EARTH 2023 - The Final Battle With Thanos

Everything seemed to be happening too fast to follow, and Peter couldn't shake the sensation that he was only barely surviving from moment to moment. He didn't decide to jump or kick or punch, instinct alone pulled him forward. It wasn't Peter's first battle, but fighting muggers or even tag teaming against Thanos, bore no resemblance to the sheer chaos of thousands of aliens swarming Earth's heroes.

When Thanos called for a rain of fire on the battle, Peter only just managed to lunge under some flimsy cover, curling around the gauntlet and its dangerous stones. Desperate and terrified, Peter tried to see a way forward through the explosions and Outriders. His shell-shocked brain couldn't see a hole to slip through, the ground literally shaking under him continuously, the pulse weapons striking with no break between them.

In another world and time, a hero would have arrived. Glowing golden, she would have slammed through Thanos' ship twice, bringing it to the ground with her mighty fists. Rallying with the other heroes, she would have taken the gauntlet from Peter and continued the fight forward. In this world and this time, Captain Marvel fought a different battle a half a galaxy away, oblivious to the fight with Thanos and the difference she could have made.

Crouching in his impromptu foxhole, Peter acknowledged that he might have the way forward cradled in his arms. Now he missed many of the discussions of just how dangerous wielding this gauntlet was likely to be, but he wasn't unintelligent and he could feel its power radiating into his flesh even through the cacophonous confusion around him. Thanos wanted to snap his fingers and kill half the universe, well Peter could snap his fingers and end this battle surely?

Partly ignorant and mostly desperate, Peter slid his hand into the gauntlet and his right side caught fire. God, he just wanted to snatch it off and throw it away, but he gritted his teeth and waited until the burning faded from agony to a pain Peter could actually think through. The smart thing would be to snap them to dust, Thanos and all his associates gone in the wind like they had done to half the universe once already, but Peter couldn't quite bring himself to kill. "All right stones, you're all powerful so you better be able to do this my way." Peter snapped his fingers and the burning returned a thousand times worse than before.

Peter pulled the gauntlet off, and cradled his right arm protectively. The earth no longer shuddered and he couldn't hear the overwhelming sounds of battle anymore.

Out of the smoke, a medium sized dog padded forward and licked Peter in the face.

One second Tony was watching Steve fling Thor's mighty hammer at an indestructible Titan and the next the world shuddered and changed. The hammer struck a man, a simple human, with a bloody detonation. "What the Hell?" The vicious, mindless outriders had vanished, not into dust but into a hoard of puppies, golden retrievers and poodles and chihuahuas. The sentient fighters, the Black Order, had become human men and women, apparently without any extra resistance or strength, judging by how easily they were now being restrained.

"Did you just kill Thanos?" Tony asked. "I mean he has a hammer-sized hole in his chest, but is that really him?"

"He isn't purple, but I think it's him. Someone snapped, changed reality," Steve said. "Who had the gauntlet?"

Tony launched himself back into the air to get a better lay of the land, a sick feeling in his stomach that he knew which hero on the battlefield would have the bright idea to snap the Outriders into puppies. The spaceship that had menaced them from above had vanished, snapped into something or somewhere else perhaps?

"I've got eyes on the gauntlet," Sam announced. "Looks to be secure with Wanda, Pepper, and Spider-Man."

Setting off toward Pepper, Tony patched into her suit privately. "Everyone okay over there?"

"Tony, thank God. We're okay. I don't understand what just happened," Pepper said. "Peter seems to have adopted a dog. Why are there dogs?"

Landing a few feet from his wife, Tony deactivated his nano-armor, allowing it to return to its storage compartment. Pepper followed suit, hugging him and kissing him, obviously beyond relieved to see him. "Is it over?"

"It appears to be." Tony couldn't stop thinking about the damage the gauntlet had done to Bruce and Thanos before him. If Peter had snapped, he was injured. The question was how badly. "Pete, you okay. Let's see your arm."

One of the former outriders, a medium-sized gray dog with a short coat and a stocky, strong frame had settled by Peter, apparently enjoying rhythmic rubbing from the teenager's left hand. "It worked. That was crazy. I'm okay. I feel okay. Just can't get up right now. Give me a minute."

"Let's see." Tony circled around, and tried not to let his expression change. Peter was burned, his right arm folded limply in his lap, the nanites on the right half of his suit, inactive and melted, literally fused into Peter's skin. The burn extended up the right side of his head, one ear literally melted away, but his eyes seemed intact, small mercies. Tony just barely bit back a shout of What the Hell were you thinking? "Okay, don't try to get up. Just stay still. The wizard is a retired surgeon, so I'm going to get him to have look, all right. You're going to be okay."

"Yeah, probably need a doctor, but it doesn't hurt, Mr. Stark. I mean it did, but not now." Peter stopped short of explaining what he had once read about deep burns, that if the nerves were damaged, they didn't hurt. He could hear Tony, all but shouting at the magical one to get him over here. Wanda and Pepper had come closer, shifting around so they could see the damage. Pepper smiled at him stoically, but Wanda just looked horrified. Peter choose to focus on the soft warm creature at his side. "Do you like dogs? She came over to see me. I always wanted a dog, but May said no. Our apartment is too small and it's a lot of responsibility. Do you think she might change her mind if she met this sweet girl?"

"I can't imagine she wouldn't want her. Tell you what, I'll take care of her while you get checked out, Peter. Don't worry about the dog," Pepper offered.

"I am not worried about a thing," Peter lied.

When Dr. Strange stepped through his sparkly orange portal, things started to speed up for Peter again. After a cursory exam, Strange started dictating orders dispassionately. If anyone argued, he would politely threaten them with dire consequences. "Certainly, Stark we can wait for you to find Dr. Cho and get her equipment out of mothballs in a valiant effort to save his arm, or we can get him straight to a burn unit so he doesn't die of septicemia without I.V. antibiotics."

"I didn't say wait. I said don't let anyone cut his arm off until Cho has had a look. Fire up your magic ring and get him to a burn unit. F.R.I.D.A.Y. is locating Dr. Cho. I'll send her along shortly," Tony paused and crouched down to Peter's level. "All right, Strange is taking you to Cornell. I'm going to get a specialist to see about your arm. Mere mortals aren't supposed to mess around with infinity stones, so you've done a number to yourself, but you're going to be okay. Until Cho gets there, do not consent to surgery. They can do whatever else they need, but no surgery, got it?"

"Got it. Mr. Stark, I knew it was a stupid thing to do, but I was pinned down, and no other bright ideas came to mind. Sorry." Peter smiled nervously. "We won though."

"Sure, we did," Tony agreed. It just didn't much feel like winning.

"Are you ready, Peter? I'm going to be very careful," Wanda said, tears shining in her eyes. Using her telekinesis, she gently lifted Peter, so that his position didn't shift and the melted metal would not pull away from his flesh before the doctors were ready. She passed him through Strange's portal and followed without another word.

Tony grabbed Strange's shoulder so he couldn't follow immediately. "So, this is the one, the one timeline that we win. I had to live to help with the time machine, so Peter could snap away our problems?" Tony asked. "You mind saving me the suspense and telling me if the kid is going to be okay, or will that break the timeline too?"

Strange paused and shrugged. "I don't know. To be completely honest, this is not the timeline I was shooting for. The timeline I found had you snapping away our problems in a dustier and less flea-bitten fashion. Not sure how we got off track for that, but I was dust for five years. Something likely shifted then. If you'll excuse me." Strange stepped through his own portal, barking orders at the other doctors before the orange circle had even finished closing.

Tony paused, unsure what to do next. F.R.I.D.A.Y. had already located the revived Dr. Cho and was briefing her en route to Ithaca. Peter was in hospital. The two surviving members of the black order were under Steve and Sam's custody. A fluffy red Pomeranian flounced past him and Tony couldn't help but sputter a slightly hysterical laugh. "We need to call the A.S.P.C.A."

"Already done," Pepper replied. Hunkered down next to the squat little pit bull Peter had been petting, she laughed too. "I told Peter we would take care of this one for him."

"Yeah, we are not having anything to do with the reformed alien monster dogs. I'd be more comfortable if you stepped away from that one actually." Tony gestured for her to come.

"We're not leaving the dog, so we're clear. I promised the dog would be fine." Pepper hoisted the girl up and held her sort of awkwardly, half over her shoulder. "Let's go."

"Seriously? Fine, give me the dog. If anyone is getting eaten by the alien attack dog, it's going to be me." Tony sighed and slid the dog into his own arms where it licked his face and wagged its tail before settling its head on his shoulder.

Pepper kept a hand on Tony as they walked, the reality of what they had done hitting her. "We survived. We did it."

"It just cost Peter an arm and an ear, maybe a leg." Tony smiled, a bitter half-hearted expression. "I know, it's better than a pile of dust, but God damn it. It was not the plan."

"You've always done your best work when you had to improvise," Pepper said. "We are going to be fine and so is the kid."

Dr. Cho mostly enjoyed her work as the Avenger's primary physician. The job had opened doors and provided research opportunities that her colleagues could only dream about. It also left her sometimes in undocumented territory, dealing with unique biological systems and unusual illnesses. Today she had been hit by a lot; not only had she been dead for five years, but before she could even wrap her head around that, she had been summoned to treat Spider-Man (a nice example of one of those unique biological systems).

He had suffered extensive burns, particularly to his right arm. Tony Stark ordered her to use her cradle tech to save the arm. He didn't qualify the order, not save the arm if you can, or save it if it's salvageable. Cho didn't argue with him. Stark asked because she promised him miracles years ago when first explaining her revolutionary technology, and for the most part she had delivered.

Cho found her patient under very competent care, if not ideal condition. "Hello Peter, I'm doctor Cho. I need to examine you."

"Hi Dr. Cho. Mr. Stark said you might be able to fix me up." Peter stared over at the wall, determinedly not looking while she poked and prodded. The other doctors had made their opinions clear, unguarded conversations held outside his door where a regular patient wouldn't hear. Everyone kept discussing amputation, like it was the only option and maybe it was, but not until Dr. Cho said so. "You print living tissue, right? Will you be able to print my arm back into proper shape?"

"We are going to do everything we can. It's time to go to surgery. It is time to consent," Cho said. "I don't have privileges here, but I will be in the room every step. We have to get this metal out of your tissue so we can see what's there to work with."

Peter didn't question that he was able to sign off on his own procedure when he was only fifteen. The implications of going dusty and returning had not become apparent to the infrastructure in hospitals yet and his date of birth made him legally twenty.

In the room with him, Dr. Cho exuded calm, empathic optimism. Once in the hall with her colleagues, it was all business. She asserted herself as the expert on enhanced humans and Peter's primary care giver. "He's enhanced, mutated, drug doses will likely have to be adjusted on the fly. You need to perform a full crossmatch before giving blood products to ensure there won't be a reaction. I'm happy to consult on the process, but you should bring in someone with experience, no interns or residents, anesthesia attendings only. This young man just fought Thanos with the Avengers. He deserves our best effort. Which of you will be the lead surgeon? Walk with me so I can give you a run down of my strategy to maximize the tissue left after your amputation so he can have the most functional prosthetic possible."

Peter understood why doctors didn't tell their patients the unvarnished truth, but he sort of appreciated the chance to know what they really believed, even if it wasn't what he wanted to hear.

Sitting quietly in the corner, Wanda hadn't made any effort to really talk with the doctors or him. She met his eyes when he looked her way and smiled thinly. Her whole body screamed of tightly wound tension. "You know, you don't have to stay here," Peter said. "Dr. Strange had to check on his sanctum. I mean, you probably have people or things to see to as well."

"Not really, my people are mostly all gone. You're an Avenger, so that makes you the closest thing I have to people. If your family or someone else gets here, I'll go. Until then, you're stuck with me," Wanda said. "How do you feel?"

"You'd think I'd be hurting, but I don't much. I might be a little, um, nervous. They're about to cut my arm off." Peter resolutely did not look at the arm in question.

"That isn't what the doctors said. They're going to try to save it," Wanda said.

"Yeah, that's what they said to my face. You should hear what they say out there in the hall." Peter blinked rapidly, determined not to cry. "People were going to die, billions and billions, and I'm being a baby about an arm. Tell me to man up. Mr. Stark made me an Avenger and I've got to get ahold of myself."

"No, you don't have to get ahold of yourself, not for the next little while." Wanda gestured with one hand and the door glowed faintly red. "You were brave and strong and you saved everyone you could. If you want to cry about your arm, I won't let anyone in until you're ready to be brave again."

Tony didn't go to see Peter in the hospital right away. He found May and got her there by day two, so it wasn't like the kid was alone. Peter had his family and the best doctors money could buy. Besides, there were things Ironman had to do, time machines to repair mainly. So, he worked steadily for a week, lingering over a rebuild that he could have hammered out in a day before finally calling Dr. Cho for an update. She thanked him for his concern, quoted H.I.P.P.A. rules (bullshit doctor's ethics) to him and refuse to give details. He might be paying her salary but if he wanted to know how Peter was doing, he would need to ask the kid himself. In response Tony had sent F.R.I.D.A.Y. to hack the hospital and copy Peter's medical record. It would be a violation of the kid's privacy to read the record, but he'd had him GPS tracked and recorded from the day he gave him his first suit. Keeping Peter safe had always come before his privacy.

In the end Tony read the medical record, beginning to end, every lab number, every detail of every surgical note. When he was done, he closed the file, added it to his desktop and tapped a command in for F.R.I.D.A.Y. to keep it updated. Without saying a word, he smashed his tablet on the lab bench, bashing it into an expensive pile of glass and electronics. F.R.I.D.A.Y. interrupted his tantrum, with a simple interjection. "Sir, you're bleeding, should I send for assistance."

"No." Tony wrapped a rag around his lacerated palm and trudged upstairs. Pepper would not be there. She was busy coordinating Stark Industries efforts to assist the displaced, routing living modules and food and clean water to where it was most needed. She was the right woman for the job.

Tony didn't feel like working on the time machine in his garage at the moment. He pulled on a sweater and struck out for the park. He just wanted to see his daughter and not think about imperfect resurrections or have anyone tell him to look on the bright side. It wasn't a real public park Morgan played at. Tony built it for her, sand box and monkey bars and swings. It was too dangerous to take his girl to a real park where the press and people who hated him could find her. He tried not to think about how isolated Morgan really was, growing up safe, but without a circle of peers in which to find friends.

Happy nodded to him in greeting and Tony joined him on the bench, watching Morgan dangle from the monkey bars. "Hey boss, how's the new time machine coming along?" Happy asked.

"Swimmingly. I might have hacked the hospital and read Peter's medical record," Tony added.

"You know it would be easier and more legal to call the kid or just visit. I mean, yeah, you've got to build the time machine, but it's a time machine. You can take your time, right?" Happy cast a side eye at his boss. "Seriously though, how's Peter?"

"Recovering. They cut off his arm. His leg may have to go too, and Dr. Cho's lovely tissue printing machine is having a hard time printing spider-kid." Tony crossed his arms over his chest, still frustrated at the news.

"I'm not saying all that doesn't suck. It sucks. But Peter knows a fellow with the resources to provide him with some very nice prosthetics, and missing an arm is a damn sight better than dust on the ground. That said, if you're angry about it, I wonder how the teenager is dealing with his situation?" Happy asked.

Tony tried to imagine how he would handle losing a limb, maybe two, at fifteen, and he shook his head. "The kid's not me, more mature than I was at that age, but you're right, a visit from his point man is probably in order. So, take the jet and visit the kid. I've got Morgan."

Making no attempt to hide his incredulous expression, Happy slouched and shook his head. He had helped Tony avoid unpleasant personal situations over the years, mostly making sure he didn't accidentally try a one-night stand with the same girl twice or have to talk too much with fans while roaming the world. It was the job. "Fine, but are you going to tell me why you're avoiding him? I need to know what to say when he asks where the Hell you are."

"Tell him I'm rebuilding the time machine so we don't destroy the universe. He'll understand." Tony used his most charming expression, but Happy didn't look any less disapproving. "How do I explain this? We are not living the one in fourteen million timelines Strange cryptically hinted at back on Titan. In that timeline, I was apparently supposed to snap my fingers and end things. It was my job, and I let a kid do it. I'm really not ready to view the consequences of that fuck-up in person yet. Does that help you figure out what to tell him? Because if I knew what to tell him, I'd visit myself."

From the top of the monkey bars, Morgan waved and both men waved back. Happy didn't say anything for a while, just quietly digesting Tony's statements. "So, if you'd done the hard part and snapped that magic doohickey, you really think you'd be in a hospital now, recovering?" Happy asked. "I've seen Hulk's arm. Old men, regular humans like us, you'd be dead. I don't think Peter would have traded your life for an arm or if it comes down to it, an arm and a leg. That kid thinks you hung the moon."

"You don't have to tell me, Peter's always been a little delusional when it comes to Ironman. Just check on him." Tony strolled out toward Morgan, a tight smile on his face. Without looking over his shoulder, he called, "Thanks Happy. Bye."

The medical professionals at Cornell's burn unit were positive, calm and empathetic. They seemed to know what Peter was feeling before he did, always quick to tell him it was okay to be angry or sad or depressed that it was human to mourn the loss of a limb. When they explained about his infection and that they couldn't control it because of his compromised leg, Peter argued that they just needed to give it time. He let them take his arm, but now they just weren't trying. The burn on his leg wasn't nearly so bad as his arm.

"May, I can heal. It just needs time and they're giving me antibiotics. I need my legs, both of them. So, I don't consent to the surgery. I won't consent. They can't take it if I don't consent."

May pulled back the bed sheets and made him look at his dusky, grayish toes, puffy, from fluid retention and lack of circulation. "Peter, your life is more important than a leg, and it's not your call. You're fifteen, and I already consented for you."

"No, I'm legally an adult. It's 2023." Peter wiped at the tears on his cheeks and snatched the sheet back, hiding his failing appendage.

"You're fifteen. I signed an affidavit to that effect and it will officially be my call as soon as the doctors sort out how to handle kids who spent the last five years paused."

He might be down an arm and most of a leg, but Peter was still Spider-Man and he all but threw himself out of bed. There were not restraints in this hospital strong enough to hold him if he really wanted to go. Ignoring the pins and needles agony of his mostly dead leg, he used the IV stand as a crutch to push past May. The well-meaning doctors could keep their very sharp scalpels to themselves. Peter didn't quite make it to the hall. On the other side of the door, Wanda had returned to visit again, a coffee and croissant in hand. She looked between the overwrought teenager and his frazzled aunt, and she raised her free hand to cup his cheek. Wanda reached straight into Peter's mind and dialed his emotions down until they were a vague whisper.

Now that he wasn't fighting, the two women were able to guide him back to bed. "I know it's the right thing to do," Peter said. "I know."

"What was that?" May asked.

"One of my tricks," Wanda said. "I just pushed his emotions down. They aren't gone and they won't stay down long, but if he fights us and the doctors, he's strong enough to hurt someone, himself most especially. So, they want to go back to surgery today, I take it?"

"As soon as possible," May said.

"They don't have much choice," Peter said dispassionately, "The infection is not better and there aren't any pulses below my knee. My right leg is just a sack of bacteria that's going to kill me. You're wrong about me hurting my doctors. I wouldn't have hurt anyone. I couldn't even kill Thanos. I just turned him and his army into something a lot less dangerous." Peter smiled to himself. "You know, technically I turned myself into something a lot less dangerous too. One arm. One leg. It's funny, isn't it?"

May sank into a plastic chair and shook her head. "Funny is not the word that comes to mind." She presented him with another copy of the consent form and Peter signed it awkwardly with his left hand.

"I expect he will be apoplectically angry with both of us when the emotions come back," Wanda said. "He's going to feel betrayed. Do you want me to undo it now? We could try to talk him around more organically."

"No, I can accept angry. They're still trying to figure out who's legally supposed to be in charge here. Chronologically he's an adult, but biologically he's a minor. They're in the process of convening an ethics board to decide. You sincerely may have just saved his life. I'll tell the nurses that we're ready for them to prep him. Thank you."

Alone together for a few moments, Wanda sipped her coffee and nibbled her croissant, while Peter just gazed blankly out the window.

"I'm not stupid." Peter looked her way, his expression still serene. "I know the doctors are correct and my aunt is just trying to help me. You don't have to tell me that I'm more than an arm and a leg. It's not a failure of comprehension."

"No one thinks you're stupid, Peter," Wanda agreed. "Our emotions can make us, delusional, stubborn. Most of the Avengers stood together and decided not to destroy the mind stone because it was going to cost a life. We let our emotions steer us to make an ideological choice that in its own way cost us the first battle in our war with Thanos. We all lose the fight to be realistic and logical sometimes. You have back up today that isn't going to let you die while your heart is trying to steer you to self destruction."

"You shouldn't feel too bad about trying to save your friend. There were plenty of mistakes in that first fight with Thanos. We almost got the gauntlet off him on Titan, but one of the other guys had an emotional meltdown and spoiled it," Peter said. "It's good you didn't just leave when May got here. I probably won't come around to feeling it for a while when my emotions dial back in, so thanks for not letting me die."

Wishing she could stamp her own emotions down the way she had Peter's, Wanda shrugged. Where did she have to go, really? "I'll try to remember that you understand our efforts underneath it all, when you're throwing bedpans at us later for not letting you work through your emotions before the surgery."

Happy did not arrive at Peter's hospital room with any traditional hospital stay gifts. Instead of flowers or balloons, he had a New York pizza, cold after the plane ride, but it had to be ten times tastier than anything the kid and his aunt were getting as institutional food. He knocked and waited a couple of seconds before coming in. "Pizza delivery," he announced.

May looked his way and rose to greet him, but Peter was staring out his window and didn't even glance toward the door. "It's a little cold," Happy apologized.

Obviously waiting for Peter to take the lead, May only answered when it became clear, he had no intention of acknowledging his visitor. "Hi Happy," May said. "You're a lifesaver. I'm not a great cook, but the food here makes me look like a gourmand."

"Doesn't matter how classy the hospital is, the food always stinks." Happy dropped his pizza onto the table that extended over Peter's bed and popped open the box. He pulled a cheese and pepperoni covered slice for himself and settled into a chair. "Hey Peter, it's good to see you. You look good. How do you feel?" Ignoring the obvious absence of his right arm and leg, Happy tried to keep the conversation normal. Aside from a shift in expression, Peter didn't even dignify his question with a glance. Happy sighed. What he wouldn't have done to get Peter to dial down the talking five years ago? He could see that May was torn between scolding Peter's rudeness and not wanting to make things worse. Fortunately, Happy had learned a few things about cracking the silent treatment over the years with Tony and Morgan. You had to say something outrageous enough that silence wasn't an option. Just yesterday morning, he told Morgan that the blue little pony toy was obviously better than the yellow or pink and her mid-morning sulk turned into a comprehensive lecture on the pros and cons of various pony powers. "If you lay there and waste the best pizza in Queens, you're going to offend me."

Peter glanced at the pizza and then back to Happy, a small war happening behind his eyes. "I don't know why you'd try to pick a fight. That is not the best pizza in Queens."

Happy snorted and took a large bite of his slice. "Kid you've been away for five years. Pizza shops have opened and closed and you never even got a chance to sample their pies. This is the current champion on your home turf. Prove me wrong."

The kid glanced down at his missing dominant arm before snatching a slice with his left and taking a bite. He made a face and shook his head. "Unless Dani's closed, there is no way this is the best."

"Queen's isn't really my borough. I'm not sure if Dani's is still open. A lot of places folded because of the decimation. You get out of here and figure out what has become of the Queen's pizza scene, and I'll take your recommendation next time." Happy folded his slice and set about destroying it. He couldn't help noticing that Peter had set his slice down with only the single bite gone. "It's not your favorite, fine, but surely it's edible."

Peter shrugged. "Nauseated. I think it's the new antibiotics."

"Or the infection," May added, quietly.

"Right." Peter nodded, looking out the window instead of at May. "The infection that cutting my leg off was going to make manageable. Oh well, I guess that didn't work."

"It helped," May said. "Did you hear Dr. Cho post op? The leg was gone, dead, and Spider-Man or not, you were not ever going to heal it."

"I guess we'll never know, since we didn't even try." Neither of them was shouting, the argument moving back and forth, hissed and angry, a rutted disagreement trapped in a pattern neither were yet willing to change. "Happy, it was really nice of you to bring food and visit, but I'm not an asset for you to manage for Mr. Stark anymore. I can't even tie my shoes, correction, shoe at the moment. So, you don't need to waste your time. Okay?"

"Why wouldn't you be Spider-Man anymore? Hell, if Barnes can function the way he does with that soviet era metal arm, do you really think Tony Stark won't have you climbing walls again once you're out of this hospital? Please kid, the injury is not going to sideline you unless you want it to." Happy shrugged. "And it would be okay if you want it to."

Peter cast a searching look at May.

"I already lost that argument," May said. "I won't try to stop you being Spider-Man. Whatever you may think at the moment, I'm not trying to ruin your life."

"I know." Peter looked back to Happy. "So, are you still in asset management? You're obviously here managing me."

"I'm offended. I'm visiting an old friend, and I got promoted again thank you very much. You are looking at Tony Stark's head of babysitting." When Peter covered his mouth to stop from laughing, Happy grinned so the kid would know that he wasn't offended. "I insisted on a more masculine title, but it's what I do now. Did you know Tony and Pepper went ahead and got married, finally had a kid?"

"We heard. Some of the nurses like to gossip about celebrities. Mr. Stark doesn't trust anyone more than you, Happy. I'm not surprised you're who he trusts with his kid." Abruptly Peter was scrambling. "Save the pizza." He pushed the tray table away and cast a quick wistful look at the bathroom just six feet away that he had no hope of reaching, before vomiting into a basin by his bedside. Old and new arguments forgotten, May was at his side, wiping his face with a damp towel. "The new nausea med, I'm not giving it five stars," Peter groaned.

"That must be a serious antibiotic," Happy said. He set the rest of the pizza outside so that the smell couldn't make the kid any sicker. "Sorry for causing that. Can I get anything?"

"No, the pizza was a great idea. He needs to eat. He can't heal if he doesn't eat." May hit the call button. "The nausea is the problem. They're going to have to try something else."

Peter started to heave again, and May gestured for Happy to go and give him some semblance of privacy. "Kid, I'm going to step out. You've got my number. Call me if you need anything. I'll be visiting again when you're feeling better."

Standing out in the hall, Happy had the lurching feeling that things were not actually under control here. Very good doctors had treated and evaluated and amputated, but Peter wasn't ready for a fancy prosthetic and some rehabilitation. Happy pulled out his phone and started walking. "Voicemail, boss? Really? Call me back. I'm worried about the kid."

Bruce Banner had not spent much of his life as a picture of stability or mental health. So, the irony was not lost on him that he seemed to be most frequently called on to handle various Avengers in mental or emotional crisis lately. First, he had been sent to coax Thor out of retirement, and now he was out to help Tony finish the time machine, a job that should have taken him at most two days but had now drug on ten. Whatever was holding up the process, Bruce intended to finish it. He made a promise to return those stones and it was time to see it through.

He found Tony in his home lab, daughter safely ensconced in a play-safe corner while her father manipulated a three-dimensional model in front of him. "Hey Bruce, grab a seat. There's a reinforced one over by the mass spectrometer."

"Thanks, what are ya' working on? That doesn't look like the time tunnel." Bruce rolled the especially strong stool down to sit comfortably and have a look. "Is that a neural interface?"

"You like it? I'm working on a prototype for a new prosthetic. I'll have to talk some vibranium out of our friends in Wakanda but it's for a good cause. What do you think?" Tony asked.

"It's brilliant. Have you been working on this instead of the time tunnel? I can reconstruct it if you want to focus on this particular project. I know it's important too. How's Spider-Man doing?" Bruce patted his own injured arm in sympathy.

"He's alive." Tony frowned. "And I've got the time tunnel; it's finished. I've just not completed the last bit of wiring."

"Okay, I'll handle that," Bruce said. "Point me to it."

"No." Tony looked over to where Morgan was playing and smiled so she wouldn't know anything was wrong. "F.R.I.D.A.Y. noise cancel the baby for a bit." The play area reconfigured and children's music started playing, ensuring that the adults could speak in relative privacy.

"We are not sending those stones anywhere until I know for damn certain that Peter Parker isn't going to die from his injuries." Tony held a hand up, stopping Bruce from speaking. "I know you can't snap again and Thor is off planet and there's no guarantee that Cap could survive the thing either, but if it comes down to it, I'll snap it myself and set him right, okay?"

"Oh Tony, you know you can't do that. Besides the fact that it would be literal suicide, you were there when Strange explained this after the battle. The stones' destruction in this timeline was just as important as Thanos's. Every time they're used in concert, it rips at the fabric of reality. If we keep ripping, it will shatter."

Tony shifted the overhead holographic display so that pages of a medical record appeared. "Reality will have to handle one more small rip because Dr. Cho and a hospital full of specialists can't handle an infection. In their defense, it's a bad bug. It won't grow in vitro. They've tried every media there is. It won't grow in any of the animal models either not rats or pigs or monkeys. She even tried infecting spiders. It's there." Tony expanded a microscopic image of a bacterium floating among red blood cells. "They've described it. Acid fast, gram positive, rod shaped, but they can't actually identify it and they can't kill it. Since the only place it appears to exist and grow is Peter's blood, they're having to experiment on him, trying different cocktails of meds, hoping for a response. Nothing has worked. They cut his damn leg off, not because of the gauntlet's burns, those were healing. The bacteria settled into his joints in that leg where things were already angry and inflamed and congested and it destroyed it, in hours."

"That's sad, terrible even, but Tony it doesn't change things. The stones can't be our magic McGuffin that fixes every problem. We need to send them home. Then you and me, we'll go and work on the kid's bad infection. We'll do it the right way, with our heads." Bruce pointed to the little girl who had climbed above the configuration of her play area so that she could hear the adults. There was too much of her father in her, clever and curious, not to see a way around their attempt at privacy. "Hi there little lady." He turned back to Tony. "We can't rip casually at reality again. It's too dangerous. You know that and you need to come to terms with it."

It was hard to argue for risking reality, even if the risk was small, with his daughter staring at him. "You are not supposed to climb on those." Tony walked over and scooped Morgan up. "Fine Bruce, you handle the time tunnel. If I can't have one more snap, then I've got more important things to do."

It wasn't easy for Wanda to keep visiting Peter, but she couldn't seem to stay away. She touched base with the others, answering their calls when they came. Assuring Steve and Clint and the rest that she was okay, just busy, just helping where she could. At least once a day she stopped by with coffee and sometimes a pastry. For the first three days after his leg surgery, Peter refused to talk with her, and she hadn't pushed. She sipped her coffee and passed a bit of time quietly those days.

Her family, neither her parents or her brother had ever been quiet in anger. They yelled and gesticulated, but were never actually violent with one another. And if they were loud and rowdy in an argument, they were usually quick to cool and forgive. Peter's quiet anger was different. It lasted longer and when it thawed, wariness remained between them.

Today, Wanda had just her coffee in hand. She could see May down the hall talking to the doctors. Were they far enough down the hall that Peter couldn't hear them? Wanda hadn't told anyone Peter's secret that he could hear their whispered, frank conversations held surreptitiously in the hallways. She knocked and paused a moment before stepping in. Peter didn't greet her, but it wasn't a return to the silent treatment. He lay, mostly still in sleep, his eyes jerking rapidly under their lids, dreaming.

It was tempting to peek at his dream, to make sure it was a peaceful rest and push it toward such if it wasn't. Wanda made herself sip and wait, certain that Peter wouldn't want her tinkering further in his mind. When her coffee was gone and more than an hour had passed, Wanda realized that Peter was no longer asleep, but he didn't look well or rested.

"Why are you always here? We aren't even friends. Every day you drink coffee and chat with my aunt while I disappear over here in the corner an inch at a time." Pale and sweaty, Peter glared. "May is never far, and Happy even came back yesterday. He brought another pizza, my favorite toppings, but I couldn't even stand to smell it. Happy is really worried. He keeps Calling Mr. Stark out in the hall, but it always goes to voicemail. I wish Mr. Stark would call. He can't actually come. I know, saving the universe is demanding."

Wanda realized quickly that Peter's fever was back up and that he wasn't completely lucid, but there was truth in his ramblings. "You're going to get better, Peter. You aren't disappearing. Stark has responsibilities, but I'm sure he'll be here in person as soon as he's able."

"I was right handed. I was going to write Mr. Stark a note." Peter glared at his left hand. "Failed at that. He told me if I got myself killed that it would be on him, but I need him to know it's not. I tried to tell him that on Titan but it was so scary dying and so fast."

Wanda moved closer to press the nurse's call button and Peter's too hot hand grabbed her wrist. "Dying is a lot slower here. It's still pretty scary. Wanda, I know we're not friends, but will you tell him for me. Please. Promise me."

"Okay, Peter," Wanda agreed. "I'll tell him."

Tony spent the flight into Ithaca bombarding Dr. Cho with questions and thoughts, ideas on how to come after the strange infection trying to kill Peter. He had to make a quick detour to leave Morgan with her mother, but it barely added an hour to the trip. By the time he was on the ground and riding an elevator up to Peter's floor, Tony was irate at Cho's failure to respond to even one of his messages.

The nurse's station was deserted, but Tony could read numbers on the wall and knew where he was headed. Tablet in hand, Tony had vague plans to maybe show Peter the tech he had already planned to replace his arm and leg. He knocked on the door and stepped into a pitiful tableau. It wasn't that he hadn't prepared for Peter's injuries. Tony read every line of the kid's medical record.

But that was a stranger sleeping with an oxygen mask over his face. He had never seen Peter quiet or still, so pale he almost seemed to disappear into the sheets. A smell hung in the air that Tony remembered too well, sour and sharp, a festering wound. He'd nearly died of infection while he was marooned in space. Only Nebula's not quite tender care pulled him through.

Curled in a chair at Peter's bedside, May caught his eye. She raised a single finger to her mouth and waved him back out the door. Soundless in her sock feet, she followed him into the hall. Once the door was shut, she started talking. "There's a coffee machine around the corner. If you have time, you're welcome to have a cup with me. Peter hasn't slept much for the last few days, and I don't want to wake him. Happy has been very clear about how busy you are saving the time and space whatever, so the visit is appreciated."

"He doesn't look good," Tony said. "I'll be honest, I'm a little disappointed in the good doctors' efforts, so I'm here to lend a hand."

May poured two styrofoam cups of coffee and settled into a hospital chair. "If you can help, wonderful. Forgive me if I'm not completely up on your resume, but I missed the part where you went to medical school."

"I dabble." Call it his ego, but Tony had to believe if he attacked the problem there was an answer, one that wouldn't risk their universe. "I won't get in the real doctors' way. You have my word. With that in mind, I'm going to find the pathology lab, see if I can't find Dr. Cho and get to work on this problem."

"Wait, we have to wake Peter first. He wants to see you. When his fever gets too high, you are the only thing he talks about." May abandoned her beverage and pulled Tony with her back to the hospital room.

"You said he needs his sleep." As much as he wanted to help, Tony had been relieved to skip the reunion with Peter until the medical problems were closer to all solved, and he could properly show off the prosthetic he'd designed to make him whole, but May wasn't going to let him get away clean.

"I think he needs this more," May said. She shuffled him in but didn't follow.

Tony considered just standing there and not waking the kid, but Peter was looking up at him already, the oxygen mask pulled down around his neck. "What are you doing here, sir? Happy said you were fixing the timeline."

"I delegated that bit. Could use some backup and thought I'd see if Spider-Man was feeling better," Tony said.

"Sorry, the glove whammy was a little harsher than I planned on. Give me a week or two to get my bearings back." Peter had to slide the mask back up and just breath for a bit. "I've been thinking about prosthetics. Weird I know and I had some crazy ideas. It's all about the nerves. You can build an arm and a leg. It isn't even that hard, but getting the kind of enervation to make it seamless, that's the trick. I know a little about nerve impulses, AP biology, but not enough. I need a tablet or a phone, so I can read and plan. May loaned me her phone but," Peter rolled his eyes, "it's a really terrible phone."

Tony couldn't help smiling, encouraged that Peter was thinking about the future. Of course, Peter was designing his own prosthetics. That was actually perfect. "Are you trying to talk me out of my tablet?" Tony asked.

"You gave me a multimillion-dollar suit before we went to space, so yeah I'm thinking I can talk you out of a tablet at this stage of our..." Peter faltered, unsure of the right word.

"Friendship," Tony supplied. "Teenagers are so mercenary these days. I need this tablet, kid. I'm off to the pathology lab to quiz your doctor and help her brainstorm, but I'll have Happy grab you a little something so you can doodle in all your copious spare time." Tony realized that Peter's eyes were drifting shut despite his best efforts. "You need to sleep."

Peter jerked straighter. "I know, just, I don't know if it's all the drugs, but I'm having the worst dreams. A thousand spiders eating me, crawling around inside me."

"That's not dark at all. Shouldn't you like spiders or something. Aren't they your spirit animal?" Tony asked, folding his arms in front of his chest.

"A spider bit me when I was fourteen and I got freaky powers in lieu of a rash. I have a healthy respect for spiders. They aren't cuddly." As hard as he was fighting sleep, Peter's breathing evened and he drifted back under.

Tony reached out a hand, tempted to brush the hair back off his brow, but he didn't want to wake the kid up. "Try to have good dreams, Peter. While you're at it, give me a little time to figure this out. No dying okay?"

Peter had never been the best at taking orders, and Tony didn't even get twenty-four hours before things began to spiral out of control. It was hard to say what had done more damage when the end came, the infection or the medicine they pumped in to try and fight it. May watched the doctors run their code from the corner of the room, her hands folded together under her chin. They took turns pounding on Peter's chest, pumping air through the tube in his mouth, a very finely choreographed dance that required few words between them. She watched in silence as thirty minutes that might as well have been years, passed in aggressive but controlled battle for a body that no longer had the strength to beat its own heart. When the doctors stopped and the team stepped away, May shook her head in denial. "Please, don't give up."

The doctor who had run the code turned to her, visibly startled at her presence. May had worked in hospitals for a good portion of her adult life. She knew it wasn't anyone's policy to allow family to watch the grim procedure that was an attempted resuscitation. A nurse should have noticed her and escorted her out early on, but May had been quiet and let them work, only now speaking at the end. A silent conversation passed between the doctor and nursing staff with a series of looks and gestures. "Another round epi, resume compressions," the doctor ordered. One of the nurses came to her side, to take her away, and May didn't fight her. She didn't want to watch what came next. People didn't come back after thirty minutes of fruitless CPR; when the doctor stopped again it would be the last time.

"You're his aunt, right? I'm so sorry you had to watch that. Is there someone I can call to wait with you?"

They didn't deposit her with other families to wait, no death notifications happened in private whenever possible. May sank quietly onto a small, comfortable sofa and shook her head. There was no one to call, no one for her to grab hold of, to lean on. Like it was all she had, May clung to the remnants of her composure. There was technically still hope until the doctor walked through that door and told her that her little family was down to one member.

May couldn't say how long it was before the door opened again, but it wasn't the doctor who came through. Happy looked like he had seen a ghost, and if he had tried to walk into Peter's room, he sort of had. "May? What happened?" He sat next to her and she grabbed his hand in a tight grip.

"He arrested. They are trying to get him back." May held onto Happy like he might save her from drowning. She let him comfort her with assurances about how strong Peter was and how good the doctors were, but May knew what she had walked out of in that hospital room, her already dead nephew being pounded and poked for no purpose but her desperate need for it not to be true.

When the doctor finally did come, May lost hold of her emotions sobbing uncontrollably through his explanations about septic shock and cardiopulmonary damage. "I'm very sorry, but despite our best efforts, your nephew died."

The End of the Beginning

The friendly gray dog Pepper had insisted on officially taking home now that Peter would never be able to reclaim it had spent approximately five minutes in the safe, steel kennel Tony bought for it. Morgan had taken one look at the happy, licking, tail-wagging monstrosity and made her first non-adult friend. Tony watched as his daughter dressed the beast in one of her princess outfits, wig and crown and pink sparkles. The dog sat still and steady, the only sign of life, a gentle tail wag. "Wow, I've never seen anything quite that fabulous."

Tony gladly let his daughter pull him along for her make-believe game. Stuffed Garfield was cast as the evil Queen, and Morgan wanted to be Ironman, Princess Puppy's hero.

In the real world, the press release was due out today. Pepper would stand in front of a room full of journalists and explain their ultimate resolution of the situation with Thanos. She would also be memorializing a couple of Avengers to the public. She had tried to get Tony to handle that part, if not for Natasha then for Peter at least, but Tony refused.

He just couldn't handle the world right now.

People were grateful, almost reverential to him and the other Avengers. It was maddening. Tony had risked his life, fought the good fight and saved billions. Great for them and he was glad to have helped, but he hadn't really taken that risk so much for those strangers. Their death was on Thanos, and Tony could have lived with that, but Peter was his responsibility, his protégé, his kid before he had a kid. Every God bless you and thank you was a reminder that Peter Parker was dead, that all the effort and sacrifice and risk hadn't paid off for him.

Paying Peter back with little penances was all Tony could think to do now. May had lost the last of her family, her job and her home, so Tony stepped in and helped every way she would allow and from behind the scenes in some ways she definitely wouldn't have. Peter received comfort from the reformed monster dog on the battlefield, so Tony had let it join the family. He even made it a point to have Happy keep tabs on Peter's small group of friends as they recovered from the blip, all things the kid would have handled himself if he could.

For about the seven-hundredth time today his phone rang without him paying it any mind. F.R.I.D.A.Y. would interrupt if it was life or death AND something that someone else couldn't handle for him. "Dr. Banner calling, boss. He indicated in his most recent message that there was a problem with the SS-09 protocol. Should I call him back?"

Tony stopped himself from teaching Morgan a new curse word just barely. They had devised the SS (super soldier) protocols years ago to outline how they would securely handle biological waste produced by the enhanced Avengers. An ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure when you were blocking rogue organizations like Hydra from cloning a super-soldier army. They had invoked SS-05 at Peter's hospitalization and SS-09 at his death. "Has the press conference already happened?"

"Wrapped up fifteen minutes ago, boss. Dr. Banner is calling again."

Peter's secret identity had been public for fifteen minutes and someone had already tried to steal his body? Hopefully Bruce defenestrated them. "Answer it. Bruce? Who breached protocol?"

"Thank God, Tony, you need to get over here. I can't explain what's happening but I need backup. I sent Dr. Cho away. If things escalate, she wouldn't be able to defend herself. How fast can you get here?" Bruce asked.

"It's going to take a bit. Happy is still on Parker duty, guarding May until the dust settles from the press conference. Pepper won't be back until later. Give me a better idea of what's happening. Are you under attack? I have a few thousand drones I can send immediately."

"You're still not letting anyone but Happy help you two with Morgan? Tony, isolation isn't healthy for anyone, especially a child. Look never mind, just have F.R.I.D.A.Y. send you images from the cooler. You have closed camera in there. Dr. Cho and I were going to start Peter's post mortem when things got weird. I sealed the room."

"Weird? F.R.I.D.A.Y. get me a feed of the safe house cooler. Start the footage when Banner and Cho entered and move forward at one and a half speed from there." It was foolish to feel hopeful about something happening with Peter's corpse, but the kid hadn't handled spider bites conventionally. Maybe he didn't die by everyone else's pattern either. "If this is an elaborate zombie joke, I'm already not amused," Tony muttered under his breath.

Tony noticed the weird before Banner or Cho in the recording. They were too busy washing their hands and getting gloved up to see it start. A single spider, small and gray crawled out of Peter's mouth, around the ET tube left in place by the hospital. He was the first of many, not just scrambling from his mouth but also from his ears and the wounds on his side. In just a few short minutes, Peter's body was concealed under a writhing blanket of arachnids. In the background, Banner scooped up a visibly panicked Dr. Cho and fled the room, sealing the door against the infestation's escape.

"Tony, did you see it? What the Hell is happening?" Bruce asked. "I thought you said this kid got his powers from some experimental lab spider gone rogue. That's not natural, like horror movie of the week not natural."

"I don't know what's happening there either. Give me fifteen minutes and I'll call you back." Tony strode to the kitchen, where a long list of carefully vetted child care providers had been compiled by Happy. Was he really going to do this? Tony chose the first on the list and dialed. "Hi, is this Kinder-Kare? Yes, good, I've been paying for my five-year-old to have access to your service since she was three. Yes, Stark, that's the one. We've not been in yet and I was hoping to leave her with you until her mother gets home in a couple of hours. She'll have a dog with her. It's vaccinated. Look this is an emergency. I'll pay extra. Whatever you want."

Tony clipped Princess into her collar and lead, not bothering to take off the dog's dress. He also equipped Morgan with multiple fail-safe devices in case of attack or attempted kidnapping. "F.R.I.D.A.Y., your only job while Morgan is at the day care is to monitor her and protect her. Understood?"

"Yes Boss," F.R.I.D.A.Y. confirmed.

Getting Morgan settled and bribing the day care to take his very well-dressed pit bull as her plus one took time. So, it was more than an hour from Bruce's call before Tony was touching down at the safe house and headed for the very secure morgue in its basement.

It wasn't just Bruce waiting for him. Tony's least favorite former surgeon stood, grimly staring through the window into their cooler. "Okay, who called the magician," Tony snapped.

Strange smirked and shook his head. "No one called me Stark. I'm just doing my job. When one of the thirteen dark gods open a portal to this planet and extends its hairy leg through, I come to make sure it exits the way it came in. So, who in your employ has been worshiping one of the dark ones? It would be helpful to interrogate them. Some of these higher powers are significantly more dangerous than others. The fact that it's leaking spiders narrows things down, but it would be nice to know exactly what that is."

"No one works here. It's a safe house. We were just using it to warehouse Spider-man for his post-mortem and then cremation. I assure you, Dr. Banner and Dr. Cho don't worship any dark gods. Cho is an atheist." Tony pointed to Bruce.

"Catholic mostly, but I've done my own new age side trip through India. Never worshipped a dark god, very certain of that," Bruce offered.

Strange frowned, "Well I suppose the practitioner must have been Spider-Man then. That would explain his powers better than the ridiculous story about a spider bite. The dark ones reward their acolytes with power, at least for a while. Of course, they usually get to devour their flesh and soul in return eventually, so it's not a bargain I recommend even if you do want to be strong and sticky. Those were his powers, right?"

"Yeah, Peter Parker wasn't worshipping any dark gods. I'd stake my life on it. If that's a dark god trying to eat his flesh and soul, it's poaching because Peter was not that stupid. Trust me." When Strange didn't look convinced, Tony practically swelled with indignation. "Look, I had this kid monitored 24-7 for months after giving him his first suit. The closest he came to worshiping anything was a viewing of The Empire Strikes Back."

Bruce spoke up. "We ask questions when preparing to perform an autopsy. May and Ben Parker were non-practicing Methodists and when I asked May what she wanted for Peter's remains, she said he was agnostic, that he wouldn't be opposed to whatever we needed to do. I know we don't know everything about anyone, but if this kid was a raging pagan of some kind, no one knew."

Strange paced thoughtfully. "Actually, there are a few higher powers that might take an agnostic outlook as an invitation if given a taste of something they liked. I'm going to try to push the interloper back and close the gate it opened to reach out. If you gentlemen would give me some space."

As little as Tony liked Strange, he begrudgingly respected his role in protecting the Earth. So, he stood down and let the wizard throw magic symbols around at the cooler, and he wasn't completely surprised to see the mound of spiders fade from reality. Tony had half-expected something to have changed in the room with Peter, but he was still pale and dead, a single plastic tube poking out of his mouth. "You closed it? It didn't take his body. Can you be sure it doesn't have his, you know, soul?"

"Oh, it has his soul, I'm fairly certain. It could have consumed his flesh in a fraction of the time we spent discussing the situation if it wanted to. I think it wanted to scare the good doctors away from carving him up. You should keep your eyes open, probably get that body cremated sooner rather than later. Death is rarely a clean ending when dealing with dark gods, or even simple higher powers. From the short time I knew him, Peter doesn't seem like the type of person who would want to be the instrument of harming anyone."

"Wait, cremate him and leave his soul with the dark spider-god thing?" Tony asked. "In what universe is that how we handle this situation?"

"Stark, I'll explain this to you again for clarity. My job is to protect this world, not you and your super-friends. If there's a way to help Peter's soul without compromising the world and I find it, you'll be the first to know. Without knowing precisely what we're dealing with, odds are we're never even going to know what exactly happened to him, much less if there's a way to help. Now this is not the only issue I'm trying to deal with today. Please excuse me." Strange used his sling ring to open a portal back to his sanctum, apparently done discussing the situation.

Tony stared at Bruce, his expression unreadable. "I hate that man and his polite exits."

"That really just happened? Dark gods? Dr. Cho may be rethinking her career choices. She was not a fan of the spiders," Bruce said. "Should I fire up the furnace?"

"No, we're not cremating Peter. Strange can't tell what he's dealing with without more information. If we cremate that body, we're destroying the evidence and any potential for new evidence." Tony shook his head, suddenly so angry he wanted to break something more substantial than a tablet. "I let you throw away the Infinity stones and the kid died. We are not abandoning his immortal soul with anything that can be considered a dark god. Agreed?"

"Tony, we can't just sit on this and wait for something to happen. What if we can't control it when something does?" Bruce asked.

"This isn't a zombie movie. He's in a safely sealed cooler. We aren't going to lose control of the situation."