The Titan sun beats down on him – a harsh, mercilessly blinding light that engulfs the desolate landscape below it, but somehow doesn't give off any warmth. It's cold on that rubble-littered, amber-washed expanse – a biting, jaw-locking chill that seeps into his very bones, makes him shiver.
A gust of wind tears past him, kicking up a small cloud of dust – no, not dust, ash, ash! Peter. Dear God, Peter… – and he huddles in on himself, slams his eyes shut, squeezes them (harder, harder, harder). But it's all in vain. Because he can still see it billowing around him, can feel the tiny black particles brush against his skin as they settle back down – on his face, in his hair, on the ground at his feet.
He feels colder still.
"We need to go." The words carry toward him with another gust of wind – calm, emotionless, and also cold, so very cold. A reminder of another's presence, of a witness to his slow unraveling, as he sits there shaking violently and rocking back and forth like a lost pitiful child seconds away from crumpling into a pathetic, wailing mess. It should bother him that she can see him like that at his most vulnerable. Should make him want to pull the hopelessly tattered pieces of his mask back together, to shield himself from another's open judgment. But he just… he just doesn't care.
"Where?" he wants to ask. "Why?" comes out instead, a listless, uncaring response. Because why bother? Everything that he has feared has come to pass. Everyone that ever mattered to him (and he is sure that it's true on Earth as well, can feel it with every halting beat of his anguished, shredded heart) is gone, while he is cursed to carry on with the weight of the deaths of all those he failed. His worst nightmare come to life.
He should be dead. It would be better. Should let nature take its course, let Titan's gravity drain the last of the blood from his body, let it seep into the hungry, rust-colored ground, dissolve among the ashes of those who mattered so much more than he ever did.
He shivers once more as the wind brushes his blood-soaked clothes – a biting, ice-cold touch. Rests his forehead on his trembling, ash-covered hands.
"Come!" A hand – small and heavy – lands on his shoulder, grips it in an unapologetically crushing, metal vise.
Fucking cyborg, he thinks, making a futile attempt to pull away. "Let go."
She does the opposite. Of course she does. Because when has anyone ever listened to him.
The grip on his shoulder tightens impossibly as she yanks him up off the ground, pulls him roughly to his feet. And Tony's too busy gnashing his teeth against a sharp jolt of pain at the unsanctioned movement to notice her move in front of him, to spot her other hand shoot snake-like toward his body, toward the throbbing wound in his side.
"He spared you," she hisses, driving her fist brutally below his ribs. She watches, cold and intent, as his body seizes involuntarily within her grasp, his breath cutting out on a strangled choke. "Why?"
Warm liquid coats the tip of his tongue where his teeth dug deep into the flesh of his lip, a thick metallic tang filling his mouth. "Why don't you ask him?" Tony spits it all out – words and bloody spittle, defiant, as he nods in the general direction of the rubble where he last saw Strange, at the scattered pile of ashes there. Because whatever the wizard's plan was, whatever it was that he had seen in his vision – he never bothered to share any of it with Tony. Nothing but a vague declaration and a regretful apology that left him none the wiser.
The blue-skinned cyborg is not amused.
"I'm asking you," she insists, her black eyes glistening dangerously. "He sacrificed the stone, let half the universe perish, just so you could live. Why?"
She snarls the word "you" like it's an insult, the worst of its kind. And he thinks it's ridiculous, because is that really the best she can do? For someone like him? When what he deserves is–
Tony barks out a laugh – a harsh, brittle sound that feels more like a sob, burning his throat as it tears through him.
It breaks upon her rage, seems to fuel it more if the warning twitch of the blue-skinned cheek is any indication. But he no longer gives a damn. Doesn't flinch when the metal arm releases his shoulder to swipe an angry arc toward his head. Welcomes with a twisted sort of gratitude the vicious blow and the darkness that follows.
The merciful darkness doesn't last, and all too soon awareness returns, pain ripping him out of the warm cocoon of nothingness.
He lies still for a moment, lets himself take stock.
There's a hard surface underneath him, polished, smooth. It doesn't feel like Titan's rocky dust-covered terrain. The air he breathes is likewise devoid of dust; it feels clean, almost artificially so. And if he expands his senses a bit further, he can hear a faint steady rumble of an engine that sends small vibrations through the surface he's lying on. Peeling his eyes open confirms to him what he already knows – he's back on a ship, flying through space.
He lets his gaze roam around the unfamiliar cramped surroundings, still too dazed, in too much pain to register much beyond a hazy blue-skinned figure in the pilot's seat. Right, the tie-dyed Sinead O'Connor, he remembers, reaching up to touch his pounding temple. Winces when his fingertips brush the bruised flesh there, sticky with dried blood. Damn.
"Wh'r'you… t-takin' me?"
She doesn't turn around, doesn't show any sign of having heard or acknowledged his person. Reaches over to fiddle with the controls instead.
Tony closes his eyes in preparation. Grits his teeth against the pain he knows is to come. Slowly, laboriously, pulls himself up into a semi-seated position, leaning awkwardly against a nearby bulkhead. Takes a few short, steadying breaths as he waits for the reawakened agony in his side to subside enough that he can trust himself to speak again. Directs a half-hearted glare toward her once more, blinking in a desperate bid to clear the black spots dancing in his vision.
"Where… are you… taking me?"
"To fulfill your purpose," comes a calm, dispassionate response. "You will help me slay Thanos."
He raises a disbelieving eyebrow at that. Because wasn't she there? Didn't she see what happened the last time he went against Thanos, the last time any of them went against Thanos? And that was before the deranged overgrown raisin had the entire stone collection within his grabby purple paw. How exactly is she hoping to defeat him now when all he needs to do is snap his fingers and the both of them will be snuffed out of existence?
He must have said some of that out loud because the next thing he knows she's crouching before him, purple lips curled back in a snarl. "I have seen you fight, Terran," she says, cold, but there's a note of grudging respect in her words. "You are weak, but your armor is strong. Strong enough to distract him, while I deliver the killing blow."
"You want me to draw his fire." Tony can't help it – the idea is so preposterous that the bubble of laughter that threatens is too much for him to keep in. Can't keep it in even when the cybernetic patchwork of a face before him twists in a way that doesn't bode well for his already unmanageable headache.
"You find this funny, Terran?"
"Hilarious, actually," he manages past another hiccupped giggle. Then he grows serious, all sense of mirth leaving him in a tired huff of air. "You know I have a six-inch-wide hole through my guts, right? That my insides are being held together with an arachnoid equivalent of duct tape. How long do you think I would last with Thanos when I can't even see straight, much less stand?"
She growls, low and dangerous. Draws her face closer in a not so veiled attempt to intimidate.
"You will manage," she states, and her confidence sounds like a threat. Then scoffs, disdainful, "I have been pulled apart piece by piece and I managed. I fought and I survived. And you do not need to survive."
"My survival was never part of the plan," he counters wearily, his weariness quickly shifting into raspy, toothless anger – because how can she be so blind, how does she not understand! "But I'm useless against him now. Both of us are." Weakly he raises his hand (covered in ashes, still covered in ashes – and he can't look at it, can't look; he's gonna lose it if he does), waves it back and forth between them to emphasize his point. "No offense to your cybertronic patchwork there and your obvious anger-management issues, but unless we somehow find a way to go back in time, there's no possible scenario where we would…"
He trails off, his mind stumbling over the idea so ridiculously improbable, so dizzyingly, so hope-inspiringly plausible.
"I gotta get back," he murmurs in a dazed echo to his own thoughts, then snaps his gaze up to the two fathomless pools of blackness hovering over him and blurts out, urgent now, "you gotta take me to Earth."
She regards him stonily, her expression unchanged save for the slight twitching of the skin around the cybernetic eye. "We're going after Thanos," she declares with an air of finality even as she turns to walk back to the pilot seat. "I don't have time to make detours."
"You don't understand!" He lurches after her, only to make it halfway off the floor before a nauseating spike in pain drops him right back down, his breath choked off and vision swimming. "P-please…," he insists, when he manages to find his voice again, no matter how unsteady. Grinds the words stubbornly through clenched teeth. "I gotta… it's the o-only way…"
She ignores him. Settles calmly back into her chair, turning her back on Tony and his pained appeals to her reason.
"Please," he tries again, his voice no more than a strained whisper as he attempts once more to push himself up. He's not afraid of dying – in a fight with Thanos, where he knows he stands no chance, weakened as he is by his wound, or here on this very ship at the hands of the blue-skinned cyborg, who, he is sure, won't hesitate to snap his neck if he tried to wrestle her for the controls. But wrestle her he will, if it's the last thing he does. Because he has to make her listen, make her understand that this isn't the way – not his way, at any rate.
They cannot defeat Thanos through direct confrontation. The endgame is not about that; he's sure of it now. And if he takes what Strange had told him to heart, if his life was spared because he was needed to ensure that the one outcome where the universe survives comes to pass, then he needs to go back to doing what he does best – fixing things. He needs to find a way to fix the timeline so Thanos never gets his hands on all the stones, so he remains vulnerable, defeatable. So none of this nightmare comes true.
So Peter and the others get to live.
And he can't do that here on this ship. Can't do that if Thanos kills him before he has the chance to even try.
"Please," he gasps out, wobbling his way to his knees. "I n..need t'… get home."
"I'll take you."
A new, vaguely familiar voice calls out behind him, cutting through the steadily increasing roar in his ears, and he twists around, the ship's interior spinning about him in a sickening parallel to his movement.
"Thing Two," he breathes out, grinning crookedly up at the portly Asian that has appeared beside him in a fiery red circle of sparks. "F-fancy meeting you here…"
He wants to say something else, wants to apologize for failing to protect Strange and the stone, wants to warn him about Baldy, who, he's pretty sure, is not gonna take too kindly to the wizard's appearance on her ship. But his tongue refuses to move to his brain's command and his vision dims, blackness encroaching from the edges. And he finds himself falling…
He dreams of Peter. Of the boy's arms that tremble as they cling to his shoulders. Of his voice, thin and small with fear – "I don't wanna go, Mr. Stark. Please, I don't wanna go." Of the lanky body that crumbles away into particles of dust underneath his hands even as he tries his goddamn best to hold on to him.
The boy's face disintegrates before him, ash circling in the air, twisting, churning, before it settles back down on Tony's hair, Tony's hands, Tony's face.
"Peter," he cries out and chokes as the dust grows thicker all of a sudden, fusing together to form a new shape – a flaming ginger cascade of hair, a pale freckled face, blue eyes – wide and terrified.
"No," he pleads, reaching toward her even as she, too, starts to crumble to dust before him. "No!"
He wakes with a start, his breath hitching as his gaze lands on the familiar worry-creased face hovering inches above his. He reaches toward her, half expecting the illusion to fall apart at any moment. But the image persists, and there's warm, solid flesh that meets his searching, trembling fingers.
"Pepper," he gasps wetly, reverently, latching on hard enough to bruise. A desperate bid of a nightmare-ravaged mind to assure himself that he isn't still dreaming, to keep her here, to stop her from disappearing like her counterpart in his dream, like the boy he tried so hard to protect and in the end still failed to save.
She lets him hold her, enfolds him into an embrace just as crushing and desperate as his own as he cries brokenly into the crumpled fabric of her shirt.
"I lied," she tells him, pulling one hand away to card her fingers through his hair. "That day at the park… when I told you I wasn't pregnant…. I lied."
He pulls away, too, then, frowns at her mutely, his eyes darting over her face, seeking confirmation to what he just heard.
"I was scared," she confesses with a rueful smile, reaching up to wipe tear tracks from his cheeks. "Every time something good happened for us, something terrible would come along and ruin it, and I just… I didn't wanna jinx it. I thought… if I waited a little longer, if I just… if I just waited, we'll be okay. And then we got attacked, and you went off into space, and half the people disappeared, and I thought… I thought I lost you anyway and I never got a chance to tell you, and…" Her voice cuts out on a strangled little laugh that sounds more like a sob.
He blinks, slow and dazed, lowers his gaze to her stomach, his fingers brushing the fabric-covered skin – still perfectly toned and flat. "A baby?" he whispers, voice cracking with wonder. "We're gonna have a … a baby?"
She nods, her lips trembling as she tries in vain to hold back her own tears. "The man that brought you back, he said that…" She sniffles, lets out a long, shaky breath. "I know what you must do, Tony. I know that you may not… that I may lose you for good…." She squeezes her eyes shut, presses her lips together in a thin pale line as if trying to hold in a scream. Hiccups out, voice hitching, "I can't… I can't have secrets from you. Not like this. Not anymore. I –"
He shushes her, finger pressed against her quivering lips. Moves his hand to cup her tear-stained cheek. "I will fix this," he vows. "I will fix this and I'll do my best to come back to you." He rests his other hand against her belly, amends quietly, "Both of you." Smiles as she nods tearfully against his palm, her hand rising to cover his own.
It's a lie and they both know it, both read the truth – 'I love you'/ 'Forgive me' – in each other's eyes.
"I will hold you to that, Mr. Stark."
He huffs wistfully at the familiar repartee, drops his head on her shoulder, letting his forehead rest against the cool silk of her shirt. Closes his eyes and inhales deeply, allowing her scent, herwarmth, the feel of her fingers stroking his hair enfold him. Lets himself melt into the tangible truth of her embrace, to enjoy this small refuge of love and peace for a little while longer, drawing from it the much needed strength for whatever tomorrow will bring.
"I expect nothing less, Ms. Potts."