Tony looked down at the little boy standing beside him, peering up at him with familiar doe eyes full of curiosity.
Benjamin pointed to his right arm.
''How did you lose your arm?''
Tony paused, lowering the screwdriver he was holding and resting the toy he had been fixing against the workbench.
It had to happen sometime. It would have been foolish to think otherwise. The artificial arm was hardly subtle; he’d considered something more realistic when he’d been tweaking the final designs as he idled the days away in bed, recovering at a frustratingly slow pace that had Pepper growling at him whenever he tried to escape, but nothing had felt right and no amount of funky patterns or ideas had seemed to help him take that last step into the realm of acceptance, no matter what he tried.
Until Peter had snatched the tablet away from him one afternoon, tapped and swished his finger a few times, and handed him a screen blazing with a very recognisable and oh so comforting glow of hot rod red and shiny metallic gold.
Now, nearly fifteen years later, the red was still as flashy as ever and the gold still sparkled like treasure in the right snatch of sunlight.
Really, it was impressive that such a question hadn’t come up until now, he thought, because any kid with the last name Parker was bound to be endlessly curious and therefore eager to question all the mysteries and oddities of the world around them. But that was the beauty of children, as Tony had discovered for himself in the end; their natural ability to love overruled their desire to question the things that just didn’t quite fit.
Then again, Benjamin, known affectionately as Benji, had never known Tony to look anything different than what he did now: hair that was significantly more salt than pepper, a slightly darker and heavily scarred cheek that sagged a little by the corner of his eye and two arms that didn’t match, so it wasn’t exactly weird that he hadn’t questioned it.
Either way, the thought was out there now, an innocent desire to know more about something that was just part of their everyday life, and Tony was responsible for doing something about it.
Benji had been born into a world no longer recovering from the Snap; had come into existence in an already well-established era of peace where superheroes were no longer needed to save the world on a regular basis. Now it was more of a yearly event and even then, the scales were much smaller.
Not that Tony would know, being long retired and all.
And that was all Benji saw him as. He knew about his past as Iron Man, knew that Tony had been the one to save the world from ‘some big evil purple man’ but it was all abstract, a special story for bedtimes when the lights were low and imaginations were at their most powerful, but all Benji saw when he looked at Tony was his grandpa; the guy with wrinkles and an aching back who built him special toys that could talk and chase him; the funny man who took him for walks by the lake and snuck him pieces of cake when Pepper and MJ weren’t looking.
Tony didn’t want to shatter the illusion, didn’t want to take the wholesome and untainted view Benji had of him and turn it into some horrendous form of nightmare fuel; the very idea of the boy picturing something even remotely similar to what happened when Tony had wielded the infinity stones made him want to be sick. Morgan had been only a little bit younger than Benji was now when her father had come back from the war, battered and broken and missing a piece, and Tony and Pepper had been as honest as the situation had allowed them to be with a child so young.
But this was different. Benji wasn’t his son, he couldn’t make that decision, not about something like this.
So, he decided to do what he knew grandpa’s (and Tony Stark’s) did best.
He told a story.
''I left it on a plane.''
Benji’s eyes bugged as his mouth dropped open in shock. ''A plane?''
''Yup,'' Tony said, all conviction and giving away no trace of a lie. ''I just got up when we landed, walked off and then when I was collecting my bag, I looked down and realised hey! My arm’s gone!''
His little act of looking down and jumping in astonishment had Benji’s face easing into a very classic Peter Parker smile. The sight of it sent a fuzzy rush through Tony that made the fingertips of his flesh hand tingle and he immediately trailed them through the boy’s messy halo of honey brown curls.
''Did anyone ever find it?''
Tony shrugged as he turned back to finish screwing the battery cover onto the bottom of the toy car Benji had brought to him. ''Who knows? Maybe it’s still up there now somewhere, plane hopping its merry way across the world.''
Benji giggled, sunny and warm, and Tony felt the rush again; that familiar, well known wave that had coursed its way through him so many times over the years.
''Does Daddy know how you lost it?''
Tony didn’t quite know why his heart did that ridiculous zooming thing whenever he heard Benji refer to Peter as Daddy. He’d assumed it was just the novelty of the whole thing at the beginning, of the amazing fact that Peter was a father and had a mini me of his very own, but five years had passed and the reaction was always the same. Always the zigzag of warmth through his chest and the skip of a beat that came just before the smile that made his cheeks ache.
Funnily enough, it was the same reaction that he got whenever Peter, fully grown adult man with a five o’clock shadow Peter, still managed to do something adorable and dorky.
‘’Sure. He was with me when I lost it.’’
In some backward, twisted sort of way, that wasn’t a lie. Peter had been there when Tony snapped his fingers and felt the power of the cosmos race through him like crackling lightning that seemed to split his very soul wide open, and he had been there when Tony woke up from the surgery to remove the mangled mass of flesh and bone from his body, leaving him feeling both lighter and heavier than he’d felt in years.
''It's a good thing he didn’t leave his behind too.''
The comment startled a laugh, a weak squawk of a sound, out of Tony and he knelt down to give Benji a hug, only wincing a little as his ageing bones groaned in protest.
''Yeah, buddy,'' he whispered as he followed the so very well-trodden path of pressing a kiss to a head of curls, ''a very good thing.''
Later that afternoon, Tony, still in the garage tinkering with yet another of Benji’s toys, found himself looking over his shoulder at a smirking Peter.
''What’s that look for, Underoos?''
Peter folded his arms and grinned. ''A plane? Seriously? You couldn’t come up with anything better than that?''
Tony turned to face him properly and threw his hands up. ''What else was I supposed to say?''
''I don’t know, how about I lost it in an accident or something? He’s gonna go to school on Monday and tell his friends that somewhere up in the sky, there’s a dismembered arm sitting next to people as they eat their peanuts.''
Peter could barely get the sentence out before he buckled, leaning against the doorway and howling with laughter. A sheepish but wide grin appeared on Tony’s face and he ran a hand through his hair and groaned out a laugh of his own.
''He – he – '' Peter wheezed, tears streaming down his cheeks, ''he asked me if it would need a passport!''
Oh, that did it. Tony sank to the floor, holding a wrench to his chest like some sort of life preserver as he laughed, shoulders shaking from the force of his merriment. He didn’t quite know how long they laughed for, but it was long enough for Peter to make it over to him and drop down onto the floor beside him, resting against his shoulder for support.
''This is all your fault, kid,'' Tony gasped as he managed to take a breath.
''Me?'' Peter nudged him. ''How?''
''For having such an adorably curious child, that’s how.''
Peter sobered, face turning achingly soft and gentle. ''Yeah…isn’t he great?''
Tony smirked and wrapped his metal arm around Peter’s shoulders. ''We established that the second he arrived in the world, or are you forgetting your mad ballerina leap into my arms when you came flying out of the delivery room?''
Peter chuckled. ''I was yelling pretty loud, wasn’t I.''
Tony shrugged. ''Far as I’m concerned, Pete, that entire hospital needed to know just how amazing little Benjamin Parker is and they should count themselves damn well lucky they were the among the first to know.''
Peter laughed again and Tony grinned as they settled into a comfortable silence, pushing their weight against one another in a perfect balance that kept the other close and steady.
''A fucking plane, Tony,'' Peter chortled again after a while.
''Hey, watch the language, kid,'' Tony gave him a sharp jostle, earning a roll of eyes from the man and something of a grumble about being an adult not a kid, ''otherwise you don’t know what might come and get you in the night,'' he growled, playfully tinkling his fingers together in front of Peter’s face.
Peter shook his head with a snort and ducked inwards, inadvertently bumping his forehead into Tony’s shoulder.
''I just didn’t wanna give him nightmares, that’s all,'' Tony explained, tilting his head to accommodate Peter as he leaned into the groove of his neck for a moment.
''I know,'' Peter replied. ''He would have been fine though, I think.''
''Yeah, well, bit different seeing it up close,'' Peter shuffled, one leg stretching out so his foot could idly kick at a loose bolt on the floor. ''Thanks, though.''
Tony blinked down at the top of his head. ''What for, kiddo?''
Peter moved so that his head was still on Tony’s shoulder but so that their eyes could meet. ''For still doing the hero thing and taking care of us.''
There was a long beat of quiet, the only sound being the chirp of the crickets outside and the hum of the lights above them, where a thousand emotions skipped back and forth between the two men, everything remaining unsaid but able to be heard all the same.
''Pfft, you don’t have to thank me for that, Pete,'' Tony said, giving him a squeeze.
''Bet you never thought we’d be here, huh? Sat in the floor in your garage, you with grey hair and wrinkles,'' Peter grinned as Tony glared at him, ''me with a kid…you being a grandpa.''
''No, you’re right,'' Tony said with a sigh. ''Truth is, I never thought I’d get this far. Way before…'' he still couldn’t say the name even now, not without taking something of a sucker punch to the senses, ''what happened, I thought I’d check out somewhere by my mid-forties in a blaze of glory, maybe saving a litter of kittens from a fire or something.''
He was deflecting, still a little uncomfortable at the thought of the heart-breaking horror that could have become their unavoidable reality, and he knew Peter could tell but thankfully, because he was good like that, he didn’t call Tony out on it.
''You know what though? That all changed when I met you.''
Peter’s head jerked in surprise, eyes narrowing a little. ''What?''
''And then there was Morgan, and when Benji came along, well, I had to just accept it then, didn’t I?''
Peter still looked confused and Tony smiled softly at him, loving the look because it highlighted the tiniest hint of the teenager that still lingered in his face.
''Can’t go anywhere when there’s all you kids to take care of.''
Peter’s eyes turned a shimmery shade of their usual brown and his chin wobbled once before he sniffed, lips pulling into a weak grin that Tony mirrored, feeling his chest quiver with that ridiculously overwhelming swell of love that always accompanied the merest thought or word about any of those that he loved.
''Well, if that’s the case, you better start working on some better stories, otherwise Benji might start looking for a replacement.''
Tony tossed his head back, looking smug. ''Please. Nobody can replace me.''
''I don’t know,'' Peter said slowly, moving to shuffle away, ''Clint’s got at least four grandchildren now, maybe he can give you some tips – ''
He yelped out a laugh as Tony lunged for him, metal arm grabbing him in a hold that was only fierce in the strength of the laughing hug that it rapidly turned into.
''You’re a little shit, you know that? I don’t care how old you get, that’s what you’ll always be.''
Peter shrugged as he stood up and pulled Tony to his feet. ''Yeah, but you love me.''
Tony snorted. ''Obviously.''
Peter beamed at him before clapping a hand on his back. ''C’mon, old man, let’s go explain to your grandson the details of how a rogue arm gets through customs on a weekly basis.''
''With pleasure, kid.''