It had been one month and three days. Peter Parker had lost count of many things, but he hadn’t lost count of this. Of the seconds, minutes and days spent in agony. Of the sharp pain that accompanied every single memory, still fresh in his mind. Of the way his stomach twisted and churned every time his phone chimed, knowing none of the messages and calls would be from Tony Stark.
Tony Stark. The man who’d helped him through thick and thin, the man who’d taken him under his wing and given him the tools to become better, every single day. The man… the man whom he’d lost.
Peter was in his bed, sprawled and looking at the ceiling with a distant expression in his face. It had been days since he last showered or even changed clothes, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. What was the point anyway? None of this made sense…
His rambling thoughts were interrupted when a nice melody sounded through the room. Peter was tempted to ignore it, but he knew who this melody belonged to, and he knew he couldn’t.
He looked at the ID caller, seeing without surprise who was calling, and picked up.
“Hey, Peter?” Pepper asked, not really knowing if Peter was at the other end of the phone call. Peter nodded but realizing she couldn’t see him, he spoke.
“Yes Ms Potts, it’s me” he realized a second later that Pepper was no longer Ms. Potts. She was legally married to Tony, which made her Ms. Stark, even if… even if he wasn’t there.
Peter’s throat constricted painfully, and he was glad Pepper was already talking.
“Listen, I’d like you to come to the house. I… I know it’s hard and you’ve been avoiding it. But FRIDAY told me he has a protocol activated for you…” Pepper was explaining but that didn’t make much sense to Peter.
“Wait, what are you saying exactly?” he had to ask, and noticed his voice coming out harsher than he intended, but he let it slide.
“FRIDAY hasn’t told me, he says it’s only for your eyes and ears. But it seems Ton… he left something for you. In the garage” now Peter realized Pepper was avoiding saying his name. Same as he did, it was still too fresh, too painful.
He didn’t know what to do. He’d been trying to avoid the whole world, skipping class and staying in his bedroom staring at the ceiling. May had tried to cheer him up using a different array of strategies, but Peter only humoured her when she used the “I missed you” card. Otherwise, he’d stick to his bedroom. Going to Tony’s house, the house he’d bought for his family while he had been away, the house that probably felt so empty without him… surrounded by reminders that the man wasn’t there anymore… it hurt too much even the thought of it.
“I… Ms Potts, I… can’t” he managed to squeak. He sighed, trying to regain his composure and at least be able to go past the lump on his throat “I don’t…”
“I know it’s hard, Peter” Pepper interrupted, her voice sounded choked out, like she was trying not to cry too “but he wanted to have you this. He hadn’t seen you in five years, if he did this protocol for you it’s because it was important for him that you had it.”
Peter sighed, he knew she was right. Of course she was. But the pain was… agonizing. He’d never imagined he’d be living in a world without Tony Stark. He never imagined he’d lost him, he’d never imagined Tony would leave so many people behind… that he would have to let him go…
“Okay, I’ll come” he relented, knowing there was no other option.
“Great. I’ll tell Morgan, she will like to do something for you too” Pepper’s voice came through the phone. She sounded a bit chirpier, and Peter could only smile sadly. Another reminder of the great life Tony had left behind.
“Thank you, Ms Potts” Peter answered.
“Thank you, Peter. I’ll see you later” Pepper said before hanging up.
“Peter, Peter!” the teenager heard a childlike voice coming from the porch by the front door. He got out of the car, barely saying goodbye to Happy and saw a little girl of about four years old, dressed in a funny yellow t-shirt and jeans, and the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen. Morgan Stark. Tony’s daughter.
“Hey, Morgan!” he answered closing the car door, right before the child threw herself at his legs. He opened his eyes wide in shock for a moment, looking at Pepper who was still at the top of the stairs of the porch with a knowing smile on her lips, and then back at the child who was still grabbing his legs. By then Peter acted solely on instinct, he grabbed Morgan by the armpits and picked her up, balancing her against his hip and holding her with just one arm.
“How are you, young miss?” Peter asked, looking at her face. He still was amazed at how much Morgan resembled her dad, she had the same expression in her eyes, arched the eyebrows in the same way; and he’d been told she was as smart as Tony. The only time he’d seen her was at Tony’s funeral, so obviously he hadn’t had much opportunity to talk to the girl, but from what he could gather she had so much potential she could become what she wanted in the future.
“I’m fine! Have you come to see what dad left for you?” she asked it innocently and nonchalantly, but Peter’s expression changed at the mention of her dad. His face fell, and he looked at the floor, unable to look at the child’s face. But Morgan was smart, and automatically picked up on Peter’s mood. Her voice sounded less excited and more comforting “don’t be sad, Petey, please. He wouldn’t want you to be sad…”
“I know, Morgan. It’s just hard…” Peter managed to whisper. The knot on his chest was constricting his breathing, and the only thing grounding him right now were Morgan’s little hands, which were gently cupping his face. He half-realized Morgan had called him Petey, which was one of the many nicknames Tony had for him, and that made his heart sink with both pain and love.
“Daddy loved you” she simply said. Peter’s knees almost gave out with that statement and looked at the child with wide eyes, tears threatening to spill from them. Morgan’s expression was sad, but she was smiling “he always talked about you. He said you were his adopted son before I was born, and that makes you my big brother!”
It seemed Peter wouldn’t stop hearing surprises today. He couldn’t believe Tony had said that to his own daughter, his own flesh and blood. Was he… did Tony really consider him his son?
“He… he did?” his lack of eloquence in front of a four-year old was astonishingly embarrassing, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.
At that moment Pepper, who had been observing their exchange from the porch, took a few steps towards them.
“He did, Peter” she whispered, smiling down at the pair of kids, Peter still holding Morgan in his arms. She stopped when she was right next to him and without second thoughts she kissed his temple, passing her arms around his back while hugging him.
Peter closed his eyes, hiding his face in Morgan’s hair while she hugged him tightly and rested her head on his shoulder.
“After coming back Tony… he was here with us and we created this family” Pepper whispered to Peter’s ear, her voice soft “but I could see he was in pain. He felt guilty about losing you, and he missed you so much he couldn’t go past his grief. He couldn’t be completely happy if you weren’t here... because his family was incomplete.”
The tears spilled from his eyes of their own accord, and Peter squeezed his eyes shut, choking out on his sobs. He distantly felt Morgan’s arms around his neck and his little lips kissing his cheek; and Pepper’s hand pressing against his back, drawing soothing circles.
When he could breathe more normally, he sniffled and Morgan fumbled in her pockets until she took out a paper tissue. Peter accepted it, drying his tears and blowing his nose, while Morgan was looking at him with a look of admiration in her eyes.
“Morgan. We should let Peter go to daddy’s garage” Pepper said to her child “we can talk to him later”
The girl nodded and looking at Peter, she gave him a loud kiss on his cheek, giving him a smile. Peter couldn’t resist it, he smiled too while he left Morgan on the ground. She seemed satisfied and took her mom’s hand, looking at Peter still with awe.
“We will be at the kitchen preparing dinner. Take all the time you want, Peter” Pepper whispered to him with a sad smile. Peter wondered how she could give the aura of calm and support when she had to be the strong one.
She was a widow of the well-known billionaire Tony Stark, as CEO of Stark Industries she had a company to run, and as a mother she had a child to raise on her own. All of that with the weight of seeing your husband, the person you loved the most, die before your eyes. Peter had lost a mentor, a father figure and someone he looked up to; but he didn’t want to even imagine what the agony and grief were like for Pepper.
Peter shook his head to try and clear his mind as he walked towards the back of the house, where he knew the garage was, and grabbed the door handle. He was surprised there were no access codes, the glass door simply opened with a whooshing sound and let him in.
As soon as he set foot in it the lights flickered open, and Peter’s eyes widened and filled with tears at the sight. The garage was much smaller than the others Tony had had at the penthouse and the Tower, with just a couple of his most beloved cars (the orange Audi and the black one); but it somehow had more personality. There were flowers, pictures and mementos scattered throughout the space, as if Tony hadn’t wanted to forget anyone in his life, even when he was working. Everything was in order though, as if Tony already knew he wasn’t going to come back and had tried to put a bit of order in the chaos that normally was his workshop. That thought crashed Peter and a small whimper escaped through his lips, the tears already spilling from his eyes.
He slowly wandered around the garage, taking a look at everything Tony had seemed to be working on. There were a couple of new Iron Man suits with nanotech on a glass display case, along with Pepper’s grey suit she’d used in the final battle. There were also a few parts of the suit on the two different working tables, most likely Tony had been making adjustments to them before the battle.
The voice made him spin around so fast he felt lightheaded for a moment. That voice… he could recognize his voice anywhere. But he… it couldn’t be here, could he?
His eyes searched desperately for the source of that voice, until he saw it. It was a small wristband resting on top of a third working area he hadn’t seen before because it was the closest to the door. The wristband was emitting a flickering blue light and Peter walked towards that area, picking the wristband in his hands.
As soon as he did it made a whirring sound and it instantly showed a hologram of Tony’s full body sitting on a chair, at a couple of feet away and looking at him. His eyes were soft, his expression of contentment and adoration, and Peter’s throat tightened at the pure emotion his eyes held. The tears appeared without him even taking notice, but he didn’t care.
“I’m recording this on the night before leaving home. The night before… trying to make everything right” Tony wasn’t really looking at him, he knew, but his hologram was so close to him, it felt so… real… he reached with one hand, trying to touch Tony’s face and caress it... and he couldn’t prevent a wracking sob escaping from his throat when the hand went through the image, Tony not even flinching. He wasn’t really there.
“If FRIDAY activates this protocol it means that we did it. I could bring you back and that… that brings me so much joy, kid” Tony’s hologram coughed slightly and swallowed, and then Peter couldn’t move. Tony’s eyes were looking at him as if he was able to see him, as if this wasn’t a prerecording “unfortunately, if this protocol is activated it also means I didn’t make it. Which, you know, sucks.”
Peter snorted through the tears, and sat down on the chair right in front of Tony’s hologram. He didn’t think his knees could take much more, and he didn’t want to miss anything of Tony’s expressions and reactions while he talked.
“And I know it sucks, kid. It wasn’t supposed to be like that” Tony’s rambling continued, and Peter allowed his soft voice to calm his racing heart, the constriction he felt on his chest a little bit lighter “but you weren’t supposed to be dusted in the first place…”
“You have to know, Peter. You have to know that I never stopped working; I never stopped trying to come up with a solution… to save you. It was always you” Tony’s voice almost faltered and Peter’s cheeks were full of tears, but he didn’t care, his heart holding on to each and every word Tony was saying “you didn’t deserve to fight against Thanos, and you didn’t deserve to turn into dust. And I… I need to do this…”
Tony’s hologram swallowed, his hands going through his hair and then smiling softly, his eyes filled with unshed tears he was trying to prevent from spilling.
“I miss you, kid. This travelling in time thing we’re about to pull off is risky and I know what’s at stake here, but… I just hope tomorrow I can see you again, and give you a big hug, the one I’ve wanted to give you for five years… god I’ve missed those…” Tony smiled and a lone tear escaped his eyes, he blinked as if he wanted to see Peter, although he wasn’t looking at him when he recorded that “if something makes me happy is that if this hologram is activated, it means you made it back to earth safely. And I couldn’t think of a better big brother for Morgan”
“Oh she knows who you are, of course she does! Don’t look so surprised, squirt, she had to know about my teenage adopted pain in the ass, didn’t she?” Peter let out a small giggle because Tony knew exactly what his reaction would be “I’ve told her all our adventures, including the one you almost blew up my workshop at the compound with one of your experiments and ended up with green goo all over you, including your hair. You know that’s a favourite of mine. However, she seems to prefer the story behind the frame of both of us I have in the kitchen” Tony smiled fondly at the memory, and Peter’s lips followed suit, surprised that Peter would have a frame of him in his kitchen “and she loves you even without knowing you. I know you’ll be a great big brother to her, and I couldn’t be prouder of you.”
“Because I am proud, kid. I am proud of the man you’ve become, and I’m proud of the man you will become in the future. You have so much to live Pete, so much to do… your life is barely starting now, and I’m happy I was able to be part of it for a while” Tony’s voice was sad again, but it seemed almost resigned.
His eyes fell down to the floor for a while, like he was trying to regain his composure and control his emotions, before he looked up again. Peter was observing him, willing his mind to retain every single detail of Tony’s features and to not forget anything.
“I know you’ll be upset I can’t be there for you and I really am sorry. I wanted to be there for your school graduation, show you the MIT campus, teach you how to drive… there were so many things I wanted to do with you, Pete. And I know it hurts. But...” Tony paused for a second, his forehead in a frown, as if trying to find the words. He sighed “I want you to know that if you’re seeing this, if I didn’t make it… you must know I left this world fighting for you.”
Peter closed his eyes for a second, wiping away the tears from his eyes with his sleeve, and Tony did the same with his own tears.
“God I miss you so much, Pete” Tony’s voice was choked with emotion; he seemed he was going to start crying any minute, and if he did Peter wouldn’t know what to do.
However, Tony cleared his throat, his stance changing in a second and his soft smile returning to his lips. His eyes were focused, as if he’d suddenly remembered he had a mission by recording this.
“I know what grief is, I’ve lived with it almost my whole life. And I’ve had an idea to help you with it” he said with a steady look, Peter nodded even though he knew Tony couldn’t see him “I’ll be right there with you every step of the way”
“Down here under this table where you found this” Tony’s hands signalled the table where the wristband had been “you’ll find two cases. One is a new stealth mode suit, which I think will serve you for the most complicated missions. The other is a more modern version of your old suit. In five years technology has changed a lot, so I thought of including it in your suit.”
Tony stopped talking and looked at the table, and Peter followed his eyes. It was as if Tony was waiting for Peter to open up the cases and look at the new suits. His eyes closed while a fun smile tugged at the corner of his lips, and even a small laugh escaped from his lips. Tony was imagining, or maybe remembering, the excited way Peter always tried any new feature for his suit. Peter could only think that for five years Tony had never wavered on the hope that he’d be able to bring him back, that one day he’d be able to use the new suits he was making. When Tony’s hologram opened his eyes again, Peter thought he was looking straight through him, and his heart jumped.
“The most important change in those suits is that you will have a new AI. Me.” Tony’s voice sounded teasing and fun, his eyes holding a naughty expression, and Peter couldn’t help but smile widely. Tony would be his new AI? “I know it sounds weird, but I thought it would be like me helping you every step of the way. The first AI I invented was Jarvis, named after the butler my parents had and who took more care of me than my parents. I thought I could do the same for you, and take care of you even when I’m not here anymore.”
Peter’s fingers closed around the wristband he was holding, already wanting to try the new suits, but he didn’t want Tony’s hologram to finish. He’d missed him; he’d missed the way Tony talk, the fun painted in his eyes and the soft expression when he was looking at him…
“I know this sucks, buddy, but you have to process your grief. Don’t make the same mistakes I did, you have to let it hurt” Tony’s voice wasn’t teasing anymore, and he sounded serious but full of understanding and love “it won’t be easy, and it won’t be nice. But you have people here who love you, and Morgan and Pepper will always be there for you.”
Peter’s tears made an appearance once again, realizing Tony was saying goodbye and this time, for good. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye, he wasn’t…
“I love you, Peter. Never, ever, forget that I love you. Never forget that I fought for you, I fought for Pepper and Morgan, and I left knowing the world was a better place because you were in it” Tony’s voice faltered for a second, and he swallowed, closing his eyes for a second “don’t let guilt eat you alive, I chose to come back and get you, and if you’re seeing this and I didn’t make it back, I can assure you it was my choice. All I can say is… you made my life a happy one. And there’s no tragedy in that.” *
Peter was sobbing openly at this point, fighting against the tears because he didn’t want to stop looking at Tony. He didn’t want his image to disappear; he didn’t want to live in a world where Tony Stark wasn’t there anymore.
“Take lots of care, Petey. And… thank you for being part of my life” Tony’s voice came again. His smile was sad and the tears were also falling through his cheeks, Peter wanted nothing else but to dry them away with his thumb “as Morgan would say… I love you 3000.”
Peter looked at the hologram one last time; Tony’s loving expression and soft smile through the tears, before it disappeared into nothing. He couldn’t take it anymore, he had so many things he’d wanted to say to Tony, so many things he’d wanted to do with him… he allowed his knees to sink to the ground and sat down hugging his knees, allowing his tears to flow freely for the first time in a month and sobbing quietly.
The hologram had done something, though. Tony was right; he was already helping with his grief. He’d spent the last month trying to avoid anything related to Tony, but this… his words had given him a sense of closure he hadn’t had before. He was relieved and thankful that, even in death, Tony knew exactly what Peter needed.
When he felt he could breathe with normality he dried the tears from his face, clearing his throat before speaking.
“FRIDAY? If I take this wristband with me, will I be able to see it again?” Peter asked, looking up to the ceiling. He wanted to see Tony again, and use it as a reminder of why he was fighting.
“Yes, Peter. You can take it and replay it any time you want. Boss already thought of that” the voice of the AI echoed in the garage “Ms Stark asks me if you’re done, and says supper is almost ready.”
“Tell them I’m coming” Peter said, taking a deep breath.
Tony was right. Pepper and Morgan were a broken family, same as he was, they had all lost. Perhaps, only perhaps, they could help each other out and make it whole again.
Later that evening, when Peter was back in his room of May’s apartment, he took both grey cases and opened them. He looked in wonder at the black stealth mode suit, caressing it with his fingers, amazed at the soft touch of the fabric.
His hands were trembling and he consciously took a couple of deep breaths when he opened the second case and saw the new Spiderman suit. The fabric seemed much lighter, and he’d had to ask his new AI about all the different functionalities of it. There was something, however, that caught his attention.
When he took the suit in his hands and observed it at a close distance, his eyes watered. Inside the Spiderman logo Tony had invented and which was sewed in the middle of the chest, there were two small figures. One was a little spider; the other was a red and gold metal hand which was grabbing the spider by one of its legs. He smiled, Tony had included himself in his suit, always protecting his little spider-kid, and Peter couldn’t feel happier.
Peter took the mask in his hands, feeling its light weight before putting it on. His eyes were closed, almost afraid, but they opened again in relief a few seconds later when a kind, chirpy voice sounded and a huge grin crossed his face. The voice made him feel the shattered pieces of his heart slowly putting themselves back together. He was healing.
“Hey squirt, long time no see. Where to tonight?”