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Seven Ages of Man

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Tony wasn’t entirely alone at Uni. Younger than everyone else, yada ya, but come on, he was Tony Stark, of course he had friends. Some were so blatantly friends with him just for the money that he’d ditch them immediately. And when it seemed like everyone in his classes were like that, he did the sensible thing, and looked outside his classes.

He wasn’t entirely sure when he first met Richard, and when he asked about it for his Best Man speech a few years later – turns out, neither does Richard. They each had about five possible instances, none of which match up. Something about being outside the head’s office, or a pub, or a club, or the library, or saving Richard from falling in the lake, a debate competition, Tony stealing from the labs and Richard laying a trap...

But somehow, Tony made a best friend in the biochemical engineering department.

They’d invade each other’s rooms, the pokey on-campus accommodation room Richard had, or the nearby penthouse suite that Tony rented. They’d point out the holes in each other’s coursework or projects, were constantly debating the importance of mechanics versus natural biology concerning amputated limbs. They’d scoff at theories, often breaking stuff in order to get their point across. They’d go on pub crawls together, creep into laboratories and steal equipment –and more often than not, run off, leaving their partner stranded. They tried keeping a tally of who got thrown in the shit most, but they lost count after their first term of combined mischief.

Their first fight happened when Tony called Ray – as Tony now called him – over, to show him plans and designs and equations he’d made for a bomb with a shockwave twice the size of your average bomb – in a container half the size. Ray had stared at the images, the electronic plans, had picked up the small hand-held computer, and thrown it across the room. Is this what you want your life to mean, he’d yelled, the creation of death? Is that all you can find yourself doing? Finding more ways to destroy life? After 30 minutes of screaming at each other, Tony threw him out of the flat.

Two nights later, Tony appeared outside Ray’s rooms with a bottle of bourbon in one hand, and a pet tarantula in the other. Ray called it Thomas.

After 3 years at Uni, Tony had to leave to go rule his father’s abandoned multi-billion pound empire, but Richard stayed on, determined to get his PhD. And yeah, that meant splitting up a bit, not seeing each other every other day – but there was still such a thing as conference calls, and helicopters. The debates went on just as fiercely as ever.

When Richard made a new friend, Curtis, Tony started to kidnap him occasionally, too, whenever he visited. When Richard met Mary, Tony sometimes didn’t come at all. He’d have the helicopter be dropped off, with a note ‘play safe – wear a rubber’ celotaped to the steering wheel.

The helicopter would come back dented those days.

But Rhodey got more annoyed about that than Tony did, so Tony counted it a win and repeated the whole routine.

Tony visited for the graduation, to see Ray get his scroll and PhD and get photos of him wearing the silly hat. He wore huge black sunglasses, jeans and t-shirt as a cunning disguise against the paps, kissed Mary on the cheek, shook hands with Curtis, and hugged Ray. He didn’t bother offering him a job – that Tony worked in what was essentially a weapons business had always been a touchy subject between the two of them – but... he might have smooth Ray’s way a bit.

For their wedding, Tony gave Ray and Mary something small – a personally vamped-up car for the older man, and some Channel perfume and jewellery for the woman. He got to make the best man speech, even though he almost couldn’t show, due to the mk 1 Jericho catching fire in his lab. His butler, Jarvis, had been halfway to sending an apology letter to the happy couple before Tony could get it all under control, and get his ass into his Merc. He ended up standing behind Ray at the altar in a suit jacket over oil-stained overalls. Neither Ray nor Mary cared.

His speech went down a storm.

Over the coming years, it was hard to not drift apart. For the both of them, every single day meant more work that needed doing, more conferences to go to, more problems to fix. Things like down-time stopped existing, especially for Ray. Tony could get out occasionally, plan a visit to Ray’s lab at Oscorp, but neither Ray nor Curtis would be able to speak for more than a few minutes. They both kept an eye on the other, though, on the developments made, on what they were working on and what the press had to say about it all. When Ray was being laughed out of the lab, Tony released a press statement on how important of genetic engineering was for the health and improvement of the human race. He even used facts and figures Ray had told him all those years ago. And when Tony was being slammed by the hippies, the green lot, and eventually the national newspapers about being History’s richest mass-murderer, Ray sent him a short and simple email, outlining different charitable programs that needed funding, the details of a few poor scientists with big ideas for helping end famine. He didn’t ask for credit.

The kid, the boy, was born a week after Jarvis died. Tony cried at the christening, sat in the front row. When Ray told him he wasn’t in running for godfather, he’d laughed. The idea of someone trusting him with a child. Besides, he knew Ben and May, knew how perfect they’d be. So he stayed, he watched little Peter be christened, and when he returned home he started to draw up the algorithms and wiring for his new AI.

He visited on Christmas Eves, Halloween, Easters, birthdays, bank holidays, weekends, until he realised he was visiting the Parker household more than he actually spent time in his own bed. But hey, that’s what caffeine is for, right?

On Peter’s 4th birthday, Tony gives Richard a piece of paper, on which details of a newly formed bank-account were written, including how much it held, how much would be put in annually, and how much he expected to be there by the time Peter was old enough for Uni. On the bottom, Tony had written, ‘Don’t ever expect birthday presents from me again’.

On Peter’s 5th birthday, he got him a remote control, home-made helicopter. Tony painted it with him on the kitchen floor, whilst Ray made comments about how a remote helicopter certainly wasn’t a birthday present. Tony stuck his tongue out at him, and when Peter copied him, everyone laughed, and May whacked the back of Tony’s head with the dishcloth she was holding.

Peter’s 6th birthday, and Tony was stuck in London on some kind of conference he really didn’t give a shit about. He left a message on the Parker family’s answering machine, about how sorry he was, and that he’d take them all to Disneyland Florida when he got back in two weeks.

Seven days, and Peter’s parents were dead.

Tony went to the funeral with his newly appointed PA, Ms Virginia Potts, and Rhodey, who’d met Ray a few times. The two of them stood at his side the entire time, as Tony didn’t talk to anyone, didn’t move to sit down, did nothing but stand there. In an entirely black suit, hands behind his back and no umbrella even though it was pouring down, it knew exactly how imposing he looked, and was grateful when no one approached him to ask how he’d known the deceased. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to do anything but stare at them if they did, because he still didn’t know. Eleven years of knowing the man, and still neither of them had been able to pinpoint exactly how they’d first met, how the young genius had met the older philanthropist, to be friends for debates, alcohol and petty thievery.

The young boy didn’t see him until after the ceremony, after all the speeches and the poems, and the coffins had been lowered into the soaked ground. Tony had watched as Ben helped the boy off his seat, as he and his wife had directed the kid down the aisle, and had seen the look in the kid’s face as he’d recognised Tony in the back of the crowd. The relief, love and fear on the young boy’s features had been more than Tony could take. As Peter had let go of his uncle’s hand and run towards Tony, he’d started to cry, before scooping the kid into his arms and holding him against his chest, all that remained of his best friend of the past 11 years.

He didn’t – couldn’t – go to the reception afterwards. He didn’t want to hear all the stories everyone had of Richard and Mary Parker, because they weren’t his stories, weren’t new stories to be lived and enjoyed. So instead, he went back to his flat, locked himself in his workshop, working consistently for the next three days until he finally finished and perfected the mk 5 design for the Jericho.

He didn’t visit the Parkers at the weekend anymore. He made plans for visiting at Easter, but missed it. He only had time for a visit two hours long on Christmas Eve. He’d make it for Peter’s birthday, though. But he missed his Eighth. He just... forgot. But the birthday cards Peter sent him, with handwriting barely legible, would stay on his coffee table for over four months, long after everything else had come down. And there was always a picture of him, Richard, Mary, and the small child in her arms over the fireplace.

The Jerichos went into production, then onto the metaphorical shelves, and then Tony went to sell them in Afghanistan. He made the sale, but the rest of the trip... wasn’t fun.

He found a message on his answering machine when he got back, from Peter. He didn’t recognize the boy’s voice at first, it was deeper than he’d been expecting. It wasn’t until, a few lines in, the kid finally said his name, that he realised who he was listening to.

I’ve got this thing, this, uh, science thing, the kid was saying. It’s kind of a big deal, and I think I’ve done something good, but, um, it’d – it’d mean a lot for me if you came to see what I’d done.

A few days later, Tony found himself in front of the paparazzi for every magazine and newspaper in America, telling them he was Iron Man.

An hour and a half after that, he was in his Merc, on his way to New York’s high-school Science Fair.

He managed to lose anyone following him, and, getting changed into a Led Zep top and baggy jeans, slipping on a pair of plain glasses, he hoped he wouldn’t be recognized.

He wasn’t, and managed to hide himself in the crowd, watching with a smile as Peter’s project was presented with the first place prize, the molecular model that he’d created. Biochemistry, something in Tony had said with a wry tone, and he’d smiled just as Peter first saw him in the audience. The kid grinned back.

He found him afterwards, looped a shoulder around his shoulder and said, It’s been too long, kid. I’m sorry – I’ll make sure to change that.

Screw that! Peter had replied, spinning to face him. The repulsors! Tell me how you got the repulsors to work! The arc reactor, you made it so small – how did you do that?

They’d ended up in Central Park by the lake, as Peter told Tony everything he’d missed in the last few years. Tony took it all in, and promised himself he’d be there to listen more from now on. Peter might not need him, he had a father now, a good one, a mother too – but Tony needed him. He needed someone like Ray, who wasn’t military like Rhodey, wouldn’t do what he asked like Pepper, wouldn’t do the best for the company and money like Obadiah, but who’d make him do right by his morals.

Hell – Tony needed that feeling of family again.

When he dropped Peter back at his home, May told him, in no uncertain terms, that he was staying for dinner. If you can spare the time to fight terrorists, young man, you can most certainly spare the time to eat a good meal. I’m making roast chicken on Sunday, too. Seven o’clock. Don’t be late.

Ben had leant over and whispered, I’ll text you in advance if she makes the meatloaf. Have an excuse ready. Peter heard and snorted into his juice, but May was oblivious. Tony smiled as he clapped Peter on the back.

Slowly, Tony’s life filled back up with Peter again.

When the Avengers happened – after the Avengers happened, their moment of shining glory – Tony took Bruce to see Peter. He thought the kid might like to speak to someone who was an expert in the area he was actually interested in, rather than a glorified mechanic. Whilst he talked education expenses with Ben, Bruce and Peter got on like a house on fire, throwing theories and equations back and force, Bruce outlining the science behind his mutations, the research he’d done, and Peter asking so many questions that Tony couldn’t help but feel proud. When they eventually had to leave, Bruce gave Peter his number and email, and promised his help whenever Peter had any other questions.

The car journey back, Bruce told him it was a nice kid he had there, that Tony was lucky to know him.

Tony smiled at that, at the time. A year later, when Peter was well on his way to becoming a through-and-through teenager, he didn’t feel it so much.

In some cases, it was great. Tony could finally talk to all those things you’re not meant to tell people below the age of 13, how drinking through a straw, or adding bubbles makes you drunk quicker, how girls like boys with fast cars and a quick tongue, some of the best magazines for, y’know, nudge-nudge-wink-wink. It wasn’t so fun when Peter would mock him every time he came over about a certain blonde-haired blue-eyes all-American personage that, apparently, he didn’t shut up about. He hadn’t even realised how much he talked about that personage until Peter, and Ben, and even May pointed it out. Now, whenever Tony came around, Peter would smirk up at him from where he was slouched on the sofa and ask, how’s the boyfriend, Tony?

If he blushed when he slapped the back of Peter’s head, it was of no consequence.

Until it was.

When Tony kicked his act into gear and finally brought Steve to the Parker’s to dinner, he was, undeniably, terrified. He couldn’t help but feel that the dinner would be a make-it or break-it. If Peter didn’t like Steve, or Steve didn’t get on with the Parkers, that was it. It wasn’t like introducing Steve to his parents – he was introducing Steve to the kid who’d probably be the closest he ever got to a son.

A few minutes in, he was wondering why he’d bothered worrying. Steve was, after all, Steven Rodgers, Captain America, and still a complete gentleman. He’d met Tony by the car wearing a brown suit, complete with tie, holding flowers in one hand and a bottle of red in the other, smiling like he was the one with everything on the line. He’d spent the entire journey asking Tony what Peter liked, what type of music he was into, what jobs May and Ben had. And when May had opened the door to them, he’d introduced himself polite-as-you-will, offered her the flowers, and called her ma’am.

Behind him, Tony was beaming.

The only complaint that May had was that he was too much of a gentleman – she felt she should have used the best china. Ben’s only worry was that he’d steal his wife away from him.

Peter had no complaints or concerns whatsoever. When Tony saw the 14 year old wave Steve away at the end of the night with the beginnings of hero-worship in his eyes, he knew he’d done all right. Peter gave him a thumbs up and winked. Tony laughed, and gave him a thumbs up back.

Steve came with him to Peter’s next science fair. And his birthday.

That Christmas, they not only gave him a joint present, but were both invited round for the day.

Tony or Steve would pick Peter up from school if Ben was busy. They attended his parent’s evening, when Ben had to cover a shift at work for a friend. May suggested to Steve they take him for a weekend trip somewhere – it turned into a week’s circuit of the leading science research centres in Europe during his summer holidays. The first night Peter stayed out, and came home drunk at three in the morning, a quick phone call meant he came downstairs the next morning to find not only Ben but also Steve waiting for him. Pitying the kid, Tony came by a few hours later, telling him it was better to learn early and giving him a packet of painkillers. Tony would help him with his science and maths exams, May with his English, Steve with his history, Ben with his languages.

But what Tony loved the most was how, when he told the Parkers he and Steve were going to get married, Peter just smiled smugly.

The pessimist in Tony told him it wouldn’t last, and it was right.

He had to bury another friend, and Peter had to bury another father, when the kid was 16 years old.

It was Steve who had the idea. They had enough rooms, he’d pointed out, more than enough space. And they’ll have too much space in their house. You can’t ask them to stay there, Tony. Why not have them live here?

Tony had expected May to turn it down. She was a strong woman, he was scared she’d see it as charity, as pity, but she didn’t. He should have realised, he thought as she smiled at him, he should have realised that she’d only see it as the best for Peter.

The arrival of the new superhero on the scene, the ‘Spiderman’ as the Bugle was now calling him, took up a lot of SHIELD’s time. The Avengers, for the most part, were happy to let him be, but with Fury determined for him to be found and put on the roster, Tony still managed to find himself flying around New York after the red-and-blue bastard. It almost became a game between the Avengers and the web-shooting vigilante, fake trails and clues, a game of cat-and-mouse that’d often leave Clint laughing laughing outright at the messages the apparent ‘superhero’ was leaving, even causing Nat to smile on one or more occasions. It did mean that Peter and May were left on their own to settle in for a long time, but perhaps, Tony and Steve thought, perhaps that was for the best.

May, Tony and Steve were called into school only once in Peter’s last year at school. They found Peter and another boy, a blonde jock by the looks of him, sat waiting for them in the office, each showing an impressive selection of cuts and bruises.

I’m afraid Mr Parker and Mr Thompson got into a fight, the Principle had explained, sounding so grave. Tony could feel the disapproval radiating from May – just as he could feel Steve stewing, waiting for the reason why. And Tony – Tony knew he shouldn’t be counting the bruises and cuts to see who had won. He tried to pay attention as the Principle continued, Whilst Mr Parker hasn’t spoken, as of yet, Mr Thompson tells me that Mr Parker attacked him, unprovoked.

Is that true, Peter? May asked, and Tony knew Peter wouldn’t want to be the grass of the two of them, knew that a combination of Ben and Steve teaching him morals would mean that he wouldn’t want to throw Thompson further into shit, and that having Tony as a role-model would mean that he’d feel it was his problem to deal with, not theirs – but no one could ever withstand the combined hopeful gazes of May and Steve, and it was no surprise when Peter eventually cracked, and said, He called my dads fags.

It wasn’t what Tony had been expecting to hear. Not by far. He’d been waiting to hear what small kid Peter had stood up for this time, or what he’d caught Thompson doing. But that – that he hadn’t been expecting. And Peter was still talking, apparently not able to stop now he’d started, going on about how he’d yelled at Thompson that his parents were motherfucking heroes, and Tony didn’t hear Steve’s gasp at Peter’s swearing even though he knew he’d get into trouble for it later – he just heard the word ‘dads’.

He stepped forwards, tugged Peter up from the seat and pulled him into a hug. The kid was now far taller than him, and his face was being pressed against Peter’s shoulder, but he really didn’t care. Nor did he care when Steve coughed with a hint of disapproval, and said, It’s not something to congratulate, Tony.

He kept an arm around Peter’s waist, and said back, But he said –

He left it hanging. He didn’t need to say more, not when he knew Steve had heard it and picked up on it, not with Peter standing there blushing slightly, with Tony knowing he must be glowing. And he was right – because Steve stepped forwards, scooping both of them into his much bigger arms.

He heard May say, Oh boys, lovingly, and that just made Tony tighten his grip on the taller two. He was being unfairly dwarfed by his husband, by his son, and he didn’t care. He didn’t have a reason to care. And no doubt the Principle was feeling very awkward, and the other kid must be retching where he sat but it didn’t matter, because Tony had counted the cuts and bruises and Peter had won, so the other kid could suck it.

Come on, Peter, let’s take you home, Steve had said eventually, letting go and stepping towards the door. Thank you, Principle, for informing us. We’ll get going now.

One thing, Tony had said, turning to face the other kid who did look decidedly green. Us ‘fags’ are the one who’re stopping you from being eaten by aliens. So play nice, or we’ll make sure you’re in line to be the first sacrifice for the Greater Good, okay? Okay. Hope I never see you round, boy.

Then with a decided spring in his step, Tony followed his family out to the car.

It was inevitable that they found out Peter’s secret identity, and in retrospect, Tony knew he’d have been a lot more annoyed, if he hadn’t found out the way he had. If they’d caught him in the field, or caught him sneaking in, wounded, or he’d just been captured and they’d only found out too late – Tony knew, he’d be furious if he’d found out that way.

As it was, he found out when JARVIS called him into Peter’s room, only to find Peter stuck to the ceiling after – so he’d said later – adjustments to the web-shooters ‘hadn’t quite gone as planned’.

When Steve told him off later, Tony protested that he would have told Peter off for keeping the secret, if he hadn’t been laughing so hard.

There were probably several notable moments after that. Peter met Gwen Stacey in the years following, after all. Tony and Steve were there to comfort him when Gwen left him, along with Uncle Bruce, Uncle Phil, Uncle Clint, Uncle Thor, Aunt Nat.

Sometimes, Tony would sit on the sofa and just stare at them all, Clint and Coulson bickering like the old married couple they were, Thor and Bruce fighting for control of the TV in a battle that would most likely end in most of the house breaking, Nat on her laptop, his son, spread-eagled on the floor by his feet with a book, and his husband beside him. He’d gone from having no family... to this.

But then Thor would throw something at him, and tell him, as the legal owner of the fortress in which they all resided, to make a judgement call on what the television box would display, and Tony would be wrenched back into reality with a wish that they would all just give him some peace.

Peter did get captured a few times. So did Steve, and Tony himself, and the rest of the team at different stages. Natasha died. Not even Coulson-died, actually died. But they got through it. Peter met and married MJ.

But if Tony had to pick the final key scene to the story of all this, of his family, he’d pick one that happened just after he and Steve watched Peter be wedded to the red-headed handful. Peter was twenty-five, and as well as swinging around town, had a job as a photographer for the Bugle. Tony was still working on completely green energy. Steve was... being patriotic, going to protests he supported, getting cats out of trees, that type of thing.

And they all came home one day to find May on the couch, with her bags packed around her. I checked myself into a Home, she said.

The obvious question was why.

Because I’m old, dear. I know you may not realise, but I could actually be your dads’ parent, if I’d started young. You grew up great, my boy, you are quite literally a hero. You’ve done me and your Uncle Ben proud, and you’re in better hands than we ever were.

That’s a lie, Tony had to say.

And May smiled at that. Perhaps, perhaps not. I don’t try to compete with Captain America. But I’ve had my best days, and I can’t expect to have a household of superheroes waiting on me hand a foot. You’ve got bigger things to do, and I have games of solitaire and nurses to annoy. Now, are you big strapping men going to make me carry my own luggage to the car, or are you going to do an old woman a favour?

Steve had been the first to move, hugging May and giving her a kiss on the cheek before picking up at least three of her bags. Tony copied his movements, if holding on to her a few seconds longer. Thank you, he whispered in her ear.

What for? she replied, and he smiled. He took as many bags as he could carry, and, for once, didn’t feel annoyed that Steve was carrying far more.

Peter was almost crying as he took May into his arms, but he was smiling. Tony didn’t catch what passed between them, and he figured he didn’t need to. Tony had been in Peter’s life for a long time, but May had been there more. They waited, until Peter finally stepped back, and moved around to pick up the last of the bags.

That’s my boys, May said, smiling at them. But I’m driving.

They visited her at the weekends. Peter would play card-games, Steve would bring records. Tony just tried all he could to make her laugh.

She stayed alive long enough to see her granddaughter being carried into her room by MJ. She passed peacefully.

And yeah, it was sad. The end of an era, definitely.

But, Tony thought, as Peter set the camera’s timer before sprinting – and almost tripping – into position, beside MJ and in front of Steve and Tony, one hand reaching to take his daughter’s small hand in his... it didn't really feel like an end.