"We can't fix it Peter." Bruce, Professor Hulk, whatever he was called now, told him softly, the anguish written all over his face.
"What do you mean we can't fix it? How can you even say that? You just told me we know how to time travel now! How can we not fix it?" He practically screamed the words at the man.
"Son, you need to try to calm down." Captain America said.
"Calm down?" He snapped at the man. "You want me to calm down? Mr. Stark is-is…"
He choked as his breath caught. He couldn't even say the word. Couldn't think of what had come to pass mere hours before. But at the same time, he couldn't get the image of Mr. Stark's vacant eyes out his head.
He glanced around the only room of the compound left partially intact after the battle, looking for help, but all the Avengers hung their heads. None of them would meet his eyes.
"Please." He switched tactics, not too proud to beg. "Please. We-we have to…we have to do something. We have to get him back!"
"He's gone kid." The man Peter recognized as Hawkeye said quietly.
Peter shook his head almost violently. He refused to accept that.
"He-he can't be gone. We can time travel! We can go back. We can save him." He entreated. It seemed like such an obvious solution. So why weren't they doing it? Why were they waiting? Why wouldn't anyone look at him?
No one said anything. Not even Professor Hulk.
"Why isn't anyone listening to me?" He yelled and swiped at the glass beakers lined up on the table next to him. They shattered in a cacophony of noise onto the floor. It didn't alleviate his frustration, but the crash and the destruction satisfied something else in him.
"Whoa." The Antman guy said, eyebrows flying to his hairline.
"Jesus kid." Hawkeye said as he took a single halting step toward him.
"We are listening Peter." Captain America said, trying to emanate calm. And while Hawkeye had stopped, the Captain crossed the room without hesitation until he stood directly in front of him.
Peter refused to back down, he met the man's eyes unflinchingly and let all his steely anger shine through.
"You're not." He accused.
Captain America reached out and grasped both his shoulders with a weary sigh, exhaustion written all over him. They were all exhausted. And hurt. And in some state of shock. Peter was too. In the span of an afternoon, he'd apparently lost the past five years of his life along with his hero mentor slash father figure.
"We are." The man repeated. "But there's just…nothing we can do."
"We can go back." Peter said with desperation. Why didn't anyone understand what he was saying?
"We could," Captain America nodded solemnly, but then continued, explaining slowly and carefully as if he was a child, "but it wouldn't change what happened. Do you understand? We can't change the past. It's done."
Peter frowned. With everything that had happened since Thanos and his army fading to dust and Tony…. No one had bothered to explain to him in detail how they'd come to be back. He'd only heard a brief explanation about using time travel in order to acquire the infinity stones from the past so they could snap them all back into existence in the present.
"But you…you went back in time to get the stones to get us back." Peter tried to explain even as he tried to understand. "Why can't we go back and save him? We could go back and figure out how to prevent Thanos from ever coming in the first place. Then Mr. Stark would never even have to snap."
"It's complicated." Cap said with a wince.
Peter's fury flared. He smacked Captain America's hands off of him and took a step back. "Don't give me that! Don't tell me it's complicated and expect me to just accept it. I'm not a little kid!"
"Steve's right." Professor Hulk interjected. "That's not the way time travel works. We can't go back and change something in this timeline. Everything in the past remains in the past. It's immutable. Anything we change in the past just creates a new completely separate alternate reality. So even if we somehow figured out how to go back and save Tony, when we returned here, to our current present time…nothing will have changed. Tony would exist again, but in an alternate reality. Not in this one. Not in ours."
Peter felt the blood drain from his face. No.
"There has to be some other way." He said, looking back at Steve with pleading eyes.
"There isn't. He's gone." Captain America said bluntly, but Peter could see it hurt him to say the words.
"So…so what? That's just…it?" Peter could hear the hysterical edge in his voice, but he was too far gone to care. "After everything he did, after he saved everyone, after he saved us, you're not even going to try?"
Steve just looked at him sadly. None of the other Avengers said anything. Their silence was answer enough.
"No." He whispered, voice breaking as his eyes filled with tears. For the first time he became keenly aware that he was surrounded by strangers. He didn't actually know any of the Avengers besides Rhodey. And he wasn't there. He was with Pepper with…with Mr. Stark's… There was no one to turn to for any sort of comfort.
Peter shook his head as his face twisted in misery.
"It's not fair." He managed to get the words out through the terrible tightness in his throat. Tears spilled from his eyes in rivulets down his cheeks and he tasted the saltiness as some of them landed in the corners of his lips.
"I know." Steve agreed softly. "It's not."
Oh god. Mr. Stark was really gone. He was dead. Decades before his time. The brightest most innovative mind of their time, snuffed out.
Peter took another stumbling step back and would've fallen if Steve hadn't jumped forward and grabbed his forearms to steady him.
The more he tried to hold back his grief, the more it tried to break through. He let out short breathy gasps. He'd never get to see Mr. Stark again. Never get to talk to him. To joke with him. Work in his lab with him.
He couldn't breathe.
"I know." Captain America said softly, like he was trying to comfort him, but Peter couldn't make out the man's expression through his tears.
A broken sob finally broke free and he buckled forward as if the weight of his grief would actually bowl him over. He would've collapsed onto the glass strewn ground, but Steve tightened his grip and pulled him against his chest instead. Peter hadn't expected that.
He considered wrenching away because a part of him was still so angry, but a larger part was so hurt it felt like a black hole had opened in his chest. At this point he needed the comfort, any form of comfort, even if it came from a practical stranger. He brought his arms up and around the larger man and clutched at him desperately, as if he was his sole anchor.
"I know." The man said again, barely a whisper this time.
Peter lost his last thread of control and wept into Captain America's chest.
During his breakdown on Captain America the rest of the Avengers had left to give him a semblance of privacy. He had no idea how long he cried but it seemed like a long time.
At some point, Steve had sat them down. The man stayed with him the whole time until Peter finally calmed down enough to tell him that he could go. That he was ok. Even though it was a lie. But he didn't want Captain America to feel like he had to babysit him when he probably had a million other more important things he needed to be doing. Steve was reluctant to leave but he eventually gave into Peter's insistence, probably because he thought Peter wanted to be alone.
Once Steve left, Peter decided he couldn't stay in that little room. It was too stifling. He couldn't breathe in there. So he fled back outside. Into the rubble and carnage. He felt a certain kinship with it. The view of the destruction was almost comforting. It soothed something in him to be confronted with a sight that reflected the devastation he felt in his soul.
Because Mr. Stark was gone.
Even though Peter had watched him fade away with his own eyes, he still couldn't quite believe it.
Tony had always seemed larger than life. Invincible.
Peter had thought the man would always be there. Over the past couple years Mr. Stark had become a pillar of strength and support for him. He'd gone from being a superhero mentor to Spiderman to a supportive figure to Peter Parker to something even more. Something with more potential. Something Peter had been afraid to put a name to, to label, because he hadn't wanted to jinx it. Not that it mattered now. Because now he was gone.
There'd never be anymore lab days, or weekends at the compound. He'd never fight alongside Ironman again. Tony had saved the world, the universe really. But he'd given his life to do it. Peter knew he should be proud, should be happy they'd defeated Thanos, but all he felt was loss. It was selfish, and he knew no one else would agree, but he didn't think losing Tony was worth what it had given them. Not when Peter felt like he'd lost half his world anyway.
Silent tears ran down his cheeks.
Why couldn't someone else have snapped the gauntlet? Why did it have to be him?
Mr. Stark's death left behind an open gaping wound, an exposed raw nerve. It hurt. He couldn't handle it, so he shut down. He turned off. He forced himself to stop thinking, to stop feeling, to stop everything.
He stared numbly across the horizon. Time passed but he didn't recognize it. He sat still for so long parts of his body went numb. But he didn't feel it. He didn't feel anything. Maybe they'd all forgotten about him and he'd just sit on this rock forever. He couldn't bring himself to mind.
Peter blinked and Dr. Strange was standing in front of him. He continued to stare straight through the man, not ready to return to this new version of reality yet.
Dr. Strange frowned and tipped his chin up with his hand, forcing eye contact. Peter met his concerned gaze with dead eyes.
"There's someone here to see you." Dr. Strange said.
Peter blinked but didn't respond. Didn't ask who. Didn't care.
"Come on." Dr. Strange urged, gripping his shoulder and pulling at him. He didn't resist. He let the man lead him off the rock and back toward the compound.
They made their way over the rocks to the side of the compound with the access road. To a patch of relatively intact grassy ground. The Avengers, along with several other people Peter didn't recognize, but had participated in the fight, loitered there, scattered in small groups talking to each other.
Peter's eyes found Steve. Sam was standing next to him, but Steve was talking to a woman who had her back to Peter. She was wearing street clothes and he didn't remember seeing her in the fight, but the back of her head looked oddly familiar.
Steve noticed him and he gave him a small smile. He said something to the woman he was talking to and pointed at him.
The woman turned around and Peter inhaled sharply. May. It was May. Her eyes widened almost comically at the sight of him. And then she was running toward him. She stopped short of tackling him, grabbing his shoulders instead and running her eyes over him, up and down, drinking in the sight of him.
"Oh my god." She whispered and the next second she pulled him into a painfully tight hug.
"Oh my god." She whispered again. "You're here. You're really here."
It took him an embarrassingly long moment to get with the program and bring his arms around her back to return the hug. For him, no time had really passed since he'd last seen her. He'd gotten up, had breakfast with her, and gone on the field trip to MOMA, which had been interrupted by a trip into space with Mr. Stark and Dr. Strange where he'd fought Thanos and then apparently disappeared. When he'd returned back on Titan with Dr. Strange and the Guardians, it'd felt like he'd only blinked. Like no time had passed at all. Like it was the same day and he'd seen May only this morning. But apparently he'd been gone for five years. He hadn't really had any time to think about it before Dr. Strange had portaled them all back to Earth from Titan so they could jump into another battle with Thanos and his army. Peter couldn't seem to wrap his head around it along with everything else that had happened.
May kept holding him. She was crying.
"I'm sorry." He mumbled. And he was. Sorry he'd left her. Sorry he couldn't commiserate with her feelings of relief. Sorry he couldn't muster the emotion to be happy to see her.
"It's not your fault." She said and pulled back to hold his face between her hands. "I'm just so glad you're back baby. I missed you so much."
He couldn't even say he'd missed her back. No time had passed for him. The same obviously wasn't true for her. Her face looked older, more lined, and she had a few strands of grey in her hair.
She brought his face to hers and peppered him with kisses and then she was hugging him again.
"I never thought I'd see you again. I love you. I love you so much." She told him.
"I love you too." At least that was something he could say back.
She held him for awhile longer before she took a deep breath and stepped back. She wiped her face and gave him a watery smile.
"Sorry." She apologized unnecessarily for the crying. "I still can't really believe this. I feel like I'm in a dream."
Peter understood, except he felt like he was in a nightmare.
"You're here." She said as she cupped his cheek and caressed it with her thumb. "You're really here. You're ok."
She frowned. "You're ok, right? You're not hurt?"
He shook his head, dislodging her hand. He'd gotten knocked around quite a bit during the fight, but he wasn't seriously hurt.
"Good. That's good." She said breathily and glanced around. "I just worry. I mean…this place looks like a disaster area."
"Yeah." He agreed. "But we won."
"I know." She smiled.
She tried to reach out toward him again and he took half a step back. She frowned, looking perplexed and a little hurt.
"We won but…" He swallowed hard and tried to explain, "Mr. Stark…"
He couldn't say it. But he didn't have to. May's expression said it all. She already knew.
"Oh honey. I-I know. I heard." She whispered.
His face crumpled. She reached for him again and this time he let her. She held him tight and the dam he'd built to keep back the flood of emotions, burst open. He sobbed unresistingly in her embrace.
"He-he's gone." He said between cries.
"I know, but he saved you." May said softly and kissed the side of his face. "He saved everyone. It's…it's how he would've wanted to go."
Peter only cried harder. Because he hadn't wanted Mr. Stark to go. He wanted the man there with him. A treacherous part of him wanted Mr. Stark to be the one hugging him right now instead of May. Hugging him in celebration of their victory instead of in lamentation of such an unfathomable loss.
It wasn't worth it. He wasn't worth it. Half of the universe wasn't worth it. Not if it meant losing Tony Stark.
"It's going to be ok baby. It's going to be ok. I'm right here. I'm right here with you." May whispered, trying to reassure him.
And he knew she was with him. That she'd always be there for him. And not long ago that would've been enough.
A memory of Mr. Stark's laughing face flashed into his mind. He scrunched his eyes closed.
It wasn't enough anymore.
The car ride home from the compound was silent, and all throughout it Peter kept catching May looking at him like he was a specter about to disappear into thin air. He could tell his absence had been unbearably painful for her, but he didn't know what to do about it.
The apartment they drove home to wasn't the same apartment. May had moved after 'The Dusting', as everyone called it, to a smaller one bedroom apartment. At least it was still in Queens. Peter didn't know he could've handled that on top of everything else. To him, everything had been completely normal when he'd left only this morning to go to school, and now he lived in a different apartment and Mr. Stark was—
He shook his head and refocused on the new apartment around him. He glanced around. The layout was similar to the old apartment, but the kitchen was bigger and so was the living area.
"I'm going to get you something to drink." May said from his side.
Thank god for May. If something had happened to her while he'd been gone and he'd come back to a world without her, without both her and Mr. Stark, he didn't think he would've survived it. He was barely surviving as it was.
"Thanks." He mumbled in response, but when he turned, she was already in the kitchen clinking glasses out of the cupboard and he was still standing by the front door. He blinked. For some reason the world around him seemed to be passing by in slow motion, like he was trying to walk and talk and exist in an atmosphere made up of molasses.
He took a step forward, and then another, even though the first had been hard enough. He blinked again and suddenly he was standing in the living room. At least the furniture was still the same, but everything else was different. May had a new TV and a throw blanket he'd never seen before. And there was a plant on a table by the window even though in all the time he'd know her, May had never been able to keep a plant alive. The furniture was arranged differently than he was used to. And all the decorations were different. Including the pictures. Instead of books, the shelves were filled with picture frames. Most of them were of him.
One of them caught his eye and his breath caught. He picked up the framed photo and examined it closer. It was one his favorite pictures of him and Mr. Stark. Ms. Potts had taken it. They were in the workshop together, Mr. Stark sitting back in his desk chair, arms crossed, with an amused smile on his face as he listened to Peter, who was perched on the desktop in front of him, talk about something while gesturing animatedly with his arms. Peter couldn't even remember what he'd been talking about. He looked closer at Mr. Stark in the photo. He was wearing a black sabbath t-shirt and dark jeans and looking at Peter like he'd hung the moon.
Mr. Stark would never look at him like that again. Grief hit him hard. He put the photo back down and rubbed roughly at his eyes. God. He couldn't cry again. It seemed like it was all he'd been doing the past few hours. He'd finally gotten a lid on it.
"You all right baby?" May asked as she came up behind him. She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and set the glass of water down on the shelf, next to the photo he'd been looking at.
He shrugged. He didn't trust himself to speak and he didn't have the energy to lie. Because he wasn't all right. He didn't think he'd ever be all right again. He wondered what terrible sin he must've committed in a past life that resulted in every important male figure in his life getting torn away from him.
"You know, he missed you." May said.
Peter inhaled sharply. He turned a questioning gaze toward her, still not up to forming actual words.
May gave him a small half smile. "While you were gone he used to call me, sometimes in the middle of the night, and we'd talk about you. We'd tell each other stories. I had more than he did, but he still had some pretty good ones. You never told me about the time you got tangled in your own webs and got stuck hanging upside down off a building so he had to come cut you free."
"He told you about that?" The question burst out of his mouth in surprise. So much for the superhero bro code. Apparently it didn't extend posthumously.
"We told each other a lot of things." May said and cupped his cheek with her hand. "He loved you."
"He said that?" Peter asked. As close as he and Mr. Stark had grown after he'd turned the man down for a spot on the Avengers, his mentor had never been that forthcoming when it came to voicing his emotions. But to be fair, neither had Peter.
May smiled sadly as she answered, "He didn't have to honey. It was obvious."
Peter looked away. He couldn't handle the power of her gaze. He could barely handle the truth of the words.
"I don't know if I can do this." He admitted.
May pulled him into a hug. He hadn't even realized he'd started to cry again.
"I know it hurts baby, but we'll get through it together, ok?" May whispered into his hair.
He shook his head. "I can't do this again."
He didn't know how to survive this. To make it through such a brutal loss again. It felt too much like his parents and Ben all over, except this time it was Mr. Stark.
May pulled back and looked seriously into his eyes. "Yes you can. You're so strong. You're the strongest person I know. You can do this."
Peter closed his eyes and fell forward into her arms. He wanted to believe her. Wanted to believe it would get better. That the hurt would fade with time, that someday he'd wake up and be able to be himself again, to be happy again, but he didn't think he would.
He'd made it through so much, but this…this finally felt like one thing too many. He could feel it with a sick certainty. This had broken him in some irreparable way. This last loss was insurmountable. And he knew it. But May didn't, so he let her hold him and try to comfort him because maybe it would at least make her feel better.
He knew there was nothing left in the world that could do the same for him.
That night, Peter laid on the couch and stared out the window. One of the downsides of the whole one bedroom apartment thing was that there was only one bed. May was going to start hunting for a two bedroom apartment tomorrow, but for now they were stuck with what they had. She'd tried to get him to take the bed or share it with her, but he'd refused. It wasn't as if he was actually going to sleep tonight anyway, although he didn't tell her that.
He couldn't stop replaying his actions in the battle over and over again. Why hadn't he stuck closer to Mr. Stark when he'd pulled him up from the ground? The man had hugged him. It was the first time they'd ever done that. If he'd known at the time it was also going to be the last, Peter never would've let him go.
A sharp sob erupted from his throat. He brought a hand over his mouth to try to muffle it. He didn't want to wake May up at two in the morning after she'd already spent the whole day dealing with him. He recognized that she'd been through a lot too. Her nephew's miraculous resurrection and Mr. Stark's death, a man who she'd apparently become close to, who had become her friend while Peter had been gone.
He should've done more. He sniffled and choked on his grief. He could've done more. He'd had the gauntlet in his hand for awhile. He should've been the one to snap his fingers. But at the time, he hadn't thought to use the weird glove thing in his hands. All he'd thought about was how to keep it away from Thanos.
If he'd known then what he knew now, he would've snapped. In a heartbeat. To save Mr. Stark. With his healing powers, maybe he would've actually survived it.
And if not, then so be it.
At least he wouldn't have had to live with the image of Mr. Stark's vacant eyes forever burned into his brain.
And he'd already been gone for the past five years. May had already moved on. If he'd snapped and died, then instead of coming back with the rest of the dusted, he just would've stayed gone. It wouldn't have been a new loss and it would've been worth it if it meant Mr. Stark got to live. What was his life compared to Mr. Stark's? It was no contest.
But instead, Mr. Stark had snapped. He'd saved everyone. And paid the ultimate price. And now Peter would have to live in a world without him. Why did that seem so inconceivable? So impossible?
They'd won but Mr. Stark was gone. He was gone. Gone forever.
Peter gasped and rolled over, pressing his face against the cushioned couch back. Heavy sobs racked his frame.
If this was winning, why did it feel so much like losing?
A/N: So...I saw Endgame. I spent a week in a complete depressed fog trying to process it and then decided no. Nope. Not going to do it. I don't accept it. I refuse. So I spent the last couple weeks writing this to try to fix the absolute mess the Russo brothers decided to leave us with. Just to warn you it gets worse before it gets better, but I promise it gets better!