"I didn't think it would end this way."
"End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take.
The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it."
"What? Gandalf? See What?"
"White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."
“FRI, how’s the kid doing?” Tony asked when he had a moment to breathe between killing aliens.
“Peter’s heartrate is high, Boss, and he hasn’t moved in almost a minute,” FRIDAY reported.
“Is he hurt?”
“Karen isn’t reporting any injuries.” Well, that was something, at least.
“Patch me into his baby monitor feed, just the audio,” Tony ordered, eyes still scanning the battlefield in front of him.
“You’re... you’re going to be ok,” Peter was assuring someone, his voice shaking. Tony’s heart plummeted.
“You’re pretty new at this, huh?” said a female voice. Her words were thick with pain. “I’m a nurse, Spidey. I know what a fatal wound looks like.”
“FRI, give me Karen’s analysis of her injuries,” Tony muttered. Instantly, a chart pulled up on Tony’s HUD, flashing red in all the areas she was hurt. There was a lot of red. A broken spine, broken collarbone, one leg pinned with rubble, and the worst part, a long splinter of wood piercing her abdomen, perforating her large intestine.
She was right. She was going to die.
“Hey, don’t say that,” Peter chided gently. He had the same diagnosis Tony did. “What’s your name?”
“Nicole,” she said. Tony dove toward a rogue alien, blasting it with both repulsors. Black Widow sprinted past him, a pack of the creatures chasing her; Tony twisted in midair and followed, picking them off one by one.
“Nice to meet you, Nicole. I’m Spi—I’m Peter.” Tony squeezed his eyes closed for a brief moment. Peter would never compromise his identity, not if he knew there was any chance of her getting out of this alive.
Nicole seemed to realize it, too, because she let out a small sob.
“You-you have to tell my fiancé, ok? Jonathan. He, uh, he’s got brown hair and-and glasses, and you have to tell him.” Her voice broke.
Tony mechanically dodged an attack, blocked a hit meant for Sam. His mind was with Peter, in whatever devastated apartment he was crouched in with a dying woman.
“I will,” Peter vowed. He sniffled and Tony swallowed hard. He wanted to go and find Peter, pull him away from the scene so he didn’t have to see this. No one should have to watch someone die. But he couldn’t. Peter would never forgive him from depriving Nicole some comfort in her last moments.
“Give him this. He... won’t believe you otherwise.”
“This is the Evenstar. From Lord of the Rings.”
There were only a handful of aliens left. Tony landed by Steve, helped him with a small herd of them.
“Yeah, he got it for me at comic-con. Where we met,” Nicole said, chuckling breathlessly, only to cut off in a small cough. “So, Spider-Man’s a nerd?”
“The biggest,” Peter assured her, and Tony could picture the reassuring smile he would be giving under his mask, the way his eyes would be filled with tears.
“Good. Te-tell him that I’m going to a far green country.”
Peter sobbed. “Ok. Ok.”
“You crying for me?”
“Yeah,” Peter said, unashamed.
There was a small moment of quiet, where she seemed to comprehend the importance of a superhero, kneeling at her side, crying for her loss. “Thanks, Peter,” Nicole whispered.
Peter hiccuped again.
“Don’t you have some aliens to be fighting?” she asked.
Tony had to stop himself from cutting in, from telling Peter that they were done, that Clint and Sam were taking care of the last couple right now. That Peter shouldn’t leave her.
“I can stay. It’s alright,” Peter assured her. Because he never would have left. Not when someone needed him.
Nicole whimpered, her tears audible through Peter’s comm. “Thanks, Spidey.”
Tony listened as her breathing quickly got worse, as she started gasping in pain. Peter gently shushed her, reminding her that he was there.
“Squeeze my hand as hard as you need, ok? It won’t hurt me.”
There was the sound of wet coughing, interspersed with pain-filled cries.
“Hey, Karen,” Peter said quietly. “Play “A Far, Green Country” from my study playlist.”
“Of course, Peter,” Karen replied sympathetically.
Soft cello music began to filter through Tony’s earpiece. He stood still, watching in a detached sort of way as ambulances and firetrucks started arriving to the scene of the battle, as people began to peek out of their hiding places.
“Hear that, Nicole?” Peter asked. “Just focus on the music, ok? It’ll be ok.”
“I love... this one,” Nicole murmured.
The music crescendoed. Her ragged breaths slowed.
She was dead by the end of the song.
Tony listened, jaw clenched, his own eyes surprisingly damp as Peter started sobbing, the sound muffled like he was covering his mouth.
He went on to the team channel.
“Can you guys handle clean-up? I need to get Spidey out of here,” Tony said, his own voice soft in the aftermath of what he heard.
“Is he hurt?” Steve asked quickly.
“No. No, just... it’s his first big battle. He’s in shock.”
There was a moment of silent understanding. They’d all gone through the same thing the first time they had fought in battles that were more destruction than preservation, more dying than saving.
“Make sure he eats something,” Nat said over the line, and that’s all the confirmation Tony needed. He switched to a two-way comm.
“Hey, Pete,” he said softly. He heard sniffing, the sound of Peter wiping his tears away.
“Mr. Stark. Sorry, where do you need me? I can be-“
“Stand down, kid. Fight’s over.” He couldn’t make himself talk above a murmur, like speaking any louder would be the final straw before Peter lost it completely. “We’re getting out of here. Where are you?”
Peter rattled off a quick address, but then hesitated. “I... I’ll meet you in a few minutes, ok? There’s something I have to do.”
Tony flew over to where he was anyway. He stood in the shadow of fire engine, watching as Spider-Man crawled down the side of a partially destroyed building. There was a crowd of onlookers standing behind a police cordon, their faces pale and scared.
Peter walked over to them. There was a man with brown hair and glasses in the second row of people. Tony almost wanted to look away.
Instead, he watched. He watched as Peter carefully led him a few feet away, as he held out the necklace Nicole gave him and delivered her message. He watched as the man’s face crumpled, as tears spilled over, and finally, as his knees gave out.
Peter caught him. Lowered him to the ground and held on, hugging him on his knees, his own shoulders shaking with sobs.
Watching him, Tony felt his heart clench in nearly physical pain. It hurt to see the man mourning his lost fiancée, but for some reason, Peter’s grief affected him more. He wanted to go over and comfort him, wipe his tears away. The need to make Peter feel better was so strong he almost couldn’t stop himself from flying over that second.
He knew he needed to let Peter have this moment, this first step toward acceptance, this chance to be his own person for a moment, to let the world see the same kindness and compassion and heart that Tony saw in Peter every single day.
He just wished it didn’t come at the cost of Peter’s innocence. He just wanted Peter to be happy. More than anything in the world, he wanted Peter to be happy.
Oh, Tony thought as that realization sunk down into the pit of his stomach and took root.
I love him.
A few other onlookers had come forward and taken Jonathan by the arms, assuring Spider-Man that they would take care of him.
Pressing pause on his epiphany, Tony stepped out of the shadows. Peter turned to him like a child looking for his parent in a crowd.
“Hey, bud,” Tony said. “Ready?”
Peter nodded, his breath still catching. Tony picked him up, making sure Peter was secure, before carefully taking off.
When they got to the tower, Peter waited until Tony set him down gently on his own feet, then walked forward without speaking, his shoulders slumped and head bowed.
Tony stepped out of the suit and followed, watching carefully. Peter sunk down into the nearest chair, a stool at the breakfast bar. His hands scrabbled weakly at his mask, unable to find the seam. Tony came closer and stilled Peter’s hands with his own, then tugged the mask off with one hand. He set it on the counter, then smoothed out Peter’s wild curls.
Peter’s face was pale, the redness around his eyes stark against his dark irises. He trapped his hands between his knees to try to hide the shaking, but Tony had already spotted it.
“Nat made me promise to feed you,” Tony said, his voice loud in the quiet of the penthouse. “What’re thinking, kid? I can do boxed mac and cheese, frozen chicken nuggets, or good old PB&J. Or all three, if you’re a masochist.”
Peter carefully didn’t look at Tony, probably trying to keep him from noticing his red eyes.
“I—” His voice was hoarse. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m not really hungry.”
“Not an option, kiddo. Sorry. How about I get you some juice to get that blood sugar up while I get cooking, alright?”
Tony rounded the island, busying himself with getting Peter some of the cranberry apple juice he liked so much, turning the oven on to start preheating. The kid needed some protein to make up for all the calories he burned fighting.
When he looked over his shoulder again, Peter was sitting with his head on his folded arms, his face hidden. Tony’s heart plummeted. He could still hear the echo of those muffled sobs, the sounds of a kid who thought he was too old, too strong to be crying, but who was too heartbroken not to.
Tony would never judge the kid for crying. He knew Peter was strong, he knew it possibly better than Peter himself. He also knew how overwhelming and horrifying your first battle, your first loss, could be. He hated that Peter felt the need to hide his emotions, his incredibly empathetic and tender nature from Tony.
Standing on the opposite side of the counter, he reached out and ran his fingers through Peter’s hair. Peter’s breath hitched just a little, and he slowly raised his head until he could look at Tony through the fringe of his lashes.
Tony seized the opportunity and slid his hand down to Peter’s chin, raising his head further. There were no fresh tears on Peter’s face, so maybe he hadn’t been crying after all. He still looked devastated and wrung-out.
He didn’t know what to say in the face of such innocent, honest grief that wouldn’t sound cheap and patronizing.
“I... I’m really, really proud of you, Pete,” he finally murmured.
There was a flash in Peter’s eyes, a single heartbeat where he thought Tony was mocking him. Then he slumped, his jaw pressing further into Tony’s hand.
“Mr. Stark, I... there was this woman,” Peter said, his voice gravelly. “I was trying to clear an apartment building and I found her and, and she was hurt really bad. And I didn’t want to leave her but I knew you guys needed me—” Peter’s eyes flit to one side, as if too ashamed to look at Tony, “—and I didn’t know what to do so I... I stayed. And I held her hand. Instead of coming to help you. You could have gotten hurt and it would have been my fault, but I just kept thinking if it had been me I wouldn’t want to be alone and she-she died, Mr. Stark,” Peter hiccuped. His eyes were full of tears again, and suddenly Tony could picture it so clearly, Peter kneeling by a stranger’s side and crying even while he comforted her. While he played music to distract her from the agony and fear.
“Oh, Peter,” Tony sighed. He came around the counter and pulled Peter in by the shoulders. Peter buried his face against Tony’s sternum, sniffling.
“Firstly, it’s not your job to look after all of us, ok? That’s why there’s a team of us, so we all can keep an eye on each and no one has to shoulder all of it. We were all ok, we were looking out for one another. Sometimes you get busy and can’t help for a bit, that’s fine. And you did a great job today, buddy, you really did.”
Peter’s fingers tentatively grasped Tony’s t-shirt and his heart constricted.
“Secondly—” Tony once again raised Peter’s face to meet his eyes. The kid looked desperate, fervently listening to any shred of wisdom Tony might bestow on him. “You never, ever have to apologize for being compassionate. That’s something you can’t learn, kid. You either have it or you don’t, and you have it. I wish I was as empathetic as you.”
Peter looked up at him, half hope and half doubt, and something in Tony’s chest settled.
How had it taken this long for Tony to realize that he loved him?
When Tony reached up and squeezed the back of Peter’s neck, his touch was gentler than it had ever been before.
“Why don’t you go take a shower before the rest of the circus troupe come and screw up the water pressure?” Tony suggested.
Peter nodded, swallowing. Tony kept a hand on his elbow as he hopped off the stool, just to make sure he was steady. Then he watched as Peter slouched off to his room, the Spider-Man mask drooping dejectedly in his hand.
His mind buzzing, Tony carefully spread the chicken out on a pan and put it in the oven, making sure to put on a timer. Then he slumped in the chair Peter had just abandoned and thought.
He had never been great about recognizing his own emotions. It had taken Afghanistan for him to realize that Rhodey and Happy were his family, that Pepper was much, much more than his assistant that he liked to flirt with. He’d kept them at a distance on purpose, too self-absorbed and miserable to let himself have that small piece of happiness.
Maybe for the kid’s own good, Tony should have done the same thing with Peter, but he couldn’t seem to make himself. Because Peter... Tony liked everything about Peter. His optimism, his enthusiasm, his uncompromising morals. He liked the way the kid got lost in his work, the way he fell asleep during movies, the way he talked a mile a minute to his AI when he was nervous. He liked the way Peter made him act—the responsibility and softness and sometimes silliness that the kid brought out in him.
He tried to think back, to a time before he loved Peter and found he just... couldn’t. Obviously there was one, but now every memory was so colored with fondness and bone-deep admiration that he couldn’t find a before and after. Every time Peter was there in his memories, there was love. The two words were almost synonymous. Now that Tony had connected them, they couldn’t be separated.
He felt the same palpable adoration when he thought about Pepper, but where Pepper was a fire, burning constant and steady and familiar in his sternum, Peter was an eternal sunrise. Bringing the promise of light, of warmth, of a new beginning. Infinite possibilities about to unfold and Tony loved every one of them; he loved the Peter that had just been sitting in front of him, sweat curled hair and fidgeting hands, and he loved every version of Peter that would come—the exhausted college student, the nervous new father, the CEO or inventor or doctor.
Now that he recognized the feeling in his chest that he got whenever he so much as thought of the kid, he felt full to bursting with it. It was a surprisingly good feeling.
Peter walked back into the room, his hair curling and damp. He looked a little less worn out, a little more like his usual self. He’d just need time, Tony knew, to recover. He never stayed down for long.
Tony found himself smiling as he watched Peter comb his fingers through his hair. The room seemed brighter with Peter in it.
Gosh, he was a sap.
“Perfect timing, kiddo,” Tony said as the timer started beeping. He got up and pulled the chicken nuggets out of the oven, serving them up onto a plate. “Ketchup, right?”
“And mayo,” Peter reminded.
“Ugh, that’s right.” Tony pulled the condiments out of the fridge, wrinkling his nose.
“It’s the best way to eat them, Mr. Stark,” Peter insisted as he busied himself mixing the two on his plate until there was a puddle of pink sauce next to his mound of chicken nuggets.
“So you say,” Tony said as he sat down next to the kid. He was happy to watch Peter eat, pleased that Peter seemed to perk up as he did.
After a moment, Peter pushed the plate toward Tony, silently offering. Tony stared at the food for a moment. He couldn’t remember the last time he had something as childish as chicken nuggets, especially the cheap frozen brand that Tony had seen in May’s freezer a couple months ago and purchased in an attempt to stock up on “Peter food.”
Peter was watching him, amused. Finally, Tony shrugged and picked one off the plate. Peter’s barely noticeable smile grew a little bit, and he rotated the plate so that his ketchup-mayonnaise monstrosity was closer to Tony.
“Ugh, fine,” Tony groaned. He dipped the chicken into the sauce and popped it into his mouth, just so that Peter would stop saying “Don’t knock it ‘til you try it, Mr. Stark,” all the time.
It was, actually, really good. Dang it.
“Well?” Peter asked, feigning innocence.
“Yeah, alright, fine,” Tony conceded, rolling his eyes.
Peter beamed at him.
Tony loved that, too.