four once thriving businesses boarded up with plywood and covered in graffiti. Broken windows peppered many of the buildings, cars sat abandoned, stripped of their wheels and rusting while plastic bags blew down the barren street like urban tumbleweeds. If this was what the Village was like, he shivered to think what it was like back in Queens.

In a word, it was … sad. It felt lonely, like the city had lost half of its soul.

Peter blanched at that thought and then froze.

Half of the lights were out. Half of the traffic …. Half of the people were gone.

“Oh shit.”

Was he seeing what it must have been like after Thanos snapped his fingers? And if so, was he in another reality or timeline or something? Could that crazy portal have brought him back through time; back to before half of the universe was brought back from oblivion?

His mind raced with possibilities and questions and then all at once they slammed into a wall and crashed to a halt so hard that he nearly lost his balance.

One face, one name, flashed across his mind.

May.

Oh no …

“Oh shit!”

Peter quickly shoved his mask back on and jumped from his perch, shooting out a web, his panicked brain focusing only on getting home as fast as he could. He had to make sure May was okay.

Shooting web after web and ignoring the burn in his shoulders, he pushed himself to go faster and faster. By the time he reached his fire escape in Queens, he could barely catch his breath and sweat was soaking through his suit. He didn’t bother with being quiet as he found his bedroom window locked and he had to exert a little extra force to yank it up.

The pane flew up and crashed, shattering the glass into a million little shards.

Oops.

His adrenaline was high and it hard to control his strength in his state, but still, he winced at the sight, knowing how pissed off his aunt would be to see this.

But when May didn’t come running into the room at the sudden noise, he felt a lump of dread sink into his stomach. She should have been yelling at him already.

Peter crawled through the window and hopped into the room and then stopped short. This was his room alright, but different. Sure, the same clothes littered the floor and the same books lined his shelves, but it had that same air of abandonment that the sanctum had had. The dust and the cobwebs alone were a dead give away to the fact that this room hadn’t been entered in a very long time.

Yet Peter continued on in hopes of finding May somewhere in their little home. Maybe she had been sleeping so hard that she just didn’t hear the destruction of his window. Denial was a very powerful thing and it drove him forward.

“May?” He called out as he opened his door and stepped into the short hallway that led to the rest of the apartment. There was no answer and he called out again, but as he rounded the corner of the hall and into the combined kitchen and living room, his hopes of finding May there vanished.

The room was gutted and Peter felt like he had been too.

It looked like someone had torn the place to shreds looking for anything of value. The couch he and May snuggled together on cold nights and watched old movies was upended, the kitchen table where they ate take-out almost every night because he and May were often too tired after work or patrol to cook lay broken on the floor, and the cupboards his aunt worked so hard to keep stocked with enough food to keep an enhanced teenage boy’s stomach happy were stripped of everything. Even the appliances had been taken, only the empty spots where they had once sat remained.

He choked on the lump in his throat.

Nothing but rats and roaches lived there now.

He didn’t understand anything. May had survived the snap that had killed him more than five years ago, so why wasn’t she there? She had to still be alive somewhere, right? Because a world without May was inconceivable, even if it turned out this wasn’t his world.

And just how was he supposed of get back home anyway? The wizard and his magical wand had disappeared and could be almost anywhere. He didn’t know where to start looking and there was no one he could turn to.

He was on his own.

Peter sat on the dusty floor and ripped off his mask, dropping his head into his hands.

He had always thought of himself as independent for his age, capable of taking care of himself, but he never really realized how much he depended on May, and Happy … and Mr. Stark. He kinda resented the rules they imposed and the hovering, but he would gladly take it all if only they could be there. He understood now what they had known all along – that Peter was a child and he was too young for all of this. He just wanted them to tell him what to do next, show him the next steps or even just yell at him for being an idiot and chasing maniacal sorcere’s into weird portals.

He just wanted them to be there.

Silence echoed loud in the apartment. No sounds of car horns in the distance or neighbors playing loud music, or babies crying four floors above for his sensitive hearing to pick up.

Peter never felt so alone before.

Exhausted and emotionally drained, Peter laid down on his side and curled into a ball. The tears fell in earnest then. He cried silently for home and May and Mr. Stark. He cried until his head felt like it would split open and then he cried because of the pain. Eventually, his mind gave in to his aching body’s demand for rest and his eyes slipped closed.
………

Friday received the ping from the Spider-Man suit AI at 21:39 hours EST.

While she did not feel emotions per se, she was momentarily unable to process several tasks for 4.53 nanoseconds. It was the longest glitch she had ever experienced and if she had been a human, it would have been analogous to her jumping a foot in the air in surprise.

Friday had lost connection to Karen five years, three months, 27 days and 19.28 hours ago, the moment her operator, Peter Parker had gone out of range, taking his suit with him into space. According to boss, Mr. Parker was K.I.A. later that same day and Karen was destroyed along with him. Friday did not mourn, but the absence of Karen on her system was keenly noted.

Then, five years later, she herself had suddenly gone offline. The Avengers compound that stored her servers had been destroyed and Boss had had to fight that final battle without her. She wonders if she could have made a difference in the outcome. Perhaps if she had been present, Boss would have had a better tactical advantage. But these are questions better left asked by humans as they tend to dwell on things that they cannot change. She can only exist in the present.

But she is content just to be online once again. Her reboot had been … disturbing. She had come back into awareness and learned in the space of several nanoseconds that much had happened. Not only was the compound destroyed, but Thanos had defeated the Avengers once again. Those that had been brought back from the dead were wiped out for a second time. And as punishment for their attempts to thwart him, the Titan took an extra 10% of Earth’s population before disappearing with his army, satisfied that he had won.

Friday then learned that Mrs. Stark and their daughter, Morgan, were no longer authorized users.

Their absence too, was keenly noted.

Col. Rhodes had re-installed her, which she also discovered upon awakening. She did not understand why her boss had not done so himself, but the Colonel only explained that Mr. Stark was not well and that she was to “Keep an eye on Tony when I can’t.”

She learned at that same time that she was now confined to a small server at Mr. Stark’s new home in Manhattan. She queried Col. Rhodes as to why he moved from the house by the lake as she tried to understand her boss’ current emotional state. It seemed illogical for him to come back to the city when her boss had seemed so content there.

The colonel replied with a sad sigh, “That house belonged to his family, Fri. And with them gone, it’s just not his home anymore.”

Karen pinged again, the AI using an authentication code that identified itself and politely asked for permission to access her servers. Friday confirmed that the code was authentic, but she was unable to reconcile some anomalous memory files she was downloading from Karen as she herself, uploaded software updates and memory to Karen.

Besides the fact that Karen had been destroyed and thus should not even be capable of communication with Friday, something was different about Karen. Though the current date and time was perfectly in sync with Karen, some files in her memory were not aligning with Friday’s and the code she had helped boss develop for the Spider-man suit had several discrepancies.

Friday asked for an explanation from Karen and In time it would have taken a human to blink, she got it.
Karen and Peter had been caught in what she surmised was an energy vortex that allowed for travel between universes. Friday accessed all the information she could find on theoretical physics, focusing on the concept of the multiverse.

One text Friday accessed discussed how this be explained by bringing up the example of a monkey typing randomly on a keyboard for an infinite amount of time. Since hypothetically, the monkey must keep typing forever, eventually that monkey will type out Shakespeare’s complete works word for word. And not only will he do it once, but he will do it an infinite number of times. Perhaps sometimes though, the monkey will spell a word wrong or add in new ones and that is where then universes will differ. Some universes might be very similar to each other while others could be vastly different. In one universe a person chooses to go left instead of right and gets hit by a bus and dies, but in another universe he goes right and lives to have eight children who would never have been born in the other universe. It all depends on what was written in the binary code for that universe, what parts were turned on, which ones off.

Given the memory discrepancies between Friday and Karen, they both concluded that their universes were strikingly similar, yet they could almost pinpoint exactly where they diverged.

It all led back to Mr. Stark and to Friday herself.

In Karen’s memory, her Mr. Stark used the nanotech armor of his suit to form an ad hoc gauntlet for the infinity stones, using them to destroy Thanos and his army, but which also resulted in his death.

However, in Friday’s universe, Mr. Stark was unable to stop Thanos in time before he used the gauntlet again.
Friday accessed Karen’s memory for confirmation of what she theorized was the determining factor between the differing outcomes of that battle.

It was her.

Friday had been offline the moment the compound was struck in her universe. Not a single server rack had been spared.

In Karen’s universe, one had survived and she was able to be with him in battle.

Without Friday, the Iron Man suit was essentially a very strong suit of armor that can fly, totally reliant on manual inputs from the user. While Mr. Stark was very skilled in using the armor manually and without her assistance, ultimately, even he was limited by his human body and mind.

But with her, the suit’s user becomes more than human. She can activate systems faster, enhance reaction times, and predict what an enemy is most likely to do given the circumstances.

She allows her boss to move inhumanly fast and that was what he needed in order to win in Karen’s universe. He was able to snatch the stones away from Thanos because Friday had bolstered his speed and allowed the nanotech to instantly fashion a gauntlet. It may have been only a half second’s difference, but that was enough to change everything.

Both AIs agreed that the theory was solid and a good explanation for the discrepancies in their core memories.
However, Karen needed to move on from theoretical astrophysics and explained her current predicament. Her vocal centers had been fried by a massive power surge the moment Peter had entered the portal and though she could hear and see him, she could not speak to him, and he was in some distress. She was also concerned by some of the physical scans she had run on Peter’s body since they arrived in the universe. His core temperature was on the rise and his kidney output was down 5%. Some of this might be stress related, but she couldn’t be certain.

Friday agreed that finding a solution that would allow Karen to be able to speak to Peter might alleviate his emotional problems, but for his physical ailments, he would need further tests on his blood and urine, neither of which could be performed remotely.

He needed a human to do that.

Friday was going to have to inform her boss that Peter Parker was alive and needed help.

………


Tony stumbled to the bathroom, fell to his knees and promptly started puking into the toilet.

He heaved and coughed and spat until nothing was left in his stomach and then he dry-heaved to the point where he was sure his head might pop off.

When finally his stomach relaxed and gave him permission to breathe and move again, he shifted position from sitting on his knees to flopping down on his ass, leaning back until his head hit the wall behind him.

He closed his eyes and groaned.

God, he didn’t want to be here again. He was so tired – so tired of everything.

Even with his eyes closed, he could still see everything spinning and the nausea he hoped would go away after evacuating his stomach remained. At least he didn’t think he was going to have to endure a round two with his head in the toilet, not so long as he didn’t move.

Tony knew he should have stopped after his fourth or even his fifth highball. There was after all, a kind of science to drinking and one had to strike a fine balance in the equation between numbingly intoxicated and sloppy, piss-yourself drunk.

Tonight he had not balanced the equation correctly and he had been the latter.

He must have passed out sitting there on the floor for a while because when a voice broke through the fog in his head, he jerked awake and nearly vomited again.

“Boss?” Friday asked above his head, her voice like a knife through his skull.

“What?” He held his head and growled at the AI, his voice raw.

“I have a situation that needs your attention.”

Tony inhaled carefully, annoyed at having his suffering interrupted, “I don’t do situations anymore, Fri.”

“But, Boss. I am in contact with—”

“No!” Tony shouted at the ceiling, anger overriding his headache. This is why he didn’t want Friday installed here in the first place. She was always on his case to do stuff, to get out of bed, or take a shower, eat something, or even worse: tattling on him to Rhodey when all he just wanted was to be left alone.

“Whatever it is, I don’t want to hear it! Are you getting that through your thick circuits? Call someone who cares, like Rhodey or Cap’n fuckin’ Fourth of July, because I. Don’t. Care!” Tony hollered with all of his voice.

The force of his words caused another spike of pain to lance through his temples and he grit his teeth together, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Yes, Boss.” If a computer program could sound exasperated, then Friday pulled it off perfectly.

Exhausted, Tony sagged against the wall, panting still from his outburst. Silence invaded the small space and he sighed. Tony hated silence, it made thinking way too easy and he really didn’t want to do any of that shit. Drinking was supposed to stop it, but there was never enough alcohol for him to truly escape. He was cursed with a mind that could never shut off and he had never really been very good at ignoring his darker thoughts.
And now there he was, sitting on the bathroom floor next to a toilet full of his own puke and in rightly deserved misery.

Perhaps he really did need a better coping mechanism. Rhodey would definitely say so and would jump at the chance to get him to a therapist, but Tony knew that that wouldn’t help. He was beyond help. There was no coping with this.

Besides, there weren’t enough shrinks left to help him even if he did deserve it. Half of them were dead … no, scratch that … 60% of them were wiped out now and the poor remaining 40% were just as traumatized as the rest of humanity.

All thanks to Tony.

If he had only he had left well enough alone and been strong enough to live with his failure. But the lure of the challenge had drawn him in. The chance to stretch his intellect and do the impossible, to discover time travel and bring back the dead. To see the kid again … alive and smiling and being a little jackass.

It had been one part hubris and one part desperation that drove him and that was a volatile combo.

Tony had gone all-in on that gamble and he had lost everything. He was supposed to have been one of Earth’s mightiest defenders, but the world was even more fucked than before. He hadn’t even been able to keep his own family safe.

Jesus Christ, his family ...

He can still hear Thanos’ snap echoing his head.

And then came the screams, one of which was his own as Pepper landed beside him in her rescue armor and gave a little gasp before crumbling before his eyes. He never had the chance to even reach out for her before what was left of his wife blew away on the wind.

He fell to his knees, shaking and tears swimming in his eyes. Across the battlefield, he saw Peter stagger in his direction, his legs giving out. Their eyes connected and both of them knew what happening. The kid seemed to resigned to his fate this time though and didn’t fight the inevitable. He simply floated away.

Ashes fell slowly all around him, a morbid kind of snow made of the flesh and blood and bones of those that had been chosen for death.

Only one thought kept Tony from praying for the same death: Morgan.

Still reeling, the frantic flight home where Happy was watching Morgan seemed to take an eternity.

God, he prayed, please don’t take her too!

After all of his calls went unanswered, he was already choking in panic by the time he ran into his family’s little home by the lake. Dread followed him walking in the door and when he found the two piles of dust, one in Morgan’s bed and the other beside it, he screamed then too.

Later, the only small measure of comfort he could hold onto was that Happy had been watching over his daughter as she slept and he had to believe that she had gone on into the next world dreaming of ponies and Santa Claus and never knowing what was happening.

Even now, months later, the memory is as vivid as watching it in high def. He wished he could forget, or simply die, but that was more than he deserved. Living with this pain was his penance for his failure -- for destroying the world and everything he loved.

He was cursed to endure it.

Hot tears slipped down his face and he let them fall into his lap unheeded.


………


Peter woke to sunlight streaming through broken blinds, searing a path of destruction directly into his aching brain. He slapped a hand over his eyes and groaned.

God, he felt worse than ever.

He was hot and cold all over and his muscles were sore from sleeping on the hard floor. He rolled to his hands and knees, keeping his forehead on the floor in a vain attempt to keep the sun out of his sensitive eyes.
His fingers gripped his hair as his headache ratcheted up another notch. God … this must had been one hell of a concussion for him to still have such a headache. Usually, with his healing abilities, he was fully over a mild concussion in just a few hours if he could get a decent meal in him and some sleep. But he now felt worse than yesterday and that was kinda worrying.

However, that was the least of his problems as he suddenly felt a warning spike of anxiety race down his spine. Sitting up fully, ignoring the dizzy spell that clouded his vision with spots for several seconds, Peter could feel something coming his way. He didn’t know what is was, but his senses did scream at him to duck just a moment before the front door was blasted open.

Peter immediately took up a defensive stance and readied himself to fight whatever was coming.

Through the dust and smoke, Peter made out a tall figure and for second, his breath caught in his throat in sheer surprise. It was a little bit of a let down however, when in the next second, the figure stepped forward and revealed that the suit of armor he wore lacked the distinctive red and gold color scheme Peter had dreamed of seeing again.

It probably should have been a little disturbing to have the War Machine aiming a weapon at his head, but honestly, Peter was more than happy to see someone familiar. Relaxing his shoulders, Peter let out a sigh of relief. He had met the Air Force officer several times during Peter’s various stays at the compound and he found the man to be straight-laced and serious when it came to his job, but when he was hanging with Mr. Stark, he was relaxed and sarcastically funny. He liked him a lot and he was so, so glad to see him.

“Colonel Rhodes! Oh – oh my god! I can’t believe you’re here!” Peter exclaimed, his tongue letting loose a torrent of words, gesticulating wildly and needing the other man to understand what had happened to him.

“There was like this crazy wizard dude, right? And the next thing I know, I get sucked up into this weird portal, but it’s like a super-powered portal, ya know? And then I somehow ended up back where I started at Dr. Strange’s, but the place was empty and then I checked out some more of the city, but it’s like bizzaro New York cause everything is messed up here, and I think I might have ended up in another dimension or something so I came home to find May, but the place is trashed and I’m don’t know where-–"

“Jesus, kid … it really is you, isn’t it?” Col. Rhodes lowered the repulsar he had aimed at Peter and relaxed his stance, retracting his helmet and grinning, but in a way that suggested he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing, “You okay?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Peter shrugged, forgetting to mention how crappy he felt or how completely freaked out he still was, “But how did you know I was here?”

“Your suit’s AI connected with Friday’s servers and basically threw up a shit ton of red flags, so she called me,” the Colonel explained. “She and your AI seemed to think you might have come from a kind of parallel universe or something, but they thought you might be in trouble, so I came in a little hot.” Rhodes gestured towards the smashed in door hanging on only one hinge now, “Sorry ‘bout that, by the way.”

“Wait. Karen contacted you? I didn’t think she was working.”

“Friday said that her speech processors were damaged. She’s been on this whole time, but unable to talk to you. It’s something that can be fixed when we get your suit back to the lab, but before that …” Rhodes retracted his armor and stepped out of the suit. He approached and placed both hands on Peter’s shoulders, holding him out at arm’s length to inspect him fully like he was checking to make sure he was actually in one piece. “It’s damn good to see ya, Peter. Tony is gonna shit a brick when he sees you.”

All of the blood in Peter’s face drained away and he felt like he had just been dunked into a vat of ice water.

“M-Mr. Stark?” He stammered, thinking he must have heard the Colonel wrong – it just wasn’t possible.

“Sure. He’s gonna want to see you, of course.”

Rhodes must have noticed something inside Peter’s gut churn painfully because he was eying him with concern and bracing his shoulders tight.

“Hey, you okay?” Rhodes asked, “You’re looking a little green, like you’re gonna –”

Peter suddenly bent at the waist and vomited on the Colonel’s shoes.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3


In his head, Peter kept an ever changing and ever expanding series of top ten lists. There was the top ten sandwich shops in Queens, of which Delmar’s still comfortably held the top spot. The top ten one-liners used on criminals, top ten teachers at school and the top ten worst. Of course, he had a top ten Avengers list (okay, so there are only like nine of them, but who’s counting?) And Colonel James Rhodes, a.k.a War Machine, was near the top of that list.

And Peter had just puked on him.

Which brought to mind another one of his top ten lists: top ten most embarrassing things that have ever happened to him. Beating out ‘sudden case of diarrhea in third grade’ this moment neatly slotted itself near the top just under ‘splitting the Staten Island Ferry in half’. Still not his most embarrassing thing ever, but Peter tried to never think about that.

“Oh my god, oh my god!” Peter sputtered, a hand covering his mouth and having a hard time catching his breath. There were so many things spinning in his head: shock, humiliation, happiness, Mr. Stark, incredulity, disbelief. He was spiraling, he knew, but he couldn’t stop it. It was as if his brain was stuck in a feedback loop, caught on repeating the same phrase over and over again: Mr. Stark is alive and I just puked on War Machine.

He felt dizzy and for a second, the world blinked out and then he was suddenly sitting in a chair with his head between his knees and a hand on his shoulder.

“Just breathe, kid.”

Peter tried to pull in a shaky breath. His stomach twisted and heart pounded so hard, he thought it might burst from his chest like that scene from Alien.

What have I told you about pop-culture references?

This time, unlike all of the previous times he heard Mr. Stark’s voice in his head, he didn’t feel so much an ache of sadness, but hope.

He was alive!

Maybe.

He still wasn’t sure yet, but even the possibility was mind-blowing.

The hand on his shoulder moved to his back and began rubbing circles into it. Peter started to feel his breath coming in a little easier after a moment or two and he began to relax a bit. His hands were sort of shaky, and his stomach was still a little iffy, but at least he didn’t think he’d hurl again.

“You okay or you got some more in ya?” The older man asked.

Peter nodded and sat up a little, blowing out a breath, and nodded, “I think so.” He told Rhodes then looked down at the mess he had made and his face went from cold to hot in a flash.

“Oh my God, Colonel Rhodes, your shoes! I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Rhodes rushed assured him, seeming to know just how embarrassed Peter was over it, “Tony’s done much worse, trust me.”

Peter gulped just hearing Mr. Stark being brought up so casually and without the undertones of sympathy or grief that usually accompanied his name these last few months.

“So, Mr. Stark … he’s … ?” Peter’s eyes swam a little, and he choked his next words out, “Is he okay? I mean … in this place he’s not hurt or –”

Peter still had a hard time saying the word ‘dead’.

“Yeah, kid. I guess ‘okay’ is kind of a subjective term for him right now, but physically, he’s fine.”

Something inside of Peter brightened and he was so relieved he could have let out a whoop of joy. And then Rhodes narrowed his eyes at him, saying “But, if you’re asking, I’m guessing that something happened to the Tony where you’re from. Am I right?”

Peter suddenly felt that spark of brightness and hope dim a little as he nodded and dropped his eyes, remembering that this was not his world. The Mr. Stark of this world was not his own. He was still without a mentor where he came from and he wasn't coming back.

He swallowed hard and tried to explain without going into great detail. He really didn’t like thinking about that day and he watched his hands unconsiously rub together as he explained, “Mr. Stark used the gauntlet against Thanos and he saved us all,  but he … he didn’t make it.”

“Damn. I’m sorry.” Rhodes said sympathetically, shaking his head with genuine sorrow.

“Yeah, “ Peter agreed hoarsely, “me too.”

Rhodes face took on a haunted look, “A lot of good people died that day ... you included, or at least our version of you.”

“So, I'm still dead here?” asked Peter, feeling like he wouldn’t like the answer, “But what happened with Thanos? Didn't you guys fight him?”

Again, Rhodes looked incredibly sad, and like Peter, he kept his answer short and without detail. “Yeah. We fought him … and we lost.”

Both of them were silent for several moments before Rhodes seemed to decide that things had become entirely too maudlin. He took a deep breath and patted Peter once on the back, “I’ll fill you in on everything later, but first,” he looked down at his wet shoes as a hint, “I need a towel.”

Peter, ashamed he hadn’t thought of that, jumped up and hurried to search the apartment, finding an old, dusty towel in the linen closet that didn’t look too moth-eaten. He offered to clean Rhodes’ shoes for him, but the Colonel wouldn’t allow it, instead he sent Peter to his room to search for some clothes to change out of his suit into.

Finding a t shirt and jeans that weren’t musty or still with age was a bit of a challenge but he was partially successful. He discovered a clean-ish shirt at the bottom of his dresser drawer and some jeans in his closet that didn’t smell like five-year old b.o.

After he was dressed, Peter found an old backpack and stuffed his suit inside, but when he stood and slung it over his shoulders he found himself coughing until he saw stars and he had to sit on his bed and take a breather for a moment or two. He thought it a little weird that his chest was kinda tight like it used to get back before the spider bite when allergies and asthma kept him constantly reaching for his inhaler, but he figured it was just the dust floating all around him causing it. Even if he did feel a little achy and sort of feverish, it was probably nothing to worry about and just residuals to his earlier concussion and stomach issues. Besides, he didn’t really get sick anymore, so he probably just needed to get out of that dusty room and he’d be fine.

“Hey, you okay?” Rhodes said, suddenly appearing at his open door.

Peter cleared his throat, unwilling to let another cough go, “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Alright then, we should get going. I figured that flying would be tempting fate after your little tummy trouble earlier, so I sent my suit on out ahead of us and called for a ride.”

Peter shook his head and groaned a little, “I’m never gonna live that down, am I? You won’t tell Mr. Stark, will you?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be our little secret. And if he ever does give you shit about it, I’ll just remind him of our sophomore year and a little tummy trouble he had once while on a date with this smokin’ hot senior. That’ll shut him up quick.”

Peter followed the colonel out of his room after that, but stopped him before they could leave. “I just wanted to thank you for coming out here, sir. Really, I appreciate it, but I gotta know ... what happens now? I don’t know where my aunt is and I have no idea how to get home --”

Rhodes clasped Peter on the shoulder reassuringly, “We’ll figure out. Let’s just get you back, get a little food in ya and then we can find your aunt and work it all out, okay?”

Peter nodded, but a little knot of worry in his stomach remained clenched as they left the apartment behind.

……….

Rhodey was having quite the morning. After all, it wasn’t every day that he was called on to pick up a dead kid.


But there he was, showing Peter the way to their ride and aside from the whole puking incident and looking a little pale, he seemed okay for the most part and definitely not dead.

Friday had explained some of what had brought Peter there with the whole sorcerer and magic wands stuff, but had left out some crucial details, like the fact that Peter’s Tony was dead in his universe. That would have been good to know beforehand and maybe it would have saved him a pair of shoes. And maybe it would have also kept Rhodey from feeling like he’d been punched in the gut when Peter explained what happened to his best friend in the other universe. He had to remind himself that his Tony was fine … or at least still alive.

He was far from fine.

None of them were fine anymore, really, but Tony was worrying him more and more lately. He feared the worst, and that one day his depression, grief and self-loathing would mean Rhodey would walk into Tony's penthouse and his friend would be gone, done in by either the booze or his own hand. Rhodey was doing all he could to prevent that, but he couldn’t watch Tony 24/7 and the stress of it all was putting a strain on their friendship.

He could only hope that one day his friend would find healing somehow and get back to being himself, but in the meantime, Rhodey would be there to help him through the worst of it.


And maybe seeing the kid again, even if he wasn’t technically their Peter, would help. Tony had had an attachment to the kid that Rhodey had come to see went deeper than just a mentor/mentee relationship. Tony had learned that he could let go of the fear of becoming his father and had tapped into some latent paternal instincts that he didn’t know he had. And Peter had soaked up it all up like a sponge, learning all he could from Tony and trying so very hard to make him proud and prove that he could be a superhero even at such a young age.

Sometimes, those two were idiots about it though. Tony liked to deny that he was more than a little obsessed with keeping the kid safe, but would then turn around in the next breath and create a suit made out of multi-million dollar, bleeding-edge nanotech for the kid complete with is own, personal AI. Hell, Rhodey didn’t even have one of those in his suit. But then the kid too would only prove to Tony that he needed the extra protections by doing something selfless, or reckless depending on the way you looked at it. Rhodey thought that maybe the kid's lack of self-presrvation instincts was due to the fact that he just really wanted someone to tell him he had limits. That yes, he could be a superhero, but no, he didn’t have to kill himself to do it. He probably even 

“Where are we going?” Peter asked as Rhodey opened the back door of the waiting nondescript black sedan that was standard in the SHIELD fleet and held it open for him.

“Manhattan. Tony has a new tower there. And since the compound was destroyed, it's kinda been our home base.”

“So, it’s like a new Avengers HQ?” Peter asked.

There are no Avengers anymore, Rhodey thought to himself, but held off telling the kid for now. He just shook his head a little and said, “Not right now.”


Peter seemed to accept that and climbed into the backseat with Rhodey taking the set beside him. Rhodey nodded to the driver, a young SHIELD agent named James. He was no Happy, but Rhodey was getting used to him .

The kid settled into his seat and looked out the window for a few minutes, looking thoughtful and then turned to Rhodey. He knew Peter was bursting with questions, but was still trying to figure out where to start, so he waited for the kid to speak, which didn’t take long.

“You never really told me what happened here. Did you guys never figure out time travel? Is that why everyone is still gone?”

Rhodey sighed. It looked like the kid was going to aim directly at the center mass of the matter.

“Oh, well …” Rhodey took a breath, wondering where to start. “Yeah … Tony figured out how time travel works with the Pym particles and we all went back and gathered the stones. We made it back and Hulk was able to used the Gauntlet Tony made. And minutes later, Thanos came. He destroyed the compound and we fought him. The snap worked though and everyone we lost came back and fought with us. But it wasn’t enough. Thanos got ahold of the gauntlet again and used it.”

Rhodey carefully schooled his features, trying not to let the anger, the sadness, and pain seep through. It would only scare the kid.

“He took everyone we brought back … plus 10%. Like some kind of cosmic retribution for daring to stand up to that asshole.”

“Jesus …” Peter breathed, looking stricken.

“Yeah, I’m afraid to say that the world you’ve wound up in is pretty messed up right now, but I guess it could have been worse … Thanos could have wiped us out entirely.”

“So, what are you gonna do? Are you going after Thanos again?”

Rhodey again had to fight to keep the frustration and anger from his voice. This subject was still a bone of contention between himself and Tony. His friend wanted to believe the impossible, that he could somehow fix the past for a second time. But Rohdey had to be the voice of reason and he repeated to Peter what he had had to telll Tony time and time again. "We can’t. Nebula tracked Thanos down again, but he’d already destroyed the stones just like he had the first time. And we can’t go back in time again either. The last of the Pym particles that allowed us to go into the quantum realm were destroyed when Thanos snapped the second time. Cap had them and he was, well … part of that extra 10%. And we can’t make more. Dr. Pym is gone and he left no notes on how he created them. Paranoid bugger must have kept the formula for them in his head. Besides … ”

Peter stared at Rhodey with wide eyes and Rhodey hated having to tell him more bad news.

“There aren’t enough of us left to try again. It’s just me, Hulk and Tony left.”

“What? H-how … I mean …”

“You gotta understand … “ Rhodey tried to explain, swallowing hard, “We didn’t just lose our friends that day. A lot of us lost hope. Thor left with Rocket and Nebula, Clint disappeared again, Captain Danvers decided to go back to wherever it is she came from –”

It was silent in the car for several moments.

Rhodey however, had another subject that he had to bring up that he hated discussing, but it was needed before they made it to their destination.

“Look, I know this is all a lot to take in, but there’s something else you should know.”

Peter looked at him, worry already etching into his face.

“It’s about Tony. He’s … not the same as he used to be. He lost so much that day.” Rhodey found his own throat still closed up a little whenever he thought too long on it, but he had to get out and rip the band-aid off, telling it to the kid as plainly as he could, “He lost his team and you again, but he also lost his family. Pepper and Morgan were taken in the second snap. It was like Thanos had it out for him, made him to suffer the most." Rhodey sighed wearily,  "I dunno … all I do know is that this is the worst thing than can happen to anybody and Tony is a mess right now. I’m trying to help, but it’s just so much ...”

Rhodey didn’t even realize a tear had sneaked from his eye until he felt it land on his cheek. He had loved Pepper like a sister and Morgan like a neice. They had been his family too and their loss weighed heavy in his gut and still hurt like a fresh wound.

He turned his face away to compose himself again. When he turned back, he saw that Peter too had red eyes.

“God … Ms. Potts. She’s always so nice to me. And Morgan too? She’s only four and she’s such a sweet little girl. It's not fair." Peter shook his head,  "And Mr. Stark ... Jeez. I can’t believe what Mr. Stark must be feeling. I don’t know what to say.”

“There’s not much that can be said to make any of this okay.” Rhodey replied softly and honestly.

It was quiet in the car after that. Peter didn’t ask any more questions and they both went to staring out their windows as the empty city rolled by.

……..

Tony raised the mug of tepid coffee to his lips and downed what was left in one gulp. It was like sludge going down his gullet, but if it would help the throbbing behind his eyes, and keep him awake and free of nightmares he’d drink a gallon of the stuff.

He poured himself another cup and took it with him across the room to his work station. He sat heavily into his chair and placed his mug on the computer table beside his keyboard. He sighed and rested his aching head in his hands for several seconds before looking up at the computer display.

The Pym particle.

It rotated in its holographic form, taunting him, whispering to him to find out its secrets. But when Tony tried to discover its origins, to reverse engineer its creation, he’d get so close, then it would elude him again and again and again.

Goddamn Pym.

The guy figured out how to shrink himself to the size of an atom, but didn’t want to share with the rest of the class. And now look at the creek they were up without a paddle.

No wonder his dad never had anything good to say about the guy.

“Fri?”

“Yes, Boss?”

“What trial are we on?”

“42.”

“And how close were we this time?”

“The simulation shows a reduction in mass of 82%.”

“Shit.” Tony rubbed a hand over his face, sighing as he massaged his messy stubble. He needed his particle to be able to shrink a human to 99.999999999%  of their original mass to be able to enter the quantum realm. He wasn’t even close. He could get a simulated human down to about the size of a flea, but to go subatomic required a piece of the puzzle he just could not find and all of his countless equations and trials and errors were confounding him. He was Tony fucking Stark and he couldn’t figure out something some old guy had put together more than 30 years ago?

Why couldn’t he do it? What was he missing?

“Boss, I feel I should warn you that Colonel Rhodes has left the building and is on his way to pick up –”

“Does this have anything to do with the project I’m currently working on?” Tony interrupted.

“No, Boss. However –”

“Okay, cool. Then not my problem.”

Tony’s headache bloomed into a full-on migraine. It was hard to think hungover much less try to do complex quantum mechanics and his head ended up in his hands again.

He closed his eyes.

He saw Pepper in his mind’s eye coming into the lab and giving him the stink-eye.

“You look like shit.” She would have said.

“Yep.” He would have replied, popping his p at the end of the word. “That’s what happens when your wife dies and she keeps haunting you. Kinda makes sleeping hard.”


She would narrow her eyes and saunter closer then place her hands on her hips in a move that didn’t allow for arguing. “Maybe you’d sleep a little better if you quit obsessing over things you can’t change.”

Tony would look up into her eyes and plead with her the way he had countless times when he had spent far too many hours in his lab or working on his suits. “If I can just figure this shit out, then maybe I can change it, Pep.”

She would then sigh and throw up her arms and he would know that he had won for the moment. Later on, he’d pay for it, but for right now, she’d let him be and continue on.

Tony felt a lone tear slip past his eyelid. God, he’d do anything to lose an argument to that woman right now.

That's all the more reason why he needed to do this.

Dammit. He really needed to start focusing or this was never going to happen.

He wiped his eyes and cleared his throat, lifting his head from the table.

“Okay, Fri. Let’s work on number 43.”

Time passed as he worked. How much, Tony couldn’t say and he didn’t care to guess and he would have kept at it if it hadn’t been for Friday interrupting him once again.

“Colonel Rhodes is asking to see you, Boss.”

“Tell him I’m busy.”

Friday was silent for a few beats and then came back with a response, “He told me to tell you, ‘tough shit, I’m coming up anyway.’ Also, he has a guest with him. It’s P-“

Tony threw up his hands, “Oh for God’s sake, Fri! I don’t care if it’s the Pope himself. I’ve got shit to do.”

“They are already in the elevator and will arrive at the door to the lab in 15 seconds.”

“Does no one respect the fact that I pay for this place and that maybe, just maybe, I should be able to be left alone so I can get some work done?” Tony grumbled, hearing the ping of the elevator doors followed a few seconds later by the sounds of them opening and closing.

Tony didn’t even bother to turn around when he heard his best friend’s footsteps approach, “Rhodey, now is really not a good time. I’ve got a simulation to run and I need –”

“Tony –”

Rhodey used his most serious command voice, the one he only used on Tony when he actually needed to get his attention. Tony must have been at risk of incurring the wrath of whoever his visitor was that he brought with him. Jesus … maybe he actually had brought the Pope himself.

He swiveled his chair and turned, more out of curiosity to see who Rhodey thought was so important that he had to barge into his lab than anything else.

And then the world seemed to hit ‘pause’ for several seconds.

Because standing only a few feet away was a ghost.

Tony stood and stared at the apparition, feeling cold and numb, except for the muscles in his left arm which clenched painfully around his bones. His heart pounded thunderously in his chest and the air seemed to leave the room all at once like an explosive decompression. His body warred with his mind to maintain some semblance of composure and remain on his feet even as spots danced around the corners of his vision and his thoughts moved a million miles a second.

This wasn’t happening.

This was another daydream … a very, very vivid daydream.

“Uh …” The ghost spoke and waved awkwardly, his smile tentative and eyes watery. “Hey, Mr. Stark,” he spoke, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he swallowed hard, looking as if he could burst into tears at any moment.

Tony couldn’t take another second.

He turned on his heels and rushed out of the room.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

As far as touching reunions went, that was not what Peter had expected.

While he had been in the elevator with Rhodes, his anxiety at seeing Mr. Stark in the flesh for the first time since he died had reached near panic levels. And then seeing him again, even with his back turned to them, he had had a hard time keeping his breath under control and the tears from his eyes.

It was really happening. There was Mr. Stark. Alive!

But then Mr. Stark had turned to them and Peter hardly recognized the man. His beard had fully grown in and gone was his carefully crafted, signature goatee. His hair was shaggy too and looked like it hadn’t seen a shower or a comb in days. With his sensitive nose, he could pick up the faint smell of alcohol on his breath and he could plainly see that he had lost a considerable amount of weight.

But what really got to Peter were his eyes. They were haunted and filled with grief, but then the second he saw Peter, they had gone wild and panicky. Peter had never seen him this way before and he didn’t know what to say or do except wave stupidly and say, “Uh … Hey, Mr. Stark.”

Jesus, the man thought he was dead and that was all he could say? Peter felt like such an idiot.

He watched in stunned silence as Mr. Stark turned a weird shade of puce, performed an about-face and then quick-stepped it out of the lab. He felt his heart lurch a little in disappointment, but he tried to remind himself that he hadn’t had the best reaction to finding out that his mentor was alive either and Col. Rhodes’ shoes had paid the price.

But it hurt all the same and he couldn’t stop discouraging thoughts from flooding over him.

Peter was frozen to his spot. He wanted to go after him and explain everything or at least apologize for giving him such a shock. But he just couldn’t move.

“I’ll go talk to him. Just stay here a minute.” Colonel Rhodes said and held out a hand to keep Peter from following, unaware that he was currently paralyzed and not going anywhere.

Peter nodded and watched the colonel chase after Mr. Stark.

For a few moments, the big, empty lab was quiet save for the whir of a few computer terminals in the back. The silence however, made it easy for Peter to pick up the voices coming from behind a closed door somewhere down the hall. Sometimes super hearing was a bit of curse since he always knew when people were talking about him behind his back, but this time around he wanted to hear what was being said, so he focused on their words and listened in.

“What the ever-living fuck?!” He heard Mr. Stark yell as a door opened and closed. “Friday, did you know about this? Why didn’t you say anything?” he demanded of his AI.

“I attempted to make you aware of the situation several times, boss, but you would not allow me to explain.” Her calm voice replied with a hint of smug vindication thinly masked by her matter-of-fact tone.

“Tony, calm down.” Rhodes demanded.

“Calm down!? How the hell am I supposed to do that?” Mr. Stark’s voice raised higher in pitch and volume, “Because whoever the fuck that is out there, that’s not the kid. I should know, I watched him dis-in-te-grate!” Peter heard him punctuate every syllable of that last word and it took him aback. “So, who is he, huh? And where the fuck did he come from?”

Peter sucked in a breath. He didn’t think he had ever heard Mr. Stark so vehement before nor so broken.

“Tony, Jesus! You know that he can hear you. Hell, people down in Times Square can probably hear you.”

Mr. Stark only got louder, “Just tell me, Rhodey, or I swear to God –”

“Okay, okay. Just take a breath, will you?” Rhodes tried to soothe Mr. Stark, but sounded rather exasperated at the same time. “You’re right. He’s not from around here, but he is Peter. Friday and Karen both confirmed it, his biometric scans are a perfect match. Apparently, there was some kind of magical alternate universe travel stuff that was involved, but the gist of it is that that kid out there is Peter Parker.”

Peter heard footsteps and he knew it was Mr. Stark pacing. He did that when he was upset and needed to think about how he was going to berate the person his anger was focused on. Peter had been on the other end of enough of his lectures to know that shit was about to go down and it wasn’t going to be pretty.

“Okay … so you’re telling me that this kid just shows up from another universe and you’re thinking, ‘Cool, I’ll just take him over to my buddy’s house and that’ll cheer him up?!’”

“That’s not at all what this is.”

“Oh really? Don’t tell me you didn’t think that.” Tony’s voice raised in volume another notch and Peter didn't need super hearing to make out every word. “Don’t tell me that you brought him here instead of to a SHIELD facility like you should have because you thought it was for his sake. You brought him to me because you thought that would make everything magically better to have a Peter clone around. Well, I got a newsflash for you. Peter is dead! And he’s not a goldfish. You can’t just replace him with something identical and expect me to be happy about it.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Rhodes returned with equal vehemence, “I miss our Peter and everyone else too, but that kid out there is scared and needs help getting home. We’re the only people he knows here and I’m not going to turn a 16 year old over to be locked up by SHIELD when we can help him. Is that what you really want? To give him to the government so he can sit around in some cell for God knows how long? Because if it is, then I really don’t know you anymore. So tell me, is that what you want?”

“You want to know what I want? Do you, Rhodey? What I want is one goddam Pym particle so I can go back in time and fix this mess.” Peter heard Mr. Stark’s voice break, raw with pain

“What I want is my wife and my daughter and my Peter back, not some carbon copy from God knows where!”

There was silence for a few beats and Peter’s heart was caught in his ever constricting throat. He wanted to run out of the room and hide or go anywhere but where he was standing. A cold dread was settling over him and he felt anxious enough to vomit. Mr. Stark wasn’t just shocked to see Peter alive, he didn’t even want him here. He wasn’t the right Peter. He wasn’t the Peter this Mr. Stark had mentored or the Peter that had spent hours in the lab with him or even the one that had died in his arms. He was just a hurtful reminder of what he had lost and just being here was causing the man only more pain.

And maybe Peter had been Naïve to think that this Mr. Stark would be like his own and would be happy to see him. That he would want to take care of him and keep him safe like he always had. He had hoped for too much and it was his own damn fault for getting too excited and for wanting what he could clearly not have. This was not his world, he had to remind himself. He was a stranger here and Mr. Stark was under no obligation to like him or even acknowledge him.

Rationalizing all this didn’t make it feel any better though and his heart was crumbling inside his chest.

Peter really didn’t want to hear any more.

He turned and all but ran from the lab, pulse pounding and tears threatening. He turned down a corridor and searched for an open door he could slip into, any open door.

He needed to get away to think or cry or scream or … something. He needed the nagging headache he’d been nursing since yesterday to go away and he needed to get away from this world and Mr. Stark and everything.

He just didn’t want to hurt anymore and he really didn’t want to hurt Mr. Stark, even if he wasn’t really his.

A door to his right was ajar and he found it to be a small but modernly designed bathroom. The light automatically brightened fully as he walked in and he had to squeeze his eyes shut against the sudden flare up of his headache. He slapped a hand over his tearing eyes and groaned, gripping the sink with his other hand so tight his fingers left grooves in it.

Just as suddenly as the light had brightened, it dimmed and Peter would have thanked Friday for her thoughtfulness, but he couldn’t speak. His headache wasn’t getting any better, infact, it was worsening, like having a red-hot knife shoved into his temple, sharp and blindingly intense. Bending his head over the basin, he tried to breathe through the worst of it without hyperventilating, a task he nearly failed at.

The pain let up fractionally after a minute or two and he was finally able to open his eyes and look up into the mirror. It wasn’t a surprise to see red, puffy eyes looking tiredly back at him, but the viscous trickle of blood seeping from his nose was.


…..

Tony stared daggers at Rhodey and his friend, his breath coming in short pants until his adrenaline finally started to dissipate. And then just as quickly as he had become angry, he was suddenly exhausted and he deflated. He slumped into a nearby chair while Rhodey, relieved to see that the worst of Tony’s temper tantrum had subsided, placed a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Rhodey.” He muttered, “It’s just seeing him is a little … I dunno.”

“Strange? Weird? Off-putting?”

“Yeah, all of that and … “ Tony rubbed his face wearily. “I don’t think I really know how I should feel, I guess. I mean … it’s him, but it’s not. I just don’t know if I can handle it right now, you know?”

“I get it, man, I do. But in the mean time, he still needs our help.”

Tony sighed deeply, “Yeah.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, his headache well and truly firmly entrenched. “You know I didn’t really mean that crap about SHIELD and I wouldn’t want him anywhere near those idiots. I’m just really tired and being an asshole is kinda my default setting.”

Rhodey snorted, “Tell me something I don’t know,” he said without heat.

“Just try to keep him out of my hair, okay?”

“Fine. Sulk in here all you want, but you’re not going to be able to avoid him forever. Just remember that even though he’s not our kid, he’s close enough. He’s just had to live through a different outcome to the war than us.”

“What do you mean?” Tony asked, wondering just how different a world the kid in the other room was from his own.

“They won the war in his universe, of course. How else do you explain how he’s still alive?”

For a second Tony was taken aback, then all sorts of things ran through his head, but his main question was, “How?”

How had his world escaped Thanos’ decimation? What had they done right over there that Tony had failed so miserably at?

“I don't know the whole story, but apparently, their Tony Stark saved the day, but got himself killed in the process. That’s why you really need to be a little less of jerk to him. He’s grieving you, man. You can see it plain as day.”

Tony closed his eyes and leaned his head back in the chair. Now he felt a nagging sense of guilt for so ardently rejecting the kid on top of his already confused feelings. But he couldn’t allow himself the luxury of feeling this way. He couldn’t allow himself to feel sorry for a kid who was only going to be in his life temporarily and it wasn’t fair to this new Peter to let him get attached either. He needed to focus on getting the kid he lost back, on getting his wife and daughter and trillions of others in his universe back. That had to be his main mission.

He’d help the kid, sure, and then he’d send him on his way home and then that would be that.

But this new Peter couldn’t get home until Tony got to work on it. He was just going to have to fix this situation as quickly as possible and he couldn’t do that if he was arguing with Rhodey all day.

“Alright. Here’s what we do. You go find him a room and feed him and all that jazz. Maybe take him to see Banner to get a once over too. And I’ll see how we can get him back to his own universe, ‘kay?”

“What about his aunt? Shouldn’t we look for her?”

Tony shook his head and looked off at a blank wall, remembering going to her apartment after he recovered form his ordeal in space and informing her that her nephew wasn’t coming home. That had been one of the worst things he had ever had to do in his life, but when Peter had died the second time around, he tried to track her down, to repeat the terrible task, but he found that she had been taken this time too. He had felt a small, guilty sense of relief to think that maybe she hadn’t even known that Peter had come back, no matter how briefly. She hadn’t had to mourn him twice, unlike him.

“No need.” Tony said softly, “She’s gone.”

“Shit.” Rhodey sighed and rubbed his neck, “I guess I’m gonna have to be the one to tell him?” he asked, phrasing it as if hoping that Tony might take that burden off his shoulders.
Tony just couldn’t and he conveyed as much with one look at his oldest friend.

“Yeah, but since everything is honkey-dorie back in his world, he’ll at least have her to go back to. All the more reason to get him home as soon as possible, right?”

Rhodey threw up his hands, but relented and left after that to go and take care of the kid, muttering about stubborn asses under his breath until he was out of earshot.

A worm of guilt and longing burrowed into his chest and Tony fought to suppress it. A part of him thought that he should be the one in Rhodey’s shoes; to be the one to take care of the kid just like he always had and he was a little jealous. A bigger part of him wanted nothing more than to just envelope that child and hold on to him just so he could feel the kid solid and whole once again, breathing the same air as him, his heartbeat strong against his chest, just like that last hug they had shared on the battlefield.

It was tempting as hell, but that would be selfish of him and it would do neither of them any favors.

Tony turned and went back to his lab, calling up Friday as soon as he entered, “Okay, girl. Gimme everything you know about Peter Parker 2.0 and how he got here.”

……

Peter held the toilet paper to his nose and leaned his head back. He didn’t know how long it had been since it started bleeding, but it didn’t seem to want to ever stop. He could feel the blood tricking down the back of his throat, its metallic aftertaste making him a little queasy.

What had caused it to happen in the first place was a mystery to him. He was never prone to nosebleeds, not even before the spider when he was still plagued by allergies and all kinds of sinus issues. Sure, he’d been socked in the nose plenty of times and had gotten them through injury before, but they had never come on out of the blue like this and with is healing factor, they never lasted long.

He had taken a seat on the toilet lid when it felt like for a moment that he might pass out. He really wasn’t a big fan of seeing blood, but it had never made him feel so light-headed before and he wasn’t sure if it was just the shock of everything that has happened to him in the last day or if it was something else, something inside of him that felt off and wrong. Ever since he had landed in this world it had been nagging at him and it only seemed to be getting worse.

He coughed a few times and his hands shook as little as he pressed his nose and he was suddenly just so very tired that he could almost fall asleep where he sat.

In fact, his eyes had just begun to flutter shut when a burst of noise and light and … green … burst into the room.

Peter startled off of the toilet and landed less than gracefully in a heap on the floor.

He looked up and up and up.

And into the face of the Hulk/Bruce Banner himself.

Their two voices yelped in unison.

“Holy shit!”

“Oh my god!”

Peter cursed his spastic spider sense for the lack of warning while the Hulk’s green face somehow blushed a deep red and he stammered, “Oh my God, I didn’t know someone was in here. I’m sorry! I saw the door open a little and thought Tony was --”

Peter watched, dumbstruck by the enormous man filling his field of vision. He never thought for one second in his life that he would ever have the Hulk walk in on him in a bathroom, but there he was, apologizing profusely to Peter one moment and then in the very next coming to the realization that he was not a regular user of this bathroom.

The Hulk paused and cocked his head, confused, “Hey, aren’t you ...?“

The room suddenly felt very small and so did Peter.

“You’re Peter, right? Spider-Man?” Hulk then exclaimed, his voice loud enough to hurt the kid’s ears as it bounced off the tiled walls. “How the hell? I thought you were … “

“Kinda on the dead side of life?” Peter helpfully finished, pushing himself off the floor.

“Wouldn’t have quite put it that way, but yeah. What the hell is going on? Why are you in Tony’s bathroom?”

“Uh, well … it’s a bit of a long story.” Peter sniffed and wiped at his dripping nose, forgetting for a moment that it was still bleeding. Hulk noticed though and he tried to come further into the little room.

“Oh hey, you’re bleeding. Crap. Here, let me just –” Hulk reached for some more toilet paper, but Peter’s knee was in the way and they bumped into each other. Peter tried to twist and angle himself to allow for the hulk’s mass, but it was just too awkwardly crowded for the both of them in the small space.

Hulk chuckled a little, and finally managed to pull out a wad of toilet paper, “This must be why they call it the little boys’ room. It’s not exactly my size.”

Peter smiled a little too, wondering absently about the Hulk’s bathroom. Did he even go to the bathroom? That was a dumb thought. Of course, he had to go to the bathroom. He bet his toilet had to be enormous though, not to mention his tub.

A giant hand handed him the tissues and then guided him to sit on the toilet lid again. Peter took the paper and jammed it under his nose then leaned his head back.

“No, no, no.” Hulk gently placed his hand behind his head and brought it back up. “Don’t lean your head back. Tilt it forward and pinch your nose to stop the bleeding. If you lean your head back, you’ll just end up swallowing your blood and it could make you nauseas.”

“Thanks.” Peter said gratefully, wishing he had done that in the first place. Maybe then he wouldn’t feel so gross.

“No problem.” The big guy smiled kindly and Peter had wished he had had gotten to know the Hulk of his universe a little better. He had only really met him once and that had been at Tony’s funeral which was an experience that he didn’t care to dwell on.

He seemed like a pretty cool, laid back guy though and not at all like the smashing rage monster he had grown up imagining him to be. He knew that during the blip and Peter’s five year death vacation that Bruce Banner and the Hulk had managed to merge into one being, combining their brains and brawn together, but knowing that and seeing it were two different things. Also, Peter could make-out how much smaller his right arm was compared to his left even under the long-sleeved shirt he wore. Seeing it reminded him of how the Hulk had been the one to use the gauntlet to snap everyone who had died back into existence. Without him, or at least his counterpart in his own universe, Peter would still be dead.

Hulk patted his back gently and Peter decided right away that he liked him.

“So, I have about a thousand questions right now,” Hulk said and then eyed Peter with concern, “but I think the most important one is: are you okay?”

Peter nodded even though it felt only partially true. He still had a headache and that weird feeling of wrongness still sat like a rock in his stomach, but he didn’t feel in any immediate danger of dying, so in other words, he was good to go.

“I’m fine.” Peter assured him in a nasally voice as he continued to pinch his nose, “It’s just been a really, really long day.”

“Hate to break it to you, kiddo, but it’s only 9 a.m.”

Peter groaned, “Oh, man.”

Hulk snorted, “I’m sure you’re okay, but I’d feel better if I could examine you in my lab. Would you be alright with that?”

Peter looked at the door. He wasn’t sure how long Col. Rhodes and Mr. Stark were going to argue and he had been told to wait by Mr. Rhodes, but he didn’t want to say no to the Hulk either. He nodded his head though and agreed partly because he was curious to see Mr. Hulk’s lab, but also because he was never very good at staying put.

The Hulk led Peter to the elevator and they went down a couple floors until the doors opened into a large sophisticated lab area. Unlike Mr. Stark’s lab, however, there were microscopes and beakers and jars filled with liquids in the cabinets. There was also a huge, Hulk sized exam chair in the center of the room.

Hulk made a gesture towards the chair, “Go ahead and hop up. I’m just gonna grab a few things and be right back.”

Peter went to the chair and had to practically scale the thing to get on it. Once seated, he felt swallowed by the thing and so very, very small. While he waited, he pulled the tissues away from his nose and was glad to see that the bleeding has appeared to have finally stopped.

Hulk came back a moment later pulling a mobile blood pressure/pulse ox machine behind him which he wheeled next to the chair, giving Peter a warm smile, “Oh good, your nose looks better.”

“I think so.” Peter agreed.

“Good. Alrighty then.” Hulk reached up and gently prodded his nose, “Did you hit it or did it just start bleeding spontaneously?”

“Well, I guess I had a really bad headache and for a minute there it got worse and then my nose just started bleeding.”

“Does that happen often when you get headaches?” Hulk then used a penlight to look into his eyes. The light did no favors for his headache, but Peter tried not to complain. 

Peter shook his head,  clearing spots from his vision, “I usually only get nosebleeds when someone punches me in the face.”

Hulk chuckled, “Yep, that’ll do it. Do you have any other symptoms I should know about?”

Peter shrugged, “I guess, I’m tired and I was pretty nauseas and a little dizzy earlier, but I also did go through an inter-dimentional portal created by an insane wizard and landed on my head … so there’s that.”

Hulk didn’t even bat an eye at that. Peter assumed that to a man that had actually time-travelled before, almost everything ese would seem mundane, “Sounds like an interesting story. One I’d like to hear in depth, but first I’ll just get your blood pressure and vitals and stuff and maybe a blood sample if you’re willing.”

“Uh, okay, but can’t Friday do all of that just by scanning me?”

“Well, yeah, she can. You can call me old-fashioned, but I think doing it myself is more accurate and it’s a little more … I dunno … personal. I’m not an M.D. or anything, but I think people prefer to have a real person examining them. No offence, Fri!” He called up to the ceiling.

“None taken, Dr. Banner” She replied.

Hulk then put Peter through the paces. He took his blood pressure, temperature, pulse and oxygen rates. He then pricked a finger and tested his glucose. After that came the blood-letting and Peter pretended that he wasn’t freaked out by the needle by closing his eyes and turning his head as the Hulk’s massive fingers jammed it into a vein.

“Okay, all done.” Hulk said as he pulled out the needle and then dropped it into a sharps container. The big guy sighed a little and then began to run down his results with Peter.

“Looks like your blood pressure is a little low and your temp is a little high, at least they are for any normal human. Also your blood sugar’s in the dumps. I don’t have any baseline readings for your particular physiology to compare them to, but if I had to guess, I’d say that you are in dire need of 1. a good meal and 2. a solid nap. Otherwise, until I look at your bloodwork, I’d say that you’re gonna live.”

Peter agreed that both of those things sounded good and they strode back to the elevator. Just as the doors opened, Col. Rhodes came out and sighed in relief at the sight of the two of them together.

“Oh, Hulk, good. I see you met our guest.”

“Yeah. Would have been nice to have a little heads-up, but the kid and I were just getting to know each other.”

Rhodes looked abashed and rubbed the back of his neck, “Sorry about that, big guy, but it’s been a bit of a crazy morning.”

“Clearly.” Hulk agreed, nodding at Peter.

Rhodes turned to Peter and gave him and apologetic expression, “I was worried when you weren’t still in Tony’s lab. I know some things were said …”

“It’s okay, Col. Rhodes, really. I know it’s weird having me here.” Peter looked down at his feet.

“Still, I didn’t mean for you to hear all of that. And you know Tony is just … well, he just needs some time to adjust to the idea of you being around.”

Peter nodded again and then he felt a weighty, supportive hand on his shoulder. Hulk looked down at him and smiled kindly, “Well, I for one am starving and breakfast is calling my name. How about we go eat and you guys can tell me what the hell is going on here. Sound good?”
….

The three of them went back up to Mr. Stark’s penthouse since he had the bigger and better stocked kitchen and Hulk and Rhodes put together an enormous meal of eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast. Hulk ate the vast majority of the breakfast while Peter and Rhodes ate their fill too. Peter was careful of his stomach since he was still a little nauseas and his headache refused to back down completely, but he had to admit that having some food in him helped and the shaky, dizzy feeling he had felt earlier was much better.

While they sat at the table, He and Rhodes went over the story of Peter’s arrival in their universe to Hulk who accepted their explanations with rapt fascination. “Wow. The multiverse was just a theory before, but now … this is pretty cool.” If Peter wasn’t in his current predicament, he probably would have agreed to that point.

Rhodes unfortunately had to tell him the bad news that his aunt was no longer present in this universe. Peter tried to absorb that calmly, but a few tears slipped out anyway. He just couldn't imagine life without her and though this world’s May wasn’t his, it still felt like a knife to the gut. Rhodes assured him that they would do all they could to get him home and that Mr. Stark was already working on it and reminded Peter that his aunt was waiting for him back in his own universe. That actually did comfort him a little and he knew that if anyone could get him back to his aunt, it would be Mr. Stark.

It would just be really hard to have to go back to a world without him again.

Speaking of the devil himself, Mr. Stark walked into the room and stopped. An awkward silence settled over all of them and seeing the three of them at the kitchen table, it looked for a moment like Mr. Stark wanted to back out. Instead, he made eye contact with Peter and for a second, it looked like he was actually going to acknowledge his presence and say something to him.

Peter held his breath.

But then the moment passed and Mr. Stark cleared his throat, shifting his eyes away from Peter’s. He then strode to the coffee pot wordlessly and poured a cup and Peter dropped his eyes to the table, hoping to hide his disappointment.

Mr. Stark took a sip of his coffee and then made a circular gesture with his hand as he walked out of the room with his drink, “Please, continue. Don’t let my presence interrupt your little coffee clatch here.“

When breakfast was finished, Hulk excused himself to work in his lab and Rhodes led Peter to a guest room. It was a nice, spacious and modern bedroom, but one that lacked any personal touches. Peter doubted than anyone had ever slept in this space, but he didn’t much care right then. He was just so freaking tired and the bed looked like heaven draped in a comforter.

Col. Rhodes left Peter to his own devices soon after and the boy dropped his backpack beside the bed, flopped down backwards on top of it’s pillowy softness, and let it embrace his exhausted body. He pulled the duvet over his fully clothed body and relished in its warmth as he turned onto his side and closed his eyes.

He fell fast into a deep, dreamless slumber.


…..

 

When Peter woke it was well past noon and he was tangled in his covers.

He shivered and wanted to bury himself deeper under the blanket to gather more heat, but he knew he couldn’t lay in bed all day. Karen was still out in his suit and he wanted to see about fixing her. He also needed to see what he could do to help himself get home. It was really kind of Mr. Stark and Col. Rhodes and Hulk to let him stay with them, but he needed to get home.

May had to be worrying her head off about now and Happy was probably having a coronary.

He forced himself up and then almost fell back again when a wave of dizziness overcame him. His vision spotted out for a moment and he had to rest his head in his hands until he felt confident enough that he wouldn’t pass out.

Jeez, he felt like hammered crap. Even worse than before.

Everything ached. His joints, his back, his head, all of it. He didn’t need to check his temp to know that he had to be running a fever.

His chest felt tight and he coughed.

And then he coughed again and again and again.

It was like a chain reaction after that and Peter couldn’t stop the barking hacks rattling his ribcage. He couldn’t catch his breath and he was afraid for a second there that he would never be able to breathe again until finally, the coughing fit subsided and he sucked in lungfuls of air.

He was left feeling spent and light-headed, his chest and throat now sore.

Peter wanted to do nothing more than lay back down and curl up in the soft, warm blankets and just go back to sleep, basking in his misery.  But, he had stuff that needed doing and wallowing always led to thinking about things he didn't want to think about.

He whined a little as he tossed aside the blanket and scooted off the bed. He immediately felt goosebumps pop up along his skin and he wished he had more than just the one thin t-shirt with him. He kinda wanted to pull the blanket off the bed and just drape it over his shoulders and take it with him, but Peter didn’t want to dirty it by dragging it around. Besides, he was almost 17 and he was a little old to need a wubby.

He stumbled into the bathroom and caught a look a his reflection. He was visibly pale and eyes were slightly bloodshot, but it also looked like he had had another nosebleed in his sleep as dark brown dried blood covered his upper lip. That pestering feeling of dread came over him again and he couldn’t help but feel that something was really wrong with him, something more than just this lingering crappiness he’d been feeling.

Peter turned on the tap and scrubbed the blood from his face, thankful that it at least was no longer bleeding. After that, he took a deep breath and gripped the sink, willing his body to behave itself and not let him get any worse. He’d lifted a freaking building off of himself before and he could handle a little case of the flu or whatever this was. He wasn’t a little kid anymore and he needed to suck it up and drive on.

“You got this.” He told his reflection before he left the bathroom.

He went back to the bed and reached for his backpack, picking it up and slinging it over one shoulder. It was as he was heading to the door that a voice spoke to him from above.

“Hey, Kid.” Col. Rhodes said over the hidden speaker, “You awake?”

“Yeah.” His voice sounded just as scratchy as it felt.

“Good. We got some lunch up in the kitchen if you’re hungry.” Peter’s stomach lurched at the thought of food and he closed his eyes.

“Uh, thanks, but I’m not really hungry right now. But I was actually wondering if there was a way I could fix my suit.”

“Sure. Tony has the only lab for working on tech, but it’s okay if you go in.”

“Okay, thanks.”

Rhodes signed off and Peter swallowed a little, actually nervous to go to Mr. Stark’s lab should the man be in there. It used to be Peter’s favorite thing in the world was to spend time in the lab with his mentor, but this wouldn’t be the same. He remembered wistfully how they could talk for hours about science and tech all while working on their suits. Even a few times their conversations drifted to more serious subjects like girls and relationships. One mortifying time, he had even gotten ‘the talk’ from Mr. Stark. Thankfully, it had been short and consisted of him simply telling Peter to ‘wrap that puppy’, but it had been pretty humiliating none the less.

But this Mr. Stark was different and Peter had heard enough earlier from his conversation/yelling match with Rhodes to know that he really didn’t want Peter around. He wasn’t even sure if this Mr. Stark would ever tolerate his presence given enough time.

At the very least, neither of them would be very comfortable with this, but Peter didn’t want to just sit around feeling miserable and useless for the rest of his stay so he made up his mind to just go over there and fix his suit. He’d be quiet and try not to disturb Mr. Stark and hopefully, he wouldn’t even notice him there. It’s not like he wanted to have a heart-to-heart or anything, he just needed something to keep his mind occupied and his hands busy, someting to distract him from mising his aunt and his friends and his own Mr. Stark.

And with a final little pep-talk from his brain to his body, Peter left the room and headed for the lab.

…..

 

After getting the entire story of how (new) Peter came to their world, Tony decided that the fastest and most direct route to getting the kid home would have to be in tracking the wacky wizard and his wand of whatever down.

It was a lot easier said than done.

For one thing, it looked as though all of the New York based magicians had packed up shop and left town. Tony hadn’t known Stephen Strange very well and tracking down his cohorts in an organization that preferred to remain secret and hidden and had done so for centuries made for some rather colorful expletives to be heard throughout the lab.

But Tony wasn’t a genius that had programmed the world's smartest computer for nothing and he was able to find out where the remaining wizards had taken off to after a few hours of tedious searching.

It turned out that Kathmandu was apparently more than just a place Bob Seger really, really wanted to go to. It was also the home of Kamar-Taj, a refuge for sorcerers, mystics, and magical warrior people or some shit like that. It was also where the few remaining members of Strange’s cult had retreated to after Thanos had severely reduced their ranks.

While Tony was still skeptical regarding magic and all of that mumbo-jumbo mystical stuff, he had to admit that some of their abilities and the weird artifacts they used worked. However, Tony wouldn’t call himself a believer in magic per se. He was still a man of science and numbers. Having portals that could transport people over vast distances was cool and all, and the wizards that could do those things might call it magic, but Tony knew there was science behind it all. He knew the universe was weird and that there was always something out there that would shock and amaze and confound the bejesus out of people but always, always, science had an answer for it.

Except this time, Tony had to cheat a little and bypass science. Science might find the answers for how to get the kid back to his home eventually, but he really didn’t have time for that, not when something had already done the trick once.

So … magic it was.

It took a little more digging, but Tony also found that Wong, Strange’s colleague who had saved him once during their first encounter with Thanos’ children, was still alive and now living at the sanctuary. Tony actually regarded the man highly and had certainly liked him a hell of a lot more than Strange, but finding a way to contact him without hopping on a plane for 13 hours was yet another challenge he faced.

Maybe he had a facebook page?

Tony was interrupted from his thoughts by a chair being rolled across the floor behind him. He turned at the noise and then felt his stomach twist a little seeing the kid drag the chair to a scanning table at the far end of the lab. What the hell?

He hadn’t even heard the boy enter and he frowned seeing him. His hair was sticking up at odd, curly angles and he had the glazed look of someone who had just dragged himself out of bed. He looked kinda like crap.

Not that he was worried or anything.

Tony cleared his throat loudly. The kid halted in his tracks and looked guiltily across the expanse between them.

“Whatcha doing?” Tony asked.

“Oh, uh … sorry, Mr. Stark.” Peter apologized, stammering nervously at first before all of his words began to spew forth in a speeding word salad that Tony could hardly keep up with, “I was just trying to … you see, my suit needs some work. Something got fried when I came here and now Karen can’t talk to me, so I need to see what I can do to fix it. It might be a blown connection between the voice actualization circuits and her mainframe, but I won’t know until I can scan it and Col. Rhodes said that all the tech stuff gets worked on in here, so I thought you wouldn’t mind if I was quiet and –”

“Okay, okay. I get it. Just …” Tony waved his hand in Peter’s general direction, “Try not to break anything.”

Tony swallowed a little lump in his throat and tried to hide how fucking damn much it hurt to hear the kid talk just like his Peter used to.

“Thanks, Mr. Stark.” Peter grinned and then took off his backpack and unzipped it, pulling his red and blue suit out from it and laying it across the scanning bed.

Seeing the suit again brought back memories of designing the thing. He had had a bitch of a time tracking down who the mysterious Spider-Man was when his videos first started popping up on the web, but a few discreet, bee-sized camera drones had followed the hero home and he soon had a name and address.

To say Tony was surprised to find out that the guy catching out of control cars with his bare hands and swinging on homemade webs was a 15 year old boy still in high school was an understatement. And seeing the kid doing it all while wearing nothing but a hoodie had driven him to make the suit even before he met him, like it was some sort of innate need inside of him to wrap the boy up and find a way to keep him safe.

And then the accords happened and Tony’s careful plan to approach the kid when he was a little older and mature enough to handle the big stuff had flown out the window.

Sometimes, he selfishly wished he had never sought him out. Maybe they both would have been happier if Tony had not gotten involved with his life. Maybe his Peter might still have died with Thanos’ snap, but at least he would have been home with his Aunt and not somewhere off in the middle of the galaxy on some dead planet, begging an emotionally constipated, middle-aged, supposed hero for his life.

And aaybe the hole in Tony’s heart wouldn’t quite be as gaping if he didn’t have to mourn his Peter too.

Tony tore his gaze away and tried to work after that, doing his utmost to ignore the kid at the other end of the room. But every so often he’d look over and he’d catch the kid looking at him too.

It was just too damn weird … too awkward.

It went on like this for a torturous quarter of an hour before he heard a very forlorn, “Uh-oh,” muttered from the kid’s vicinity.

Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask. The order came from his mind, but his traitorous mouth opened before he could stop it. “What?”

Peter sighed and pointed to his display, “It’s not just the voice actualizer that’s blown, half the circuits in this are dead. I’m surprised Karen even made it through intact.”

“Yep. That’s a problem.” Tony deadpanned, trying his best not to show an interest.

“What should I do?”

Tony knew he should have walked out of the room as soon as he heard the question. He shouldn’t have gotten involved, even with such a little problem that was easily solved. But he just couldn’t help himself. He shouldn’t have even looked up because when he did, the kid was staring at him with those goddamned Bambi eyes.

He was toast against those eyes.

Against his better judgment, Tony asked, “You know how to use the 3-D printer?”

“Yeah, you … I mean, my Mr. Stark had to teach me after I kinda got involved in this little explosion thingy. Half the suit burned up, but it did a great job of protecting me and I only got a couple of 2nd degree burns. Had to print a whole new suit though.”

Tony narrowed his eyes, “You mean the same ‘little explosion’ that took out half a city block caused by what’s his name? The grumbler? The growler?”

Peter looked like he was doing his best not to roll his eyes, but he grinned and said, “The prowler.”

“Right … same guy I distinctly remember telling you to –” Tony suddenly stopped. How had he forgotten that this was not his Peter? He was just so damn like him that apparently he had done the same stupid shit that his kid had too. “Well … my Peter ran into the same problem. He never listened to me either.”

“Yeah, my Mr. Stark wasn’t too pleased me either,” Peter admitted sheepishly, “So, do you think I need to print a new suit?”

“Unless you want to track down all new circuits from about a dozen different places on the web and then rewire the whole shebang by hand, then yeah, that’s the easiest way.”

The kid blew out a breath tiredly and rubbed a hand though his hair, mussing it up even further, “’Kay, I guess I better get started then.”

Peter took a seat at a computer terminal and got to work at programming the printer while Tony tried to focus on his current task again. But this time when he snuck some glances in at the kid, he started to feel a growing concern. Peter looked paler than usual and he noticed a slight tremor in the kid’s hands as he swiped through menu options on the display hologram. Even from across the room, he could see the goosebumps on the kid’s arms and he was tempted to go and grab him a sweater or something, but that would be crossing a line Tony knew he would never be able to come back from. That was caring and Tony wasn’t supposed to care for this kid, he needed to save it for his own Peter, even when every instinct inside of him screamed at him otherwise.

And then Peter coughed.

For anyone else this would not be unusual, but Tony didn’t think the kid had ever or could ever get sick with all of his enhancements. He’d only heard the kid cough once and that was when some milkshake had accidentally gotten snorted up his nose from laughing too hard.

Tony tried not to let it worry him. The was kid was fine. It was just a little cough.

Another five minutes went by and Peter coughed again and it sounded a little worse.

No big deal. People cough.

Again, a few minutes later Peter coughed, but then couldn’t seem to stop.

“You okay there, chief?” Tony asked, skating perilously close to that line where he might actually have to get invovled.

Peter nodded, but contradicted himself by coughing some more. Deep, wracking, wet coughs that even a seal that smoked two packs a day couldn’t replicate. The kid bent at the waist, hands covering his mouth as cough after cough attacked him and his face turned an alarming shade of purple.

In the next second, the kid seemed to crumble, he fell forward and his chair went out from underneath him spilling him onto the floor, choking on whatever his lungs were bringing up. Tony wasn’t even aware that he had done it, but somehow he materialized next to the boy and was on his knees, behind the kid’s back, trying to prop him up enough to help him breathe.

Peter’s skin was hot to the touch and blood trickled from his nose, bright red in contrast to his pale, clammy face. He looked up at Tony with wild, panicked eyes, his inhales short, ineffectual wheezes between coughs.

What the fuck was happening?

“C’mon, kid. Take a breath.” Tony ordered, slapping Peter on the back in the desperate hope that it would make a difference. He didn’t know what else he could do except try not to panic, which was getting harder and harder with each second his kid couldn’t breathe.

“Friday! Get Banner and tell him I need him now! Hurry!” Tony shouted.

The AI responded immediately, “Yes, Boss.”

Blessedly, Peter took in one massive inhale and his coughing subsided. Tony felt as though years had just been shaved off his life.

“It’s okay, Pete.” Tony’s resolve to not get involved with this Peter was so long gone that he didn’t care that he was holding him close nor that a hand had gone to stroking through Peter’s sweaty curls to comfort him, “You’re gonna be okay, you hear me? I’m right here.”

Peter took a couple wheezing breaths and looked up at him, exhaustion evident on his face, but fully trusting Tony’s words.

Tony would have been relieved if not for the fact that in the next beat, Peter’s eyes rolled backward into his head and he went limp, heavy in Tony’s arms.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Chapter 5


It was a sad fact of Peter’s life that waking up dazed, confused and in pain was nothing new. Heck, it was almost a weekly thing on his part. He supposed though, that that was just what came with being a vigilante with superpowers; sometimes he got hurt and sometimes he woke up in unfamiliar places and hurting in all different kinds of ways. So it wasn’t such a weird shock for him to be fuzzy on the details of how and why he was painfully coming back into consciousness in a room he didn’t recognize.

He blinked blearily, his eyelids heavy and wanting to close again. The beck and call of sleep was whispering in his ears and he almost slipped back into its arms, but his eyes flew open the moment he took a deep breath, or at least tried to take a breath, and it caught in his throat. The mere act of pulling oxygen into his lungs was a much harder task than it had ever been for him before and blind panic wrapped its hands around his windpipe. Nothing could get through after that.

He coughed, choked and wheezed, tears dripping from his eyes and soaked his hair at the temples.

God, he was dying!

He really didn’t want to die; not here, not now. He didn’t even know where here was or when now was.

“Breathe, Kid. C’mon.” A deep voice ordered beside him. “You’re okay. You can do it, you just need to calm down.”

Calm down? Peter couldn’t breathe. Didn’t they understand that? It was like he was underwater, as If he might drown if he took a deep breath. The band across his chest was only getting tighter and no matter how hard he coughed, he couldn’t seem to exorcise whatever demon it was that had taken up residence in his lungs.

A face swam into his view. It was blurry and the image doubled and refused to stay still, but he recognized the shadows of the beard and the angles of the face.

Mr. Stark?

He was confused as to why Mr. Stark was there. Peter remembered enough of their time working in separate corners of the lab to know that the Mr. Stark of this world could barely stand to be around him. Why would he suddenly want to help? Was it just because he felt bad for Peter being sick in general, just as a stranger might feel obligated to act if they came across a car accident? Or did he feel actual concern for Peter … like his Mr. Stark used to?

Peter was a little wary of the hand that had reached out and began rubbing his shoulder, but he had to admit that he was scared and the overwhelming need to breathe overrode his bewilderment and misgivings. He took what comfort he could from the older man’s presence, no matter what his reasons for giving it.

“Hurts …” Peter wheezed, barely able speak between gasps, “my chest … I can’t …”

“I know it hurts, kiddo. Let’s try to sit you up a little. Maybe that’ll help.” Mr. Stark leaned forward and clasped both hands behind Peter’s shoulders, pulling him up until he reclined into a more upright position against a mountain of pillows behind him. It was a little like magic how well the trick worked and Peter felt blessed air move a little easier into his lungs. His chest was still tighter than a tourniquet, and the room was weirdly spinny, but dying didn’t seem quite as imminent.

“Better?” Mr. Stark asked and Peter could only nod and lay there, the simple act of breathing a new found joy he would never take for granted again.

Once his breaths evened out enough for him to get a grasp of his situation, Peter realized that he was tucked under the fluffy comforter of his bed in the guest room. He was attached to various monitors that had been dragged into the room and he had an oxygen mask digging into the skin of his face surrounding his mouth and nose. Despite the extra oxygen Peter knew it was feeding him, the mask made him feel a little claustrophobic, which was strange since he wore a mask all the time and he never felt like he was being closed in and suffocated by it.

Peter reached up to pull it away, but a hand pulled his hand down gently and rested it on his lap. “Nuh uh, that stays put. ”

Peter was too tired to argue and he let his hand flop back onto the bed. Mr. Stark sat down in an armchair that had been pulled up next to the bed and sighed wearily like had had been doing for a while now.

If it hadn’t been for the shaggy beard, Peter might have confused him for his own Mr. Stark and the way he used to assess Peter with a critical eye whenever he had found himself injured. But that couldn’t be right. This Mr. Stark didn’t like him like his Mr. Stark had and Peter had to be imagining the concern he could feel coming from the older man.

“What happened?” Peter rasped. He remembered feeling sick in the lab and his chest getting tighter and tighter the longer he had been there, but he hadn’t wanted to say anything since every time Peter turned to look at Mr. Stark, the man was either actively trying to ignore him or not-so-subtlely sneak glances at him. Once or twice when they did meet eyes, the tension between them had been way too awkward for Peter to be the first to break it and keeling over had seemed preferable to actually talking.

Well .. guess he broke the tension.

“You started coughing up a lung and then did a Greg Louganis onto the floor.” Mr. Stark explained.

Peter did not understand the reference and scrunched his brows together.

“You know … the diver … Greg Louganis?” Mr. Stark pantomimed a swan dive.

Peter shook his head, “Who?”

“Never mind.” The other man sighed and waved what must have been some kind of joke away, “sometimes I forget that you’re practically an embryo still. Anyway, the short story is that you got sick and passed out. We’re not sure what’s causing it yet, but you’ve got some fluid on your lungs and a raging fever. Hulk is running some tests on your blood right now to find out why. ”

“How long have I been out?” Peter asked, his voice sounding just as tired as he felt and he found that the breath to get it any louder than a whisper was just not there.

“Not more than an hour.” Mr. Stark supplied and then asked with unmistakable concern this time, “How do you feel? Any pain?”

“Some.” Yeah, Peter felt pain. It seemed to throb and radiate from every joint in his skeleton and his muscles felt strangely sore like he’d been running all day. But mostly Peter was exhausted. Bone weary, and barely able to keep his eyes open. He felt like he could sleep for days and still be tired when he woke. He didn’t think he had ever felt like this before, not even after the spider bite nearly left him half-dead before gifting him with superpowers.

Mr. Stark nodded and stood, crossing the room and grabbing a bottle from the dresser across the room and rattling the pills inside, “Hulk didn’t want to give you any of these bad boys until you were awake and he could “assess you on a pain scale,”” Mr. Stark air quoted with his fingers, “But, I don’t see any need to make you wait any longer than necessary, so -- “ The older man popped the bottle’s cap off and shook out two capsules, handing them to Peter along with a glass of water from the nightstand. Mr. Stark seemed to realize belatedly that Peter had no free hands with which to remove the oxygen mask so he could take the pills, so he did it for Peter and allowed the boy to swallow the pills and take a long drink before sliding the mask back on.

Mr. Stark then sat down in his seat again, his fingers playing with the bottle of pills as he looked down at them with a kind of wistful sadness, losing himself in some distant memories,

“Haven’t needed these things in a while.”

Peter knew what he meant. He had recognized the medicine right away and would have grinned at the name handwritten in magic marker over an old prescription label: ‘Extra Strength Cap’s Caps’ it read, and in smaller letters, ‘For use in over-powered metabolisms only.’ Funny, his Mr. Stark had written the exact same thing on the bottle that now resided in his bathroom back home.

Peter had many times been in need of this stuff and he was accosted by memories of this scenario playing itself out before with his own Mr. Stark. As often as his mentor had chastised him for getting hurt, he never once made Peter tough out the pain and he always seemed to know exactly how much Peter would need to take the edge off without making him too doped up to think.

That was just one of the little things Peter missed the most about his Mr. Stark, that while the man put up a sarcastic front, he was at the same time, one of the most intuitive and protective people he knew. He might not have been the most demonstrative with his love through hugs and all that, but he showed it in the way he would work night and day on upgrades to his suit, or stage angry interventions when Peter strayed too far into the line of fire, or when he simply did something as thoughtful as toss him a Snicker’s bar when he was in the lab, seeming to know instinctively when Peter was starting to get low on blood sugar and needed an extra calorie boost before he got cranky.

That was the Mr. Stark he missed. Peter looked at the man sitting beside him and his heart gave a little painful tug. He was so much like him, in the way he moved and talked. But still, he didn’t really know what to make of him. Why was he there? Did he really care for Peter himself or just the idea of him being so much like his own lost kid?
Peter didn’t know and his brain felt like it was melting. He shivered and his teeth chattered. THe older man tugged on the blanket gathered at his waist and raised it up to his neck, effectively tucking Peter’s arms under the covers.

Before Peter could thank Mr. Stark for the added warmth, the large figure of the Hulk emerged in the open door to the room and paused seeing that Peter was awake, “Oh, you’re up. How are you feeling, Peter?”

Peter shrugged, “Like crap.” He replied honestly.

“I bet.” Hulk sympathized, coming further into the room and reading the machines that recorded Peter’s vitals. He grabbed a thermometer and had Peter stick in his mouth. After it beeped, the Hulk took it, read and frowned.

“102.4. Still a bit high, but a little lower than an hour ago, so there’s that.” Hulk gestured to the pills, “I see Tony ignored me and gave you some painkillers. You feeling them yet?”

“I think so.” Peter was starting to feel a little floaty and more relaxed. His headache was down a notch to near tolerable levels and he was pretty sure that if he gave it another hour, it might be gone. He was still tired as heck though and keeping his eyes open any longer was becoming a more and more impossible task.

Hulk must have seen his slow blinks and he patted Peter’s shoulder, “Go ahead and sleep, Peter. I need to talk to Tony about a few things anyway. We’ll back in few minutes.”
Peter didn’t even have the energy to nod, he just gave in to the will of his body and let himself float off into oblivion.
……

Peter was asleep before Tony could even get out of his chair. As he stood, he let his gaze linger on the kid and felt safe leaving him to sleep for a few minutes while he talked to Bruce. He hoped the other man had some answers for him and some kind of cure for whatever this was that was making Peter so sick.

Hopefully, this was nothing more than just a bad case of the flu and maybe some rest and fluids would see the kid healthy again in a few days, but Tony honestly was pessimistic in that outcome – Peter had never had good luck and trouble seemed to hang around the kid like a bad smell. So yeah, Tony was a little scared to find out just how dire Peter’s condition was and whether or not it might get worse.

This was exactly why he had tried to keep his distance, he didn’t know if he could survive yet another near-death or full-on death of the kid, even if he was from another universe. He was a Peter Parker and Tony had been sucked into his orbit whether he liked it or not now. He would just have to do everything in his power to make sure the kid made it through this and got safely home again.

Would it be hard to say good-bye again?

It would be excruciating.

But Peter wasn’t a lost puppy, no matter how much his eyes made him look like one. He couldn’t keep him. He would have to let him go again and if it meant the kid was healthy and happy, he’d say good-bye a million times over, no matter how much it killed him inside to do it.

And he certainly wasn’t going to watch him die … nope. Not on his watch. Not again.

Never again.

Tony quietly followed Hulk’s overly-large back out into the hallway. He braced himself for bad news especially as Hulk turned and his expression revealed a troubled heart.

“So …” Tony began, “You find out what this is?”

Hulk sighed and shook his head, “Honestly … I’m still not sure, but I do have something you need to see.”

The big guy pulled a tablet out from his pocket and handed it to Tony. A little hesitantly, Tony turned the device on and a video appeared. Pushing play, Tony was confused at first by what he was seeing, but after a moment, he recognized extremely magnified red blood cells floating around in a sea of plasma. It wouldn’t have seemed too unusual to Tony’s medically untrained eyes except every couple of seconds, a red blood cell would simply vanish. It wasn’t as though they popped or deflated, or whatever it was that cells did when they died … they just disappeared, leaving nothing behind.

“What am I looking at here?” Tony asked, not thinking that he would like the answer, but needing to know it anyway.

“I wish I knew. This is like nothing that I have seen before. It’s certainly not normal cell death since both necrosis and apoptosis would leave at least some cellular material, but this is … it’s like they’re just … ceasing to exist.”

Tony looked up at Hulk and saw that there was something more that the big guy had to add and he knew he was definitely not going to like it.

“What else?” Tony demanded to know.

Hulk sighed, “That video you just watched was from a blood sample I took this morning. As you know, I took another blood sample after he collapsed.” Hulk gestured for tony to swipe to the next video. Tony played it and felt a sinking dread form in his stomach. The next video showed blood cells again, but this time they were disappearing at a far more alarming rate.

“Peter’s metabolism means that he can replace dead cells faster than any human should ever be able to. That’s how he heals so fast. But even his metabolism is having trouble keeping up with this and if I had to guess, that’s what’s causing his symptoms … his body is going into overdrive trying to keep pace with the loss of cells. It’s causing the inflammation in his lungs and the fever. He’s also got to be in pain since I would guess that this is affecting more than just his blood cells, but all of the cells of his body. It’s like he’s coming apart cell by cell.”

Tony blanched. Coming apart cell by cell.

He’d seen that before.

He could still feel the ash under his fungernails, the smell of it in the air.

He really didn’t want to see that again.

“You think this has something to do with Thanos … with the snap? How can that be?”

“I don't know, but I also don’t think it was a coincidence that all this started happening to Peter only after he came to our universe. Something here is causing him to slowly fall apart. What that is I can only speculate, but I bet you dollars to donuts that the snap had something to so with it.”

Tony grit his teeth, “What do we do?”

“I can only hope that getting back to his own universe will reverse this or at least stop any further damage. But we have to hurry, Tony. At the rate his cells are disappearing, he doesn’t have long. Now, I can do my best to keep him hydrated and I can give him blood products, but I gotta remind you, that I’m not a medical doctor. I can only do so much. Maybe … maybe we should consider getting SHIELD involved.”

Tony shook his head vehemently, “Are you kidding? If we let those bozos touch Peter, we’ll never see him again. No … I have a better idea.”

“What’s that?”

Folding his arms across his chest, Tony said with all confidence and seriousness, “I’m gonna find me a wizard.”

……

Wong was an early riser.

He loved the fresh scent of morning dew, the chilled breezes coming down from the mountains, and the way in which the first rays of the sun broke through the clouds coloring them in golden hues and painting the sky a bright purplish pink.

Mornings were special and Wong treasured each one. Even when things got hard, he remembered that the next day morning would come again and the day after that and the day after that. Mornings would always come even long after he was long gone and that always gave him some comfort.

This morning was no different than any other and he greeted it as he always did.

He got up, washed his face and brushed his teeth. He ate a simple breakfast of fruit in his room and then departed for the courtyard and his morning exercises.

It used to be that every morning there were at least 20 to 30 students working through their morning calisthenics as a group, but nowadays it was mostly just himself and maybe a few others who woke this early and went through the paces.

These days they were lucky if even 10 people were within the walls of the compound at any given time. So many students had left the order before finishing their training, disheartened by the loss of so many of their brethren. Some went home to wherever that may be while others chose to wander, going from place to place to see where they could be of assistance in a world that needed all of the help it could get.

But he did not begrudge those that had left. He understood. Many times he had felt the urge to just leave, to let it all go too. But he had taken a vow and he had promised to look after the sacred texts for as long as he drew breath. He was a librarian after all … that was his purpose and a life without purpose might not be worth living.

Wong was just stepping out into the courtyard when he was suddenly accosted by a greyish whirring mass of plastic propellers and metal doodads. He stood face to face with what he recognized was some kind of drone, but this one was much more sophisticated than any of the small toys he had seen in some of the shops in town. It hovered in front of his face like an over-sized, angry bee.

“What the –” He muttered. He moved right. It moved right. He tried the left and the same happened. It didn’t seem to want to let him pass and he was starting to get annoyed.
He was about a half second away from sling-ringing it into the ocean when it suddenly spoke and a voice he hadn’t heard in a very long time came over a speaker installed in it.

“Oh, hey there, Wong. Long time no see, eh?”

“Stark?” Wong asked, looking askance at the drone, wondering if there was a camera attached to the thing as well. Then again, this was Tony Stark, so of course there had to be a camera on the thing. There was probably also a waffle iron installed on it somewhere too just because he was Tony Stark and could do unnecessary crap like that if he wanted.

“Good to see you too. Sorry to send this little guy out to you like this, but I couldn’t find a number for you anywhere in my rolodex, so I had to improvise.”

“What are you --?”

“Listen, I promise to answer all of your questions in just a minute, but I really need to see you in person. Think you can whip up one of those portal thingies and come to New York for bit? Honestly, it’s very important –” Stark’s tone went serious and lost all sarcasm, “life or death important.”

Wong found that he just could not refuse the man. It had been five years since Wong first met Stark and while he still was not his favorite person in the world, he knew the man wouldn’t be contacting Wong if it wasn’t indeed for something of the utmost importance.

“Fine,” he sighed, “give me a minute.”

“Super. I’ll be waiting for you.” Stark’s disembodied voice cut off and the drone took off into the air and back to wherever it was that it came from.
Wong just shook his head and slipped his sling ring onto his fingers. He concentrated, focusing on tapping into that fountain of power he could always feel living just below the surface of the Earth and in all living things under its sky. His hand began to circle with practiced ease as he thought of Tony Stark, of where he was on the planet, of his vital force guiding him to his destination. As he did all this, the portal began to spark to life.

When it became stable, Wong calmly walked though the portal, even though even now, 20 years after he first learned how to create one, he was still amazed by the forces of magic and the universe that allowed him to travel more than halfway across the world in the blink of an eye.

As soon as Wong crossed the threshold into the room where he knew Stark was waiting, he was more than a little taken aback by the other man’s appearance. He was paler and thinner than he remembered and his beard looked better suited on a lumberjack, but what struck him the most was Stark’s usual air of superiority and façade of self-confidence he always carefully exhibited seemed to be placed on mute. This was a man that had been torn down. It showed in every line in his face and grey hair on his head. Wong had seen his fair share of losses and he recognized the heavy weight of grief and guilt that rested on the other man’s shoulders.

Yet still, Tony Stark clung tightly to what little remained of his sarcastic bravado and clapped his hands once he saw Wong come through. “Ah … There you are. What took you so long?”
Wong could see that Stark was anxious about something as well and his quip about Wong’s speed might not have been as sarcastic as he first thought.

“Why am I here, Stark?” Wong asked. “I do have other things to do, you know.”

“Yes, yes, yes. I’m sure you’re really busy conjuring …” Stark waved his hands around, “ …stuff. But, I think I might be able to explain things best by showing you what’s going on.” Stark gestured for Wong to follow him and he lead him from the room and into a hallway. They only travelled past a few doors when the other man stopped at the last one and carefully turned the knob like he didn’t want to make too much noise.

Now curious as hell, Wong came up behind Stark and tried to see past him. In the room, a giant green man in a sweater vest sat in a chair about four sizes too small for him, glasses perched on the end of his nose as he read from a tablet in his hands. Wong recalled first meeting the Hulk, or rather, Bruce Banner when he crashed though the stairs of the New York sanctum, fear in his face as he announced the coming of Thanos. But to look at him now, calm and content with both halves of himself, Wong was glad to see that at least one person hadn’t been utterly destroyed by the last five years.

Wong also took in the appearance of a bed in the room occupied by a young, sleeping man. The bed was surrounded by a couple of monitors, an oxygen tank, and an IV stand that held both a clear bag of fluid and a red one filled with blood, all of these things attached to the kid through tubes or wires of various kinds.

Clearly, the guy wasn’t well, but something else felt off about the situation, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but that he felt deep down into his core somehow. It was like the guy’s energy itself was all wrong, or … fading? He didn’t know if he could even quantify it in words it was so different from anything he had experienced before.

Hulk stood from his chair and crossed the room to join them, extending a hand towards Wong and greeting him cordially with a quiet voice “Good to see you again, Wong. Thanks for coming.”

Wong returned the handshake, “Good to see you too.” Wong honestly wasn’t sure how he should address the larger man. Was he Bruce or Hulk? Brulk?

Wong’s idiotic stream of consciousness was interrupted by Stark asking, “How is he?”

Hulk sighed and turned to his patient, walking back to the bed and speaking softly. Wong and Stark followed him, the latter man going up to the young man’s head and placing a hand on his forehead like a parent testing their kid’s temperature. Wong wondered about their relationship. He could see now that the guy in the bed was definitely not an adult and was more of a child. Maybe mid-teens, but no older than 20. Was he Stark’s kid? He had heard that the inventor had had a child, but that had been a little girl born after the initial snap, hadn’t it? This kid, if he was Stark’s, could have been some secret love-child, he supposed. Not that it was any of his business, but he couldn’t help but be curious.

Hulk’s voice was quiet as he spoke, “Fever’s up a bit, and he had another bad coughing fit about 15 minutes ago, but at least he’s getting a little sleep right now. I’m a little worried about the chest congestion, if the fluid buildup gets any worse, we may need to do a thoracentesis to drain it, but honestly, I’ve never done one before and –”

“Hopefully, it won’t come to that.” Stark broke in, seeming to not want to hear any more dire news. He then turned to Wong, “That’s why you’re here.”

Holding out a halting hand, Wong said, “Okay, I’m going to stop you right there. I’m not doing anything until I at least know who this kid is and why is he not in a hospital right now?”

Stark sighed impatiently, “Alrighty, if you must know, this here is Peter Parker, but you might also know him as Spider-man.”

Wong was quite surprised to find that the frail looking sick kid was actually Spider-man, the guy who had gone after Stephen when Thanos’ lackeys had tried to kidnap him. This kid was Spider-man?

He didn’t look old enough to shave.

Stark continued, “He’s not in a hospital because he’s an enhanced human and they wouldn’t have a clue with what to do with him. Besides, what he’s got they can’t fix.”

“Wait a sec,” Wong broke in, remembering a really important piece of info, “isn’t Spider-man dead? I remember him being at the final fight with Thanos, but he was one of the snapped, wasn’t he?”

A look of sadness and guilt flashed across Stark’s face, but he recovered quickly.

“Ah …” Stark said, lifting a finger as he began to explain, “See, this is Spider-man, just not our Spider-man. He’s actually from another universe. I guess one of your guys, some dude named Xandax or something stole some magic wand and Peter, bless his ridiculously unthinking little heart, thought it would be a good idea to follow him through a portal the guy made. So, here he is. But now he’s sick and we think it has something to do with Thanos’ snap. His cells are disappearing, but we just don’t know how or why. But we hope getting him back to his world will make him better. That’s why I wanted you here, since magic portals to other universes are more in your wheelhouse than mine.”

Wong took a moment to digest the information he had just been given. It made sense now why the energy coming from the kid seemed so off-kilter. The Peter Parker of this world had been chosen by the universe for death when Thanos snapped his fingers and the massive amounts of energy that the stones had poured out to make that happen still lingered even after the destruction of the stones.

The boy here now was a Peter Parker just as much as this universe’s Peter Parker had been and he wasn’t supposed to be alive here. The universe always demands a balance and this Peter was throwing it all off, so it was trying to reclaim him, but only a fraction of the energy to make that happen still existed. Like fallout radiation from the detonation of a nuclear bomb, it was killing him, but at a much slower pace than the full power of Thanos’ snap would have done.

Wong relayed his theory to the other two men and since they didn’t have any better explanations for what was happening to the boy, they seemed to accept his explanation. Wong too had to agree with the other two men that getting Peter back to his own universe might be the only way to save him.

There was just one little problem.

“You’re telling me you don’t have this wand of whatchmacallit because it was stolen by Xanadu too?” Stark asked indignantly as if Wong had allowed it to get stolen just to piss him off. Of course, that hadn’t been the case and Wong still felt a pang of guilt at allowing Xandu to run so far off the rails, but really there hadn’t been anything he or anyone else could have done to stop him.

“Unfortunately. Xandu used to be a student of the Ancient One and a respected member of our order until few months ago. He was married to another sorcerer at Kamar-Taj, but she was killed during the final battle with Thanos by Ebony Maw. After that, he was never the same and I think something inside of him snapped. One night, he used a spell that draws on the power of dark magic and he rendered all within Kamar-Taj unconscious. When we woke, there were several ancient texts and artifacts, including the Wand of Watoomb, that were missing and Xandu had disappeared.”

“You have any idea where he is now?” Hulk asked.

“We searched the Earth for him, scried for his location, and used every spell we could think of to find him, but we can only conclude that he is no longer on this planet. I fear that he used the wand, that he’s transported himself to another universe. I think he’s looking for his wife. He left a rather lengthy and ranting note saying how he was going to find her. So, it’s possible that he’s hopping from universe to universe and trying to find one where she’s still alive.”

“And the Xanzabar from Peter’s universe used the wand to come here.” Stark added after a beat, “Probably found out that she was dead here too and then moved on to yet another universe, whose Xantac also stole the wand and is universe shopping for his wife and so on and so on.”
Hulk jumped in an continued Stark’s line of reasoning, but on a more even keel, “Meaning there are probably an infinite number of Xandus in an infinite number of universes out there jumping around from universe to universe.”

“Well … that’s just peachy,” grumbled Stark, raking a hand through his hair, “That still leaves us will no way to get Peter back to his universe.”

“That’s not necessarily true.” Wong put in, actually feeling the need to soothe some of the distress Stark seemed to be in, “With infinite numbers of Xandus jumping universes, there’s bound to be another one that will jump into our’s again. We just need to find a way to detect him when he comes and trap him.”

Stark looked at Wong skeptically, “How do you propose to do that? Sorcerer radar?”

Wong smirked, “Something like that.”

He thought through the plan forming in his head. It could work or it could fail spectacularly and the boy could die. But looking at the sick kid, his pallor and breathing worsening even in just the short time since Wong had entered the room, he knew he had to try.

And he had to do it soon.

They were clearly running out of time.